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It is impossible - and unnecessary - to grapple with every 'must read' of the literary canon
January 31, 2009 8:40 AM   Subscribe

John Updike died, have you read his books? Who has time where there are a 1000 novels to read yet! James Delingpole argues that it is impossible - and unnecessary - to grapple with every 'must read' of the literary canon.

He says:
Partly you're excused by the issue of time. In the early 19th century, it might just have been possible for a sprightly reader with bags of leisure time to whizz through all the great novels that had ever been written. In the early 21st century, it's an impossibility. Mainly though, you're excused by the fact that there's no novelist out there so essential that an unfamiliarity with his work represents a crime against taste and good judgment. All I mean is that once you've had a reasonable grounding in sufficient "proper" literature to form your taste, you should never again read a book out of duty. Far too many of the (depressingly few) novel-readers I know do, though. They feel compelled to read the must-read new literary prizewinner; the must-read new, vibrant-insight-into-remote-foreign-culture novel. They have this idea in their heads, instilled from having to revere the classics at school, that literature is a lofty thing, that the best writing is fine writing or stuff they don't quite understand or feels slightly hard work. But if you don't read any must-read books, I promise you won't be missing anything. First, it's because must-read books .. are just never, ever, EVER as good as the critics say they are. Second it's because there is no such thing as a perfect novel.


posted by stbalbach (49 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Just buy this book.

And then not read it.
posted by mr vino at 8:47 AM on January 31, 2009


I occasionally have a minor freak out about the huge amount of content in the world that I'll never experience.

Never quite enough to make me actually do something about it though.
posted by lucidium at 8:50 AM on January 31, 2009


The tyrany of choice. Life was so much easier when your choices were The Bible and The Farmer's Almanac.

It's also impossible and unnecessary to give a shit what any critic says about anything or pay attention to the various lists these people come up with.
posted by spicynuts at 8:54 AM on January 31, 2009


With reading, as with so many things, it's quality, not quantity.
posted by hermitosis at 9:03 AM on January 31, 2009


The 1000 novels and the works of Updike intersect with:

The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike
The Rabbit Omnibus by John Updike
Couples by John Updike
posted by Artw at 9:11 AM on January 31, 2009


Fuck the novel. It's a format that encourages bloviation and fluff. You get more out of poetry (even epic poetry), plays, essays, short stories, philosophy and scripture. Give me your hard, glittering jewels, literature, and not your coal seams.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:29 AM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


If I'm reading this right, it seems as if Delingpole is suggesting to just whittle the canon back down instead of getting away with it. And I agree with spicynuts that it's impossible and unnecessary to pay attention to these lists -- unless you're looking for something new to read. I do hope that people don't seriously think that they should read/watch something just because a magazine or a website put it on a list with an obnoxious title. It seems almost condescending that Delingpole would assume people think otherwise, but maybe people do. I dunno.
posted by theefixedstars at 9:29 AM on January 31, 2009


Aw, fleetmouse. Really? Do you also hate full-length feature films?

Perhaps the novel is an acquired taste, but not even poems (perhaps not even epic poems) can explore and develop ideas and characters over time and situations like novels can. Maybe all that extraneous thought and description and action and plot is bloviation and fluff, your coal seams, but I often quite like how it all hangs together.
posted by theefixedstars at 9:33 AM on January 31, 2009


Second it's because there is no such thing as a perfect novel.

Clearly, this illiterate has never read Madame Bovary, Crime & Punishment, Lolita, Beloved, Infinite Jest, G., The Passion According to G.H., One Hundred Years of Solitude, . . .

On a less priggish note, I second Mr Vino's call to check out How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read. Despite the tongue-in-cheek title, Bayard talks about literature as a system (a la structuralism) and how knowledge of the system is more important than knowledge of any particular instance. Bayard's writing is lucid and liberating.

There are too many novels to read, but that doesn't mean there are no perfect examples of that form given a sufficiently ambiguous definition of perfect.
posted by mistersquid at 9:33 AM on January 31, 2009


there's nothing in [Ulysses] that you can't crib just as well from the brilliant essay Nabokov once wrote, summarising the plot and pointing up the clever bits.

(gets mah fuckin' pitchfork)
posted by naju at 9:39 AM on January 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


from Updike's review of Stanislaw Lem's Return From The Stars - collected in Hugging The Shore:

Hal Bregg recalls that in space flight, as one hung there "seeming motionless in relation to the stars," novels came to appear silly: "To read that some Peter nervously puffed his cigarette and was worried about whether or not Lucy would come, and that she walked in and twisted her gloves, well, first you began to laugh at this like an idiot, and then you simply saw red."
posted by Joe Beese at 9:39 AM on January 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Here, I'll let you in on a secret. Promise not to tell?

OK, here it is:
The vast majority of people, even the people in your fashionably-dressed, yupster, liberal circle of friends, have never read anything that could be considered a Great Book beyond what they were assigned in school. But they talk about it anyway. Because bullshit is easy, and no one can call you out on your shit if they're afraid of being called out themselves.

The answer is not to write lists of Must-Read Books, which end up being books you look up on Wikipedia and try to work into your conversations. The answer is to embrace your reading choices, however narrow or wide they might be, and operate under the assumption that everyone who talks about Great Books is either a liar or a pedant. In some cases, that assumption will be false--but if they're not a pedant, they'll find a way to have a good conversation with you anyway.

Aside from that, no one cares. T.S. Eliot is not sitting in heaven with a telescope and an accusing finger, watching you read John Grisham while taking a shit. The kind of learning that's valuable in American society today is more easily found in reruns of Three's Company than in Milton and Dante--and if you get too caught up in the latter, you're excluding yourself from more conversations than you're opening. The canon has no value, and that's not a bad thing.
posted by nasreddin at 9:42 AM on January 31, 2009 [7 favorites]


Aw, fleetmouse. Really? Do you also hate full-length feature films?

No. A good feature length film is as lean and muscular as a good short story.

Perhaps the novel is an acquired taste, but not even poems (perhaps not even epic poems) can explore and develop ideas and characters over time and situations like novels can. Maybe all that extraneous thought and description and action and plot is bloviation and fluff, your coal seams, but I often quite like how it all hangs together.

An acquired taste!? It's the first thing that people think of when they hear the word literature. It dominates the attention of critics and the public. It's what gets reviewed, read on the beach and recommended by Oprah (aside from self help books). And I think it discourages people from reading, and makes them read less.
posted by fleetmouse at 9:50 AM on January 31, 2009


I don't think that's the point, to read all the 'must-reads'. When you're young and if you're a reader, you just...glom onto things and they end up echoing inside your head and shaping you. Any kid with a 'plan' or a 'reading list' is desperately trying to be 45 already with gray hair and a belly.
Later, when you try to read something that is good for you? It doesn't stick. Case in point: as a young man, I read all of the John D. McDonald 'Travis Mcgee' books, all 22 of them. I've since re-read them all quite a few times. Are they pulp? Yes. Are they absurd? Yes and yes. But did they shape me? Yes. In college, I read my three favorite books ever: 'Gorky Park' by Martin Cruz Smith, 'Bright Lights, Big City' by Jay McInerney and 'Money' by Martin Amis.

(Yeah; I can see your jaw down there, on the floor. Go ahead, pick it up. I'll wait. You like what you like and I'll do the same, okay?)

These changed everything from how I spent money to how I had sex. For the record, Smith is the only one I've kept up with, the only one I wait for and buy the hardcover on the first day. Amis and McInerney...we grew apart, no hard feelings. But those books stuck in me when I was soft and malleable! They made me who I am in some limited fashion, just as much as Led Zeppelin and Springsteen and 'Wooden Ships' and Joni Mitchell's 'Miles of Aisles' and the Ramones and Elvis Costello and Tom Waits and Phranc and I'll stop there.

A few years ago, my gf and I decided to read the same book while we were apart as a way to bond. It was 'The Corrections'. We got a few chapters in. He seemed to enjoy taking a lot of space to tell a lot of back story/expos. We ended up giving our copies away. It just isn't the same.

BE THAT AS IT MAY: If you're an American guy and you haven't tried to read 'Rabbit, Run', you might want to look for it. It's not a slow read, and it is YET ANOTHER book that shaped me as a writer and man when I was a boy. Updike's turns of phrase and inventive twists of meaning allow him to do what other writers couldn't and still can't. His poetry is great, too. Plus, (and this is really, REALLY why young people should read him and the others I mentioned): in used book stores, treasured, wonderful old used book stores where I spent so many hours!, usually have copies of all of these for less than a buck. And when you're young, it's nice to get brilliance on the cheap.
posted by flowerofhighrank at 9:52 AM on January 31, 2009


Why read books when you can read Nature direct? asked Thoreau, who read lots of books.
posted by Postroad at 9:53 AM on January 31, 2009


nasreddin: "T.S. Eliot is not sitting in heaven with a telescope and an accusing finger, watching you read John Grisham while taking a shit."

The story goes that Eliot was talking a walk with Virginia and Leonard Woolf when Leonard paused to relieve himself in the bushes. When Virginia noted Eliot's discomfort, he explained, "I would never let anyone see me shave."

So: no, he's definitely not watching you on the crapper.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:54 AM on January 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


I specialize in talking about posts on Metafilter that I haven't read.

I can see Matt making big money on a series of books: "1000 Metafilter Posts You Must Read Before You Die," "1000 Metatalk Flameouts You Must Read Before You Die", "1000 Mefites You Must Meet Who Will Make You Wish You'd Died"...
posted by lukemeister at 10:01 AM on January 31, 2009


Fuck the novel. It's a format that encourages bloviation and fluff.

Fuck television too. Long form serial drama is a format that encourages blovation and fluff too, right?

Which is obviously why the sixty odd hours of The Wire sucked as badly as they did.

Oh, wait a minute...
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:25 AM on January 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


Does anybody know of a list '1000 novels you shouldn't waste your mortal hours bothering with'? That would be far more useful. At least then I could still choose freely while avoiding the deathbed regret of having read not one but two works by D H Lawrence.
posted by Sova at 10:43 AM on January 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Long form serial drama is a format that encourages blovation and fluff too, right?

Maybe. I don't know. If a television show sucks it probably sucks for different reasons than a novel does, because it's produced under entirely different circumstances.

Which is obviously why the sixty odd hours of The Wire sucked as badly as they did.

Non sequitur.
posted by fleetmouse at 11:04 AM on January 31, 2009


The Great Books debate is one I'm of two minds...um...on. Because on the one hand, I can't possibly argue that A Light in August or Moby-Dick or Blood Meridian or Winesburg, Ohio won't change you, if you're open to them, like really fundamentally change you as a human being, because they will, and they're a better use of your free time than just about anything else if you want to enrich your spirit, if you will (an important note: also, these books may bum you out).

On the other hand, I've had a copy of Suttree on my shelf for about six months, and I'm sure it's really amazing, and right now I am reading a novel about an island where giant worms attack/enslave people, turning them into sex-crazed maniacs who also are covered in tiny slug-worm-things. That book is Edward Lee's Slither (Leisure, 2006), and I can't imagine you're going to read this reply and be more interested in any of the books mentioned above. I want to tell you that this book is wildly sexist, features horrendous dialogue, takes place in a world that only vaguely resembles what you and I would consider "reality," and is so fucking entertaining* you can't believe it -- imagine a Sci-Fi Channel original movie with an X-rating and a cast made up mostly of semi-retired porn stars, and you pretty much have it. This book will not change your life. This book will not even change your day, except maybe to help it make it a little goofier and pornier and giant-killer-sex-worm-ier. But really, that's necessary, too.

(*Uh...but really, it's pretty fucking sexist, too. If you're a woman who enjoys novels about giant worms eating people and whatnot, bring your patience and willingness to laugh shit off...actually, if you're a person of either gender who enjoys novels about giant worms eating people and whatnot, you'd really better do the same. This is not a perfect writer by any stretch of the imagination...but I don't think there's any writer whose novels I'd rather be stuck at an airport with. Be to Lee's faults a little blind, and to his virtues a little kind, as the saying goes.)
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:05 AM on January 31, 2009


*shrug* I got a copy of the "1001 books you must read before you die" book, and yeah, I've been reading some of them -- but I'm also giving myself permission to stop if I don't like something. I always just saw the Canon and the Great Books lists as suggestions, more than edicts...

I'm not knocking myself out, in other words. But -- if I hadn't tried doing this, I wouldn't have found the one Kafka novel that I finally could wrap my brain around (Amerika), among many other things.

...The Princess of Cleves was boring as all hell, though, and I don't care what anyone else thinks, I stopped after three pages.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:15 AM on January 31, 2009


I can't possibly argue that A Light in August or Moby-Dick or Blood Meridian or Winesburg, Ohio won't change you, if you're open to them, like really fundamentally change you as a human being, because they will, and they're a better use of your free time than just about anything else if you want to enrich your spirit, if you will (an important note: also, these books may bum you out).

See, I just think that's the kind of empty talk people throw around when they're talking about Great Books. I've read two of the four books you listed--Light in August was pretty gripping and dramatic, but didn't really change me, and Moby-Dick was a bit of great prose interspersed with blocks of overbearing pathos and comically boring stuff about blubber extraction. I'm not denying that they might have fundamentally changed you as a person. But there's nothing about the canon that guarantees that it will change you or have any real effect on you all. I've been "changed" by some really pulpy and non-canonical books in my life, and I've got no reason to think I'm alone in that.

Just read stuff, as much or as little as you like. Sometimes you'll read something you like or feel deeply involved with--then read more of the same kind of thing. Sometimes you'll read something you don't care about--then don't read that. Great Books lists are a distraction.

(And before you haul out the True Scotsman of "if you didn't like Moby-Dick, you weren't REALLY open to it!!", that kind of argument just proves my point. I gave it my best shot, honest. If your best shot gave you more rewarding results than mine did, then, you know, we're different people. We're influenced by different things.)
posted by nasreddin at 11:28 AM on January 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Fuck the novel. It's a format that encourages bloviation and fluff.

This is a legitimate point, but I can say that reading a novel is like a virtual experience, it can totally transport you and you become enveloped in its narrative, structure, rules, whatever. It also stays with you a lot longer. So even though I really liked Mulholland Drive, or Syriana, I think about The Wind Up Bird Chronicle much more often. This isn't to compare specific works against the other, but just to show there is (for me) a depth in a novel you enjoy that is greater than even a wonderful film. In fact I can think back and immerse myself in previous books almost anytime, which is not the same for a film, in which you are sort of confined to the mechanism by which you view it, like a television or iPhone.

Succinctly, it's easier to internalize a book than a film but it takes a lot more work. One tip is reading in the bath or at a coffeeshop makes it harder to doze off.

Lastly, I haven't read a lot of pre-20th century stuff since high school but goddamn I love Shakespeare. I could read him every day.
posted by plexi at 11:35 AM on January 31, 2009


If your best shot gave you more rewarding results than mine did, then, you know, we're different people. We're influenced by different things.

Yeah, and that's cool; and I tend to read more pulp than not myself. I'm saying that, for me, there's generally more to get out of something like Melville than there is, say, a volume of Tales from the Crypt reprints, and I say that while quickly following it up with the bold proclamation that nobody loves EC Comics more than me. (And that there's often quite a bit to get out of pulp stories, too.) But on the other hand, Great Books Space is not a place I can hang out in all the time. It's not even a place I can hang out in most of the time. And if it were a place I felt like I had to hang out in all the time, like how you have to eat your vegetables or see your dentist or get your prostate checked, I don't think I'd be real psyched about it, personally.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 11:37 AM on January 31, 2009


Second it's because there is no such thing as a perfect novel.

Clearly, this illiterate has never read . . . Infinite Jest . . .


Infinite Jest is my default answer to the question What is your favourite novel? It changed the way I thought about writing, art and life in any number of ways. I will reread it every decade or so until I'm dead in the ground, just to see what else it has still to teach me.

That said, it is not perfect. And describing it as such leads to this sort of stuffy reverence around great books that makes them seem like chores and not delights, and makes some readers feel like there's something they're missing if they pick up say The Sound & The Fury (to cite a personal example) and don't get much out of it. This is precisely the pompous canonical attitude the Delingpole is arguing against, and I couldn't agree more.

Most liberating thing I ever did as a reader - ridiculously recently - was develop a much quicker toss-it-aside reflex as soon as any given book became too much of a chore. I may get back to that discard pile, but there's not enough time to read near as much as I'd like, and I won't suffer another mirthless slog out of anyone else's sense of universal obligation ever again.
posted by gompa at 11:51 AM on January 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


David Denby has read the Great Books. And consider what an insufferable prat he is.
posted by Joe Beese at 12:08 PM on January 31, 2009


Okay, he's convinced me. From now on, the hell with the canon--I read only what I want to read. Now, hmm, let's see, what should I read next? Maybe I'll ask some people for recommendations. Wow, there's a whole lot of people recommending things! Hey, maybe someone should make a list of the most recommended books or something, that would be a lot easier.

In all seriousness, though, I don't think his target audience actually exists. He seems to think there are people out there diligently wading through canonical books that they hate, just because stuffy old English professors told them to. Does anyone really do that? Dan Brown, etc. certainly seem to sell a lot more books than all those dead white guys. And even in school, when they assigned us canonical books, the kids who weren't interested just plain didn't read them. (We certainly didn't need this guy to tell us it was okay!)

I'm sure there are some people who diligently wade through the latest bestsellers that all their friends are reading, but I'll bet most of those people are also concerned with being able to discuss things with their friends. Literary enlightenment isn't the only good reason to read; there's something to be said for keeping in touch with the latest culture.
posted by equalpants at 12:15 PM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Any list of good or great books, let alone a canon, suffers from the illusion it is possible to objectivy literature. Whereas the great thing about reading is, as I see it, that any books opens up an intimate conservation with an author and me. I am not as crucial for the book as its maker may be, but I will shape it as well, while reading. Any other reader will shape it differently, according to his or her needs; or previous experiences.

That's why I could give you, if I happen to know you a bit, and got what you've read to this day, a list of hundred books to read. meanwhile acknowledging it is impossible to draw up a such a generic list for everyone reading metafilter.

Every attempt to do so, I regard as silly and pretentious. As occupational therapy for the list makers. As a far too easy way to steal attention.
posted by ijsbrand at 12:26 PM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yes, ijsbrand nailed it.

Every attempt to do so, I regard as silly and pretentious.


But when it's used to justify reactionary cultural politics, then it's odious and harmful as well.
posted by nasreddin at 12:30 PM on January 31, 2009


I've noticed that the pompous Great Book attitude applies equally to other arts as well. In classical music, for instance, the "great" composers are elevated to an almost unreachable height, and anyone who doesn't find their music profound is obviously an idiot with no taste.

I absolutely hated classical music until a great professor showed me that these composers were human too, and I suspect that my University's music department is lacking in composers for precisely this reason. (After all, how can you compete with "Genius"?)
posted by archagon at 12:34 PM on January 31, 2009


John Updike? The Slaughterhouse 5 guy? Who wrote that book about slaughterhouses and got all sorts of reforms passed in the meat industry?
posted by Eideteker at 12:36 PM on January 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


I didn't even know people made such lists until I'd read hundreds, if not thousands, of books. By then I knew what I liked and didn't need anyone else to tell me what to read. It was bad enough that prior to the age of 16, the library told me what I *couldn't* read (e.g. nothing in the 'adult' section), so I felt constrained for years as it was.

I used to use the NY Times bestseller list as a guide to what I might like. But then the Scientologists took it over in the 80s, fluffing Hubbard's crappy ginormous science fiction opera novels to #1 consistently. I read a couple of those and realized that there's no way that *those* books were selling *that* many copies without someone cheating. Now, I just go with my gut, and that serves me better than anyone's list anywhere.
posted by jamstigator at 12:42 PM on January 31, 2009


Who wrote that book about slaughterhouses and got all sorts of reforms passed in the meat industry?

Upton Sinclair, THE JUNGLE.
posted by Justinian at 12:46 PM on January 31, 2009


Fuck the novel. It's a format that encourages bloviation and fluff.

I actually kind of agree with this. The novel does encourage a lot of padding. But it also allows a much deeper exploration of whatever the author is interested in than a short story or poem. Short stories and novels have different strengths but writing off the novel because you prefer what short stories are good at is like me slagging off Peyton Manning because he can't hit a fastball. It completely misses the point.

And I prefer the novella to the short story anyway, as all right-thinking literate readers do.
posted by Justinian at 12:53 PM on January 31, 2009


there is no such thing as a perfect novel.

Witch of Blackbird Pond. Talk about your hard glittering jewels.
posted by lampoil at 12:55 PM on January 31, 2009


I wrote a blog post about what I've read Guardian's list. I don't think that all of those books were necessarily worth reading. To each his own.

I agree that "The Canon" and "The Great Books" are really overhyped. Just read what you like. Life's way too short and there are way too many books to read anything that you find to be crap. I read tons of stuff that the NYT would wipe its butt with, and I don't care. I hated The Catcher in the Rye, which is like, a mortal sin in some circles. So sue me.

I may not know literature, but I know what I like.

A bit of a tangent: Why is it that it takes a writer dying for me to realize "OH YEAH! That guy! I should read him." I got some Updike out of the library this week. Also, after Vonnegut and DFW died, I finally got around to reading (and loving) their stuff. Please, no more writers die, my "to-read" list is way long enough.

(I'm also thankful that my favorite author is ALREADY dead, so I don't have to suffer that loss.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 1:02 PM on January 31, 2009


Updike - great critic and essayist - as a novelist - way too stuffy and worshipful of bourgeois upper middle class, Northeast America. "Rabbit"s bored me. Also a homophobe. not cool.
posted by hooptycritter at 1:14 PM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Authors don't write "great books". They become that way over time, it usually takes at least a century or more before they emerge for sure. Usually by consensus, sometimes obviously so, other times with debate. One thing for sure though, 99% of the books are forgotten and no longer read. I personally enjoy connecting with the future - knowing the books I read today will continue to be read in 100 years time. It's a conversation with the past, present and future. Only the good books do this, most books are period pieces, zeitgeist ephemeral. That's not to say period pieces are not good and enjoyable. Not many books from 3000 years ago are still read (a few) so the same argument can be said about anything given enough time. But some have more staying power than others. What's the reason?
posted by stbalbach at 1:57 PM on January 31, 2009


Witch of Blackbird Pond.

Ooh, that looks good. Another nice piece of kid lit is Abel's Island, much different in tone (from what I gather of the WOBP summary) and for younger readers I expect.
posted by fleetmouse at 2:16 PM on January 31, 2009


I read all sorts of dross, with a bunch of non-fiction mixed in, but I do read "classics" regularly as well. I didn't study English at Uni, so I've only had a dozen or so pushed on me at school.
Last year, favourites were Steinbeck, especially East of Eden and Cannery Row, and Capricornia by Xavier Herbert. This year, I will get further into Proust. I like it, but find it hard going unless I am in the right mood.
If it wasn't for the literary canon I wouldn't have exposure to non-modern authors, and I would probably lay down Remembrance of Things Past after a dozen pages, were it not that it is so widely acclaimed.
So, I think that an ambitious literary canon is an unalloyed good thing, but if it makes you feel inadequate you need to grow up, or do something about it.
posted by bystander at 3:06 PM on January 31, 2009


"Upton Sinclair, THE JUNGLE."

Ah, forgive me. I fudged Ups.
posted by Eideteker at 3:52 PM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can't manage to get through Gravity's Rainbow. There are brilliant bits. Should I take another run at it?
posted by fleetmouse at 4:30 PM on January 31, 2009


"Aside from that, no one cares. T.S. Eliot is not sitting in heaven with a telescope and an accusing finger, watching you read John Grisham while taking a shit."

Thank God for that. I can finally relax.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:56 PM on January 31, 2009


I find it ironic as hell that the book that I chucked at the wall after a few pages was:
How to Talk about Books You Haven't Read.

Yup, three footnotes was all it took. Talk about boring: that book was so snoozeworthy I couldn't read it on my lunchbreak because I'd fall asleep.

I also found pretty much every book I ever read in high school to be a complete waste of time, though I'm sure they shaped me in some way I'm not aware of. Exceptions: Cyrano de Bergerac and Beowulf.

As a result of the high school experience being force-fed classics (and a childhood where I was coerced into reading all of the Newbery winners), I resisted classics for a long time.

I still do, for the most part, but now I'll pick a slim one (Doestoevsky's Notes from Underground was skinny but hard going) and read it on my lunchbreak so as to be socially acceptable.

On my own time, I prefer really, really bad genre fiction. You'd think that fellow librarians would understand that people read what they want to read, but no. Every time I check certain books out, I get a raised eyebrow.

You don't cast aspersions on my crappy romance and SF books, I won't cast aspersions on your deathly dull and stultifying classics.
posted by librarylis at 6:00 PM on January 31, 2009


"BE THAT AS IT MAY: If you're an American guy and you haven't tried to read 'Rabbit, Run', you might want to look for it. It's not a slow read, and it is YET ANOTHER book that shaped me as a writer and man when I was a boy."

This is what I don't understand about Updike, or maybe it's that I don't understand how anyone could get into him as a child. His themes are not terribly accessible to the young reader. I tried reading Rabbit, Run in high school. God, it was tedious, stodgy and so bourgeois to me at the time, touching on all the things which seemed to encompass the most dreary sort of middle-class existence - treading water and not really enjoying it. But I can see in his writing now some incredible talent, and I think I'm old enough to appreciate his approach now, plus life is not as simple as it seemed back then. So, I'll have to give him another shot, but I can't fathom how anyone could enjoy him in childhood.
posted by krinklyfig at 6:07 PM on January 31, 2009


And I prefer the novella to the short story anyway, as all right-thinking literate readers do.

I think that a lot of what we consume as "novels" these days are actually novellas, and I tend to agree that it is the height of literary perfection, such as it is. I can get through a novella in an evening, perhaps a long one, and its length allows for a reasonable exploration but still constrains the author enough to prevent padding.

Give me a collection of three or four novellas any day over a single novel by the same author.
posted by maxwelton at 6:48 PM on January 31, 2009


I can get through a novella in an evening, perhaps a long one, and its length allows for a reasonable exploration but still constrains the author enough to prevent padding.

You've identified exactly what makes the novella such an interesting form. When done right, I think a novella can be more powerful than either a short story or novel at their best.

I'm not sure why you think a lot of what we think of as novels are actually novellas, though. Most of what I read is in the 300 page range. I realize the word count could vary quite a bit depending on font size and such but that's still about three times novella length even at the extreme.
posted by Justinian at 7:04 PM on January 31, 2009


It is both possible and necessary to read as many of the great books as you can. That said, if you're at a point in your life when you approach a given book and it strikes you as dull or unrewarding, put it down and try another one. There is no reason to read books that you don't enjoy.

So I guess I'm pretty much agreeing with James Delingpole, even though I've read much of Updike's work, myself. On the other hand, you know, I can't stand Jane Austen or Flaubert or a large handful of other 'great' authors, and so I passed over them without regret. I may return to them some day to see if I feel the same.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 11:20 PM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


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