Saturday, January 11, 2014

Revisiting the Question of Books I "Should" Read

On occasion (most recently, 11/23/13) I have written here about struggling with whether to read certain books that I feel I “should” read but don’t really want to. These are books that are within the types of books I usually read, are by major authors, and have gotten excellent reviews. And once in a while, someone who knows how much I read, and/or who reads this blog, seems surprised when I have not read a particular one of those books. A recent specific example is my decision not to read Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” (see my post of 11/10/13). But in the past couple of weeks, I have been reading critics’ end-of-the-year “best books” lists, which lists I compulsively devour, but which also raise complicated feelings in me. I have come to see that there are three kinds of books on these "best of the year" lists (from my perspective). First are books I see on the lists and am happy because I have already read and admired and/or enjoyed them. Examples of this category from the current lists include Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings”; Claire Messud’s “The Woman Upstairs”; Kate Atkinson’s “Life after Life”; Adelle Waldman’s “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”; Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland”; and Jo Baker’s “Longbourn.” Second are books that may well be “good,” but are so clearly not the kind of books I read (e.g., science fiction, very experimental or very violent novels) that I have no trouble at all deciding not to read them. But the third category is the difficult one. This includes books of the types and categories, and by the authors, that I usually do read. I believe that they are good, even perhaps great, but for some reason I am not drawn to them, and have decided earlier not to read them. In some cases, I decided right away not to read them; in other cases, I obtained copies of the books, but stopped reading after a brief perusal. So the books in the first two categories give me no problem, but those in the third category sometimes continue to tug at me, and seeing some of the titles repeatedly on these lists, often by critics I respect, exacerbates my sense of unease. Did I decide wrong? Am I missing an important book that I really SHOULD read? On the other hand, what about my decision, as I get older, to only read what I really want to read, and not waste time on the “shoulds”? So there is the conflict. My most recent decision (wimpy compromise?), made just a few days ago, was to look through some of those “best books of 2013” lists and make my own list of books that I initially rejected but now will reconsider. I may not read all of them, but I will at least give them another try.

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