Being ill-read

The fact that I am ill-read tends to really hit home when whatever newspaper I am buying at the time decides to fill its Arts section with one of those features on "The 100 Books You Must Read Before You Die" and I realise that, at best, I’ve maybe read 10 of them, meaning that if I were to carry on reading Great Books at my present rate, I might manage 30 of the 100 if I’m very lucky and manage to live 70 more years. However, there is a degree of self-deception even in this, since whenever I read those lists I am always struck by the fact that in reality I am highly unlikely ever to read most of the books on them. Nor, for that matter, is anyone else, because whilst lists of that kind (and some academics have even written books along the same lines) pose as some kind of objective directory of classic literature, in reality they are largely an exercise in one-upmanship by pretentious literary critics. There really aren’t many people who have ever read Finnegan’s Wake unless obliged to for academic reasons. If there were, James Joyce would probably not have died in poverty.

So, I have never read any Dickens, Trollope, Kafka or Proust; nor any Tolstoy, Doestoyevsky (whose name I struggle to even spell), Flaubert or Thomas Mann. I have read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, but in all honesty I would be lying if I claimed I enjoyed the experience that much; it was more that I felt I had to. Less like Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy’s marriage, more like Mr and Mrs Bennett’s. I also managed Moby Dick, but was deeply unimpressed, having got the vague general impression from somewhere that it was a ripping yarn in which a mad bloke with one leg goes after a white whale, when actually most of the mad bloke v. whale action only really happens near the end. It feels faintly blasphemous to even admit all this, as if somehow not reading Great Books (or not liking them) is equivalent to standing next to a big pile of banned books with Joseph Goebbels and brandishing a flaming torch with uninhibited glee. Of course, vague guilt of that kind is a major reason for the purchase of much of the classic literature that then ends up unread on dusty shelves.

If pressed to come up with an explanation for this, apart from sheer laziness, I would probably have to put a lot of it down to a sort of reluctance to get involved in the emotional lives of a bunch of imaginary people. In particular, I seem to have developed a gut reaction that novels are all about people’s miserable marriages and unhappy love affairs, and I don’t really want to spend my time reading about them when my own life throws up enough problems. Of course, not all Great Books are about this subject, but it does rule out quite a swathe of them from Flaubert to Graham Greene, including Jane Austen if you take away the "miserable/unhappy" qualification. Then, you get the novels that are trying to make some deep point about politics/human nature/life, which is fair enough but tends to make me wonder – couldn’t you just have written an essay or pamphlet about this without complicating it with all these characters you invented? George Orwell made most of the same points he makes in 1984 and Animal Farm in his non-fiction, and it was shorter. The same goes for Swift or Emile Zola. You almost wonder whether they themselves were caught up with the belief in the Big Novel dealing with Important Subjects that has been so prevalent since Victorian times, although avoiding political censorship and (frankly) making money may also have been factors.

A final factor takes me on to some of those works of fiction I can honestly claim to have enjoyed in my life, like The Count of Monte Cristo, MR James’ ghost stories, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels,Treasure Island, Dracula or The Lord of the Rings. Some would be regarded as classics of their genre, although they probably wouldn’t make it to the canon of Great Books. Some are just about silly enough to make it into George Orwell’s category of Good Bad Books (I’m looking at you, Bram Stoker). But I’ll be damned if they don’t all have gripping plots and plenty of exciting incidents to go with the cardboard characters and laughable dialogue. I remember reading in the Introduction to a Jane Austen novel the claim by some academic that she could get more drama out of morality than other writers could get out of battle, murder and mayhem, but the truth is that no-one can possibly do that. Morality isn’t as exciting. The problem with an awful lot of Great Books is that they’re obsessed with the need to be serious, realistic, adult, when in the end they’re all as much fantasy as the adventure stories and genre novels. Can’t Philip Roth forget about old Jewish writers with problems in their sex lives and just make something blow up occasionally?

 

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