The World of the ‘Well-Read’ and the Dangers of Book Lists

Q: Have you read the latest Hilary Mantel?

A: No. I prefer her earlier work…

It’s easy to imagine two cavemen standing at the foot of a rock painting and grunting softly over the irony of using mammoth blood to draw a wounded deer. Readers, like all passionate art lovers, tend to argue over the merit of works at the drop of a hat.

All arguments over books boil down to one common point. How is one book ‘better’ than another?

Is Dan Brown’s latest novel really worse than Green Eggs and Ham? Is a blockbuster hit really better than a self-published thriller?

Occasionally book lovers will come up with a list of books, saying you must read these books to call yourself well-read.

I ask these people, on behalf of all readers, to please, please not do this.

Debate is a wonderful thing. For my part, is Green Eggs and Ham better than Dan Brown’s latest novel? Absolutely.

But that’s only my opinion, and you certainly don’t have to have read it to be called well read. Dr Seuss famously wrote it as a bet with his publishers that he couldn’t write a book with just fifty different words.

Only a few days ago one of my friends (an intelligent chap, though a non-reader) told me he had read my review for Dan Brown’s Inferno, and wanted to know if he should read it. I unequivocally replied ‘yes’.

Well-read 2Would I have rather recommended Jane Austen? Or Ernest Hemingway? Or George Elliot?

Of course, but that’s just my opinion. Will he enjoy Inferno? Yes.

Will he read another book because of it? Yes.

And my job, as a preacher of the word of the book, is complete.

If you finish a book and think to yourself – I enjoyed that – that’s all that matters. Yes, in my opinion there many wonderful books that don’t contain wizards and werewolves. But that’s just me, and my opinion.

Putting together a list of books someone must read is helpful.

Saying someone must read all of these books to be called well-read is silly, and ignorant of the diversity, not just of human beings, but of centuries of literature.

Author Maude Casey once said ‘I was born with a reading list I will never finish‘. Embrace that thought, and read what you want. Feel no pressure to read what people tell you. Only then, can you find yourself immersed in the magic of books.

_____________________________________

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He learned to read on a two hour bus trip to school every day, and learned to write in lecture halls and cramped tutorial rooms. He sometimes wins things for the lecture hall stuff.

You can follow his ramblings on twitter at @andrew__cat

2 Responses

  1. Yes yes yes! Thank you for writing these words. “Must read to be” lists annoy me beyond reason.

    Like

  2. Andrew it is so wonderful to read your blog today, my sentiments exactly, if only more people felt the same way. Books and reading are my passion. They broaden my mind and are the source of constant entertainment for me. The most important gift I could give my children is an appreciation of reading.

    Like

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