Am I Literary Enough & Are We Ever Really Happy With The Reader We Are?

After the blog birthday celebrations yesterday this might sound like it is going to be a bit of a maudlin topic here today, I am going to try not to let it be, yet it is something I have been pondering over the last year or so and actually discussing a lot in the last couple of weeks… Am I actually the literary reader I think I am and does it matter if I’m not, most of all will I ever be happy with the reader that I am? Ironically the people who I have been talking to about it, and who I would think know what they do and don’t like book wise, often ponder the same thing. So, is it just something that we all ask ourselves all the time?

The thing that has been making me ponder whether I am literary enough, or maybe a ‘good enough’ reader describes it better, is that old chestnut of Mr Charles Dickens (in such high esteem is he held I always think I should call him Sir). People have always been baffled by the fact that I am a veracious reader and yet he is an author I have never read. Even my own mother once said, probably in jest I am hoping, that she was ‘amazed’ that I could ‘write a book blog and review books and yet never have read Dickens in your life’. It always doubly surprises people when they know I love all things Victorian, ‘I mean who on earth chronicled the world at that time like Dickens?’ My response to that is usually ‘Wilkie Collins… Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… Oscar Wilde…’ I daren’t add insult to injury by adding I have not read Hardy, Trollope (neither Anthony nor Joanna, ha), Elliott and only some very short jottings by Austen, not one of her novels – though I have tried to a few times.

I am not proud that I have not read these authors, nor am I ashamed of it. It is fact. What I don’t like is the feeling I am judged for it. Some may say here that maybe I shouldn’t mention it; like I did at a job interview I had for a bookish charity and didn’t get the role mainly because I admitted ‘I hadn’t read Dickens and had had a tricky relationship at school with Shakespeare’. What disappointed me here was that this charity wanted to encourage people to read, I am not sure plonking a Dickens in front of anyone who doesn’t read much is going to be an initial treat, I would be scared of it. It just seems snobbish. A comment on my blog at the time said ‘well if you look back at what you have been reading it isn’t very literary’ but I haven’t been reviewing Green carnation submissions and some of those are very, and wonderfully so, literary though I am enjoying the more commercial submissions too.

Tangent aside and back to my main point though, why hide the fact I have not read these authors? I am sure there are many more people in my situation, who love a good book, who have yet to (and may never) read these authors. Is it like a literary version of leprosy not having read every classic by the age of eighteen or something? It almost makes me want to never read Dickens as a dirty Dickensian protest, ha.

I have read many classics, ‘Jane Eyre’ is one of my all time favourite books, but I don’t think you have to have mastered them all to be a good reader or to critique what you do and don’t like in a book, all you have to do is read and read and read and read some more. Yet this leads to another question, are we ever happy with the reader we are? I am not sure I am, in fact I am not even sure I still know what sort of reader I am.

Interestingly I thought this might be the fact that blogging for the last half a decade has widened my reading choices so much, a double edged sword. However my friend AJ (who did the Edinburgh Festival report for me) has just started his own new blog, AJ Reads (add it to your favourites), and has been asking himself the same questions. He too is another person who has yet to read Dickens, Austen, et al – which I think has made us bond all the more and may lead to a joint venture. AJ starting his blog has made him look at what he hasn’t read yet, what that means and what sort of reader he is and I am doing the same five years into blogging (both in our thirties) makes me wonder if we just always ask that question of ourselves and maybe that is a natural and good thing?

If someone asked me ‘what is your favourite genre of book?’ I would be stumped. I like literary novels, I love a good crime (cosy or not, more not). I love contemporary modern literature, literature of all walks of life in translation and can happily get lost in a good Victorian sensation or a slightly twee 1930’s novel. In my head I am simply an eclectic reader. Yet again I sometimes feel that I should be more reigned in, shouldn’t I know what I like most by now? I still find myself talking to people at book group (who have admittedly joined a book group to read outside the box) or seeing blogs where they know just what they do and don’t like I find myself sometimes getting a little envious as mine seems so haphazard. But maybe they are thinking the same thing really?

Does anyone else ever feel they are still unsure of what reader they are, or if indeed they are good enough? Is it natural? Do we always feel in awe of other readers reading? Do we ever feel we are a literary (or crimey, sci-fi-y, ha) as we could be? I mean we simply can’t read all the books and all the authors in the world can we? Isn’t being ‘literary’ actually being eclectic in our reading and trying out as many books in and out our comfort zone as we can and simply loving books?

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75 Comments

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75 responses to “Am I Literary Enough & Are We Ever Really Happy With The Reader We Are?

  1. I think a lot of us feel this way. Just last night, I was looking at one of those “1,001 books to read before you die” lists and realized that I have read very few of them and that the chances I will read very many more are rather slim. And that’s because … many of them I don’t WANT to read. Does that make sense? It all comes down to our own happiness and if Dickens isn’t our thing, then so be it.

    I happen to see you as one of the most literate readers in the blogosphere, if that helps … which is that bookish charity’s loss. :)

    • Hahahaha, I am still slightly bitter about the whole charity thing but it has inspired, in part at least, me doing Classically Challenged and now I have discovered the joys of Austen so some good has come out of that.

      I recently got the latest in the ’1001 Books to Read Before You Die’ and it actually gave me a lovely kick up the proverbial about some books I have always wanted to read and some I had never heard of but want to read now too.

  2. Geraldine

    So who cares if you haven’t read Dickens or Trollope and have no desire to do so…reading is for pleasure not for gritting your teeth and plodding through a book just because some people think you should. Read a book just because it tells you a good story and you enjoy it. There are so many wonderful books, more than we can read in a lifetime so ignore what others say you should be reading and read to please yourself !

    • I completely agree with you in the main, that said I do think for me to write off the canon authors without even having read one of their books properly was actually a little narrow minded of me, as much so as them not hiring me for having not read them. So I have decided to give the canon authors a try and Austen has proved a joy I wasn’t expecting.

  3. sharkell

    I have found that as I move on in years I have become more relaxed about the types of books I read. I like literature, I like modern fiction, I like (some) classical fiction (and I’ve only read one Dickens which I really enjoyed but I have at least 4 other Dickens on my shelf which I don’t have the energy to approach yet). I don’t particularly like crime but I read it sometimes. I am less tolerant now of books that I am not enjoying and tend to put them down, when a few years ago I would struggle to the end. My advice is to relax, go with the flow, and read whatever takes your fancy. You can tell by the many comments on your blog that people (including me) like what you do and how you do it. And I have read SO many books on your recommendations, literary and not, that I have really enjoyed so I don’t want you to change your reading choices, at all.

    • Awww that is so lovely to hear, a big belated thank you for that!

      I think you are right. I will carry on reading what I want when I want, especially next year as no Green Carnation judging for me, but I do need to have books in the mix that challenge me and stop me getting to comfortable or missing out on new and old authors I might love.

  4. Maybe because I’m in my 40s and I’ve got to that stage in my life where I simply don’t care what anyone else thinks about my reading tastes, but I really don’t worry that I haven’t read the kinds of books I am supposed to have read by this age. I’ve not read Dickens or Austen or any of those “literary” authors — they simply hold no appeal to me. About the only classic author I like is Thomas Hardy — oh, and thanks to you, I very much enjoyed Jane Eyre. But truly,life is too short to worry if my reading tastes are “literary enough”. If people are shocked by that, then that is there problem. I bet they haven’t read half the literary Irish and Australian novels I have read.

  5. I think you’re putting too much pressure on yourself and not just enjoying reading for what it is – an enjoyable hobby. If you took away this blog and your job, you’d still read and you’d probably feel less pressure to read the “greats”.

    I’ve read Dickens and Shakespeare, do I feel enlightened in any way? No, not really. Yes, they’re great writers, but you don’t need to have read them in order to read everything else or appreciate literature. To be honest the pretension and snobbery in book circles is preposterous. Who is to say that someone who reads YA is worse off than if they read Hardy?

    We read what we enjoy. Are you literary enough? Of course you are, you can only read what you want to. I read literary novels from the Booker lists and translated fiction, but I also read SFF and YA novels. Surely being eclectic is the better experience because you get to sample everything. Think of what you’d miss out on if you just stuck to one thing. It’s not for everyone.

    You say you don’t know what kind of reader you are and the fact that you even question that is a little sad. Look around you. You’re a reader who READS, simple. I’m sure your home is filled with books, you have written a well read and respected book blog for five years and you are a font of knowledge when it comes to literature in whatever form.

    Don’t forget the most important thing, Simon. It’s about the story, the words that deliver it ultimately don’t matter.

    Writers write so that readers can read.

    • I probably was putting myself under pressure actually in part because of the not getting the job thing but also because really reading is sometimes work, and that isn’t a complaint but the blog is a hobby on top of bookish work, so it has moments of utter joy when I read delightful things and erm, the opposite when I am not.

      I have chilled out a lot though, especially with things going on off blog making me think life is just too short.

  6. David

    A ‘good enough’ reader… good enough for what? I read to be entertained, provoked and sometimes educated. Yes, I do feel in awe of other people’s reading sometimes, and it is one of the (many) reasons why I don’t blog. I’d be afraid of feeling the kind of pressure that you are – wrongly – putting on yourself, and that something I do for pleasure would become a chore or a burden.

    The only Dickens I’ve read is ‘A Christmas Carol’. I love it and must have read it half a dozen times – it’s one of the very few books I can quote from from memory – but I have never been inclined to try one of his novels, and none of the TV adaptions have convinced me otherwise. I’ve read a couple of Thomas Hardys, a couple of Jane Austens, one EM Forster. Partly I tell myself I’m saving the ‘classics’ for when I’m old and tired of modern fiction (like my A-Level French tutor who swore there had been no British fiction worth reading since Graham Greene), but partly I’m just not that bothered: I read for me, not to show off my erudition to other people (erudite I’m not). Last month I read Hemingway for the first time (‘The Old Man and the Sea’) – perfectly decent book, lots of interesting imagery to dig into, but it excited and engaged me probably less than any other novel I read in August.

    The only time my lack of grounding in the classics bothers me is when modern books that I’d really like to read are based on them – so I’m put off reading Cynthia Ozick’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ and Colm Toibin’s ‘The Master’ because I haven’t read Henry James, Francesca Segal’s ‘The Innocents’ because I haven’t read Edith Wharton, and David Miller’s ‘Today’ because I haven’t read Joseph Conrad (though just to be perverse I have a complete set of Conrad’s novels!).

    I read a lot of current British literary novels with a side serving of American ones. A few years ago I realised a lot of my favourite books were Canadian so I started paying attention to Canadian reviews/blogs/prizes and ‘CanLit’ now makes up at least a quarter of my reading. This year I have added Australian literature and am really getting into discovering that. I want to read more African and Indian writing and feel I ought to get over my aversion to translated works… Honestly, I don’t know that I have the time to fit in classics too!

    Whilst I don’t question the value of reading the classics and recognise that they have stayed in print for 150 years because they are very good, I’d agree with you completely that your book charity was being snobbish. I wonder if your interviewers had read half as many novels from recent literary prize lists as you have? I’d be inclined to guess not.

    Just keep doing what you’re doing Simon. Read whatever you want because you want. There isn’t an exam at the end.

    • Wow! Any reply I do to this won’t do justice, though with comments like that you really should be blogging you know ;) That said I can see the appeal of not having a blog if you love books. Not that I would ever wish Savidge Reads away, maybe I just need a holiday now and again. Who knows? I am much more relaxed about it all at the moment though.

  7. I often feel exactly like this. What kind of reader am I?! is a very fraught question. I understand that it sounds like a weird thing to worry about – everyone says ‘just enjoy it, it’s for pleasure’. But for me reading is mixed up with my identity. The kind of reader I am is related to the kind of person I am, and maybe this is the same for you and that’s why you’re troubled by it? So I find it a bit disconcerting that I go through phases of literary fiction, science fiction, classic fiction, historical fiction being my ‘thing’, sometimes to the exclusion of other things.

    I don’t just feel in awe of people who seem to know what they’re interested in, I feel a bit jealous too! I have friends who are really up to date on the writing in their field of interest. They keep track of all the new releases; they read the specialist blogs and take part in all the debates. Meanwhile I’m zipping around from one thing to another, never feeling like I’m on top of anything. But I’m starting to come to terms with it now. It’s ok to plough our own furrow. Being literary can mean breadth or depth I think: we can either read widely from any shelf, or we can go deep into one particular area. Both are valid.

    • Oh Victoria… sometimes I think I actually need to chanel you in some way in times like these. I couldn’t put it better than “But for me reading is mixed up with my identity. The kind of reader I am is related to the kind of person I am, and maybe this is the same for you and that’s why you’re troubled by it?”

      You so see where I am coming from, especially with understanding that when people, kindly of course, say it shouldn’t matter it doesn’t really help. I also get jealous too. Wow, spooky!

  8. I’ve only read Oliver Twist. I remember being profoundly disappointed that the line “Boy for Sale!” isn’t actually in the book. What’s that all about?!?

    You should read the first chapter of ‘Literary Theory’ by Terry Eagleton, which asks the question; “What *is* literature?”. It’s a kind of roundabout argument in which he suggests some football chants have a greater sense of rhythm and cultural significance than some, say, modernist poetry – so how come football chants aren’t literature but modernist poetry is? His conclusion is that literature is an indefinable thing – his best attempt is to say “literature is writing which, for some reason, at some time, is valuable to some people” – and he suggests that if you try to be any more specific than that, then you’ll soon run into problems.

    Literariness is such a vague and wishy washy term anyway; it means so many things to so many different people.

    Many bloggers like to describe Ian McEwan and Sebastian Faulks etc. as “literary” – which is fine – but then there are some bloggers who only read the MEGA difficult, incredibly abstract books (Joyce’s ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, Cisco’s ‘The Great Lover’, Danielewski’s ‘Only Revolutions’, Paul Auster, Thomas Pynchon etc. etc.) – and to people who read stuff like this, maybe McEwan etc. is just mainstream, unliterary trash. Buuutt… do readers of McEwan look down on readers of Twilight?? There are so many levels. Dickens is a walk in the park compared to Joyce or Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’: so does that mean Dickens isn’t literary?? Maybe difficulty is a literary quality (of course it isn’t…)

    I mostly review sci-fi/horror/weird/fantasy novels – but I will *insist* until I’m blue in the face that some of this stuff *is* the most literary writing currently being produced. Yet when I was at uni, I actively hid my love of this stuff, purely because it was considered transient trash, not worthy studying. If only I had the confidence in my tastes then that I have now…

    Anyway… my over-laboured point is this: literariness is an unhelpful and vague critical term, and anybody who judges anybody else on some subjective standard of the literariness of their reading probably isn’t worth your time.

    Also: that job. WHAT?!?! I completely agree: giving Great Expectations (or whatever) to a reluctant reader is probably the worst way to go about encouraging them. What snobs. I hope you said “don’t you know who I am??” and stormed out. ;)

    Tom.

    • Thanks for the agrrement on the job, oh hang on… I am meant to have let that go now *cough*. Now for the rest of this brilliantly eloquent and thoughtful response which I won’t be able to do justice to…

      First up, I will have to try the Terry Eagleton, I admit I feel slightly scared by it but I have popped it on my Wishlist for a Christmas recommendation. So thank you for letting me know about that.

      I think you are right on what quantifies ‘literary’ novels. In Austen and Dickens day they were populist, though now of course they are deemed oh so very literary, having now read Austen I get why and yet I can still see some issues, same characters in every story-ish, but I can say that now I have actually read one and I think that is important and trying the canon authors classic and modern is an important part. They aren’t for people who want to get back into reading though!

  9. Janet D

    Stop worrying. Read what you feel like reading at that moment. Enjoy it (hopefully).Then entertain and inform the readers of your blog with your thoughts. They choose to read your blog when they could be reading Dickens!

  10. gaskella

    I admit – I get a bit p***ed off with those types who insist that to be a good reader you have to have read the ‘Canon’. I stopped studying English after O-level and didn’t even do Eng Lit, but I’ve never stopped reading for a moment, and my reading has got more and more eclectic over the years – which for me is a good thing. I’ve dipped into the canon and enjoyed the few bits I’ve read – some Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Brontes, but not yet Elliot, Trollope or my namesake(!), but I don’t feel I have to read more of it to become a better reader. I’d rather continue to read wider – more translation, more genre, more … of everything and anything.
    The people who didn’t give you a job appear to have been a little one-track minded in their definition of literariness, by not realising that breadth of reading good books can surely equal depth in the canon.

  11. david73277

    Lots of wise comments here so far. They all seem to agree, as do I, that you should not feel bad about not having read any individual author or “the canon”.

    With regard to the job interview, it is possible that you were not chosen not because of who you have not read but because you *said* you had not read someone. I’ve had plenty of job interviews this year, and read plenty of advice about to handle them: a common tip seems to be to avoid saying anything negative whatsoever, and never using phrases like “I do not” or “I have never”. Negatives should only be broached if specifically asked about, for example, in the famous “what are your weaknesses?” question, and even then you should always be seeking to turn the negative to a positive (avoid “I am a perfectionist”, that is too much of a cliche). Yes, this is totally artificial, but job interviews are a totally artificial situation.

    I have also been told that, if possible, you should avoid expressing any personal opinions in an interview, and if forced to express an opinion you should sit on the fence. This might even extend to being asked about favourite books or authors if you are being interviewed for a bookish job. On the other hand, I’ve also received plenty advice about the importance of being yourself and stressing your own unique qualities. Interviews are a difficult balancing act and an art in themselves.

    • You see in my career history I worked in HR for several years and I would never have given the advice of ‘don’t give an opinion’ that seems very odd to me, the whole point of interviews is selling yourself and being different, though hopefully good different not bad hahaha.

  12. Kate G

    Great comments so far, and you have really brought to the forefront my own dilemma about reading. One of my book groups is comprised of very ” literary ” people who have read far more of the “canon” than I have. This becomes a problem when we read more modern books which are derived from older works. I have never read any Jane Austen ( and only recently Dickens, but that was while recuperating from surgery). I try to add “classics” to my reading, but sometimes, I have brief chunks of time and find other genres easier to read. I do find myself intimidated by more “literary” types at book group when they are able to make references that I can’t, but I will continue on, as reading is not a race ( unless book group is a few days away). I believe we are all ” literary enough ” as you write your blog and I become smarter by reading it. I still feel like a work in progress!

    • Do you know what though Kate, I actually think being a work in progress is a good thing. When I wrote this post, apologies for the delay in responding, I hadn’t read a full Austen novel and I was quite snooty about how twee she would be. I was so wrong, but the pressure I felt before I picked it up was quite strong which was even more off putting. Hence why I have since said I actually liked her, but don’t feel you have to read her, and indeed I was a teeny bit critical of her despite loving it.

      I have pulled out of book groups recently, I need some whim reading time, he says working on a book prize and podcast and new challenge for canon authors, ha.

  13. First off, belated happy birthday!

    As for reading and being ‘literary enough’, the way I see it there are two choices. Either pick a very small sub-section of literature and become an authority on it, or read a bit of everything and accept the constant feeling of inadequacy. There are millions of published books, and even an avid reader can only cover a few hundred a year. You do the math, as they say in the States. I prefer to read widely and discover a bit of everything, rather than feel comfortable in my expertise on a small area. But those are the only realistic choices.

    It’s still something I worry about, both as someone who blogs about books and as someone who writes them. It’s that deep human fear of looking stupid in public, and it’s very powerful. We can all tell ourselves not to feel ashamed, but reason is pretty impotent next to emotion.

    • Belated thank you for the belated birthday comment Andrew. And indeed in commenting back.

      I like how you have put that there are two choices. I think I have decided that longterm I am going to go with the latter, though maybe I could shake it up and binge on an author or genre now and again. Crazy ;)

  14. Laura Caldwell

    You are the reader that you are. The reader that you are has inspired me to read many books that I never would have otherwise. I read “My Cousin Rachel” this summer because YOU loved it. I did too. I read “The Song of Achilles” at least partially because of you, and it is now one of my favorites. I read the Summer Book Club Books because of you and Gavin, and enjoyed most of them quite a bit. Definitely books that I never would have read otherwise. I NEVER finish a book that I am not enjoying-there are too many books that I want to try, and I am closer to running out of reading time than you (mid-fifties). Sure, you should stretch your reading (like you have caused me to) but you are who you are, and your readers and listeners enjoy who you are. PS That job was obviously not meant for you! Imagine dealing with those people as bosses!!!

  15. I think it’s a natural question. And one of the reasons that I started my self-imposed book challenges a few years back. When I was teaching, I felt really guilty about what I hadn’t read (despite the fact that literature was not my field) and it has taken me awhile to get over it. Luckily, since my blog was originally started as I began to explore opera (knowing almost nothing about it), I’ve never felt pressure on that score. And my fellow book salon members have been very helpful in encouraging me to read what I want (instead of kicking myself for getting stuck on my challenge books) and I’m gradually moving toward that.

    I’m still deciding whether to even do a challenge next year. In fact, I keep returning to your “reading like it’s the end of the world” concept. It’s odd to hear you doubt yourself because The Readers (as well as BOTN, etc.) have helped me to see that the “literary” net is so much wider than I ever imagined. I can’t thank you enough for that. I think people now see me as more literary than when I was a professor, simply because I can recommend great new books like The Snow Child or The Song of Achilles. So, take that, snobby bookish charity!

    • Hahahah take that indeed… oh no I must not be smug hahaha.

      I think we all need a bit of a doubt analysis in life now and again and indeed if I hadn’t had that one I wouldn’t be doing Classically Challenged and so far, ok only one in, I am really glad that I am. I think we need to challenge, doubt and test ourselves in all aspects now and again, as long as we deal with it constructively if we have any wobbles about what we are doing, or not doing.

  16. In a case of mild irony I have almost exactly the opposite dilemma. I’ve read, and continue to read lots of ‘the classics’ just because I enjoy them and that’s how the mood takes me at the moment. I do sometimes think I should make more effort with contemporary and translated fiction – I’m undoubtedly missing out on things – but then I think why worry about it. I read for fun more than any other reason and have no intention of turning it into work.

    I wouldn’t worry about it if I was you, one day you might wake up and be in the mood for Dickens, or you might not, either way he hardly needs the sales ;)

    • Haha thats true, I don’t think me liking him or not even matters.

      I think its interesting you have the opposite dilemma. Maybe you should give yourself an Un-Classically/Contemporarily Challenged challenge? Ha!

  17. Jo

    Lots of comments above have really covered what I want to say. You are a reader, simply what you read is probably immaterial. There is no exam at the end. I think you are being hard on yourself.

    If it is a joy to read books, then embrace it, if it is a joy to read Dickens then embrace them. If it is a joy to read Agatha Raisin embrace it, if it is somewhere in between then embrace it.

    I sometimes think I should read more of what they call the ‘classics’ but it normally lasts about 24 hours and I crack on with the book I want to read. But then if I want to read something more then I do. I had an interest to read Northanger Abbey so got on and read it, and enjoyed it. But if I do not pick up another classic for the next 6 months so be it.

    I hope you gain something from all these comments, and I will be interested to your response and see if it makes you relook at your original question.

    • Hahaha I can go from Austen to Agatha Raisin and all in between and you know what Jo, you have made me see that this is fine. Well all the comment have but you just brough Agatha in and that cleared it all up a bit for me, actually I haven’t read her in ages.

      I think having some distance has sorted me out, plus everything going on with Granny Savidge and realising life is too short. For example this week will have seen reviews of Austen, a guy from League of Gentlemen, Susan Hill and ya author James Dawson and I think that shows a broad varied reader, maybe.

  18. Your question made me think of what a teacher of mine once said: “As long as you pause every now and then to take a look at what you are doing, and keep the openness to re/consider, you’re doing just fine.”

    I guess with all the books out there, and the way many of them are just a click away now, it would be strange not to wonder about who you spend your reading time with, which voices you listen to, and how to select them.

    What would Dickens read today?

    • I am a big fan of your teacher and I think that is just what this whole post was. Me pondering where I am at, and guess what, I will probably do the same in another six months and that is fine too.

      What would Dickens read today…blimey that is a hard question. Maybe one for the podcast!

  19. JoV

    I started late so I am a bit worried that I can’t read all the great work on planet earth. If it makes you feel better I haven’t read Austen nor Dickens, both authors I have read about 100 pages into P&P and Great Expectations and somehow manage to get distracted by other books.

    Life is too short. Read what you want!

    • Life is indeed short you are so right Jo and I am definitely thinking that way much more now. I think sometimes we just arent ready or in the right place mentally for certain books and that is fine too.

      Plus as to reading late… better late than never. I hated books for years, what was up with that?

  20. There’s always something you won’t have read. I do like reading classics from time to time but I dip in and out of classics, contemporary, non-fiction, fantasy, crime… a bit of everything. And still I have conversations with “literary” readers who say “I can’t believe you haven’t read…” whoever it is. It does make me feel a bit inadequate but I just carry on reading whatever I like and try to shake the feeling off.

    How much simpler life must have been in centuries gone by where people had a much smaller range of “must-reads” to choose from! It’s almost a burden being so spoilt for choice.

    • Hahahaha life must have been much simpler indeed, and this does make me wonder if that is in part why classics are classics, was there just not much else around at those times?

      I think I too am a ‘bit of everything’ kind of reader.

  21. Putting aside the expectations of others, because you can’t control that part, I suppose the question is what do you consider “literary”? Are books now considered classics that were written a long time ago for the masses (e.g. Dickens’ novels) the epitome of literary? Or perhaps it’s structurally/stylistically complex books as exemplified by James Joyce? Or are both of those definitions far too slim and it’s actually a wide open field that really includes any beautifully written book. Cos that’s pretty vague but I suspect it’s what most of us mean…

    • Louise Trolle

      I think one definition of the “literary books to read”, could be those books that a lot of modern authors base their work on / reference in their fiction?

    • I think part of the problem might actually be that I don’t really know what I think is an isn’t literary because any book is literature of a kind, and that is literary in its definition. So actually that maybe the root of the issue?

  22. Greg

    I think you’re a bit hung up on the Dickens and Shakespeare question and you can come across a bit defensive about it. For whatever reason, these writers don’t excite you enough. Maybe that will change one day, maybe not.

    In the meantime you are championing many new authors who may, in time, join “the Canon”. It’s helpful to remember that Dickens serialised his works in magazines and was a popular (i.e. not literary) success of his day, more of a Robert Harris or a Terry Pratchett than an Ian McEwan. Shakespeare’s worth wasn’t universally acknowledged in his day – some contemporaries rated Ben Jonson or Christopher Marlowe more highly and a few of his plays (e.g. King Lear) were only performed with substantial re-writes for many years. Writers fall in and out of popularity, and there’s sometimes an agenda to what gets included in the Canon (if there really is just one canon any more). Our current conception of The Canon in English Literature is based on the works selected by F.R. Leavis back in the mid-20th Century and he definitely had an agenda (incidentally, he didn’t rate Dickens, either).

    Personally, I clicked with Shakespeare at school and then University and I’ve found study of his plays rewarding. He was writing at a time when the English language was developing fast and his language is very adventurous and clever, though it’s sometimes difficult to see his ingenuity today without a huge amount of annotations. As for Dickens, I’ve waded up to my knees into a couple of his vast tomes, far enough to understand that he’s politically engaged and an acute observer of social comedy, but I’ve yet to find the drive to finish one. I’m not distraught about that.

    The Canon is useful as an overall list of “what readers have deemed special” down the years, but I don’t see it as an obligatory set of texts. I think it’s important to move towards what you like rather than linger over what hasn’t worked for you. One of Humanity’s chief advantages is that there are all kinds of people in the world – that’s how we cope as a species when something unexpected comes along. Those of us who thrill to fusty old literature with a capital “L” perhaps need people like you who’ll tell us which of the current Man Booker nominees was a good read. Your enthusiasm is attractive, your doubts less so.

    • Wow another great answer that I won’t be able to do justice in answering back. But I shall try…

      I am not hung up on the canon authors, I think I have a healthy interest and disinterest in them which I have been meaning to test and am now doing so. I actually think I was in the mind of ‘well I refuse to ever read them’ and was slightly proud I hadn’t read them, as conducive as saying I simply must. Only funnier.

      I enjoyed Austen. That was a big step.

  23. Louise Trolle

    I think it’s hard to make a general literary Parnassus / must-read list – just consider the nationality issue! As a Scandinavian, there are plenty Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, Icelandic and French authors you SHOULD have read, and far less emphasis on English /American writers.
    And then there’s taste – I like Anthony Trollope, Dickens and Jane Austen, but with the exception of Gogol and Chekov, the great Russians are generally too depressing for me, so I don’t read them.
    Many modern writers fall into this category for me too – I really don’t like bleak and depressing literature…

    Whether someone is literary (enough) I think depends on the area they claim to be knowledgeable of. Is it modern French literature? Crime? Victorian? ancient texts or childrens fiction? In that case, there are surely some “must-have-reads” :-)

    • Louise Trolle

      Oh, and I generally envy people who can read 2-3 or more books a week!! I’m not very good at reading loong stretches – and having 2 kids didn’t improve that at all…. So far I have more than 1000 books at home that I really really want to read, but it’s hard for me to find the time and energy to read more than 60-80 books a year!

    • I meant to thank you sooner for this comment as it was in part what inspired my post about world wide reading, so thank you Louise. I hadn’t taken into account the nationality issue and I should have as it is a very interesting and important one. As is the whole can of worms that is translation…

  24. I am absolutely with you. I am never convinced I am a good enough reader. Especially when I think that I haven’t read Dickens either, or many classic novelists, or many literary novelists either. I want to read more challenging books and improve my skills, but I am often drawn to books in other genres. I wish I knew more about literary theory and new of more authors and had read more of everything. I am also sure that I will probably always feel like this :-)

    • Becky come and join in with Classically Challenged, weve got people to vote on their favourite canon novels and so in a fun way we are working our way through them all. Is nice doing it with back up hahaha.

  25. Isn’t it a good job that we are all different as readers, that we all like such a variety of things, and that there are so many good book bloggers out there who give us an insight into a new genre or author or even national literature? Which we can then choose to explore further or not.

    I did actually study English at uni, so I have read most of the classics (and sometimes had all joy sucked out of them when you have to prepare them for exams). But that’s just one country’s literature. So I’ve had to accept that I am never going to be a world expert in anything. But I can still chime in with my own humble opinion when it’s something I’ve read.

    • I love your first point there Marina and completely agree with you. It would be so boring if we all liked the same books.

      I have been umming and ahhhing about starting doing some Literature study with the Open University actually, might be interesting and give me another insight.

  26. Well, it all rather depends on what kind of reader you want to be, doesn’t it?
    If you are okay with just sharing your subjective opinion on things, with no claim to objectivity, no responsibility towards being right, and no weight behind your posts beside your own, very personal taste – then by all means, read and write about whatever strikes your fancy.

    If however you consider yourself a serious reviewer (or even literary critic) who writes more than mere opinion pieces, who wants to give well-considered recommendations and who wants to be reliable in his judgements – then, I am afraid, there is absolutely no way around having read the major classics, for the simple reason that you are missing the essential of comparison. It is a simple matter of craft, and having the knowledge and the tools for it, you simply cannot declare “Jane Eyre” to be one of the best novels of the 19th century if you do not know the other candidates for that title. Nothing wrong with claiming that novel for a favourite, though, even if it is the only novel you have ever read in your life; and that is where I think the basic difference lies).

    (Oh, and a disclaimer – while I admit I am dichotomizing a bit, I do not think there is anything wrong with just sharing your personal likes and dislikes. It’s what I do on my own blog, after all, so I’m certainly not condemning it in any way.)

    • Elizabeth Taylor

      A very thoughtful response. Personally I would miss understanding all the literary allusions in recent well-written books had I not read the classics. Harold Bloom helped me to understand why the classics are classics.

    • Oooh I am not sure that I completely agree with your full statement here Heloise. I think to say that you can only be a good judge of literature in that sense is a little bit unfair on people who are starting out reading, or simply don’t want to read the canon novels, that shouldn’t mean their judgement on whether a book is good or bad is any less should it?

      Book groups would fall and crumble if that was the case surely?

      That said I do think its interesting that you mention authors using the ‘greats’ to inspire them to write and so maybe you get more of a sense of history of the written word and writers knowing both. Maybe.

  27. I never feel that way I’m glad to say! I think your last sentence is the one I agree with; I’d go so far as to say avoid having a “comfort zone” unless of course you need one in reading to escape awful things in the rest of your life. I’ve been very fortunate in that respect, both in my personal and professional life so I’m sure that influences my opinion significantly. I think the question might have some relevance if you were being a professional writer/reader/commentator but certainly not otherwise. I am extremely happy to list some of the excellent authors whose works I have never read. I am neither proud nor ashamed of that fact:

    Thackeray, Hardy, Compton-Burnett, Solzhenitsyn, Updike, Pynchon, Bronte family, Joyce, Tagore, Galsworthy, Hesse, Gordimer, etc, etc

    • Pride and shame probably aren’t the right terms to use, but I think one can feel a lack from knowing about an author’s reputation and not having tried them. Or maybe one only realises that lack after one fills it? I certainly didn’t realise what I was missing with Trollope until after I read him.

      And you know my feelings on comfort zones, so I shan’t rehash that argument, other than to say how glad I am that I have them, through happy or sad times!

      • Simon; thoughtful as ever in your response. I think there might be an age-related aspect to this. Compared to me, you and Simon S are a lot younger and I do remember feeling differently thirty five years ago. I felt then that I “had” to read a lot of books by different “significant” authors and that I did (crossing lots off my list after one book). Since then in my middle-age I have not felt like that, though I absolutely agree that one should certainly be challenging oneself and exploring new directions as much as one can (or as much as one can take perhaps).

    • I do have certain books I turn to in that instance. My unguilty guity pleasures if that makes any sense whatsoever.

      I admire your lack of shame, but then why should you feel any?

  28. I now feel horribly arrogant that I never feel like this! But I don’t think it is arrogance… it’s just being contented to read what I feel like. I know I’m doing a doctorate in English, but I’m doing it on writers and novels who are wildly outside the ‘canon’, and thus am constantly having to defend myself to people who don’t think my topic is worth studying – including during my interview to get from 1st to 2nd year! So it’s made me feel pretty resilient about my reading tastes and choices.

    There are plenty of authors and books I haven’t read – I don’t feel ashamed of it, but I do feel the lack. When I say (for instance) that I ‘must’ read Tolstoy, Drabble, whoever, it’s not because I feel I’m a terrible person for not having done so, but because I think my reading life will be enriched by having at least tried them. So, when I tell you that you must read Austen, I hope you know it’s only because I think you’ll love her! If you don’t, well, it’s not the end of the world.

    I don’t really hold with the ‘read whatever you like all the time’ argument which some people make, because I think readers should be stretched in different directions if we want to keep finding out about new things. You do that already – you’re just pulled in different directions from the acknowledged classics a lot of the time, and you’re so often experimenting with your reading.

    I don’t think anyone is judging you on your reading, so you just have to stop judging yourself now ;) (but do try Ivy Compton-Burnett!)

    • I don’t think that is arrogant. I am just a tad envious hahaha.

      I get, and now agree with, what you say about certain authors possibly enriching your life having read them. This could be classics like Jane Austen, who I have to say I enjoyed rather than loved and wouldn’t actually say it enriched or changed my world greatly, maybe I haven’t noticed it yet, but I am really glad I read and will do so again.

      I completely agree in testing ourselves and trying to read outside whatever personal box we have, just as much as i think comfort reads are a great thing to have too.

  29. I doubt I will be ever totally happy with my reading and I am definitely always in awe of readers who happily read so many different genres and so much and apart from reading and reviewing and blogging, do so much in their lives. I always feel I am not doing enough.

  30. Pingback: AJ Reads – Reading from the Past: What about Old & Middle English? (Part I)

  31. You’re not the only one feeling this way! Saying that, I’m not going to force myself to read something I’m not interested in. However, I do go through phases of wanting to try different genres depending on my mood. And regarding the canon, my main reason for wanting to read them is because I want to know why so many people love them. And I have to say that it’s 50/50 whether I end up loving them too. But if everyone read and loved the same books, it’ll make reading blogs pretty boring…

    • I think mood is incredibly important in whatever you are reading. Even if you want to be testing yourself all the time, or every so often, you need to be in the right mood to go with that challenge. That is probably why I don’t read huge novels I would like too, with so much going on off blog/in the real world I need shorter sharper engaging stuff in the main. Almost where the challenge is there but its not a long haul. This will change I am sure.

  32. Really enjoyed this article! I definitely agree that we all have a tendency to dictate to ourselves what books we should and shouldn’t be reading. I have to say that I do fall on the side of reading as much of everything as you can. Reading to me should, if possible, strike a fine balance between things you read for sheer pleasure and things you try on a whim or to broaden your mind. As a result I would think your more eclectic approach would indeed be the best method. I come from a university where Dickens is king, though I’ve always had rather lukewarm feelings towards him. I would agree that it is good to have an agenda behind your reading to direct you, but why torment yourself into reading something you have no interest in?

    • Thank you! I think your mentioning of the balance is spot on, we don’t want to be being tested all the time like we don’t want to only read comfort novels or one genre. It is all about mixing it up and just enjoying it.

      This post was like therapy really! There I feel much better.

  33. Pingback: AJ Reads – Classically Challenged: AJ Reads and Savidge Reads Go Classic!

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