July 2011
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So you've never read The Iliad?

There are too many books in the world to waste your time on ones you don't enjoy

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.

8 comments to So you’ve never read The Iliad?

  • Lynley Oram

    Brilliant post! And you know even for hardened LotR fans – there’s a VERY good reason Tom Bombadil is NOT in the movie.

  • Rin

    Lol, thanks Lynley – maybe I’ll try again, but just skip past Tom!

  • Couldn’t agree more! I read what I enjoy, and it’s a relief to hear I’m not alone in that…but at least you’ve read Dickens, Karin, which I still have not got around to…;)

  • I’ve never read LOTR either, but I recently read The Life of Pi and definitely enjoyed that one. I think you seem to be finding a good middle line :)

  • Great post. i’ll leave that Dostoevsky on the bookshelf for a while without worrying then… phew!

  • Rin

    @Morgan Dickens is awesome! Although a friend whose opinion I very much respect has been struggling to get into A Tale of Two Cities (one of my favourite books ever) for ages and is still failing, so it’s clearly just a matter of opinion.

    @Sharon I said this to someone on Facebook yesterday but I’m going to have to suck it up and read The Life of Pi because literally everyone I’ve spoken to who has read it has loved it. That’s got to be saying something.

    @Normalityandme Glad to have given you a good excuse! Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for commenting :)

  • Marty Drury

    Even Lord of the Rings fans can’t stand that bloke and his trees. LOL.

    My book shelf is full of contrasting stuff. Classics next door to Doctor Who books, for example. I really do shudder when certain critics try to create a “list of books that are good” as if there is some great authority court of literature out there. The whole point of art is that people enjoy it. If it shocks, fine. So long as it delivers some sort of pleasure in the shocking. And it reaches out to everyone not to a select few. If the arts stick with some sort of high school clique then boy oh boy are they done for.

    I love Dickens. One of my ancestors once told Dickens to get lost which is a cool claim to fame. It can feel like one needs to take a holiday of about five years to finish the book but there’s so much richness there, even in the short stories.

    Anyone who does struggle with “getting into” the classic should check out The Classic Tales podcast. Free audio books of some of the great works of literature professionally read and recorded.

    I could sound incredibly pretentious by expanding on Derida’s ideas about a translation of a text being a different text to the original (I’d have thrown in that a text is translated when someone reads it which means each person gets and “creates” a different text which they either resonate and connect with or they don’t) indeed, I can give any critic a run for their money on theorising largely daft stuff.

    But the point of literature is that you enjoy it. That you get something from what you read and delight in it. Whether that’s Crime And Punishment or a sports annual. Hamlet or Harry Potter.

  • Rin

    Fab comment Marty, thanks, lovely to get your opinions