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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.
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.
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?Published in