In one of David Lodge's comic novels about academia, a group of English literature professors play a parlour game in which they each have to name a book which they really should have read, but haven't. As Lodge recognises, academics cannot resist a bit of professional one-upmanship, and so they are all only too ready to admit to the gaps in their literary knowledge. The game culminates in one of them confessing that he has never read Hamlet and, if my memory serves me correctly, losing his job as a result.
Because I blog anonymously (Ms Heathen is not in fact my real name, nor is it to be read as a statement about my religious beliefs), I can here confess with impunity that I have never in my life read a word of Derrida. I am writing up my PhD in a department that has a formidable reputation when it comes to critical theory, and this would be considered a scandalous oversight by many of my peers. I am sure that one day I will be caught out: I will be asked a tricky question about deconstruction at a graduate seminar, and my ignorance will be exposed for all to see.
I have also never read anything by any of the great Russian novelists. It was with this in mind that last week I bought a copy of Anna Karenina (Derrida, on the other hand, I think I can manage without).
I was hooked from the moment I read the opening line:
"All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Along with Gertrude Stein's "rose is a rose is a rose is a rose", this is one of the sentences I would most like to have written. On its own, it stands as a concise yet profound statement on the intricate dynamics of our relationships with those to whom we are inextricably tied by our upbringing. As the first sentence of a novel, it introduces a theme and opens up a world for me. Already I know that, whatever unhappy family I am to encounter between the pages of this novel, it will be more interesting than any conventionally happy family.