Read what you like

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.)

4 Responses to Read what you like

  1. D.C. DaCosta says:

    Very amusing essay!

    What makes a book “great” is very subjective and due, in large part, to the times and conditions under which it is published. Would anything by James Joyce have been published at all, had it not been so different from anything else at that time? Would anything by Gertrude Stein have ever been published, except that she somehow bamboozled Bennett Cerf into thinking there was something there, there? The kids today read “Catcher in the Rye” and hate it; they see nothing in it relevant to themselves or anything they know in society.

    I believe that books like those were the “Fifty Shades of Gray” of their times: flashes in the pan that succeeded commercially because they contained something original and different…and not necessarily valuable or timeless.

    Yes, I, too, scoff at most of the entries on those lists. Life is too short to spend time reading junk.

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    Right on the money, D.C.; my favorite instance of this was a mom who told me in Borders a couple of years back about her local schoolboard who got into a hooraw with a bunch of concerned local parents when a teacher decided to spare her class the utter tedium of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and give them the option of Bram Stoker’s Dracula instead-the Catholic parents thought Dracula was too Satanic, (should we capitolize that? He’s supposed to be one of God’s most succesful projects) the born-again crowd thought it was too Catholic, and a small group of atheists who joined in thought it promoted a superstitious belief in God! So Dracula got booted off the reading list and Frankenstein is safely back…This was such a great story I included it in the book I’m shopping around now, and I hope the people who did this recognize themselves-by the way Rachel-you’re totally right about James Joyce, in particular-if I was an evil dictator I’d use him to torture political prisoners with………….

  3. EDWARD says:

    Thorton Wilder (whose name appears on the Nodern Library’s list of 100 best novels) once wrote a hit play, BY THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH. It opened to wide acclaim and was on the verge of winning a major award. A young Joseph Campbell, later to become famous for his work in mythology, was dragged to see the play by his friends, perhaps by the skin of his teeth. Upon seeing the play, campbell realized that the plot had been stolen from FINNEGAN’S WAKE. There were even four pages of dialogue lifted directly from FINNEGAN’S WAKE. When confronted with the accusation, Wilder smugly shrugged his shoulders and said, “Let people read Joyce’s novel and my play and let them decided for themselves.”
    Wilder knew perfectly well the typical consumer of his plays was unable to do this and felt qiute safe on his morally bankrupt perch. The unknown Cambpell published an article which was haughtily flicked aside by the famous playwright. Campbell’s publisher’s, Random House, were worried about their nascent author being sullied by a famous playwright, so they contacted a celebrity of their own: T. S. Eliot. Eliot, a longtime admirer of the recently deceased Joyce, sided with Campbell and told Random House to publish Campbell’s book. Although stealing didn’t hurt Wilder as much as the audience would have liked, the prize he was poised to receive was withdrawn. All because of a few people who had actually read FINNEGAN’S WAKE.

  4. Donn says:

    “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.”

    What a wonderful sentiment.

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