Should We Force Ourselves to Read Great Books Even If We Don’t Like Them?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 29, 2015

People discipline themselves to eat healthy even though they crave Ben & Jerry’s. People push  themselves to exercise, even though they’d rather keep playing Call of Duty. Should we make ourselves read James Joyce instead of James Patterson? Should we put down Gone Girl and pick up Anna Karenina?


My friend Mike just finished Don Quixote and emailed,

Are books like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest really worth the time and effort required to read them? What does the reader get in return? When I finished the final page of Don Quixote, my only feeling was relief that I didn’t have to read another word about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. All that time invested and my only feeling was relief.

That’s not very good testimony for reading the classics, is it? However, I should point out that Mike has read widely in the classics, and this could be an example that not all classic books work for all people. Evidently he loves Homer and Dickens, but not Cervantes.

But that still brings back the question: Should we read the classics because they are good for us? Even if they bore us? I’m not sure I buy into the Great Books of the Western World theory of education. I think we need to be reading great books, but not necessarily the most famous ones.

For instance, at The Top Ten, a site that tries to identify the best of the best books, the #1 book they identify is Anna Karenina, from 1877. I thought it good enough when I read it a couple years ago, but not great. I much preferred The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, from 1875, to explore that time period of history. I learned a lot about Russia and the serfs from Anna Karenina, but not as much as I learned about London from Trollope. Maybe my personality is tuned to resonate with Trollope, but not Tolstoy.


Even great writers on the best of the best lists, can’t agree about what is great literature, here’s a recent quote from Vladimir Nabokov on great books:

I’ve been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice, or Pasternak’s melodramatic, vilely written Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.

Nabakov’s Lolita is #5 on The Top Ten list, which is based 125 writers each picking their Top Ten books, and assembling a list of which books were on the most lists in a weighted system. 25 of the 125 writers had put Anna Karenina on their list, so who am I to argue with them. But I do. The Greatest Books uses a different system to identify the best books of all time, and 7 of its top ten overlap with the Top Ten list, but Anna Karenina was #16, and Lolita #15. And, The Way We Live Now isn’t on their list at all.

I’m currently struggling through Ulysses by James Joyce. I understand why it’s brilliant. I recently read The Most Dangerous Book Kevin Birmingham, a history of Ulysses, to prepare for listening to Ulysses. I know the struggles Joyce went through to write his masterpiece, the tremendous hurdles to get it published, and all the legal battles over its moral value. Yet, I can’t quite say it’s a fun read. I’m having to make myself absorb Ulysses. I can sense its brilliance, no question, but I can also sense brilliance when a physicist writes arcane mathematics on a blackboard that I can’t comprehend.

the signature of all things

On the other hand, the more I push myself into the fictional world James Joyce created the more I learn about history and literature, and the development of modern thinking that emerged in the 20th century. My trouble with Ulysses is I fail to escape into it. I stopped reading Ulysses to read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, a book that captivates me in its recreation of the 19th century. Both books draw me into the past, but one was written by an observer of its time and place, and the other by an author who must imagine the past. You’d think the massive abundance of actually observed details would be more seductive, yet Joyce actually makes it hard for the reader.

I’m not sure if this quote is even close to correct, but I believe Joyce said he’d rather have one reader who read his book a million times than a million readers. I might ask is it better to read a thousand books once, or a hundred books ten times. At what stage in our reading life do we need to read books that require greater effort?

Ultimately, to answer the title question of this essay we must examine why we read. Whether we’re reading fiction or nonfiction, I think we have psychological motivations for spending so many hours staring at black marks on white pages. Doesn’t it really come down to this:

  • Escapism
  • Education
  • Entertainment
  • Enlightenment

Many critics use the word escapism as a criticism, but I think it’s one of the more powerful appeals of reading. Reading is a like a drug, where we turn off our awareness of here and now, and go somewhere else. Even great scholarship is escapist. We love to immerse our minds into novelty, whether fiction or nonfiction, and forget about our mundane reality.

the way we live now

Even if we’re reading a trashy best-seller, we like to think we’re learning something about the world. If I choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey I’d like to think I was actually learning something about why people are into S&M. We don’t read for one of these qualities, but all of them. The best of books allow us to escape into an alternate reality built with words, where we seek pleasure, knowledge and epiphanies.

The reason why I have trouble reading Ulysses is because it doesn’t allow me to escape, and it’s low on the entertainment scale. It is high on the education and enlightenment scales. The Signature of All Things is addictive where Ulysses is not because of its escapist and entertainment values, but also because it is educational, and maybe even enlightening.

This doesn’t mean I’ve giving up on Ulysses. I created a study group to push myself harder with Ulysses, to see if it will pay off. Of course, this equates reading Joyce to mountain climbing. Will I be like Mike, and just be glad I finished when I’m done, that getting through the book is the goal, like getting to the top of a tall mountain? Or will the exercise make my literary mind and body healthier?

I don’t know, but maybe will by the end of June 16th.


11 thoughts on “Should We Force Ourselves to Read Great Books Even If We Don’t Like Them?”

  1. Perhaps you need to go back to the basics as to why someone calls something great.

    You mention the book about Ulysses. I suspect that’s the problem. A fascinating story of creation and legal troubles surrounding the novel doesn’t make the novel any better. A piece of art may get better when you know something about its creator and the process it was created by — but it shouldn’t depend on that. Its worth should be obvious without background details of its creator or how it was made.

    For instance, take “outsider art”. That homeless lady’s painting still looks like crap and it isn’t any better because she was a “primitive” artist and self taught and was schizophrenic. A bad movie isn’t less bad because of a great “making of” documentary.

    I would say that you are getting into a questionable expenditure of time if someone has to explain to you why a novel is great but only obscure or boring text is between the covers. (Obviously, one reader’s boring is endlessly fascinating to another.) If someone has to justify obscurity as a new mode of perception or that a novel is a manifested metaphor, I’m going to be suspicious . A novel or work of art may be that but, if you don’t appreciate it without that explanation, how worthwhile is spending time with it? That’s what makes it questionable to abuliantly working your way through reading lists. (That’s “you” in the impersonal sense. I don’t think James Harris does that.)

    A critique, an artist’s bio can help you appreciate it, but the work itself has to create that appreciation and extra information can build on that. (I think of the apocryphal line, supposedly from Twain, that Wagner’s music was better than it sounds.)

    And artists have a responsibility to communicate. Part of that is making a message comprehensible and intelligible. They don’t get any more of a pass for mumbling and babbling than your co-worker who wants to annoy you with the details of his latest dream. Proclaiming yourself an artist doesn’t absolve you of that necessity — or others proclaiming your greatness.

    Frankly, Ulysses always sounded like something of a con effort to me, so I doubt I’ll ever read it. Trollope maybe.

    I’ve read some books of the “Great Books”. They all enriched me. But I selected them based on what I had heard of their contents — not because someone told me to. (Well, outside of college.)

    Time on the planet is short. Why waste it reading something solely because someone put it on a list?

    And, as the years go on, I think all us readers revise that list of books we’ll read “someday”.

    1. Marzaat, there’s always the conflict between taking the easy road and taking a more difficult trail. Normally, I read to be thrilled, so letting a roller coaster carry me along is fine. But sometimes I’m willing to hike under my own power into new territory. I’ve listened to enough of Ulysses to know it’s dazzling. But Joyce is also telling me to keep up, because his story is a marathon and he’s going to run my ass ragged.

      1. I understand what you’re saying.

        I finish any book I start no matter how tedious. There’s something to be said for attacking a “classic” in detail after you’ve read it. It cuts off the “you haven’t even read that so how do you know” argument. It took me all of a summer once to wade through the Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — and no Joycean wordplay there.

        But I don’t start books just because someone puts them on a classics list — except for lists of classic sf books. And that’s because those lists are a guide, a claim, that someone says will help me understand the genre. Thus I read — and loathed — Dhalgren.

        A late friend of mine used to read dreadfully boring material — he’d tell me it was — because he had the heart of an academic historian and read primary source material. So there are reasons to read a boring book aside from its contents. If you’re reading a list of what someone claims are seminally original and influential literary works and want acquaintance with reputed game-changers of lit, I can see reading Ulysses.

        I can’t see reading it because it shows up on something like Time’s Greatest 100 Books or whatever. That’s a little vague criteria for me.

  2. I love this discussion, I had the same problem with Moby Dick. I liked the book but there were parts that were challenging to get through especially the extensive history and description of whales. Back in 1851 how many people would have seen an actual whale or understand what it looked like? These days just flip on one of half a dozen Alaskan reality shows and you’re likely to see one. I’ve tried and failed at Ulysses a couple of times but I hope to one day read and appreciate the work.

    1. Moby Dick was another novel I had to push myself through. I’m glad I did, but it was work. Have you read In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick? It’s about the whaling ship Essex, the real life story that inspired Moby Dick. The movie version comes out soon.

    2. Ugghh, the interminable Moby Dick — especially its chapters on the meaning of white. A story better suited for the Classics Illustrated treatment.

      On the other hand, I like Melville’s Civil War poetry and Billy Budd and “Bartleby the Scrivener”.

  3. I got about 1/4th of the way through Anna Karenina before giving up. I understand why it’s considered a great book–it is–but I give up on books when they start feeling like chores. There’s so much we have to do during the day (go to work, pay bills, make the bed, exercise)–reading should not be one of them. I read for pleasure, and if that means I haven’t read a ton of classics since college, so be it.

  4. I think most readers are like you WanderLustyWriter. I’m normally like that myself. Reading is for fun. But sometimes we need to try newer kinds of books, and get out of our old reading ruts. I stuck with Anna Karenina, but only marginally enjoyed it. I think with the classics, you have to find the right gateway books. Pride and Prejudice is one. I’d also claim The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope is another, but it isn’t very well known.

    Reading 19th century novels are an acquired taste, but I’ve gotten hooked and love them now. But I also love even more, recreated 19th century novels, like The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

  5. I guess I follow Isaac Bashevis Singer’s dictum: “If I don’t feel like turning the page, I don’t turn the page.”
    I stuck with many a “classic” just to have them under my belt. Some, such as Don Quixote, paid off for me in a big way. Others, like Moby Dick (which I called Mobius Dick because there seemed to be no end to it), did not. On the other hand, Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is, for me, an absolutely seminal piece of American short story writing.
    As I get older, though, I have less patience for books like Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow. Sometimes I wish a writer would just “spit it out”.
    But then, they often have so little to “spit out”.

    Of course, the irony is that I trust my own opinion about books largely because of huge body of reading I was required to read in school. Looking back, I don’t regret the force feeding.

  6. You all seem to be missing the point here.
    First of all, why is difficulty in Art considered detrimental? Are not the Shostakovich or the Beethoven string quartets hard?
    Or Bach keyboard music; or the unaccompanied cello suites…Complexity is what connoisseurs thrive on, demand.
    Anyway, why would Joyce write a novel that no one could or would read (finnegans wake, not included in this discussion)?
    Ulysses is fun to read (outside of school). Actually it is the only reason to read any book at all. For pleasure. The entertainment value is the only thing that is important.
    If you don’t enjoy reading Ulysses don’t bother. If you don’t like Moby Dick don’t bother with it. the Brothers K. no good
    then don’t bother. Try Don Quixote ( the Putnam translation) don’t like it then don’t bother.
    Once you are out of school reading is just for fun. It doesn’t make you a better person and there is nothing to be learned.
    Ulysses is a hard book to read. You have to go slowly and carefully, but it is also the most re-readable in sections small or large.
    The only Reason to read Ulysses or anything else is because you enjoy the way the author tells the story, your interesed
    and your entertained. That’s it. Ulysses is just for fun.
    ps. (As an aside, the best reading copy of Ulysses is the ’61 Random House, and if not that then the Dover 2009 reprint
    of the original 1922 Shakespeare & co. Second, contrary to most suggestions about tackling Ulysses you do not need
    any prior Knowledge or preparation, but, if after your first time through, in anticipation of a second read someday, the very
    best book ever written about Ulysses is Stanley Sultan’s 1964 The Argument of Ulysses. Professor Sultan stands almost
    alone in the whole history of Joyce criticism: seeing Ulysses for exactly what it is and always has been: simply a grand and wonderful work of Art, to be enjoyed time and again by any one who cares to take the time and give it the attention it
    Sorry for the rambling:
    An ol Joyce lover.

    1. I think the difficulty barrier affects people differently. Some people enjoy the challenge. As much as I tried, I never could get into Ulysses, but that’s not the book’s fault. 50 years ago I wouldn’t have loved Dickens, Trollope, Elliot or Austen. I don’t know if I have enough time to mature to the point where I will find Ulysses lovable, but it’s possible. I did love Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man at 16. I’ve read it three times now. The trouble is I’d like to enjoy Ulysses. I’ve read far more pages about the book than I’ve ever read in the book.

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