by Catriona Mills

So, Does Anyone Fancy a Round of Humiliation?

Posted 21 July 2008 in by Catriona

For those of you who haven’t read any of David Lodge’s novels, Humiliation is a game invented by his Brummidge professor Phillip Swallow when he was a postgraduate student, but debuted in the novel Changing Places, later in Swallow’s career.

It’s also a central example in Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, for reasons that should become apparent even if you haven’t read Bayard.

In Humiliation, players nominate a well-known book—usually one of those books that everyone is supposed to have read—that they themselves haven’t read, and receive a point for each participant who has read it.

(And, in fact, this post can’t fail: either we have a round of Humiliation, which will be good fun, or everyone ignores me, and then I’m humiliated, which means I don’t have to change the title of the post. Win-win situation!)

According to Pierre Bayard, “It is hard to imagine a more perfect encapsulation of the way our displays of culture in social settings, before the mirror of others, awakens unreasonable feelings of shame” (122).

But I don’t think this game should shame us: even Bayard mentions that such shame is “unreasonable,” because, of course, he argues that actually reading a book is less important than being aware of its place in the collective library.

(More accurately, I suppose, with Humiliation we are dealing with the third of Bayard’s three categories of libraries, the virtual library, or “the realm in which books are discussed, in either written or oral form, with other people” (125n): this is, he says, a “a mobile sector of every culture’s collective library and is located at the point of intersection of the various inner libraries of each participant in the discussion” (125n), where the inner library is “a subjective part of the collective library and includes the books that have left a deep impression on each subject” (73n). So, in this case we bring our awareness of the book’s position in the collective library to the virtual library.)

But I do admit to a certain feeling of uncertainty about this game—or, more accurately, about playing it on the blog.

But then, why? We can’t read everything, not matter how bibliophilic our instincts.

For example, look at the table of contents to Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon—just the TOC, not any of the actual text. He names in the TOC twenty-six authors: Shakespeare, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Montaigne, Moliere, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Wordsworth, Austen, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Dickens, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Freud, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Borges, Neruda, Pessoa, and Samuel Beckett.

Of those twenty-six authors, I haven’t read any works by eleven of them, including two who, frankly, I hadn’t heard of before this point. (I’m not saying which authors I haven’t read, but feel free to guess.)

Another two authors I can’t remember reading works by, but can’t be sure that I haven’t.

And yet, I read a great deal and, it seems to me, rather widely. So am I humiliating myself by admitting to not having read certain books—or, at least, not having read them yet?

I’ve surely admitted to not having read books on the blog before. But the point of Humiliation is admitting to not reading books that, by certain rather nebulous standards, you should have read.

And as Bayard points out, the better-known the book, the less risk to the game. The key example in Changing Places is an American professor—who, the character narrating the game says, “has a pathological urge to succeed and a pathological fear of being thought uncultured” (cited in Bayard 123)—who insists that he has never read Hamlet. But, as Bayard says, there is really no risk here: “For one thing, no one is likely to believe him. And for another, the play is so well known that it is not necessary to have read it to speak about it” (124).

So I’ll humiliate myself.

Good nineteenth-century scholar that I am, I’ve never read The Mill on the Floss.

(And now, the panic: I have read other Eliot.)

Anybody else want to play?

Share your thoughts [45]


Nick Caldwell wrote at Jul 21, 08:14 am

1984 — about the only book I can think of that I should (for “SF Fan” values of “should”) actually have read. Dystopic fiction, even seminal dystopic fiction, depresses the hell out of me though.


Catriona wrote at Jul 21, 08:37 am

Yes, but have you read Mill on the Floss? The game requires you to let me know that, so I know if I get points or not.

You don’t get any points so far; I haven’t read 1984, either. Or if I have, I’ve forgotten reading it, which would be fine by Pierre Bayard, but is no good for the purposes of Humiliation.


Wendy wrote at Jul 21, 08:44 am

I have read Mill on the Floss (set reading at uni!)

but not 1984

and not Ulysses (even though it was set reading at uni!)


Nick Caldwell wrote at Jul 21, 08:47 am

Indeed I have not read Mill on the Floss! No points for you.


Catriona wrote at Jul 21, 08:51 am

Not true! One point to me, because Wendy has read Mill on the Floss.

And one point to Wendy, because I’ve read Ulysses (also set reading at uni, but I volunteered to give a tutorial paper on it, so I had to read it).

But currently no points to you.


Leigh wrote at Jul 21, 09:14 am

I’ve not read either Mill on the floss or Ulysses (I own both) I’ve not read Pride and Prejudice, I have started it many many times though.


Sam wrote at Jul 21, 09:20 am

I’ve never read any of those books, nor have I read the first half of Fellowship of The Ring. I don’t think that counts though as I have read the second half.


Catriona wrote at Jul 21, 09:30 am

Whereas I, Sam, have read the first half of Fellowship but not the second. So I think you get half a point.

And a point to Leigh, because I have read Pride and Prejudice.

So we’ve got Leigh, Wendy, and I on a point each, Sam on half a point, and Nick on no points.


Tim wrote at Jul 21, 10:53 am

Are we playing personal scoring (only the person who nominates a book scores points for that book) or group scoring (any player who hasn’t read a given book scores points for that book)? We seem to be going with the former, but the latter is, I think, more accurate to the source (and would make for a more even game). (In either case, scorers gain a point for each person who has read the relevant book, so at some point the referee will have to close the player listing.)


Catriona wrote at Jul 21, 11:03 am

So far, we’ve been going with the former. It may not be as true to the source, but it’s easier for me, maths challenged as I am, to calculate the scores. We can make it group scoring, but I’m not familiar with the other version of the game.

To make it clear, anyone else who hasn’t read, for example, The Mill on the Floss gets the same points as I do for nominating that book in the group version?


Tim wrote at Jul 21, 11:23 am

Yep. But perhaps we should try it your way first, just to see what happens.

Though I also think half-read books shouldn’t count, as it gives those who nominate such a book significantly less chance of winning. I suggest we count the first half of Fellowship as a complete book for the purpose of this exercise.

Anyway, I have not read Mill on the Floss or Ulysses. I have read 1984, Pride and Prejudice and The Fellowship of the Ring. So, by the current system, that would be another point each for Nick and Leigh, and either half a point or one point for Sam.

Also, I have not read Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree.


Catriona wrote at Jul 21, 11:27 am

I agree on the half-read books; we’ll count that as a point for Sam per reader.

So Leigh and Sam are now on two points, Wendy and I still on one point, Nick on one point, and you on one point, because I have read The Magic Faraway Tree.


Tim wrote at Jul 21, 11:34 am

Thought you might’ve. ;)


Matthew Smith wrote at Jul 21, 11:38 am

I’ve read 1984. It’s really boring. I’ve also read “Brave New World” which is quite short and memorable if you manage not to slash your wrists before finishing it.

I challenge you lot to Master and Commander or any of the Jack Aubery books. That’s about as literary (and non sci-fi as I’ve ever been if you don’t count fad books like The Mysterious Case of the Dog in the Night which seem to find their way into the house)


Wendy wrote at Jul 21, 11:46 am

i have read the magic faraway tree, pride and prejudice and the fellowship of the ring

this means i’m giving points to others?? i’m a bit slow on the rules so I’m glad someone else (not me) is keeping score

i haven’t read a suitable boy by vikram seth although i have owned it for a number of years


Catriona wrote at Jul 21, 11:47 am

So that’s another point to Nick, bringing him up two points with Leigh and Sam, with the rest of us staying on one point each.

No points to you from me, Matt; I’ve not read Master and Commander, or any of the Jack Aubreys.

(Maybe in a little while we should have a sci-fi specific round of Humiliation.)


Nick Caldwell wrote at Jul 21, 11:56 am

OK, let’s see now…

I’ve read

  • Fellowship of the Ring
  • The Magic Faraway Tree
  • Master and Commander

I’ve not read

  • Ulysses
  • P&P
  • Brave New World

And, a new one: I haven’t read The Time Machine.


Catriona wrote at Jul 21, 12:08 pm

(Wendy: that’s right. You score a point for everyone who has read the book that you haven’t. So for every nominated book that you’ve read, the person who nominated it gets a point.)

So my new calculations (for the originally nominated books, because the new books are throwing me a little. Maybe we can save second books for another round later?) are:

Sam: 4 points (good choice there, Sam!)
Tim: 3 points
Leigh: 3 points
Nick: 2 points
Wendy: 1 point
Matt: 1 point
Me: 1 point

(Doesn’t look like Mill on the Floss was a great choice after all. It’s reminding me that when Phillip Swallow played the game in California, he thought he’d have a sure winner with Oliver Twist, but it was nowhere.)

As Tim pointed out in comment 9, we have to close the player listing sometime, that’s why I’m thinking we don’t add new books into the lists right now.

But I’d like to see some of the early players come back and tell us whether they’ve read some of these later books. I have a feeling Tim could leapfrog Sam, here.


Tim wrote at Jul 21, 12:10 pm

Shouldn’t we tally all the points for a given round before starting a new one?

And Matt, are you saying that Master and Commander is your nomination for a book that you haven’t read?


John wrote at Jul 21, 12:14 pm

OK, the rules seem a little confusing (for this time of night (OK, for any time)) so I’m going to ignore them and admit that I’ve not read any Jane Austen, but I have read Ulysses, twice. (Except for the second half of Molly’s monologue, which I could never stay awake for).

I’ve also read the first page of Remembrance of Things Past (or whatever the modern translation is called), but could never get any further (all that meditation on falling asleep is really effective!)


John wrote at Jul 21, 12:17 pm

Oops, sorry. The closing of the round at comment 18 happened while I was at moderation :-)


Tim wrote at Jul 21, 12:18 pm

I’ll point out that when I submitted my post at 19, I didn’t have Catriona’s post at 18 visible. :)


Catriona wrote at Jul 21, 12:25 pm

And that’s the disadvantage of playing the game on the blog instead of at a drunken party with pencil and paper!

I admit, Tim, I thought you were suggesting I’d messed up the calculations, which wouldn’t have surprised me (the messing up, that is, not the suggesting).

So, we’ll call this round of Humiliation closed, in terms of nominating new books. But I would like to see if early players can change the current standings in light of some of the later books—though Sam is currently our leader.


Tim wrote at Jul 21, 12:45 pm

If Matt’s nomination is indeed Master and Commander, I haven’t read it.


Matthew Smith wrote at Jul 22, 01:50 am

Frick, I didn’t understand the scoring system. Let me try repeating what you wrote.

- Each player nominates a book they HAVEN’T read and think maybe no-one else has read either. – Points are scored for each other player that HAS read the nominated book – I assume that the person who scores highest is the most humiliated?

To clarify: I have read the first six Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian–Maturin_series. The reason I raise them is because they are books in which largely nothing happens so I figured they should be literature. Or should I say a lot happens but they don’t seem to have a discernible plot apart from that Jack and Stephen go to sea and then arrive back home. Having said that they are strangely readable as opposed to say “Moby Dick” which I haven’t read.

I would like to add that I have read all of the Lord of the Rings books including the Hobbit at least twice.

I’ve not read any of the other books mentioned anyway.

Can I turn this game into a facebook app? Or would that kill the mood?


Catriona wrote at Jul 22, 02:16 am

Sorry about that, Matt (and I’m just going to skip over the suggestion that literature = books in which nothing happens. Hmmm.)

But it’s not a question of nominating books that you think no-one else has read—you nominate a book that you haven’t read but that you think everyone else has. That’s why you score points for people who have read it.

It’s called Humiliation because you’re revealing a gap in your cultural knowledge.

I think if we play future rounds of Humiliation, I’ll break it down into a two-part system: everyone who wants to play nominates a book by a certain time/date, then I’ll post all the nominations and we’ll have a second, voting round.

As for a Facebook app., I’m not sure what the copyright issues would be: the game was invented as far as I know by a novelist, and his stuff is still in copyright.


Tim wrote at Jul 22, 02:35 am

I am not a lawyer, but the game as an idea isn’t copyrightable, I would say, though it might be patentable.


Catriona wrote at Jul 22, 04:06 am

Not a lawyer, but you play one on the Internet?


You could be right: I rarely have to worry about copyright, because all the material I use is a minimum of 130-years old. So I admit to knowing very little about what is and isn’t copywritable (and once you through in patents and trademarks, etc . . . I have no chance.)


Tim wrote at Jul 22, 04:14 am

No, on the internet I play an expert. :p


Leigh wrote at Jul 22, 07:51 am

God I cant keep up, but im trying so
I have read
-Fellowship of The Ring
-The Magic Faraway Tree.

I havent read
-Brave New World
-a suitable boy
-Master and Commander
-Remembrance of Things Past


Catriona wrote at Jul 22, 08:15 am

So that puts Sam on 5 points, Tim on 4 points, and Nick on 3 points. The rest of us stay on the points as given in comment 18.

It looks as though Sam will win this round, unless he’s read The Magic Faraway Tree.


Leigh wrote at Jul 22, 08:26 am

Come on next round ive got a sure fire winner !!!!! (im gonna lose now arent i), hmm and i might be taking this game a little to seriously ‘grin’


Catriona wrote at Jul 22, 09:04 am

You can’t take a game about humiliating yourself by exposing absences in your cultural knowledge too seriously! I admit, I’m a little surprised that I didn’t do better with The Mill on the Floss. Dammit.


Sam wrote at Jul 22, 10:30 am

I have read none of those books.

As for the next round, I have a friend who I am trying to get to join, if she does you will see why.
She looked here but didn’t understand it so maybe before starting there be a simplified restatement of the rules?


Catriona wrote at Jul 22, 10:43 am

If you’ve read none of those books, Sam, that makes you our official winner of Round 1, with 5 points, closely followed by Tim on 4 points and Nick on 3.

I think for Round 2, I’ll run the game differently; I’ll certainly restate the rules, but I’ll also ask just for nominations to begin with, then, when I have those and we’ve locked down the participants, ask everyone to vote on which books in the list they’ve read and which they haven’t.

That should mitigate some of the confusion that comes from playing the game in a blog comment thread.

We might also play on group scoring, as Tim suggested in an earlier comment.


Tim wrote at Jul 23, 01:42 am

Actually, I may be wrong; individual scoring may have been the method used in Changing Places. (I’m not certain as I haven’t read it. ;))


Catriona wrote at Jul 23, 01:56 am

I begin to see what you mean about playing an expert on the Internet!


I have read it, but not for some years. I had thought the game ran by individual scoring, but then the mechanics aren’t—as I recall—set out in any great detail.

But group scoring would lessen the “humiliation” aspect, since there’s then a sense of shared lacunae (if that isn’t a mixed metaphor).

The original game also has a provision for challenging a particularly unbelievable claim to ignorance, as happens when the professor claims not to have read Hamlet. But I don’t think we can manage that on the blog: too unwieldy.

Still, we all seem to have enjoyed this: I think I’ll set up stage one of round two this evening. I’m determined to come up with a better entry than Mill on the Floss (dang Eliot).


Tim wrote at Jul 23, 02:19 am

This may be sour grapes from second place, but I also think that players of a certain age bracket (i.e. Sam) have an unfair advantage and should take some sort of handicap. :p


Catriona wrote at Jul 23, 02:24 am

I have a feeling that Sam’s advantage was not so much his age as his awareness of the demographic: he was always on to a winner with Fellowship of the Ring with this group of geeks (barring my unreasonable laxity in that regard).

But I am going to institute a rule that it must be a book you’ve not read in its entirety, not a partially unread book.


Tim wrote at Jul 23, 02:31 am

I’m thinking of advantage over multiple games.


Catriona wrote at Jul 23, 04:34 am

Because he has fewer reading years behind him, which makes it (theoretically) easier for him to select an unread book that the rest of us should all have read?


But I’m not inclined to make the game any more mathematically complicated than it already is. I know my limitations!

As with any game, though, I imagine we’ll end up refining the rules in a way that works best for us as we play.


Sam wrote at Jul 23, 06:56 am

I would agree that books must be fully read (or fully not read) for future rounds.

I don’t think that an age cap would be of much effect though because not only have I not read any of those books, I’ve also not heard of many of them until now. I can’t claim I should have read a book I haven’t heard of.


Catriona wrote at Jul 23, 07:00 am

I can certainly claim that you should have read a book you’ve never heard of . . . and frequently do so at work.


No, I’m not imposing an age cap. It wouldn’t be effective; I mean, you could just lie about your age, and it’s not as though I’d have any way of telling . . . not when we’re on the Internet.

I’m not planning on imposing a handicap, either—unless you win all subsequent rounds. Then I might have to rethink the policy!


Tim wrote at Jul 23, 07:00 am

In which case, individual scoring seems the way to go.


Catriona wrote at Jul 23, 07:02 am

Ah, Tim! You popped up while I was moderating my own comment.

But I agree: we’ll stick with individual scoring.

I’m going to set round two up now.

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