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?