I had to laugh yesterday. I followed a link on Twitter and came across this list of writerly insults. Then later, a search for the BBC’s Big Read list of the nation’s 100 favourite books led me to this list in The Times of books not to read before you die.
In each case, writers and titles which for the most part are venerated by the literary scene were completely torn to shreds.
War and Peace, for example, was dismissed by The Times writer simply as “Way, way too long”, while Pride & Prejudice was held to be “Mills and Boon from the olden days, and really boring Mills and Boon at that”.
According to the list of insults, Joseph Conrad supposedly described DH Lawrence’s work as “filth”, while Vladimir Nabokov in turn is reported to have said that he “cannot abide Conrad’s souvenir shop style and bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés.”
Usually, I feel guilty because I haven’t read a lot of the books that everyone is “supposed” to have read. Midnight’s Children. The Life of Pi. The Lord of the Rings (I did try with this, honestly I did, but I simply couldn’t get past Tom Bombadil and his bloody trees).
So you’d think that vitriolic outpourings like these would make me happy, that they would give me a sense of smug satisfaction and justification in not reading things just because everyone says they’re good.
But they didn’t. As I said, they simply made me laugh. The critics just sounded so terribly pretentious in their dismissal of the supposed classics – as pretentious as those who believe you’re no one unless you’ve read Virginia Woolf’s entire back catalogue.
The whole thing has confirmed what I guess I knew all along, which is that it really doesn’t matter what you read, so long as you get something out of it for yourself, be that entertainment, information or a challenge to your perception of the world.
There is no one book that has universal approval. Sure, take recommendations. Personally I’m compiling a reading list at the moment by asking everyone whose opinion I respect to tell me which one book they’d recommend above all others.
But I’m also reading a Famous Five mystery for the pure nostalgia value, a non-fiction book on why Nancy Drew is so awesome, and I’ll be starting Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go in a bit, for no other reason than a friend picked it as the first title for a reading group we’re tentatively forming.
So that’s why I laughed – because I realised how silly it all is. Don’t be fooled by the literary snobs who say you need to have read all the “greats” or the literary anarchists who won’t deign to look at anything but obscure titles no one has ever heard of.
Reading is, first and foremost, great fun. Everything is else is just academic.