Literary Fiction

On Reading the “Greats” (Or Not)

philip rothThe biggest gap in my reading history is mid-to-late 20th century white American males, those dude-tastic modern masters. Your Pynchons, Roths, DeLillos, Updikes, Wolfes, etc.–writers of awkward sex scenes and unsubtle penis metaphors (so I hear). Maybe what I’ve been told about Modern Old White Man Books is wrong, maybe not, but the way I skirt around them at the bookstore leads me to a different question, one that lives in the center of my reading habit: should I force myself to overcome discomfort or feelings of meh in order to read something because it’s “important”?*

As someone who enjoys the classics and has no issue telling people that they Should-Capital-S read certain books, I tend to lean toward yes. You’ll never hear me proclaiming, “Hey, at least they’re reading” while talking about Fifty Shades of Twilight by Dan Brown. I’m a big believer in the idea that some books are objectively better than others, and I’m usually trusting enough of the reading community to at least give partial credence to claims about brilliance in this or the other writer.

But!

Not to get all HBO’s-Girls-What-Does-It-Mean-To-Be-An-Adult on you, I do think that part of being a bona fide grown-up reader is owning your tastes without apologizing, and operating out of those tastes whenever you damn well feel like it. So if you know the Victorians aren’t your jam, you don’t read them. But isn’t another part of being a fully realized reader recognizing that it isn’t just about entertaining yourself, that some of what you ingest needs to be effortful and that participating in your culture does in some part include giving a passing glance to the things that are deemed “important” by said culture? To know you hate the Victorians, you have to at least try them.

Or maybe that’s just my version of hardcore reading: neurotic and torn between two opposing ideals of literary life (reading only what is fun and reading what is daring and inventive and therefore hard). It’s all about this question (Another one! Question-ception!): why are we reading in the first place? Are you a Casual Reader, in it for the relaxation/distraction/entertainment? Then forcing yourself to read something for whatever reason probably sounds heinous.

But if you read like your life depends on it because it actually does–because it’s how you process the general goings–on of your life, the universe, and everything (hey-o Douglas Adams), you’re probably more open to the idea of forcing yourself to try something that other readers have declared to be masterful. There is a breed of reader who wants to level up, upgrading-Samus-Aran’s-suit-style, or to warp a phrase from Cheryl Strayed, who is into reading like a motherfucker. Reading like a motherfucker involves more effort than you initially want to put in. It involves laying down preconceived notions about a work and understanding the history of this thing you love. Reading like a motherfucker isn’t about being entertained all the time, and it’s certainly not about relaxing (have you READ Ulysses?). Reading like a motherfucker is, somehow and sometimes, about work.

Alright, Nelson. Pick up Rabbit, Run.

 

*”Important” doesn’t just mean “literary fiction” or “classics.” There are foundational works that require mega-brain space in every genre.