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Humiliation

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In David Lodge’s hilarious novel Changing Places, he introduces the reader to a game called “Humiliation.”

It’s a simple but diabolical game. A bunch of literature professors get together and admit, in turns, to having never read some indisputable classic of literature. Somehow, through their undergraduate and graduate years, they just never got around to certain books.

Obviously, this is the sort of game best played after many cocktails.

The player who hasn’t read more classics than his or her colleagues is the winner — in other words, the least well-read literature professor takes the prize, so the game manages to pit people’s egos and careerism against their natural competitiveness. You want to win the game, but you don’t want to look stupid in front of your colleagues, and threading that needle is what makes the game so brilliantly evil.

So, a confession: I have not read The Count of Monte Cristo. I’m not sure how I managed it, but somehow, I slipped through high school and college without ever picking it up, which is too bad because I was younger then, and stronger, and picking up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo takes a certain amount of upper body strength.

I am, though, reading it now. Each summer, I pick a few books I’ve always wanted to read — nothing so canonical that I would instantly win a game of “Humiliation,” but nothing so obscure that I wouldn’t take second or third place.

It’s a fat brick of a book, which makes sense because the author of The Count of Monte Cristo was being paid by the word. More words, more francs.

I’m familiar with the business model. All writers are.

The story moves fast, though. In the first 60 pages or so, the hero returns from a sea voyage, marries his sweetheart, falls victim to a villainous plot, is tried and convicted by a corrupt local official, and is on his way to a prison fortress.

In other words, back when Alexandre Dumas, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo, was turning out the chapters, he knew stuff had to happen on every page. He knew that the story had to keep clipping along. He may not have known where exactly it was all going to go, but as long as he kept it lively and active and filled with villainy and love and betrayal and sword fights, he’d keep his audience and buy enough time to sort out the story.

Story continues

Which would be a useful lesson, I think, for a lot of television writers and producers these days, with their season-long arcs and slow-moving episodes.

The problem seemed to start a few years ago when I noticed people’s recommendations to watch a new show. “It’s great,” they’d say. “But the first two or three episodes are slow,” they’d add. “But stick with it, because it really picks up in the fifth episode.”

Well, OK, but that’s four or five hours, and in that time, Alexandre Dumas has his hero living in a dirt hole, planning his escape, hearing about a buried treasure, and hellbent on revenge. That’s where I am now, and there’s still about 6 pounds of book left.

I’ve even had people say, “The first two seasons are bad, but you need to watch them to know what’s going on, so just watch them, and then the third season gets good.”

Give up 10 hours of my dwindling moments on Earth to a television show that doesn’t treat my time with respect and urgency?

I’d rather commit to 1,200 pages of adventure, knowing that something cool is going to happen roughly every five pages. Readers like me will pick up a cinder block of a novel only if we’re sure it’s not a total snooze fest.

Unlike, say, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, which weighs in at almost 1 million words, more than twice as long as The Count of Monte Cristo. I tried reading that for a college English literature class and gave up. I preferred to bluff my way through the class rather than slog through a book with the formal title Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady: Comprehending the Most Important Concerns of Private Life. And Particularly Shewing, the Distresses That May Attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, In Relation to Marriage.

Recently, Clarissa was ranked the fourth-best novel written in English, but I suspect that after a few drinks and a game of “Humiliation,” whoever compiled that list will admit to having never read it.

Rob Long is a television writer and producer and the co-founder of Ricochet.com.

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Tags: Life, humor, Books, TV

Original Author: Rob Long

Original Location: Humiliation

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