I wrote this a few years ago at my personal blog, which I am now decommissioning. I thought I’d save this piece to share here with fellow Wodehouse lovers.
This week, I enjoyed a piece called ‘Judging a Book by Its Cover: A 6-year-old guesses what classic novels are all about. It inspired me to conduct a similar exercise of my own. I showed the covers of 7 classic novels – one from each category of ‘The Guardian’s list of 1000 novels everyone must read) – to five people, of different ages, who had not read these books. I asked them to consider what, if anything, they already knew about the book, what they thought it was about, and whether they’d like to read it. I was particularly interested to compare how their responses varied.
The subjects were:
- Amelia, a bright 6-year-old girl.
- Ian, an intelligent 28-year-old who has struggled with reading throughout his life due to a learning disability (he can read words, but loses track of meaning in complex sentences).
- Stephanie, a 37-year-old avid reader with eclectic tastes.
- Bill, a 43-year-old who likes science fiction.
- Lena, a 63-year-old who reads popular psychology and spiritual non-fiction.
Decline And Fall by Evelyn Waugh
- “a bit of an odd cover for a historical book.”
AMELIA: thought this might be a P.G. Wodehouse book because “one of them looks like Jeeves.” She thought the story might about things that fall off. “Coats might fall off people or cars might fall into water.”
IAN: thinks it might be “about somebody gaining money or gaining power and then losing it.” Asked if he would be interested to read it, he wasn’t convinced it would be worth reading.
STEPHANIE: “I don’t know what it’s about, but I loved Vile Bodies and I’d love to read this. It might be about the same kind of thing – decadent living and debauchery.”
BILL: “I’ve heard of this, it’s a history of the Roman Empire. It’s a bit of an odd cover for a historical book. I would have expected Roman Emperors or statues of things. Something a bit more Roman. Have I got the right book? It’s not the sort of thing I’d usually read.” After reading the blurb Bill said, “That sounds better – I might actually give it a read.”
LENA: “It’s probably set in the early 1900s – 1930s, perhaps a romance between people from different social stratas.” When the plot was described, Lena was surprised. “It hadn’t entered my mind that it might be a comedy. I’ve heard Evelyn Waugh is a good writer so I’d certainly give it some consideration on the basis of that – and the period in which it’s set. I quite like things of that era.”
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
- Not Anna Karenina
AMELIA: “It might be about “someone stealing and then they had to get in jail. It doesn’t sound very nice. It sounds a little bit mean.”
IAN: “I have heard of this.” Ian thought the story would be “exactly what is says: steal the bread and you get your fingers cut off; do the crime, do the time.” He wouldn’t read it, but might watch the film version, “as long as it’s not subtitled.”
STEPHANIE: “I have a copy of this. I know I should read it.” She thought it might be about “Russians suffering.” When the plot was described, Stephanie said, it was “just as I suspected – grim and depressing.”
BILL: “I’m not all that hot on Russian novels”. Bill had heard of the title and author, but wasn’t really sure – or interested – in what it was about. After reading a description of the book, he was still “not really interested.” He elaborated by saying, “I tend to think of Russian authors as being a bit too depressing.”
LENA: “It’s certainly one that I’ve heard of. I’d guess that it’s set in Russia, possibly in war-time. Perhaps it’s about a captain in the Russian army – there’s a woman involved who’s married to somebody important, but she’s attracted to this dashing young officer and they have wild fling, and get caught. He’s sent to the Russian front and ‘disposed of’.” After reading the synopsis, Lena was interested in reading further” ‘I think that sounds really interesting.”
Ulysses by James Joyce
- “…about a man who has no brain”
AMELIA: “It might be about a man and he has no brain and he does not know what any answer is to anything.” She thought “it might be a little bit funny, so I think I do want to read it.”
IAN: “Is this about that over 50’s motorcycle group? Maybe he’s a blind guy who is toffee-nosed and thinks he’s better than everyone else. ” After hearing a synopsis, Ian said, “265,000 words about one day! That sounds like my Mum. She could talk for half an hour about going to the shop.”
STEPHANIE: I’ve read a biography of James Joyce and I’ve read Portrait of the Artist. I don’t find Joyce very appealing, and a lot of the people who talk about him are really pretentious. I wouldn’t mind betting half them haven’t read it (Ulysses).” After hearing a synopsis of the book, Stephanie thought it sounded “…pretty pretentious as well.”
BILL: “It’s a bit of a classic. He named it after the Greek story by.. Homer isn’t it?” Bill doesn’t know what it’s about, but he remembers reading somewhere that it’s one of those book he ‘should’ read.” After reading the description, Bill is less keen. “I’m not really into stream-of-consciousness novels.”
LENA: “This would be a novel based loosely on the epic poem and brought into the modern era – or his era. It’s probably about a young fellow leaving the shores of his country and a fairly narrow, predictable existence – to go to war. And his whole life changes beyond what his experiences might have been if he’d never gone to war. His whole way of viewing things is challenged and he returns a very different person.” When a synopsis of the book was read to her, Lena felt she wouldn’t want to read it. “I know people think he (Joyce) is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it doesn’t interest me. If I want stream-of-consciousness, I can listen to myself.”
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
- “it’s going to be a romance”
AMELIA: “It’s about a magic fence that could open by itself and someone invisible is coming into the house, and tries to steal all the kids in the house, and the children might think it’s a ghost. There might be a big adventure.” She doesn’t want to read it “because it might be too scary, but I like to hear about big adventures.”
IAN: “Stupid title for a book unless it’s a biography.” He thought it might be a thriller or a horror. “Not my cup of tea.”
STEPHANIE: “I’ve got an old penguin paperback copy of this, and it’s always somewhere near the top of the pile so I’ll probably read it eventually. I don’t know a lot about it, apart from the fact that Alfred Hitchcock made a film of it. I’m imagining something a little bit like a Bronte novel.”
BILL: “I don’t really know anything about the book or the author. It sounds a bit like a romantic novel , or Thomas Hardy – I can’t bear Thomas Hardy! Bill was even less interested after reading the blurb.
LENA: “My mother used to read Daphne Du Maurier, but her copy of this book had a very different cover. I remember it quite vividly because it was very different from other book covers of the time – it had a picture of a very glamourous looking female on the front and it really caught my eye as a kid. I just presumed it was a romance. I guess it would be set in the 1800s. She’s either a well-to-do woman – it’s going to be a romance – who meets a guy from the wrong side of the tracks and has to leave her wealthy home behind. Or otherwise, she’s incarcerated in an insane asylum. I can’t make up my mind. Those gates seem to be symbolic of either being locked up or escaping from something.” After hearing the plot synopsis, Lena thought she probably wouldn’t read it, “but I might watch the film if it came out”.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin
- “mystery about a one-handed person who murders people”
AMELIA: “There was a mountain with snow on it and even though it was a bright day, it was dark. And there was a queen who lived in the castle and whenever she saw people go past, she got a book of spells off the shelf to see if she could stop them from getting her gold and stop the white tigers from guarding the forest of darkness. At the end, when she lost, she went ‘nooooooooo!’ It might be a little be too scary for me.”
IAN: “A murder mystery about a one-handed person who murders people with their one hand.” Ian didn’t want to read it. “I can’t really follow science fiction fantasy plots very well.”
STEPHANIE: “I’d heard of this title, but it never sounded very appealing. I really like the cover though. I have no idea what it’s about – some kind of futile struggle for meaning in the face of adversity, blah blah blah.” After hearing a synopsis of the book, she thought it was”nothing like I’d thought it was. I’d be more likely to read it, but I already have a lot of others books I want to read, so I won’t make any promises.”
BILL: “I have heard a synopsis of the plot in past. I’ve forgotten what it was about now, but I’ve always wanted to read it.” After reading a synopsis of the book, Bill said slowly “…ahh, I think I have read that – and it was really good.” Yeah, Bill. Obviously!
LENA: “I don’t get science fiction at all. I don’t know what it could be about – some kind of time travelly, futuristicy sort of thing, set in some other dimension.” After hearing a synopsis, Lena said she was interested in reading it “on two counts because I’d be interested to see how she works that. I have got a sense of her as a name that I associate with good writing, so I’d be prepared to give it a chapter or two to see if I could get into it.”
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
- “Why would you call a book Bleak House?”
AMELIA: “About a house called Bleak and a boy called Bleak, and the house could talk. And whenever the Mum called ‘Bleak!’ the boy Bleak and the House both ran to her, but she said “Bleak go away!” So she decided that she would call them ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Bleak Boy’ whenever she called out, and that solved the problem.” Amelia would read this story, “because it doesn’t sound that scary.”
IAN: “A very boring sort of house in a very boring street – the people who live there are not very nice and nobody wants to go there.” Asked if he’d read it, Ian said, “Definitely not! Why would you call a book Bleak House?”
STEPHANIE: “I am interested in Dickens, and I know he created great characters and exposed some of the terrible conditions of his time, but… I’m depressed enough already.”
BILL: “I’ve heard of this and I’ve heard of Dickens of course. Mainly ‘A Christmas Carol'”. It doesn’t look very cheery. Probably it’s like most Dickens – all about hardship and deprivation and incredibly depressing. I read to escape from depressing reality, not read something even more depressing.”
LENA: “Well if it’s Charles Dickens, it’s gotta be a social commentary sort of thing depicting the life of the times. He might have written it as one whole sentence. He wrote the longest sentence in history, I think. The child might be the central character, probably an orphan who has found himself in the poor house. Some rich benevolent fellow and his family might discover him, take pity on him and rescue him, and later he falls in love with the daughter of the benefactor and they go through all sorts of trials and tribulations. And Dickens covers a fair bit of territory in terms of covering the life and times of the poor and disadvantaged in England at the time. I’ve read quite a few Dickens and I really enjoyed him when I was young. A Tale of Two Cities was fantastic – really different from my life in the Australian bush. I understand what he was about, but I don’t know that I could be bothered any more.”
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
- “wild west high shenanigans”
AMELIA: “It’s about a man who is trying to kill someone and he has a gun with five shooting holes so the girl’s in trouble. But the girl throws the cannonball back and it hits the gun. And the man turns into a prince who says, ‘How did you know I was really a prince and got transformed?” Amelia wouldn’t really like to read it “because I don’t like fighting stories.”
IAN: “Some Spanish guy with a neat moustache hiding in the bushes? Sounds like it might be about a Mexican guy trying to sneak into America or working on a cotton or cocaine plantation in Mexico and he rises to become some head army dude like Fidel Castro. It’s probably his memoirs. Yeah! If it was a movie I might be tempted.”
STEPHANIE: “I have to confess I’ve avoided reading any Joseph Conrad because I used to go out with this guy who really loved Conrad. This guy was an awful prat, and unfortunately I’ve just associated Conrad with him and haven’t been able to touch him (Conrad). But I started reading The Secret Agent the other day and I have to say that I love his writing style. I don’t know what this one is about though. Is it the sea one?” After reading the book blurb, Stephanie wasn’t sure if she’d read it. “This doesn’t really sound like my kind of thing, but he’s such a great writer, perhaps he makes it more interesting than it sounds.”
BILL: “The name of the author rings a bell. Is he American? Nostromo is the name of the spaceship in the first Alien movie.” Looking at the cover, Bill thought it might be about “gold digging, claim jumping, wild west high shenanigans. Not really my sort of thing.” But after hearing a description, Bill thought, “it could be interesting.”
LENA: “I’ve read one of his. It’ll be in some exotic place. The book I read was something to do with the sea. He’s probably picked a country like South America or Spain, and he’s writing about this fellow Nostramo who takes a journey across the seas to South America and makes his fortunes in the gold mines. And the story will go on and on and on forever and he’ll describe eloquently and painstakingly every fly that flies past him, so it’ll be pretty hard going. It’ll be deep and meaningful, but I don’t think that I could be bothered. I might watch it as a movie and if I thought it wasn’t such a bad yarn, I might decide it was worth reading.”
Thanks again to my ‘subjects’ for their time and refreshing honesty.