Everyone who works in or around books is faced with the fact that one day you’ll be caught out having not read a book you’re meant to have read. You could always lie about it and pretend that you’ve read it, but the risk of being caught out is so high. How would that exchange go? Would you be called out for your deception, or would politeness win the day and see people forever talking about you behind your back? Whatever the case, there are simply too many books in the ‘canon’ to possibly have read them all. But the prestige that goes along with being someone who has read a lot of that canon is undeniable. It’s a powerful thing in our society to say something like ‘I’m reading War and Peace for the third time’ or ‘I’ve written an essay contrasting all the works of Charles Dickens with all the works of Thomas Pynchon’ or ‘I really enjoyed Gravity’s Rainbow‘. Which brings us back to lying. It’s freaking impossible to enjoy Gravity’s Rainbow.
On Bloomsday this year someone Tweeted ‘No one has actually read Ulysses‘. That’s quite an intriguing and hilarious thought. You could have two people having an in depth discussion of Ulysses and neither of them know what the other is talking about. This must happen with plenty of books, although James Joyce’s difficult tome is probably right up there with the best of them. For the record, I’ve never read it – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was more than enough for me. But entire University courses could be taught based on a book that nobody has read. Which brings us to an intriguing point. At what point does style and length become artistic in itself? Is it possible that books are published that editors and publishers haven’t actually read, but recognised as somehow ‘worthy’? I’m sure that some of the publishing types who read this blog have some fun anecdotes to answer that question, please leave them below with names changed to protect the innocent.
So what about these ‘worthy’ books? Are they worth it? Should you read them? I have always intended to read Ernest Hemingway, but to this date I’ve never picked up one of his books. I haven’t even purchased one with good intentions. My problem is that there are too many books like this to distract me. But why is it fair that when someone says to me ‘oh, you really must read Hemingway’ I’m meant to take them seriously, but if I were to say ‘oh, you really must read Alastair Reynolds’ then I can be laughed at. Maybe I don’t want to read Hemingway. Maybe Hemingway has been so built up in my mind and fawned over so much that it will inevitably disappoint me. Why is Hemingway’s prose and storytelling inherently better than Alastair Reynolds? You need to respect how difficult it is to successfully tell a story about male and female clones of the same individual having an illicit relationship 6 million years in the future. That’s hard to write.
The point is that you should never be ashamed to say you haven’t read a book and you should always be proud of the books you have read. Even the crap ones. Because this cuts both ways, people are quite often derisive of popular books that they haven’t even read. I’m willing to bet that Dan Brown is called the worst names by the people who haven’t read him. I have read him, which means I can legitimately say he’s crap. How boring would the world be if we only ever read the same books? So don’t feel pressured to read certain authors because you think you have to. Read what appeals but branch out often, maybe you’ll get to those writers one day and maybe you won’t. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter, just so long as you got something out of it.
Written by Mark Harding