Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Deciding what (and what not) to read 2

No one is going to ask us on our deathbeds how many great books we've read, and at that point even we won't care. Reading is not about progressing toward a finish line, anymore than life is.
Wendy Lesser, Why I Read

At the end of Why I Read, Wendy Lesser lists "A Hundred Books to Read for Pleasure." These are books she loves and that she recommends to others. Some are books I've read (Jude the Obscure, Crime and Punishment, Persuasion, The Quiet American). Others are books still on my bucket list (The Mysterious Island, Parade's End). Still others are books I've never even heard of (The Haw Lantern, Effie Briest, The Case of Comrade Tulayev). These are her idea of "great books," but the point she makes is that we each have the right to make our own lists, or to add to hers.

In our high school and college literature classes, we did have required reading. Not anymore. We can read trash, if we want, or we can sample more challenging books like some of those on her list. Nobody says we have to finish them. "There is nothing shameful about giving up on a book in the middle: that is the exercise of taste," she writes. She doesn't say so, but we also have the option to turn on the TV and not read anything.

Each of us has different tastes, in literature as in everything else. For that reason, if we each made our own list of "A Hundred Books to Read for Pleasure," they would all be different. Wendy Lesser, a professional writer and literary critic, loves literature that most of the rest of us would consider too much of a challenge for pleasure reading. Much of her book tells about the joys of reading Henry James, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and William Faulkner. At some point in our lives we might want to try something by these writers. We might even like them, as I did Crime and Punishment.  But if Jodi Picoult and John Grisham are more to your taste, then their books can be on your own list.

I get a bit annoyed whenever I see lists of 50 or 100 "books to read before you die." I love lists of recommended books, such as Lesser's, but I rebel at the suggestion that life includes a literary checklist. That seems to be what Lesser is referring to in the lines printed above. Getting passage into heaven is not dependent on reading A Passage to India.

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