New York Times’ “Bookends” columnists, Anna Holmes and Dana Stevens, were asked “What Were the First Books You Felt You ‘Should’ Read?” and responded thusly:
Dana Stevens: “I started shaping my reading list around the recommendations of people I wanted to be friends with, to get close to, to emulate, to be.”
Anna Holmes: “… Books one ‘should’ read are fine for high school English curriculums or collegiate surveys of American and British literature, but beyond that, figurative or literal checklists of published texts can suck the joy out of reading and should be avoided at all costs.”
Holmes goes on to say:
“… The holes in my ongoing literary syllabus are not so much intellectual failings as symptoms of a larger affliction—namely, a stubbornness against culturally mandated consumption and a lifelong disdain for authority, legal or literary. In short, my ambivalence about any number of what are commonly held to be great or important books is a direct result of the fact that they are held to be great or important books, especially when it comes to more contemporary works, whose agreed-upon influence may have as much to do with an author’s social capital—and publicity-machine marketing dollars—as the quality of the prose or the contours of the story.”
I can certainly relate to the shunning of particular popular fiction (though I have read so-called “low-brow” “literature” as Twilight, The Hunger Games and Dan Brown. And I’d rather forget 50 Shades of Grey!)
Taking a look at some of the books I’ve read produces a wide spectrum of literature. My bookshelf houses a healthy contingent of American authors you’d be hard pressed to find in the average Aussie bookstore, such as Dominick Dunne and Armistead Maupin; every book Mia Freedman has published; wrestling autobiographies; and some bestsellers, like Stephen King, To Kill a Mockingbird and Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. My to-read list includes sure-fire Stella Prize winner, Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (I’m aiming to get to that over Easter); Changed for Good, a book about feminism on Broadway that takes its title from the Wicked soundtrack; and the illustrated history of the East Coast/West Coast rivalry between rappers 2Pac and Biggie Smalls.
In a nutshell, if I had to describe the kind of writing I enjoy reading in book form, it’d be post-1950s American historical fiction. The problem with this generalisation, though, is that it excludes so much of the other books I love and make time to read: some of the Aussie work that’s out now, like Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda (I still haven’t read The Slap!), the aforementioned Kent and the rest of the Stella Prize shortlist, and Benjamin Law on the non-fiction side of things; and feminist theory.
Recently I was book-shamed by a colleague to whom I begrudgingly revealed I was applying for a literary-leaning job. When she asked what kind of books I liked to read, I mentioned the above examples, adding that I’m not a fan of the classics. She thought that maybe I should have some knowledge of the classics if I wanted to progress to the next round. She’s not wrong, but she’s also not exactly the most literary- or culturally-minded person I know (she has bemoaned the loss of Desperate Housewives from our TV screens) and, most importantly, I did not ask for her advice. I believe it’s better to have a passion for and knowledge of a certain genre that you’re able to wax confidently about than an obligation to consume books some arbitrary body says you should. Reading is primarily about enjoyment, for me at least.
So I may not have read Harry Potter or Shakespeare, but narrow prescriptions of what one “should” read, as Holmes further dissects in her response in The New York Times and that Gawker also picked up, only stifle inquiry and creativity; if we want to encourage our increasingly digital and short attention-spanned society to read more, shaming them for their book choices is probably not the way to go. Except if it’s Twilight.
Related: The Hunger Games Review.