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?

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.

Ulysses-Remastered-Book-Cover 

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.

JWH