One thing I’m almost embarrassed to admit is that it’s only in the past five years or so that I’ve managed to finally reach the realization that reading isn’t a contest. Not that I ever actively pursued a book or number of books with the conscious thought towards winning or understanding or reading more than anyone else, but I also won’t deny the certain pleasure I used to get when I’d already read a book we were reading in school or when people were impressed with either the books I chose to read or how quickly I read them.
I have a list somewhere I made in a notebook a few years ago while sitting in Borders (R.I.P.) going through the entirety of one of those 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die compendiums, making note of every single one that I had read—occasionally scoffing at some of the books that were included, whether or not I had read them. I don’t remember how many books I ended up having on that list, but it was definitely less than 100. Obviously I declared the list unrepresentative and inaccurate.
Similar lists like the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels and the sort still present themselves as obstacles to me to this day. While I no longer care that much about whether or not I’ve read the Top 10 Most Difficult Books, I still find all of these lists incredibly fascinating. Of course, as it’s literature, it can only be subjective. Yes, there are the “great books” that everyone is meant to have some understanding of, and there are those that are widely regarded as the epitomes of modern literature, but there’s always going to be someone to disagree.
What are the criteria for these lists? What makes a book great? What makes a books difficult? There’s really no answer to those questions that are universal, and the lists themselves are there only so people like me can get some kind of perverse pride out of having read some of them. But it really doesn’t matter, does it? As long as you read what you like, what you like is good. The only opinion that matters is your own, and simply because you haven’t read Finnegan’s Wake,* known throughout the land as virtually impossible to get through, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the books you do choose to read.
We’re not in school anymore, though, and you don’t have to read anything if you don’t want to! So while it’s incredibly entertaining to tick off a list or check them out for inspiration (I’m of the belief that lists in any shape or form are just fun), they don’t have to be the be all end all. If the books you like to read aren’t revered by a great intellectual community, or you just don’t get what the big deal is with Catcher in the Rye or Pride and Prejudice, then you shouldn’t feel any pressure to try and slog through them.
Reading, at its core, is about exploring your own interests, losing yourself in the words, the story and the characters. It’s not about peeking over your book to see who can see what important work you’ve chosen or comparing yourself with others.
*(Which, I will say, is the only book I have ever actually thrown across a room, and yes, I did try and read it when I as sixteen because we were going to be reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man the next year in school and yes, I thought it would be better if I had read something else of Joyce’s beforehand and yes, I remember flushing with pride when my English teacher was impressed that I had tried to read it at all, and no, I did not make it past page 20.)