Day 17: The Grandison Test

Here’s a question, dear readers. Say you’re peer-reviewing an article for a journal. Do you think you could easily distinguish, from reading the submitted article, whether the author had read the novel being discussed (let’s say, to choose a completely random example, Samuel Richardson’s novel, Sir Charles Grandison) in the conventional old-fashioned way (i.e. starting at starting at the beginning and reading continuously, page by page, until the end)? Here, you have to suppose that the hypothetical essay does not concern, say, a topic like word-frequency. No, it’s an essay about, I don’t know, the role of repartee in the novel. Would you be able to discern, merely from reading the essay, if the author had not in fact read Sir Charles Grandison in the described manner but had instead performed a series of searches on an electronic version of the text?

Think of it as a kind of literary-critical version of the Turing test. We’ll call it the Grandison test. If you can produce an argument about a book that is compelling and coherent enough that a peer-reviewer can’t tell that you haven’t read the book in the conventional manner, have you in effect read the book?

Several years ago, the duck-rabbit had the opportunity to pose this question to a noted authority on electronic literature. Her answer, as I recall, was, “the last point’s irrelevant because you would totally be able to tell.”

Now, maybe she was calling my bluff; maybe she would have given that answer no matter what she really thought because she thinks it’s a good thing for people to continue to read books in the old-fashioned way, and if people believe they’ll get caught out if they don’t, then they’ll keep on reading in this way.[1]

I found this answer deeply disappointing. Although I framed this question as a philosophical one, it was really one I was asking with an extremely pragmatic motive: would my future peers be able to tell which books I had read and which books I had, uh, not-read?

Because here’s the thing. I have actually read Sir Charles Grandison in the old-fashioned way. And I can’t get those hours back. And there are a lot of other books, important books, like, seriously important books, that I should have read, but which I haven’t read, and I don’t have the hours, or, to be honest, the willpower and self-discipline, to read them now.

Now if I had in fact published an essay in a peer-reviewed journal about a book that I hadn’t actually read, I could have triumphantly proven my esteemed new-media colleague wrong. Yet this would have involved exposing myself, in the manner of the parlor game “Humiliation” that fictional literary scholar Philip Swallow describes in David Lodge’s Changing Places.[2] More to the point, as it happens, I actually have read all the books I’ve written about. I’m not boasting here. You’ll notice, if you check me out on the MLA Bibliography, that the articles I have published are all on extremely short works. That’s actually no mean feat when you specialize in the eighteenth-century novel.

We’ve had the long eighteenth century, the deep eighteenth century, and now, oh yes, the short eighteenth century. But mine is really the lazy eighteenth century. In fact, I quite fancy the idea of teaching a course called “The Lazy Eighteenth Century.” We’d read The Idler, half-arsedly, while enjoying a tipple that I invented myself and that I call Boswell’s Revenge. It consists of Hendrick’s gin muddled with cucumber. There might have been something else in it too; I can’t remember.[3] I imagine that Boswell would have made it for Johnson in reference to the latter’s infamous recipe for cucumber salad (“a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.”)

You should try it this weekend. It’s better than Sir Charles Grandison. And nobody will be able to tell by drinking it whether or not you’ve actually read Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides


[1] It is in fact her view (and, yes, I agree with her, of course) that it’s a good thing for people to learn to read with “deep attention” as well as “hyper attention,” and to recognize the differences between the two. See N. Katherine Hayles, “Hyper and Deep Attention: The Generational Divide in Cognitive Modes.” Profession 2007, pp. 187-199 (13).

[2] Here’s how Désirée Zapp describes it to her husband Morris in Changing Places: “The essence of the matter is that each person names a book which he hasn’t read but assumes the others have read, and scores a point for every person who has read it. Get it?”

[3] Let’s call this the Cocktail Invention Paradox. If the cocktail you invent is good enough, you may imbibe so much of it that you find yourself quite unable to recall how to reproduce it.


8 thoughts on “Day 17: The Grandison Test

  1. Paul Alkon says:


    Of course anybody commenting on a book should read all of it (beginning to end, in that order). If they haven’t It might be possible to get away with this sleazy trick, though I hope it would be detected or (for 18th c books anyhow) Divine Providence would send a bolt of lightening to dispose of the evil trickster. The Grandison Test is certainly right up there with the Turing Test, and deserves more general discussion. But I want now only to focus on GRANDISON, and tell how for it, at least, Divine Providence occasionally provides THE GRANDISON SOLUTION.
    Many years ago I taught an 18th c fiction seminar in which among other books we read ALL of CLARISSA in the Penguin complete edition. One of the students was a bright, charming, delightful woman who did ALL the reading and discussed it intelligently. I’ll call her Ms Wonderful. A year or so after the seminar she was involved with a discussion group led by a colleague. GRANDISON was included in their admirable syllabus. ALL of GRANDISON. Its text is scarce. I had at home an 18th c edition of GRANDISON, complete, in many attractive, leather bound small 12 mo. volumes. For years I had been about to read it any day now. But there are so many other books printed since Gutenberg. Shorter books. Ms Wonderful asked if she could borrow my set of GRANDISON, just for the duration of the study group. Of course (even though it left a HUGE temporary vacancy on my living room shelves (where my most impressive books are ostentatiously put). Months went by. The discussion group concluded. I had occasional pleasant talks with Ms Wonderful about her other studies, her marriage, her new baby, her plans. I retired. She left USC. And (relax: we’re almost at the Happy Ending of this tale) she never returned the set of GRANDISON. Eight years have gone by since retirement, at first always with the horrible worry that one morning I would find bundled on my doorstep (like baby Jones) all the GRANDISON volumes, returned by post. But it never happened. I’ve now concluded (I hope not prematurely) that DIVINE PROVIDENCE has granted me (despite my many faults and sins) THE GRANDISON SOLUTION. May you all be so lucky (and my deepest sympathy to poor brave Rabbit/Duck, for whom it is too late).
    From Paul K Anonymous .

  2. Dear Paul,

    I am quite certain that my three volumes of Sir Charles Grandison are at present gathering dust and taking up valuable space on my office bookshelf. So, should you find yourself, one night, about to step into bed, and suddenly spy a little (well, actually, a somewhat hefty) bundle wrapt up in some coarse linen nestling between your sheets …. well, you’ll know who to thank, or blame, rather. No, not DIVINE PROVIDENCE. And not me either; I’ll swear on Sophia’s muff till I’m blue in the face that the devil made me do it, honest, guvnor.

  3. profserna says:

    I know not of Grandison and have only a passing acquaintance with Clarissa, but I will confess that the only books I can read from cover to cover in the proper order are novels (not necessarily 18th century novels). Books related to me own field of study are picked at or strategically skimmed. Someone will catch me at it sometime soon. I’m sure of it.

  4. Jayne says:

    The D-R has hit a very large nail very squarely on the head. As usual, Richardson’s the best hammer for doing it. The Grandison Test could be refined with a version of those identity-verification questions websites use for security purposes. One of these might involve Charlotte’s use of the term marmoset. I cite this because it’s one of the few things I remember from having indeed read the damn thing cover to cover–I remember that Charlotte called her baby her little marmoset. That was the big takeaway. So can I cast the first stone when it comes to criticism as Word Search puzzle? Or even when it comes to pretending one did otherwise? Yet I do want to hurl away.

    Back in the day–which would be the late 80s, before hyper-reading befell us–some friends and I liked to speak of Barnaby Rudging. It was the one Dickens novel nobody had read, so the Barnaby Rudger could fake this achievement with little fear of detection. More broadly Barnaby Rudging was simply pretending to have read something one had not–posturing. Now it’s interesting that there is still a lot of credentialling that comes of having had some kind of relationship with a book, but it’s not entirely clear what credit one is earning–not, presumably, that of having mastered the loneliness of the long-distance reader…

    D-R, do stay in the fray.

  5. Dear Jayne,
    It is an extraordinary coincidence and utterly hilarious that you should mention that Charlotte calls her baby her little marmoset (and also curiously apropos of my reverential reference above to Sophia’s muff). Why is it extraordinary? Because Charlotte’s use of the term marmoset is not one that I remember from reading the novel, but is one I recently discovered after performing the Google search “marmoset ‘Samuel Richardson.’” Why, you might ask, if I did not recall any such reference in the novel, would I have been so moved to conduct such a search? I’m honestly not sure that this is the forum to explain in detail except to say that I had become curious about the history of the use of “marmoset” as a slang term and that I entirely and completely blame Caitlin Moran for the fact that I fell into this particular duck-rabbit hole.* I can also say that while I uncovered no evidence whatsoever that marmoset was ever used as a slang term for this particular part of the anatomy before Ms. Moran’s inspired usage, the very idea that it might have been opened up countless hitherto unappreciated moments of hilarity in Grandison. To wit, Charlotte’s declaration that “my marmoset is so voracious, that I have been forced to take two days for what once I could have performed in little more than two hours.”

    Those of you have a copy of Grandison, whether paper or electronic, to hand, I encourage to submit your own gems that shine all the more brightly in the light of Ms. Moran’s coinage.

    * See How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran: “in recent years I have become more and more didactic about pubic hair-to the point where I now believe that there are only four things a grown, modern woman should have: a pair of yellow shoes (they unexpectedly go with everything), a friend who will come and post bail at 4 a.m., a fail-safe pie recipe, and a proper muff. A big hairy minge. A lovely furry moof that looks-when she sits, naked-as if she has a marmoset sitting in her lap. A tame marmoset, that she can send off to pickpocket things, should she so need it-like that trained monkey in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’.”

  6. Esteemed Prof. Kassel,

    All I can say is that you had me fooled, m’lady. Well played, madam, well played. Also, never fear, your secret is safe. A duck-rabbit never tells. I most respectfully doff my cap to you.

    I am, m’lady,

    Your most humble admirer,


  7. Upon further reflection, Prof. Kassel, and having brushed up on my Latin, I feel compelled to defend my honor. Yes, my vita may be short and my ars may be long, but, trust me, I am working on the first issue and as for the second, for God’s sake m’lady, have mercy; an English duck-rabbit simply cannot be held responsible for its natural pear-shape. We’re just drawn that way.

    Somewhat peevishly, but with all due respect &c.


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