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I’ll Gladly Play Along

I mean, how could I not? (Pun, by the way, very much intended.)

1. If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?

See, the best ones to meet aren’t necessarily the best ones to read. That we know so little about Shakespeare’s life strongly suggests that he wasn’t the most interesting person to meet (though I would love to engage him on the subjects of theater finance and how much re-writing he did). Marlowe was undoubtedly a better bar-mate. By contrast, some writer’s personalities – Tolstoy, say, or Wilde – were so large that one senses one already knows them well enough from reading them. Some – Joyce, say – I suspect would never let me get a word in edgewise. Others – Borges, say – I suspect wouldn’t say almost nothing. So if I’m picking a writer of titanic stature whom I would want to meet, and talk with, and learn something by talking to but also engage in a real conversation with, from which something new might grow – I vote for George Eliot. I would talk to her about everything – about love and faith and the loss of faith and what the point is of writing; but I would also talk about Zionism and archaeology and Shakespeare and the Greeks. And I would be very interested to fill her in on everything that has happened since her death.

(I was tempted to say Euripides, but I’m afraid his talk would all be Greek to me.)

2. If you could meet any character from literature, who would it be?

What a tough one! My immediate instinct was to say: Leopold Bloom, from Ulysses. But so much of what makes him so delightful is happening inside his head – could any actual meeting hold a candle? Then I thought, what about Prince Hal from the Henry IV plays? I’ve always been fascinated by him, and it would be delightful to be Poins for a while, and watch the young prince go at it with Falstaff. But that’s not really the assignment – I’m not supposed to be putting myself in the work; I’m supposed to be taking the character out. And can you even do that? What would it mean to “meet” Gregor Samsa in our world?

So I’ve settled on a character I loved as a child: “Mike” (Mycroft), the computer from The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. Interacting with a machine that clearly passed the Turing test would be an experience in itself, but he was also such a delightful personality. I identified more with him than with any of the human characters in the book, and I was sure he’d understand me better than any of my friends did. And I cried when he “died” during the final bombardment of the moon. I want him back.

3. What book have you always meant to read and haven’t gotten around to yet? Anything you feel embarrassed not to have read?

Oh, this list is very, very long. I’ll have to pull down my old copy of The Western Canon to do it justice.

To begin with, I am acutely embarrassed never to have read the Christian scriptures in their entirety. I’ve read all four Gospels multiple times (in English translation, of course), but my knowledge of Acts, of Paul’s letters, and so forth is patchy at best. I’m somewhat less embarrassed at having read only snippets of the Quran and the Mahabharata, but still pretty embarrassed. I am not ashamed that I couldn’t get through the Analects of Confucius. I’ve also never read Augustine. I’ve also basically never studied Talmud, though that’s something that used to embarrass me more than it does these days.

After that, I’m probably most embarrassed by my near-comprehensive ignorance of the French literary tradition. I have not read Montaigne or Rabelais or Pascal or Rousseau or Diderot, and I’ve read only snippets of Voltaire. I’ve read no Hugo, no Zola, no Balzac, no Flaubert, and I couldn’t get into Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. I’ve read a couple of stories by de Maupassant and a bit of Baudelaire; no Mallarmé, no Verlaine, no Rimbaud. And I’ve read no Proust. There’s really no excuse for this – I feel reasonably educated in the Russian canon in an amateur sense, and achieved that education entirely on my own, and could certainly do as well for the major French literary landmarks. I just haven’t.

After that I’m probably most embarrassed by my weakness in poetry in my own language; if I could take a year out of my life, and know that the world would not go on without me – that I could resume my life where I left off, a year older and closer to death, but not “miss out” on my son growing up or the ongoing march of less-personal events – I would spend it immersed in English poetry with an idealized tutor (Alan Jacobs would do very nicely). But as it happens, it has proven extraordinarily difficult to integrate poetry – which I never studied – into my life as I live it, and so I basically don’t do it.

But none of this is really what the question is getting at. The point is to pick out a particular work that you’ve always meant to read, but haven’t gotten around to, and that you’re appalled to have avoided because this book in particular is something everyone would just assume you, of all people, would have read.

I’m not sure it’s actually necessary to read de Tocqueville, but you would think that someone like me, with my interests, would have read him. Particularly since Democracy In America has been sitting on my shelf for more than 20 years, waiting for me to pick it up.


Your turn, readers.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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