I am pretty good at literary quizzes, and I especially like those where you identify a work based on its first line. I always get this one right: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." That's the opening of 1984 by George Orwell. I have never read 1984.
Orwell's novel is the first on the list of David Pringle's Best 100 Science Fiction Novels, the list I have been choosing from for these blog postings. It is the one book on the list that I can tell most any of my friends that I have never read and expect always the same response, "I can't believe that."
Is it unimaginable that I have never read 1984? I have read a lot of other books. According to my Good Reads list, I have read 84 books since the first of the year. Even though that number may be inflated because so many have been relatively short sf novels, I still consistently rank above the national average for "books read per year," which according to the Washington Post is four It's just that in my case none of them has ever been George Orwell's 1984.
Friends ask, "Didn't you have to read it in high school?" No, I did not. I am a victim of American public school education, 1957 - 1969. We didn't have to read books. We made books reports, choosing I suppose from a list of acceptable titles. (1984 was possibly on these lists.) But never in my English classes were we all assigned the same book for outside reading, and there were certainly no such things as Summer Reading Lists. It was during this time that I read several of the other books on the Pringle list: Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters; several by Ray Bradbury, who was my idol at the time; and, in seventh grade about half of us read Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon. (This was only a year after the Cuban missile crisis and we all still thought we might be blown up in the near future. I think Alas, Babylon remains popular on reading lists for early teens. Apocalypse never goes out of style.)
I could blame Aldous Huxley for the fact that I never read 1984. I had around that same time read Brave New World and found it dull. It was a poor introduction to dystopian fiction, as well as probably a denser and more adult novel than a thirteen-year-old needed to read. I have ever since associated the Huxley and the Orwell novel, and never picked up the latter.
So what difference does it make if I go to my grave having never read 1984? As with most rhetorical questions the answer, I think, is obvious. None whatsoever. There are no more pop tests in my future. I don't think I will lose any friends having revealed my dark secret. And I still get that question right on Famous First Line quizzes.
I am feeling brazen. Here are some other things I have never read.
1) Anything by Charles Dickens from beginning to end. (There might be an exception for A Christmas Carol, although it could be that I have seen so many film adaptations so may times that I feel I know it by heart."There is more gravy than grave about you, Marley.")
2) No Faulkner since 9th grade. And then I only had a go at The Sound and the Fury and felt pretty much at sea the whole way through it.
3)Very little that would have been considered "age appropriate" when I was in elementary school and junior high. No Black Beauty or Old Yeller - saw the movies. (Films adaptations of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells made me want to read the originals, which I discovered were long and had few if any of the Ray Harryhausen monsters found on screen. A TV presentation of John Huston's Moby Dick lead to a disastrous encounter with that novel when I was around eleven. I have read it a couple of times since)
4) Nothing by Dostoevsky.
5) None of the following: Tony Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, John Irving, Jack Kerouac, or Stephen King.
I have a copy of 1984 sitting in front of me now. I still don't know if I will read it. For one thing it has the wrong cover. The one pictured above is the proper cover. It also has that ugly, Signet Classic typeface -- so dark it looks like a stain, narrow margins. Whether I ever read it or not will remain my own, dirty little secret.