The Great and Unread

Arthur Conan Doyle
Does Arthur Conan Doyle look offended, or merely deeply disappointed?
I’ve never read Arthur Conan Doyle.

Is that sacrilege?

I suppose I could. I probably will…someday. But I haven’t bothered yet. I know, shame on me.

On the other hand, it’s comforting to know that “The Hound of the Baskervilles”, “A Study in Scarlet” and the rest of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales are calmly waiting for me to pick them up. Kind of like Hamlet. I haven’t read that either. (Are you feeling superior yet?)

Every night before I go to sleep, I read. I’ve never really thought about it until this minute; how many nights that has been, how many hours. Considering that I learned to read before I started kindergarten—or so family lore would have it—I’ve been reading for…well, quite a long time. Let’s leave it at that.

I read on planes and trains. I read books as part of my job (although I don’t count those since reading them is rarely pleasurable). I’ve even been known to read for almost an entire summer weekend if my seat is comfortable enough and there’s iced tea on hand. An avid reader? I believe I’d qualify. Well-read? I’d like to think so, Hamlet and Holmes notwithstanding.

Raymond Chandler
Raymond Chandler couldn’t give a rat’s rump whether you’ve read him.
Yet there’s still so much I haven’t read. Great swaths of books on the proverbial “to be read” or “should be read” or “shouldn’t admit I haven’t read” or even “should read again because I don’t remember anything about it” piles. So many highly regarded, even beloved, authors in the mystery/crime genre alone. Dashiell Hammett, as a kind commenter pointed out recently, is one. Raymond Chandler is another.

I figure I have time.

The way I see it, the classics aren’t going anywhere. That’s what makes them so comforting, so dependable. They’re available when you need them, when you’re ready for them, when the time is right.

They seep into your consciousness whether you’ve read them or not, so even if you’re not familiar with them in any profound sense you still know them a little bit. They’re like the friend-of-a-friend you encounter at a cocktail party full of strangers. If things go well you wind up deep in conversation wondering what took you so long to become acquainted; if not, knowing them a little better can’t hurt and it might turn out to be useful someday.

How does one designate a “classic”?

When Modern Library announced its 100 Best Novels list in 1998—more precisely the 100 “best” English language novels of the twentieth century, minus two years—I remember the uproar. Not enough women, barely any racial or cultural diversity, too much repetition…and who’s Zuleika Dobson? For me, that list was irrelevant as soon as I realized that tackling the top three would require reading two books by James Joyce. (I’d read one; you can guess which.)

The “how many have you read?” book list purporting to be from the BBC (it’s not) that’s been circulating on Facebook for the past couple of years is an amusing party trick and I’ll give the creators credit for drawing attention to some contemporary authors and books that deserve recognition. Even so, it’s hardly a list of classics.

Is it easier to compile a list of classics within a genre?

Don’t Point that Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Don’t Point that Thing at Me by Kyril Bonfiglioli: cautiously optimistic
There are a number of “100 best mystery novels” lists floating around the Interwebs, including one compiled by the Crime Writers Association in the U.K. in 1990 and one from the Mystery Writers of America in 1995. But maybe the thing to do is choose classic must-read authors, and for that I’m going with this list of “50 crime writers to read before you die” published by the Telegraph in 2008, because Kyril Bonfiglioli sounds too tempting to resist and this list of the “50 greatest crime writers” from The Times in 2010 just because.

I’ve read quite a few of these authors, but there are more I haven’t read. The question is, where to begin. Probably with Doyle, don’t you think? He’s been waiting so patiently, and the time seems just about right…

Leslie Gilbert Elman blogs intermittently at My Life in Laundry. She’s written two trivia books and has a few unpublished fiction manuscripts in the closet to keep the skeletons company.


  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    Ohhhh, if you are going to finally read a Holmes story, read A Scandal in Bohemia–it is the one story featuring Irene Adler. The only reason that matters to me is that I believe that had Holmes an actual brain in his head, he would have married the American Miss Adler. I know exactly what you mean about reading the “classics” of your genre. They just seem to be waiting around for us, and time is plentiful. Right now, an omnibus of four Philip Marlowe novels by Raymond Chandler is sitting on the end table of my living room. I keep dusting around it, and over it and under it. *sigh* If I put it back on the shelf, I am afraid I’ll never read it. If I never read it, will I die unhappy and ignorant?? Oh the problems a mystery lover must endure . . .

  2. hohmeisw

    Please read Hammet. He’s awesome. So is Chandler, but Hammet is far and away my favorite – and if you’re a fan of westerns (or samurais) start with “Red Harvest”.

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