Personal Great Books · Reading

In which I wonder about my own reading

I’ve never considered myself much of a non-fiction reader, preferring the plots and characters of a well-crafted novel to a tale of reality I too often prejudge as dull and dusty. Generalizations about non-fiction should not be based on the genuinely dry textbooks of our schooling, however, as I was recently reminded by The Monster of Florence, a riveting true-crime tale with twists and turns even the most daring crime writer would not dare take—due in part to the fact that the cognitive leaps taken by the investigators of the case would not be deemed plausible in the confines of mystery fiction, indeed, the authors of the book argue that they are not plausible in real life. In this sense, not only can non-fiction be more riveting than a novel, it can also be more troubling.

What I am troubled by in my latest non-fiction reading is not the words therein, however, but my own self. It is probably not generally advisable to read books that make us feel incompetent failures, yet here I am, reading not one, but two books that loudly declare my own failures, their condemnations ringing in my ears.

I am a failed reader.

This is a completely subjective statement. What and why anyone reads, how they read, what they take from it, outside of educational or work settings necessitating a more particular conquest of a text, is almost completely up to the reader themselves. Reading may be done for information, for entertainment, for edification, for escape, for cultural awareness, to prove one’s worth. My failure then, is not societal—I can, and do, read—but personal. I fail to meet my own expectations.

Once upon a time, I considered myself an accomplished reader. I read primarily the classics, with enjoyment, without an overbearing sense of obligation. Shakespeare? Check. Dickens? Check. Austen? Piece of cake. As I moved away from reading, as my reading of the classics was largely influenced by critical readings imposed by the classroom, I forgot to keep reading these great works. I became a sloppy reader, rushing through less difficult works with abandon, choosing escape and enjoyment over the personal satisfaction of a difficult task accomplished. I forgot that even the great books, the impossible books could hold the entertainment of those much easier.

Browsing around the web in the past weeks, seeing discussions of “best books” or the latest literary hits, I’ve been dismayed at the thought that I don’t know these books. I don’t know the Pulitzer winners, the Nobel winners, the critically acclaimed darlings. I’ve abandoned my beloved classics. If pressed to name books I’ve actually read that I consider “great,” I could name but few. This all I could realize without my latest reads.

It is Beowulf on the Beach and Reading like a Writer that force me to address my other failings. Both authors advocate “close reading,” reading for enjoyment, but without skimming, without rushing, rather, noticing the words and the phrases, processing everything, rereading if necessary. I skim, I skip, I overlook. Reading their words, their enthusiasms for phrases and sentences and stanzas, I feel the full force of how much I miss in my reading—not merely in the more difficult classics of obligation, but in the cozies of enjoyment. How often have I had to flip back a few pages, wondering how the protagonist, whom I recalled most definitely was in the kitchen, had arrived at the neighbors’ without ever leaving the house, only to discover that I had skipped right over the defining action words in my haste to arrive at the next plot turn? Do I ever even notice with enjoyment delightful turns of phrase? Have I not frequently wondered what defines a good book from a mediocre, a great book from a merely good?

I know that I have read great books with much enjoyment. I adored One Hundred Years of Solitude. But why? Was I a better reader nearly ten years ago, when I first read García Márquez’s delightful words than I am now?

All these thoughts in mind, I have decided to embark on a challenge, a personal challenge. There are many books challenges around, I know, some of which will overlap this. But I wish for no timeline, no strictly defined rules. (This is not to say I will not attempt some of these other challenges.) My challenge is simply this:

  1. I wish to read more “great” books.
  2. I wish to read them better.

To this end, I will have to create my own definition of great books. I will have to determine how I intend to read them better. I do not mean to parse them for every ounce of meaning or symbolism; I do mean to more fully appreciate the language, the words of the books.

To this list I add one more item, in an attempt to propel myself forward. I will be taking a vacation in the third week of May, a week when I will have more than ample time to begin a challenging book. This gives me four weeks to finish up those books currently scattered around, to define my “great books,” and to choose my first selection.

I must start planning. How exciting!

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4 thoughts on “In which I wonder about my own reading

  1. Two admirable goals, Amanda! Like and unlike you, though, I feel as if I’m not as familiar with some famous authors’ works because I spent many years reading more nonfiction than fiction. I like both equally for different reasons, but I am def. reading more fiction these days as a result of blogging. Haven’t quite figured that one out!

    1. I’m not sure if my goals are admirable or simply a bit over-ambitious! I have a habit of setting up goals for myself that are either too lofty or that, for whatever reason–time or my changing interests most commonly–neglected soon after. I’m hoping that writing them out and sharing them will force me into meeting my own expectations.

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