I gather that the top titles that people falsely claim to have read are “War & Peace”, “Hamlet”, “Ulysses” and “Les Miserables”. Sometimes of course it’s hard to be sure! Many stories are so omni-present that we know them almost like a race memory. And “War & Peace” is a book I remember having from the library as a boy — and some conversation about it — but I’m totally vague about whether I read all of it. I rather doubt it — but why not exactly? I certainly wasn’t interested out of literary snobbery, it was because I was avid for Napoleonic subjects at one stage.
In fact, when I have re-read some books I wonder what I could possibly have got from them at an early age. (The only book that left me doubting that I had understood it properly was Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”.)
Have I in fact read “Hamlet”? Well, not before I saw it the first time. As with “War & Peace”, I have been in it. Does that count?
I certainly have not read Joyce’s “Ulysses”, in every sense a closed book to me.
And I definitely have read “Les Mis”, because it’s the one foreign novel of which I swopped translations part way through. I had tried to make do with the fusty old version I acquired after my Aunt Elsie died (had Elsie read it? Had she heck. It was part of a set), but got bogged down and changed horses in midstream.
I regret never having read a Bronte novel. I used to say that Scott, Austen and Thackeray were alike in that I had read just one novel by each of them — and read that book twice. Since then I have tackled a couple more Thackerays, and I think I have read the main Austen titles. I think it — but have to remind myself which story of hers is which. A question on Mastermind yesterday about Emma marrying her brother-in-law confused me.
I have not read a Scots book by Scott. I read “Ivanhoe” when he was running on TV, repeating him later. Television has always influenced my reading. Radio serialisation led me to “Vanity Fair”, and to Trollope’s Barsetshire novels. And to Snow’s “Strangers & Brothers”.
I have always meant to read “Crime & Punishment”, but have never got round to it. Assuming I didn’t get through all of “War & Peace” when I was thirteen, the longest book I have ever read has been a novel about Owen Glendower.
There’s the odd title among classic stories that people probably only think they’ve read, but I actually have. “Robinson Crusoe” is one. Never read “Gulliver”, though.
So what book shall I take to my own desert island?