Do I Read Enough Great Books?

One of the highlights of last year was getting to meet Tom (aka Amateur Reader) of the titanic lit blog Wuthering Expectations in person. He and his wife, a great reader in her own right, actually came through Little Rock (no one does that), and we had them over for brunch. Tom is as funny in real life as he is in writing. He will also drink wine at lunchtime, which is a valuable quality in a person.


Candida Höfer, Trinity College Library, Dublin

I mention all this because Tom recently wrote about end of year lists and the kinds of reading that many bloggers do. What does it mean, he wondered, to speak of “the best book he read all year” when he reads mostly classics? What’s going to be better than the Iliad? (To which I would say the Odyssey, but that’s not the point.) Although I’m sure it’s the last thing he intended, Tom’s post sent me into something of a tailspin. I keep thinking about it, worrying over it. It’s brought out some longstanding readerly insecurities. Am I reading what I should be reading? What the hell does “should” mean there anyway? Well, am I reading enough important books? Meaning? Books that are worth my time? I’ve no interest here in making an argument for “the canon”: as one of my mentors, Molly Hite, used to say, canons are inescapable, but we shouldn’t be rigid about them, after all they’re going to change. Canons, not the canon. In a comment (it might actually be on another of Tom’s posts, I’m having trouble finding it at the moment) Stephen Dodson, of another titanic blog, Languagehat, used the term “memorable books,” which I seized on gratefully in my deliberations, as it shifts the terms away from value. [Note: Tom tells me the term comes from Necromancy Jeanne, who expanded it into a little essay. My apologies!]

Which is to say, my title is falsely provocative/click-bait-y, sorry. It should be, Do I Read Enough Memorable Books? Over the course of my reading life I’ve read plenty of memorable books. It’s also true that most books are not that awesome, just like anything else: you have to read plenty of mediocre stuff to find something memorable. And I also pride myself (and the fact that I feel this way implies part of me must feel there’s something wrongheaded, even disreputable, about that response) on reading a reasonably wide variety of books: different genres, different writers, different concerns, though it’s true I mostly read books from about 1890 to the present, and mostly prose fiction, and mostly ones from/about European/Jewish writers and topics.

But I worry that a diet of crime fiction and novels plucked from the new arrivals shelf of the library (combined these sorts of books make up a fair chunk of my annual reading) is neither the most satisfying nor the most meaningful use of my finite reading time. (“Meaningful” here meaning, likely to generate memorable reading experiences.) I’m curious about a lot of things, and I’m interested in what’s going on in kids’ books and science fiction and biographies and essays and comics, although in the end I only dabble in those areas. Sometimes my reading from these genres does generate memorable experiences. But for me it is most often the case that difficult books are more likely to do so: difficult not as in esoteric or experimental, necessarily, but as in syntactically and linguistically and formally challenging.

I teach reading and writing for a living, and at the end of the day, when I’ve finished that work (inasmuch as it ever ends) I’m often tired. Many of the books I suspect might be memorable (and here I know I’m shading into a more conventional use of “literary classics”: maybe this whole post is just a convoluted way of writing about old-fashioned “great books”) are hard to read. Or hard-ish anyway. They demand more attention than the shiny new book from the library, attention I don’t always have in the half hour before sleep.

A big part of me thinks that people should read whatever they feel like reading. The point of reading is to read, and all kinds of books can be enjoyable and, yes, memorable. I’m quite skilled at finding so many ways to torture myself, why do I need to bring that same fault-finding to reading, which is supposedly the thing I love to do more than anything? Part of me thinks this whole post is wrong-headed and foolish. But part of me doesn’t. Why is there part of me that can’t help but think I’m doing this reading thing as well as I might?

Do any of you ever feel this way?

29 thoughts on “Do I Read Enough Great Books?

  1. Yes, I do! I recently passed the 9th anniversary of my blog, and seem to be experiencing some kind of mid blog crisis. I started my blog with the 1,001 Books You Must Read list as my focus, but I’ve veered away sharply towards new(er) books.. not sure if that’s been for the better…

  2. Yes. Absolutely. And that’s why I alternate between the more challenging books and crime fiction. The latter is my escapism. This doesn’t mean that it’s badly written or lesser in any way, and the subject matter can be gruelling at times, but it’s my pole of quiet and certainty (because something usually gets resolved).

  3. All the time! And I look back on periods of my life and ask myself why I just read slight books of no substance which I can’t remember now. The answer is often that I was exhausted with bringing up three children and didn’t have the mental stamina for anything else. Even now, I try to focus on more meaningful books, but I still find I need that variety – after Barthes, I’ll turn to a Golden Age crime novel for contrast and to relax the brain. But I still worry about time running out before I’ve read everything I want to…

  4. I think I’d rephrase the question somewhat: Do I get enough out of the great books that i *do* read?

    I read Dante’s “Inferno” a few years ago (in translation, naturally), but I got very little out of it. And that bothered me. Here is a book that has been one of the towering landmarks of western culture for centuries, and yet it meant little to me. The advice I received was “Put it aside, move on”, but that doesn’t satisfy me. Of course, it could just be one of those inexplicable blind spots on my part, and that I’ll never “get” Dante, but the time spent making the effort to gain something of the understanding that I don’t currently have does seem to me a better use of my time than notching up a handful of lesser titles.

    • I appreciate this rephrasing, because it’s about thinking what you *are* doing instead of fretting over some idea of what you *should* be doing or have yet to have done.
      In cases like the one you describe, well, somethings just don’t click for us, but I have found that the help of other readers (whether in a class or otherwise) has often helped me find meaning/interest in texts that otherwise left me cold.

  5. I guess I’m sort of the opposite side of the coin, slowly making my way through the classics (broadly defined!) while occasionally wondering whether I ought to be reading more books that are contemporary/relevant/whatever. But then, I have different sources for lighter entertainment; if I’m exhausted after a long day, I’m more likely to watch a movie than to read. Also, I have to say that one of the things I most appreciate about your blog is that you are very good at showing how books that I would not expect to be memorable are in fact very interesting; the few occasions that I have dabbled in contemporary fiction have mostly been at your instigation, and have been quite memorable reading experiences. So if, as you point out, you have to wade through many not so memorable books to get to the memorable ones, I’m selfishly grateful that you’re doing so much of this work for me. But also, perhaps, this suggests that there’s an argument to be made that to some extent “it ain’t what you read, it’s the way that you read it” that makes reading experiences valuable.

    • ““It ain’t what you read, it’s the way that you read it” that makes reading experiences valuable.”
      Nicely put! And it’s actually helpful to me to think that by trawling through mediocrity I might be helping someone else.
      Strangely, I’m finding that the erosion of my attention span (social media, parenting, getting older, etc) has been more damaging to my movie watching than my reading. I’m much more likely to feel impatient about the time it takes to watch a film than about the time it takes to read a book. Not sure why.

      • Yes, I definitely know where you’re coming from. I often find myself watching the clock during a film, and I never manage to sit through an entire movie uninterrupted these days (except on the rare occasions I get out to the cinema). And I wonder if that’s part of the reason for the impatience; we feel as though we *should* watch a movie in one sitting with no interruptions, whereas we feel that we can put a book down at any time, and it’s harder to commit to a 2-hour chunk of time than to a series of smaller periods. These days, I can only get through movies if I treat them like books in that respect, which is far from ideal, but a compromise I can work with.

  6. Well, I used to read Jack Reacher books as my “tv time.” Now Lee Child is judging the Booker Prize, so there’s that if you think you’re confused. Still, I always feel fulfilled when I finish off one of the canons, or the “greatest books ever written” but less so off the Booker long list. There is a general hierarchy of great and I trust it. For me, and I too have been pondering your question, I think the balance is about 80% of my time on the canons and 20% on the Booker Long List type books.

  7. Why thanks. How pleasant to read this. I will say that lunching in France on a frequent basis – I was doing it every day for a while – changed my standards a little. Certain lunches ought to include wine.

    Sorry about the anxiety, though. Most of my anxiety in this regard is about reading more history, or criticism, or, heaven help me, philosophy. Or about “keeping up” more, but I wrote a post about that, which is, by the way, the source of “memorable,” in a comment by Necromancy Jeanne, which she expanded into a little essay.

    Criticism, et. al., are, as you say, attention-demanding, and we only have so much attention, probably a greater limit than time for many of us. I am amazed and impressed by anyone with young children who reads anything, much less anything at all challenging. Similarly for the many people who have jobs where they spend most of their work day reading. Of course they do not want to go home and read, at least not anything too hard. Nor should they.

    Joseph Epstein, in his essay “Joseph Epstein’s Lifetime Reading Plan” says he was asked, by a student, for a reading list. Instead he gave this advice: “have some time-tested and officially great book going at all times… alongside which you can read less thumpingly significant books.” I guess I usually have two thumpers going, but that seems like good advice. They pile up, over time, both the books I think I should read, but also the ones I actually have read.

    Once I start reading for some purposeful intellectual reason, there really are books I should read. Important works in the field, that sort of thing. You do that with the Holocaust memoirs. There is a strong sense of “should,” right? But that is not what most people are doing when they read. But is it what you and I are doing – ah, the anxiety, there it is again.

    • Anxiety–so hard to avoid!

      I’ve yet to read the Epstein piece, but this advice sounds good. For me, I think, the challenge would be to keep the thumper going–to keep it alive in my mind. I find if I put something down for too long I have a hard time getting back to it.
      Good point about history, criticism etc (philosophy I read a lot of in college and graduate school–I think I am done there). I’d add biography too. The shoulding is hard to stop.
      And an even better point about attention v. time. The latter gets a lot of the press, but the former might be the harder to negotiate.

  8. I’m amused at the title of “necromancy Jeanne.” It gives the entirely wrong impression. As for the right one, did you know I went to Hendrix? I gave a little speech there about the liberal arts a few years ago, in the company of Doug Blackmon and John Churchill.

    • I did not! That’s wonderful. I dimly remember this event, but I wasn’t present. (Maybe on sabbatical?) You heard Churchill died recently, I assume?
      (Just following Tom’s terminology… but it’s pretty cool.)

  9. No one does that? I used to visit (or at least drive through) Little Rock more after I moved from Arkansas than when I lived there. Now if anyone is visiting Idaho (talk about no one doing that), I’ll extend a welcome here. Hopefully we’ll have things unpacked by then. And wine is on the menu for most meal we decide to have it.

    I like Tom’s answer from Joseph Epstein on reading and having a great book going at any time. My biggest problem is that I’m easily distracted like Dug, the dog in “Up.” Although it might also be one of the positives on my reading adventures, or at least I like to think so—I’m reading it because I want to read it, not because I feel I have to for whatever external-driven reason.

    Regarding “Many of the books I suspect might be memorable … are hard to read. Or hard-ish anyway. They demand more attention than the shiny new book from the library, attention I don’t always have in the half hour before sleep.” That’s true in may case because I want to get a lot out of them and, worse, I don’t always trust myself in that facility. So I do more research, read other books or articles on the book, and invest extra time in related works. I definitely need to work on my own confidence and ability for reading. It seems like if I can take care of that, it would free up more time for memorable/great books.

    • That’s a nice point, about trusting yourself. I suspect you’ll be able to do it, because you’re so laudably able to read because you want to, not for external motives. Partly because of my job and partly because of my psychological make up, that’s hard for me. Which saddens me: I want reading to be as strongly associated with fun as possible.
      I wish I’d known you were driving through Little Rock a lot (though we might not have lived here then): it’s pretty rare for anyone to visit. I can well imagine that to be true of Idaho. We get to Alberta every year, which is close, but not *that* close…

  10. What a thought-provoking post. I think I disagree, however, with the idea that a meaningful book is a memorable book. That feels like the kind of tourism that concerns itself mostly with getting good pictures for later — it’s no way to live.

    So I’ve been asking myself, if not memorableness, what is it that makes a reading experience meaningful? Some books have changed my worldview or enabled me to carry out intellectual projects; some have provided exquisite aesthetic pleasure or inspired a mood or emotion I needed; some have catered to my desire to feel cultured or well-read; some have enabled me to claim credentials or a right to participate in gate-kept conversations; some have made me want to be a better person or distracted me for days with envy; some have cast me into confusion or made the whole world seem clear.

    I think I prefer all of those forms of meaningfulness — a living engagement with books, a life shaped by and lived through books — to the collection of reliably memorable experiences. Reading eclectically is by far the best way to live that life.

    • “Reading eclectically is by far the best way to live that life.”
      Unsurprisingly, I like that sentiment. True to my liberal arts nature (schooled in it, always worked in it) I wrestle always with breadth and depth. The eclecticism speaks to the part of my soul that craves breadth. But the part that wants to do a deep dive isn’t so sure.
      I very much appreciate your reformulation from memorable to meaningful. I think I meant memorable naively: what are the books that I still remember; what are the parts of books that come to mind, that stick with me. Most of the things I read fade into (at least conscious, who knows what lives they might be living below the surface of my attention) insignificance.
      Memorable as tourism I am less sure about. It seems a bit easy, like distinguishing tourists from travelers. Everyone wants to be the latter and disdain the former, but I’m not convinced there’s a fundamental difference.
      Still, I love your array of descriptions of possible meaningful encounters. I’d read an essay that compiled many more such formulations.

  11. Very interesting post. I think about this a lot! I even have a whole list of books (mainly classics and ”serious” books) that I feel embarrassed I haven’t read yet. Since I started blogging my reading has quite dramatically veered towards new releases and, for some totally irrational reason, I often feel kind of guilty about it.

    • Thanks, Agnese. I have to say, I’m quite heartened by how many other readers feel similarly. All our conflicted, guilty thoughts about reading–it’s so crazy. And yet I suppose it’s not surprising: we’re only conflicted about things we care about.
      BTW, and also pertinent to this topic, how are you getting on with Mann?

      • Yes, that’s so true —”we’re only conflicted about things we care about.” Nicely put! I’m still reading Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and waiting for my copy of The Magic Mountain to arrive in the mail. Looking forward to climbing that mountain once I’m done with Musil’s masterpiece!

  12. No momentous insight from me or anything, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with assessing or reassessing your reading habits from time to time. I think I read a much higher percentage of fiction to nonfiction than I used to do before I started blogging, but even though that bothers me on occasion (what kind of a history major am I anyway?) my reading choices have a way of deciding themselves for me whether I think about them much or not. I guess I do think people should read what they want and save the fretting for only if they’re truly unhappy with their reading choices.

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