by Catriona Mills

Articles in “Reading”

Humiliation, Round Two: The Nominations

Posted 24 July 2008 in by Catriona

Here’s the playlist for round two of Humiliation:

I have never read The Catcher in the Rye.
Georgia has never read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Sam has never read James and the Giant Peach.
Nick has never read Dracula.
Leigh has never read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Tim has never read The Da Vinci Code.
Wendy has never read The Hobbit.
John has never read King Lear.
Matt has never read Great Expectations.

Tell me in the comment thread below which of these you have read (there’s no need to go the trouble of telling me if you haven’t read some of them) by 6 p.m. tomorrow night, and I’ll post the results shortly afterwards.

There are some frighteningly strong contenders, here—and I thought my entry was looking so good when I thought of it!

Humiliation, Round Two: The Re-Humiliating

Posted 23 July 2008 in by Catriona

I hope people are keen to humiliate themselves all over again. This time, I plan to pick something other than a Victorian novel, I think.

(Aha! I’ve just thought of the perfect book.)

But first, a recapitulation of the rules.

The aim of the game is to reveal a gap in your knowledge, by admitting that you haven’t read a book that everyone else has read.

All you have to do is pick a book that you haven’t read but that you can confidently assume that everyone else has read. Your success in the game depends on the number of other people who have read the book; obscure titles won’t get very far.

Scoring is straightforward on the individual points system: you receive one point for every player who has read the book that you nominate.

Last time we played the game, it involved a lot of flipping back and forth through the comments for everyone to keep up with the titles. So I’m going to run the game in two rounds this time.

First, add a comment below stating which book you haven’t read.

Don’t comment just yet on whether you have read other player’s books.

Because we have to cap the player list at some point—or the game gets to confusing—I’ll close the nominations tomorrow night at 6 p.m. This way people won’t have to keep checking whether any new books have been added to the game.

Then I’ll open a new thread, with a list of players and books. We can then comment on which books we have and haven’t read, and I’ll tabulate the final scores once all the participants have commented.

A Public Service Announcement

Posted 21 July 2008 in by Catriona

Many of you might have seen Nick’s public Pownce note to this effect, but if not, check out the lovely freebies at Tor Books.

They have .pdf and .html files (and other formats that I don’t recognise) for a wide number of books (I’ve just downloaded Jo Walton’s Farthing, and am super excited: I loved her Tooth and Claw) and a range of desktop wallpapers, some of which are so lovely that I’ve bumped the James Jean cover to the ninth Fables trade that I’ve had on my desktop for about a year.

But they’re only available until the 27th of July.

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?

Obscure Words: An Ongoing Series, If I Don't Forget or Get Bored

Posted 18 July 2008 in by Catriona

I was reading through L. M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle tonight—a book I mentioned on the second stage of my bookshelf tour—and came across the following passage:

Some nights the whole outer world seemed to be given over to the empery of silence; then came nights when there would be a majestic sweep of wind in the pines; nights of dear starlight when it whistled freakishly and joyously round the Blue Castle; brooding nights before storm when it crept along the floor of the lake with a low wailing cry of boding and mystery. (Angus and Robertson, 1980. 241)

Now, I’m not saying that’s the best prose in the world: in fact, I think “dear starlight,” at least, is a horrific phrase, hatefully twee.

But what struck me was “empery.” I’ve never consciously seen the word “empery” before—and I’ve read this book before.

(My spellchecker hasn’t seen it, either—but then my spellchecker also isn’t familiar with the word “twee,” which just proves that it’s never watched Eurovision.)

So I looked it up.

It wasn’t in my Concise OED, and I don’t think that’s because at home I have to settle for The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, my copy of the Concise OED itself now living permanently in my office at work.

So I looked it up in the online OED, which tells me that it is both a verb and a noun.

As a verb, it has, apparently, only one definition and only one citation: listed as “obscure, rare” intransitive verb, it means “to exercise supreme power; to lord it.” For support, the OED cites a quotation from Arnolde, 1502: “Alsoo emp’ryng vpon ful many cristen lordis.”

But I’m not sure we’re talking about a verb here.

And the noun has a much longer entry.

The noun, the OED tells me, is now only poetical or rhetorical; that makes me feel a little better about never hearing the word before.

First and foremost, it means “the status, dignity, or dominion of an emperor,” an obsolete usage. Here, the OED offers me citations ranging from one dated 1297 (which includes archaic characters that I’m fairly sure my computer won’t reproduce without effort) to, of course, Shakespeare, from Titus Andronicus (1588, I. i. 201): “Thou shalt obtaine and aske the Emperie.”

But as a subset of this definition, the OED offers “In wider sense: Absolute dominion.” And here the citations run from Udall in 1548—“Ryches, honoure and emperye”—to my old favourite George Macdonald in 1882—“A wider love of empery.”

And as a second subset of the same definition, we have “In the sense of L. imperium: The authority with which an officer or magistrate has been lawfully invested; legitimate government,” also an obsolete usage. Here, the citations range from Chaucer in c.1374 to Bridge in 1642: “If a Prince should [. . .] change the form of the Common-weale from Empery to Tyranny.”

But it wouldn’t be the OED if there weren’t a set of secondary definitions:

2. a. The territory ruled by an emperor. b. In wider sense: The territory of an absolute or powerful ruler.

2a is listed as “also figurative”: does that mean the first is purely literal?

For these secondary definitions, there are citations ranging from Coke in 1550—“Constantyne [. . .] conquered the whole empery”—to Keats’s “Lamia” (1820)—“A want Of something more, more than her empery Of joys (ii.36)—to Hartley Coleridge’s Poems (1833)—”‘Tis all thy own, ‘tis all thy empery.”

Which of these relates to Montgomery’s use?

No idea: I distracted myself.

But isn’t it interesting?

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