Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Must-Read" Books Left by the Wayside

The sad, often unacknowledged truth of getting a job in publishing is that you start to loathe reading. Not all material, mind you—I read more magazines and blogs than I ever have before, and usually on totally new subject matter. But when it comes to picking up a massive tome of great literature or great literary non-fiction, every day I fall three steps behind what I should be reading...

Reading Sonya Chung's post on The Millions on "Breaking Up with Books", I was glad to see I wasn’t the only person with this problem. Chung fesses up to quitting books mid-read, though she does it with a great amount of remorse: “Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.” But she finds herself often veering away from the Canonical Path, picking and choosing according to the ever-changing tastes. “Fifteen hours—the average it takes to read a book—is an increasingly precious chunk of time.” Amen, sister. And when you come home from a long day at work, a big meaty tome looks overwhelming compared to the light fare of the Web and TV.

Like Chung, I fall off the bandwagon too quickly on long-delayed reads, especially when it comes to what I like to call All-Bran Books: those titles that often serve as the literary equivalent of fish-oil or bread made from spelt and wheat germ. When you admit that you haven’t read them, people tend to gasp and wear expressions of great shock and disappointment on their faces:

“What? You’ve never read 1984?”
“How have you never read A Confederacy of Dunces?”

“What, no one in school ever made you read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?
(Note: that last one was me—I assumed ATGIB was mandatory, much like those great word middle-school reads like My Brother Sam is Dead and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.)

This list doesn’t even cover the titles supposedly require by those folks who want to call themselves “well-read”, namely, the great classics of dead white men that made all subsequent literature possible. I realize that my reading has some structural problems when, attempting to read Ulysses for the seventeenth time, I track its plot progression not according to The Odyssey, but rather to O Brother, Where Art Thou? When people meet me and find that there are big gaping holes in my reading experience, I can always see them doing a double-take.

These books have always seemed much more nutritious than delicious to me—confronted with an ever-changing roster of new and buzz-filled novels out there, I’ll almost always forget that I have Fahrenheit 451, Catch-22, and all seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time waiting for me. I’ve never read any Philip Roth or Evelyn Waugh. I have never jousted with Dumas and The Three Musketeers, and I have never fallen for Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. (I was always much more partial to Sense and Sensibility’s Colonel Brandon, but how I escaped adolescence without reading P&P, I’ve still no idea.) I’ve tried reading Infinite Jest about 20 times, and am starting to consider buying the iPhone app for it, just to make things a bit less painful.

But do I really think reading these books would be painful? Why haven’t I set aside time to fill these gaps? Looking over at my nightstand, I can see where I’m getting myself into trouble. At the beginning of this week, I had only two titles: Muriel Barbery’s Gourmet Rhapsody and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck. Perfectly manageable reading for the week. But now those two books are at the bottom of a pile that contains the Spanish mystery novel I picked up at Bluestockings, Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, The Ugly American. All these books were referenced in articles I'd read over the week, and so when I next entered a bookstore, they were immediately added to my basket. They are my new must-reads.

When people ask me about how to break into publishing, the advice I tend to repeat to them over and over is this: “If someone asks you what your favorite book is, it is not Pride and Prejudice. Make sure your favorite book is something new.” They always tend to look a bit crestfallen, and sometimes I apologize for it—it does matter that your reading experience taught you to love and appreciate the classics. We certainly wouldn’t have any great books today without the great books of yesterday. But I never enjoy my work so much as when I get to participate in a conversation about the world we live in today—when authors engage in contemporary issues, when novelists tap into emotions and events that we didn’t know were there. When the bestselling book in the country is about a bisexual semi-autistic Swedish hacker who fights like hell against the oppressive and violent society around her, I can see the debt she owes to Jane Eyre . . . but I’d sooner pick up the book that started the conversation, not the supplementary reading. In chasing down the most relevant and topical books I can get, I inevitably leave their dusty predecessors . . . still in the dust.

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