It’s a old and tired controversy but an article from About.com started me thinking whether this question was more an evaluation of our society rather than a specific relationship between contemporary readers and their chosen texts. For the record, I have always contended that a person’s chosen reading material is highly subjective: you should read what you want to read. But the analogy is to food, eating, and nutrition: if you want to eat cream-filled sponge cake loaded with preservatives and lacking any food value, it is your fundamental right … but so is getting fat and having your teeth fall out.
So, following through with the analogy, are you happy because you enjoy the flavor of high fructose corn syrup or are you happy when you can bite into an apple and walk ten blocks to Otmar’s Iron Den (put another manhole cover on the lat machine).
And the parallel question is: are you happy because you read popular fluff and best-sellers or are you happy when you stimulate your gray cells by reading difficult and challenging books? My standard answer is to constantly challenge yourself in your reading but not to be afraid to read something with no redeeming value every once in a while just for fun. The danger is to insist on either extreme: academician’s read challenging books because it is their job but they shouldn’t expect the waitress at Bob’s Big Boy to follow suit, and at the same time the auto mechanic shouldn’t denigrate the professor because he (or she) studies classic literature any more than she (or he) should criticize the professor for not reading the 1998 Chevrolet Parts Manual or 50 Shades of Gray.
The article in About.com is titled Books to Beat the Classics Slump! Thrilling Titles to Jumpstart Your Reading. I urge you to read the article and consider for yourself what your relation to reading actually is. For now, here are the books suggested for reading in the article:
The first rule of reading – even when reading the Classics – is that it should be fun! Sometimes, though, even the most avid and enthusiastic of readers will find herself in a bit of a slump. This can be especially true for those who try to read one piece of classic literature after another.
So, if you find yourself trying but failing to read large tomes, like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick or Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, it might be time to take a new approach. After all, classic literature doesn’t necessarily mean the books have to be particularly lofty, lengthy, or dry. Why not try a shorter work, or a different genre? Perhaps you could try something from a different century, a new author, or another country.
- Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Bronte
- Little Women (1868) by Louisa May Alcott
- Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell
- The School for Scandal (1777) by Richard Brinsley Sheridan
- Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier
- The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson
There’s not much to argue about in this list unless you consider that recommending well-known and often-read titles is not of great value; but at least no one can contend that the recommendations represent the fluffier side of literature: they are commonly found on Junior High reading lists. Take a minute and think about the seven novels (or plays) you might suggest. Here is my list of alternate suggestions:
- Appointment at Samarra — John O’Hara
- The Snows of Kilimanjaro — Ernest Hemingway
- Typee — Herman Melville
- Cry, the Beloved Country — Alan Paton
- Kitchen — Banana Yosimoto
- The Nonexistent Knight — Italo Calvino
- The Importance of Being Ernest — Oscar Wilde
Truth is, I could make lists like this over and over. They’re not fluff but they are entertaining and not too challenging.