I have a copy of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon that I take down from the shelf every year or so. I like to look through its four appendices and check off the “canonical” books that I’ve read. There are 37 pages of these lists, broken down into four Vico-esque eras of history: Theocratic, Aristocratic, Democratic and Chaotic.

I recall reading a New York magazine interview around the time of The Western Canon‘s publication (c. 1994) in which Mr. Bloom complained about having to produce the mammoth end-of-book list. His editors prevailed upon him to do it, I guess because it would be easier to hook reviewers, since they could now look to see if their favorite authors and titles had made the cut. And because dilettantes like me could start checklists!

[UPDATE! Article found, courtesy of Google’s copyright-be-damned policy! Here’s the paragraph I was trying to recall:

The list, Bloom says, is intended to be suggestive rather than prescriptive — which is just as well, since there are more than 850 authors cited. Indeed, says Bloom, the list may turn out to be a liability, stealing all the attention from the body of the book. “I was encouraged to do it by my agent and my editor,” he says woefully. “They may have been right, they may have been wrong. I’m not so sure that it was a good idea.”

Go read it!]

I admit that I find it fun to measure myself against lists like this. And, yes, I’m enough of a geek that I get a little thrill putting a check-mark next to a title that I’ve finished after years of false starts. I’m not out to “finish” Mr. Bloom’s list, obviously; I could enjoyably spend the rest of my days just reading Shakespeare and ignoring the hundreds of other titles he suggested, and I think he’d find that a perfectly fine choice.

But it’s nice to make progress. Last night, I took out my copy of The Western Canon and was surprised to find that a few books I read last year were on Mr. Bloom’s list: Aegypt and Love & Sleep. Check and check! Only 37 more books to go! On that page!

After checking off those John Crowley books, I got down to business. I flipped back to the Aristocratic Age, looked for the “FRANCE” section, then the entry for Michel de Montaigne. I proceeded to put a dark check-mark next to “Essays, translated by Donald Frame,” because after more than 2 years of reading, I have finished all 1,045 pages of Montaigne’s Essays, beyotch! I am D-U-N done! Celebrate me!

* * *

Still, all of that reading added up to just one check-mark, and you readers know that I have plenty of 0-fers out there!

I coincidentally came across a link to a literary blog I’d never read, The Elegant Variation. Jason Kottke linked to this post about literary critic James Wood’s 1994 response to Mr. Bloom’s lists. Mr. Wood offered up his own list of the best British & American books from 1945 to 1985!

I jumped down to the bottom of the list and started working my way up. At first, I thought, “I have not read a single one of these books! This will be the greatest 0-fer of all time!”

Eventually, I started coming across titles that I had read, so I decided to break the list down into four categories:

  1. Books I’ve Read (18)
  2. Books I’ve Started but Never Finished (5)
  3. Books I’ve Never Started (78!)
  4. Books (and/or Authors) I’ve Never Heard Of (25!)

I could probably break #3 down into Books I Plan To Read Someday and Books I Know I’ll Never Get Around To, but hey.

It’s important to blaze one’s own trail through the library and not to take any single source as too much of an authority. After all, Mr. Bloom includes four books by Don DeLillo on his list, so it’s not like we should regard his modern section too seriously. It’s called “Chaotic” for a reason, right? (Mr. Wood puts one of Mr. DeLillo’s books on his list, too. Sigh.)

In the spirit of celebrating my lacunae, here’s this week’s modified 0-fer list! (Go to that TEV post to get the original sequence of Mr. Wood’s list! And go check out that blog! It seems pretty neat!)

Books I’ve Read
William Burroughs – The Naked Lunch
Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5
Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man
Frederick Exley – A Fan’s Notes
Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day
Philip Roth – Goodbye, Columbus; The Counterlife
JD Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye
Robert Penn Warren – All The King’s Men
Don DeLillo – White Noise
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano
Walker Percy – The Moviegoer
George Orwell – 1984; Collected Essays and Journalism (4 vols)
JG Ballard – Concrete Island
Saul Bellow – Herzog
Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49; V

Books I’ve Started But Never Finished
Harold Brodkey – Stories in an Almost Classical Mode
AS Byatt – Still Life
Toni Morrison – Beloved
Jack Kerouac – On the Road
Joseph Heller – Catch-22

Books I’ve Never Started
Norman Mailer – The Naked and the Dead; Armies of the Night
Walter Abish – How German Is It
Elizabeth Bishop – The Complete Poems
John Cheever – Collected Stories; Falconer
Toni Morrison – Sula
Bernard Malamud – The Assistant; The Stories of Bernard Malamud
William Trevor – Collected Stories
James Baldwin – The Fire Next Time; Giovanni’s Room
Howard Nemerov – Collected Poems
VS Naipaul – A House for Mr. Biswas; In a Free State; The Enigma of Arrival
Philip Roth – Reading Myself and Others
Flannery O’Connor – A Good Man Is Hard To Find
Frank O’Hara – Selected Poems
Sylvia Plath – Collected Poems
Ezra Pound – Pisan Cantos
John Barth – The Sotweed Factor
Saul Bellow –  The Adventures of Augie March; Seize the Day; Humboldt’s Gift
John Berryman – The Dream Songs; The Freedom of the Poet and Other Essays
Donald Barthelme – Sixty Stories
Wallace Stevens – Collected Poems
Eudora Welty – Collected Stories
William Carlos Williams – Paterson
Edmund White – A Boy’s Own Story
Amy Clampitt – The Kingfisher
WH Auden – The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays; Collected Poems
Angela Carter – The Magic Toyshop; Nights at the Circus
Bruce Chatwin – On The Black Hill
William Golding – Lord of the Flies; The Spire
WS Graham – Collected Poems
Raymond Carver – The Stories of Raymond Carver
Martin Amis – Money; The Moronic Inferno
Jean Rhys – Wide Sargasso Sea
Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter
Jonh Ashbery – Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror; Selected Poems
Geoffrey Hill – Collected Poems
Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook
Ivy Compton-Burnett – A Heritage and its History
Muriel Spark – Memento Mori; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Phillip Larkin – Collected Poems
Ian McEwan – First Love Last Rites; The Cement Garden
Andrew Motion – Secret Narratives
Iris Murdoch – Under the Net; The Bell; The Nice and the Good
Carson McCullers – The Ballad of the Sad Cafe
Anthony Powell – A Dance of the Music of Time
John Updike – Of the Farm; The Centaur; The Rabbit Quartet; Hugging the Shore
Ted Hughes – Selected Poems 1957-81
VS Pritchett – Complete Stories; Complete Essays
Marianne Moore – Complete Poems
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children; The Satanic Verses
Anthony Burgess – Earthly Powers
Alan Sillitoe – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
Graham Swift – Waterland
Iain Sinclair – Downriver
Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited; The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

Books (and/or Authors) I’ve Never Heard Of
JG Farrell – The Siege of Krishnapur
Jane Bowles – Collected Works
Tim O’Brien – If I Die In A Combat Zone
LP Hartley – The Go-Between
Cynthia Ozick – The Messiah of Stockholm; Art and Ardour
Angus Wilson – The Wrong Set; Hemlock and After; Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Randall Jarrell – Poetry and the Age
Robert Lowell – Life Studies; For the Union Dead; Near the Ocean
Henry Green – Loving; Concluding; Nothing
Susan Sontag – Styles of Radical Will
Paul Bailey – Gabriel’s Lament
Jeanette Winterson – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Craig Raine – A Martian Sends A Postcard Home
Tom Paulin – Fivemiletown
James Fenton – The Memory of War
Denton Welch – A Voice Through a Cloud
Christine Brook-Rose – The Christine Brook-Rose Reader
Elizabeth Taylor – The Wedding Group

At dinner last night, Amy asked me what my next giganto-reading project will be, now that I’ve finished reading Montaigne. The first three things to flash through my mind were Plutarch, Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, and Shakespeare. I told her, “I’m gonna take a break for a while.”

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