I used to feel strangely proud of the cultural monoliths I had bypassed. As a teenager I wrote an excruciating essay about never having read Hemingway (how pleased with myself I was for not knowing something) and every Christmas I felt a small but identifiable tweak when everyone moaned about schedules once again containing ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’, ’The Great Escape’ and ‘Laurence of Arabia’. I hadn’t seen any of them and still haven’t.
I felt as if the moment when I might have reached for most of these touchstones had passed. I was forging into the future, or so I thought, and had no time to reach back into the past. That’s not to say I read, watched or heard only new things. I exhausted Burroughs, Ballard and Vonnegut, hung out in the 70s and early 80s with Woody Allen and Steve Martin and tracked back to the reference points of post-punk. But to me these all felt like counter-points to some cultural orthodoxy I wanted away from, so I avoided some of the brightest guiding stars in the firmament.
Now I have less time and those decisions, made and never brought out for re-examination, seem completely stupid.
In conversation recently with Fiona from 940 Sundays and the foremost authority on Nabokov on the second floor of the building she works in, I suddenly felt faintly embarrassed for never having read him. I know things about him and I’ve read lots of writers who were profoundly influenced by him – almost all of Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo – but not Nabokov himself.that particular source.
Perhaps I’ve felt the same way about music in the past. If artist X is the freshest, most radical on the scene, why should I be interested in their influences, when they have presumably progressed from or built upon them? I only reached back to artists who seemed so iconoclastic that no-one had approached them since. Hence I love Dylan, Beefheart, Velvet Underground but care much less for the Beatles, Rolling Stones or Byrds.
I think it’s time to change this. To start doing things instead of not doing things. We’ve talked about this before.
I’m going to start with books. Here’s a list of 10 fiction writers, pulled from thin air, who i’m going to try to read within my next 20 or 30 books.
- Doris Lessing
- Saul Bellow
- Primo Levi
- Ernest Hemingway
- Flannery O’Connor
- Henry James
- Vladimir Nabokov
- Joyce Carol Oates
- VS Naipaul
- Fyodor Dostoevsky
To my knowledge I’ve read nothing by any of them (with the possible exception of Hemingway – I have a sneaky feeling I’ve read ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ – but he needs to stay in the list as a symbol of my arrogance and ignorance). I make no claims for this list, and there are hundreds more who could and, in time, should be included. But it’s something. Perhaps if and when I finish I’ll know whether and how badly I’ve been missing out on all this time.
If you have anything to say about any of these 10, including specific recommendations, then do please comment. And before you scoff and file me under ‘Philistine’ take a little look at your own gap-lists, maybe submit them as comments too if you’re bold enough, and take a long hard look at yourself and your glass house before throwing stones.