What Books Don’t You Need to Read Before You Die?

 

The Internet world inundates us with lists about things we need to read or do or see before we die:  thus “Fifty Places You Must Visit Before You Die,” “The Twenty Movies You Must See,” “Twenty-Five Herbs You Must Integrate into Your Cooking,” and on and on and on.

In the literary world, we have the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century list and Radcliffe College’s competing list.  For broader historical coverage, you have The Guardian’s 100 best books of all time , or the 50 greatest books of all time,which is a synthesis of 107 great books lists.  Time has a list of 100 best novels (1923-2005). Heck, there’s even one entitled “50 Books to Read Before You Die.”

I have mixed feelings.  I believe in the idea of a canon of the greatest works of literature.  There are novels of such transcendence in their literary qualities or their universal themes that anyone would be edified by seriously reading them.  In this group of greats, I would include masterpieces like Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; Conrad’s underrated Nostromo, all of Austen’s works (though a case can be made against Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey), any of several works by Dickens (e.g., Bleak House, David Copperfield, or Great Expectations), Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and My Antonia, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and others.

There is a strong inference in most of these lists that suggests if you, the reader, consider yourself intelligent or educated you’d better get these books read, pronto! On the other hand, if you don’t read most of them, turn in your “I’m a decently educated  and moderately well-read person” card.

A bit of much-needed counterculture is beginning to develop.  Thus, a few years ago, The Telegraph published “Not the Fifty Books You Should Read Before you Die.”  On this list were a few books that I greatly admire (Emma, Nineteen Eighty Four), but far more that I too would place on a list of books that one can safely, even aggressively, ignore.   Among these were the perennial top-ten novel Ulysses and Lolita (about which more below), as well as other famous books like The Great Gatsby, War and Peace, Les Miserables, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, or The Metamorphosis.  It also includes several pop culture, pop psychology favorites as Eat, Pray, Love, The Alchemist, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Others on the list are The God Delusion and my personal favorites, The Da Vinci Code and Twilight.  Of course, the books on the Telegraph’s list make no pretense of being of equal literary value.

So let me address two books that—if you’re looking for permission—you need never read ever:  and you may fail to do so with a clear conscience.

First is Nabakov’s Lolita.  Yes, I know the writing is wonderful and supposedly something is going on below the surface that redeems the book.  I’ve never found the redeeming stuff, so all I was left with was a middling-long novel recounting the mind and acts of a middle-aged pedophile.  Maybe this is a metaphor for something high and good, but the subject matter is so utterly disgusting, I’m unable to get past it.

lolita2_0

Second is Joyce’s Ulysses.  I actually finished it during the past week, aided by the brilliant narration of Jim Norton (and a female narrator, whose name wasn’t mentioned who narrated the final section:  Molly Bloom’s long soliloquy while half asleep).  If you do decide to read, read it along with the narration, which is superb.  Ulysses makes every top ten list—and as often as not it’s no. 1.  Now, I admire Joyce’s technical ability:  his early set of short stories (Dubliners) is superb.  And the final story in Dubliners, “The Dead,” is on my list of top five short stories in the English language.

ulysses

But then Joyce abandoned straightforward narrative for the experimental:  so we end up with long sections of stream of consciousness, sheer wordplay, impenetrable puns, suddenly shifting narratives, allusions that make no sense without a detailed understanding of Irish and Dublin history, a host of unseemly characters, including some that are utterly boring (Stephen Dedalus never does a single thing that makes him interesting).

My fundamental problem with the book is that it’s filled with linguistic pyrotechnics without the leavening influence of a plot, characters, and narrative that makes sense to the normal, unenlightened reader like me.  A great half-hour fireworks show works great.  But 672 pages of fireworks with little else becomes a big bore.  I’m not alone.  Ron Rosenbaum, the eminent Shakespeare scholar, a few years ago wrote a column, whose premise was that Ulysses is greatly overrated, with the exception of one chapter:  the penultimate (entitled “Ithaca”).

My conclusion:  you don’t have to read Ulysses or Lolita, and can retain your credentials as an educated person.

This is all a long introduction to a larger question:  What books—classics or otherwise—can we willfully, with malice aforethought, refuse to read, and still die having lived a fulfilling life?

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  1. Mendel Member
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    Looks like I win the perpetual race to mention Catcher in the Rye as one of the most overrated and least worthwhile books of our century.

    • #1
  2. Mendel Member
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    I consider both Lolita and Metamorphosis to be decent works, but not worthy of the status as their respective authors’ signature pieces.

    Nabokov and Kafka are both in my top 20 list of authors, and they both have much better works than the two above (I would propose Invitation to a Beheading for Nabokov and The Trial for Kafka). But in the art world, one’s most popular works are often far from one’s best.

    I view Lolita and Metamorphosis the same way I view the Falling Water House by Frank Lloyd Wright. I really like a lot of his architecture, and the house incorporates many of his signature designs, but it’s just ugly. Similarly, these two books do contain a great amount of literary genius, but the overall packages just miss their mark. That doesn’t make them devoid of value, but they shouldn’t be the defining works of their authors.

    • #2
  3. V.S. Blackford Member
    V.S. Blackford
    @VSBlackford

    I must disagree on Les Miserables and War and Peace being included on the Telegraph’s list. I do understand why they may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Both Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy have a tendency in those books to go off on tangents, but if you are willing to skip over those parts that drag on a bit too long to get to the heart of the story, there is a lot to admire, and in my case, love to read again.

    • #3
  4. Boomerang Member
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    I agree about Eat, Pray, Love and add Wild to it.  EPL is one big commercial for eastern religions, and Wild is mildly interesting, but accompanying the author through all that unapologetic (even glorified) psychosis is not my cup of tea.

    After burning through the Austen novels I picked up Henry James’ Washington Square, wanting to read something in the same style. Ugh. Don’t bother.

    • #4
  5. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Mendel:Looks like I win the perpetual race to mention Catcher in the Rye as one of the most overrated and least worthwhile books of our century.

    Ditto.  Long time since I read it–doubt I’ll read it again.

    • #5
  6. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @

    I put off reading The Great Gatsby for years and finally relented because a friend told me how great it was.  You should either enjoy a book or learn something from it, preferably both.  This book provided me with neither.

    • #6
  7. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    V.S. Blackford:I must disagree on Les Miserables and War and Peace being included on the Telegraph’s list.I do understand why they may not be everyone’s cup of tea.Both Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy have a tendency in those books to go off on tangents, but if you are willing to skip over those parts that drag on a bit too long to get to the heart of the story, there is a lot to admire, and in my case, love to read again.

    I’m a big fan of War and PeaceLes Miserables certainly has a great reputation:  I must say–though I’ve tried a couple of times–I haven’t succeeded.

    • #7
  8. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Mendel:I consider both Lolita and Metamorphosis to be decent works, but not worthy of the status as their respective authors’ signature pieces.

    Nabokov and Kafka are both in my top 20 list of authors, and they both have much better works than the two above (I would propose Invitation to a Beheading for Nabokov and The Trial for Kafka). But in the art world, one’s most popular works are often far from one’s best.

    I view Lolita and Metamorphosis the same way I view the Falling Water House by Frank Lloyd Wright. I really like a lot of his architecture, and the house incorporates many of his signature designs, but it’s just ugly. Similarly, these two books do contain a great amount of literary genius, but the overall packages just miss their mark. That doesn’t make them devoid of value, but they shouldn’t be the defining works of their authors.

    I’m not a fan of The Metamorphosis.  On the other hand, The Trial, while weird (did Kafka write anything not weird?) is a great book.

    • #8
  9. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Rick B.:I put off reading The Great Gatsby for years and finally relented because a friend told me how great it was. You should either enjoy a book or learn something from it, preferably both. This book provided me with neither.

    I’ve never understood the appeal of Gatsby.  Leaves me cold too.

    • #9
  10. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    I’ve never managed to get all the way through Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, or Day of the Triffids.

    I did motor through J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, but I wish I hadn’t bothered.

    Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View also felt like a waste of time, but I persevered nonetheless.

    • #10
  11. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Boomerang:

    After burning through the Austen novels I picked up Henry James’ Washington Square, wanting to read something in the same style. Ugh. Don’t bother.

    One of my literary mentors is Joseph Epstein (through his great essays).  He loves James, and I’m trying to learn to do so:  I fear it’s going to be a long process.

    • #11
  12. Boomerang Member
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    tabula rasa:

    Boomerang:

    After burning through the Austen novels I picked up Henry James’ Washington Square, wanting to read something in the same style. Ugh. Don’t bother.

    One of my literary mentors is Joseph Epstein (through his great essays). He loves James, and I’m trying to learn to do so: I fear it’s going to be a long process.

    I have thought the same…it wasn’t the writing style, it was the story I disliked, so perhaps there are other books he’s written that are lovable. But since there are so many other books I want to read, I haven’t waded back in.

    • #12
  13. Boomerang Member
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    tabula rasa:

    V.S. Blackford:I must disagree on Les Miserables and War and Peace being included on the Telegraph’s list.I do understand why they may not be everyone’s cup of tea.Both Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy have a tendency in those books to go off on tangents, but if you are willing to skip over those parts that drag on a bit too long to get to the heart of the story, there is a lot to admire, and in my case, love to read again.

    I’m a big fan of War and Peace. Les Miserables certainly has a great reputation: I must say–though I’ve tried a couple of times–I haven’t succeeded.

    I need to give Les Mis a try.  I saw the stage play and it seemed so…dumb.  “Probably,”  I thought, “because they are trying to cram a three inch book into a few acts of a play.

    • #13
  14. user_517406 Member
    user_517406
    @MerinaSmith

    TR, I’d be interested to see your top 100, but not just novels.  You have a good take on conservative political literature too.  I don’t see Moby Dick on your list.  Are you pro or con Melville?  I’m not a fan of magical realism.  100 Years of Solitude–blech.  I have no desire to read Lolita, but I really enjoyed Speak, Memory.

    • #14
  15. Ricochet Member
    Ricochet
    @MrAmy

    I read the Great Gatsby in high school. The only thing that I remember is that the Light on the dock was important.

    The only thing I could think was “well duh, boats would hit it otherwise.”

    • #15
  16. BastiatJunior Member
    BastiatJunior
    @BastiatJunior

    Don’t Know Much About History by Robert Scheer and others.

    You will know even less about history after you’ve read it.

    • #16
  17. Boomerang Member
    Boomerang
    @Boomerang

    I read So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell, called “lovely” in a Ricochet Book Club recommendation.  It was the most depressing thing ever.  Again, nice prose, but toward the end of the book, Maxwell could not stop the pervasive black cloud from drifting into bad cliche.  I stopped reading about 3/4 through, skipped ahead to see if there was any glimmer of hope, and read a couple of pages about the family dog, a delightful Australian shepherd, dying of starvation in a ditch after the family had completely fallen apart. Whoever was narrating put a bullet through his head.  Ya know, that is really reaching.

    • #17
  18. skipsul Member
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Misthiocracy:I’ve never managed to get all the way through Heart of Darkness, Lord of the Flies, or Day of the Triffids.

    I did motor through J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, but I wish I hadn’t bothered.

    Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View also felt like a waste of time, but I persevered nonetheless.

    I find Joseph Conrad to be a fantastic writer myself, and the best experience with Heart of Darkness was through an audio book I found (will have to look up who did it though).  Room with a View also works more as an audio book, same with Passage to India – tried them both in print and couldn’t get into them, but read aloud they worked for me.

    I’d like to add Anna Karenina to the list of Overrated.  I like Tolstoy’s style, but the book just tries too dang hard to synthesize too many different stories.  Anton Chekov tells the same plots in his short stories with more economy, humor, and power.

    Stendhal’s The Red and the Black had me rooting for the executioners by the end, just so I could be done with it.  Loathed Les Miserables.

    Gatsby strikes me as Fitzgerald’s way of mocking a society of which he is both contemptuous and jealous – it just feels petty, like a Michael Moore “documentary”.

    • #18
  19. sawatdeeka Member
    sawatdeeka
    @sawatdeeka

    Some works might be important to read because their ideas have seeped into our culture, to the extent that having some background in these writings would be helpful.

    Metamorphosis might be one of these works.  Just don’t read it over lunch.

    I found most of the stories in my world lit course to be depressing. Flaubert and Voltaire, for instance, were not edifying.

    I did profit from Things Fall Apart. 

    • #19
  20. user_645127 Member
    user_645127
    @JenniferJohnson

    Boomerang:I agree about Eat, Pray, Love and add Wild to it. EPL is one big commercial for eastern religions…

    Hated EPL. Couldn’t finish it.

    • #20
  21. user_645127 Member
    user_645127
    @JenniferJohnson

    tabula rasa:

    Rick B.:I put off reading The Great Gatsby for years and finally relented because a friend told me how great it was. You should either enjoy a book or learn something from it, preferably both. This book provided me with neither.

    I’ve never understood the appeal of Gatsby. Leaves me cold too.

    Gatsby made me bawl. I wept at the end, hard. So I hated it for that reason. But, Fitzgerald’s skill as a writer was masterful. At least I thought so at the time. It’s been a while.

    • #21
  22. user_653084 Member
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    “An American Tragedy” is pretty horrible.

    I think that “The Art of War” is probably the most overrated book out there.

    Also, George Martin can tell an interesting story, but his actual prose is excruciating. Unless you’re a masochist or a fanboy, skip the Game of Thrones books.

    • #22
  23. DocJay Member
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    The Poison King by some liberal lady who can’t write and also Forever by some dude who can’t write.   These were picked in my book club.

    • #23
  24. DocJay Member
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    If Lolita ended when a father came home and murdered the pedophile slowly and painfully then it would be a great read.

    • #24
  25. DrewInWisconsin Coolidge
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    I read Gatsby in High School and didn’t care for it. I read it again about a decade ago and loved it. Can’t explain it.

    Totally agree with Catcher in the Rye. Of course it’s meaningful for 16 year olds. Adolescent rebellion is seductive when you’re an adolescent, but if you haven’t changed your mind about Catcher in the Rye by the time you hit your 30s, then you’re probably a sociopath.

    I’m not sure if Lord of the Flies is necessary for demonstrating how savage human beings can become when disconnected from civil society. Not any longer anyway. We have ISIS for that.

    And if you must read Vonnegut, there are so many better choices than Slaughterhouse-Five.

    • #25
  26. user_989419 Member
    user_989419
    @ProbableCause

    DrewInWisconsin:I’m not sure if Lord of the Flies is necessary for demonstrating how savage human beings can become when disconnected from civil society. Not any longer anyway. We have ISIS for that.

    I find it ironic that we had to read it in high school, as it seemed to be a fairly tedious retelling of what it was like to be in junior high.

    • #26
  27. DrewInWisconsin Coolidge
    DrewInWisconsin
    @DrewInWisconsin

    I recently developed a reading challenge for myself based on the authors and works found in a 1950s edition of the children’s card game “Authors” that my grandmother had. These are mostly works that were even at the time of the card game’s publication 100 years old or older.

    And now they’re older still!

    My thinking was that it might somehow be worth reading books that a previous generation had already considered classics, but many of which aren’t read much anymore. So I’m currently in the middle of Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe,” and it’s very slow going due to a couple century’s worth of changes in language and literary style. But I’m really enjoying the heck out of it.

    Given the length of many of these works and the sheer number of them (52!) this is going to take me awhile. Happily, they’re all public domain and easy to obtain.

    • #27
  28. tabula rasa Member
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Merina Smith:TR, I’d be interested to see your top 100, but not just novels. You have a good take on conservative political literature too. I don’t see Moby Dick on your list. Are you pro or con Melville? I’m not a fan of magical realism. 100 Years of Solitude–blech. I have no desire to read Lolita, but I really enjoyed Speak, Memory.

    I’ll have to think hard about a top 100.

    Moby Dick.  I read it finally 4-5 years ago.  It falls somewhere in the “glad I read it, but won’t be reading it again” category.  It has a great opening paragraph.  Melville deals with big issues, but (1) there’s way too much arcane stuff of whaling (no offense to any Ricochet whalers), and (2) he never makes Ahab real.  I see why some call it great, but I don’t agree.

    100 Years of Solitude.  Garcia Marquez had great talent.  Like you, I don’t care too much for magic realism though it does provide the writer with an easy way of dealing with plot problems (just inject a bit of magic to solve the problem).  I will say that 100 Years of Solitude, as one of the first examples of magic realism, seems a bit more original.  It’s been a long time since I read it.  I’ll likely give it another shot someday.

    Will try Speak, Memory.

    • #28
  29. Basil Fawlty Member
    Basil Fawlty
    @BasilFawlty

    To Kill a Mockingbird. And its prequel/sequel.

    • #29
  30. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    tabula rasa:Moby Dick. I read it finally 4-5 years ago. It falls somewhere in the “glad I read it, but won’t be reading it again” category. It has a great opening paragraph. Melville deals with big issues, but (1) there’s way too much arcane stuff of whaling (no offense to any Ricochet whalers), and (2) he never makes Ahab real. I see why some call it great, but I don’t agree.

    The whaling parts of Moby Dick are the best parts. Maybe it is just my fascination with systems and vocation, but the detailed descriptions of the actual act of whaling just held my attention better than the rest of the story.

    Moby Dick is one of my favorite classics.

    • #30

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