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The Literary Lacunae Meme

May 21st, 2005 · 16 Comments

Ex-roomie Greg Newburn passes me the talking-stick on the question: “What 5 books are you vaguely embarassed to admit you haven’t read?” over at the new group blog Liberteaser. Off the top of my head:

  1. Law’s Empire by Ronald Dworkin: This one’s not so embarassing in itself, except that in the circles I move in, I end up arguing law with various flavors of originalist. And since I’m out of sympathy with that approach, I get asked what jurisprudential philosophy I do like. I’ll sometimes say I’m a Dworkinian. Except I haven’t actually read Dworkin, beyond a few of the essays in Taking Rights Seriously: My exposure to (what was presented as) his theory of jurisprudence comes almost entirely from a couple constitutional law classes I took with Peter Rajsingh at NYU, where I remember thinking “yeah, something like that sounds about right.” Probably not quite good enough.
  2. About a third of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls: I’ve read most of this in dribs and drabs over the years. But I’ve never managed to make it all the way through, beginning-to-end, in one go. I think what’s kept me from it is partly that I’ve gotten the gist of the bits I haven’t read from secondary literature, partly just that it’s quite dense and requires close, diligent reading. But that’s a pretty poor excuse; I should just bite the bullet and read the rest of it. Especially now that I’ve posted this and Will can be counted upon to mock me until I do.
  3. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger: I don’t actually feel any particular desire to read this one, and at this stage I probably won’t, but it does feel like I’m the one human being on earth who didn’t get assigned this in high school.
  4. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow: Both Chris Hitchens and Martin Amis have fawned on this one at length, and I was super impressed with the first 20 pages or so, which I finally dipped into after Bellow died last month. I actually haven’t read anything by Bellow, so I feel like I really ought to get on this one.
  5. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein: Like the Rawls, I’ve read bits of this one, and feel like it’s one of those books that, as the wags say, “I’ve read, but not by myself.” I know the gist of it from the secondary literature, but have never gone all the way through with a close reading. Though, given Wittgenstein’s famously cryptic style, I wonder whether maybe I shouldn’t just stick with the account in the secondary literature.

I’ll pass the talking stick to Yglesias, Will Wilkinson, and Will Baude. Any non-bloggers or ex-bloggers (cough, Jacob Levy, cough) who want to offer their list in comments, feel free.

Tags: Language and Literature



16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Pablo Serrato // May 21, 2005 at 11:32 pm


    You should pick up Bellow’s last novel, Ravelstein. It is short and representative of his work.

    Also is an interesting literary look at the neocon intellectual Allan Bloom and his student, Paul Wolfowitz – who has a brief role as Undersecreatry of Defense when he rings his professor during a Chicago Bulls game to inform him that Bush and Baker have decided to halt Gulf War 1 short of Baghdad.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // May 22, 2005 at 12:04 pm

    I actually have Ravelstein on my shelf; once I’ve cleared this list out, maybe I”ll crack that one open.

  • 3 Vadranor // May 22, 2005 at 1:22 pm


    Please ignore Pablo. If you don’t want to read Augie March, then read another work from the period when Bellow was at his height such as Henderson, the Rain King or Herzog. Don’t make your introduction anything from the end of his career.

  • 4 Matt F // May 22, 2005 at 3:42 pm

    Herzog has always been my favorite book by Bellow. And Catcher in the Rye was a book I hadn’t read either until a few months ago. I had a rather non-traditional english teacher who wanted to avoid the standard high school books. It was actually pretty good, full of angsty teen themes, but I enjoyed it. A quick read, it only took a day or two. Salinger does a good job of making Holden (main character) seem like he’s trying a bit to hard to be seen as adult and sophisticated, but it gets a little unrealistic at points. Good read though, if you’ve ever got a weekend to kill.

  • 5 Armand // May 22, 2005 at 3:49 pm

    Actually, if you feel the need to catch up on Salinger I think Franny & Zooey is much more rewarding than Catcher. I haven’t read the latter in years, but it’s always struck me as something that if you didn’t read it when you were 15, well, it’s going to seem terribly overrated.

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // May 22, 2005 at 3:51 pm

    There’s a whole separate list of things I really liked when I finally did encounter them, but was vaguely sad I hadn’t gotten into when I was substantially younger–the chief two are “Ender’s Game” (probably should’ve read around age 12) and the movie “Heathers” (saw it as a college freshman, would’ve been better still as a high school freshman)

  • 7 matt // May 22, 2005 at 5:43 pm

    Almost no one reads the last part of Theory of Justice, even among professional philosophers. This is the part Rawls said he was most proud of (I’m told, by people who should know) but is also the part that is most changed in Political Liberalism. Unless you have some special interest in it, or a particular reason for wanting to read it, don’t bother w/ Philosophical Investigations. I say that as someone who’s read all if it, and much of it several times, and is quite sympathetic to Wittgenstein. But, it take a lot of work to get it, and for most people it’s probably not worth the work. Cather in the Rye is primarily a book for kids. If you read it now it’s probably too late and you’ll wonder why people cared. You would have cared if you’d read it when you were 16 or something, but now it will seem silly.

  • 8 dennis nyback // May 22, 2005 at 8:37 pm

    Speaking of Julian saying it to late to read The Catcher in the Rye if you are over 16, I agree. I’ll comment on that later. When I was 16 I regretted that I had not read A Wrinkle In Time. Right now I regret I haven’t read Proust, George Gissing, and more Turgenev. I also read a couple of hundred pages of Ulysses and should read the rest. Getting back to Salinger, I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was 16, but not because it was assigned. I had to go to detention at the end of a school day. I arrived in the library just in time to randomly pull a book from the shelf and sit down. The rule was when detention started you couldn’t get back up till it was over. I was lucky it was The Catcher in the Rye. I loved it. A few years ago I picked it up again and couldn’t get into it at all. Oh, I regret I haven’t read Don Quixote. I really should read it.

  • 9 rick // May 22, 2005 at 11:23 pm

    catcher is the move overrated book perhaps of all time; good lord, even the extrapolated notions that explain some of the plots are fairly innocuous and done to death;

  • 10 Jacob T. Levy // May 23, 2005 at 10:24 am

    I like the domain restriction: “vaguely embarrassed.” It differentiates this from the “Humiliation” game in _Changing Places_, which didn’t turn out so well for the schmuck who
    played it the week before going up for tenure. (My folder’s due next week. I’m a little obsessed at the moment.) A sense that one really ought to have read, rather than a sense that one’s an utter intelllectual fraud if one has not read.
    At the same time, I don’t think anyone needs to feel embarrassed about never having read Remembrance of Times Past, no matter how much one wishes one had. It’s like playing “I Never” with “I’ve never run a four-minute mile;” it’d be nice, but no one should think less of you for not having done so.

    I’m pleased to realize how much progress I’ve made on my list the past few years; but there are always more books to read. So I can easily do five books three times over, like so:

    Literature: Brothers Karamazov. Don Quixote. Augie March (Bellow’s been on my mind, too.). The Divine Comedy. And– and now we move from “vaguely embarrassed” to “pretty seriously embarrassed”– the Iliad.

    Fantasy/ SF: The Mote in God’s Eye. A Canticle for Leibowitz. 2001. Planet of Exile. The Difference Engine.

    Law/ political science/ philosophy/ etc:
    Here’s where the difference between “vaguely embarrassed” and “Humiliation” kicks in. Had I never read Theory of Justice or Leviathan, I’d be more than vaguely embarrassed by that fact.

    On the other hand, I’m only vaguely embarrassed by lacunae in subfields outside my own: continental theory, international relations, American politics. So:

    Waltz, Man, the State, and War.
    VO Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation.
    Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action. (Read chunks, but not remotely the whole thing.)
    Heidegger, Being and Time.
    Kant, Critique of Judgment.

    And every year, a little father behind. Sigh.

    One fun thing about being a professor, though, is the ability to put a book onto a syllabus as a way of precommitting to reading it oneself– even the ability to choose or design a course around the desire to read a particular book. That can chip away at the list. I’ve done that with, inter alia, Between Facts and Norms; The Pure Theory of Law; Sources of the Self; Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.

  • 11 Geoff Robinson // May 23, 2005 at 7:01 pm

    Key’s Southern Politics is the best defence of political parties I have read.

  • 12 Nick Beaudrot // May 25, 2005 at 7:50 pm

    I went to k-12 junior high school where Catcher in the Rye is read in the 9th grade.

    Then, starting in 9th grade I transferred to a different k-12 high school where it’s red in the 8th grade.

    So you are not the only one.

  • 13 Tim W // May 29, 2005 at 12:03 pm

    Which Third of TJ?

  • 14 yo // Nov 30, 2005 at 8:23 pm

    Catcher in the Rye was amazing..i really did love it. High school is the perfect time to read it thoguh. otherwise if too old or old or too young you dont undersatnd what the book tells us. Holden is 16 in the book, and deep down has a sensitive loving side, even though on the outside he appears to be tough and brave. You should really read this book if you have a chance. 🙂

  • 15 arty Heath // Jan 23, 2006 at 11:27 am

    Regarding “The Cather in the Rye” What Rubbish about being too old to read it. I read it before I was 16, not because I had to because I wanted to and now 20 years later I have read it again. I think it’s good to read books at differnt stages of your life, reading it twice has brought back so many memories of visiting the states when i was16 and my thoughts and feeings about growing up and my inner struggle to grow up and be a responsible adult. At the same time not forgetting the little things I spend pondering for hours. Not exactly where do ducks go in the winter but that kind of stuff.

  • 16 Zoey // Feb 8, 2006 at 10:09 am

    Everyone should read Catcher in the Rye, assigned or not.