inTouch: Not Loving the Classics
After admitting that she has put a great deal of effort into reading and wanting to like the works of Thomas Hardy, Slate writer Juliet Lapidos asked other writers, critics and editors about “great books” they think are “Overrated.”
Although Lapidos is still applying herself to the seemingly tortuous task of reading Hardy, she admits to not liking his work and says, “I feel the same way about several works on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th century list…”
I have a love-loathe relationship with such lists myself: I eagerly read them (even lists of most-stolen books) looking to see if things I like make the cut, frown a little when I see that my tastes don’t match the lists and then figure, who cares anyway?
When I first learned that there was a literary canon, it seemed like a dangerous thing, as if someone was loading up books to blast at us, like it or not.
In college, I learned about how exclusionary the literary canon had been and that books traditionally held to be classics were missing a lot of people’s stories. In the Slate article, Jonathan Rosen reminds us that disagreeing with books that are held up as great isn’t a new thing and that perhaps the idea of a canon is outdated anyway:
“When Mark Twain said that whenever he read Pride and Prejudice he wanted to dig up Jane Austen and beat her over the head with her own shinbone, it must have felt satisfyingly subversive. In the age of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, it’s more of a compliment. Hating great books just isn’t that fun when there’s nothing you are required to like or read, and perfectly smart people keep telling you that The Wire and The Sopranos–excellent television shows to be sure–have replaced the novel.”
I love that what I have in common with the respondents is that we try. And I mean really try to read certain books or appreciate certain authors, but we can’t fake it. It’s kind of the literary equivalent of eating vegetables you don’t like when there are so many other foods around.
When I see lists of books, I scan them to see what I’ve read and find that most of the time I’m not represented. But that is okay, because I’ve read and enjoyed so many books. The fact that those books don’t make the lists is no big deal. Soon people will publish multiple versions of e-books with sound and images and there’ll so much to keep track of that canons will be subdivided by genres of genres.
I agree with the sentiments of Elif Batuman’s response to Slate’s survey:
“Like many people, I enjoy learning which canonical books are unbeloved by which contemporary writers. However, I don’t think participants in such surveys ought to blame either themselves (‘I’m so lazy/uneducated’) or the canonical books (‘Ulysses is so overrated.’) My view is that the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book.”
What books do you think get too much praise? What’s in your literary canon for people of your age/walk of life?
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