Is The Lord of the Rings Essential Reading?

I mean, is any book essential reading? That’s the real question. But I’m going to focus right now on The Lord of the Rings.

The Lord of the RingsFirst things first: I’ve paid my Real Fantasy Nerd (™) dues. I marathon-read the whole thing over three days during a heat wave, back in middle school. This came up recently, because a few people who shall-not-be-named were getting on someone else’s case over having never read The Lord of the Rings and — here was the unforgivable part — she didn’t want to. Gasp, blasphemy! Arguments were made for how essential and how classic it was.

This was all said in good fun, but I ended up jumping into the fray. Yes, I’d read all of The Lord of the Rings, but I didn’t think they were essential reading. I couldn’t quite explain why, so I went on the offense – had any of them read The Tale of Genji? Or Journey to the West? I thought not. Wasn’t this “essential reading” stuff all relative? End of discussion.

But the truth is, this is something that gets to me. Every so often, I feel a twinge of guilt over my reading habits. All I’ve read since I graduated college is YA lit — no classics, no genre forerunners, and very little Shakespeare. Was it bad that I wasn’t challenging myself? Were my literary muscles atrophying? What kind of English major was I?

The Tale of GenjiThen again, I hadn’t done things the usual way in college. I didn’t just read dead white guys from the Western Canon. I also majored in Japanese, spending lazy afternoons with the words of Sei Shonagon, Murasaki Shikibu, and Natsume Soseki. The literature I read for one major heavily influenced how I viewed the other — East meets West. To me at least, one wasn’t more important than the other.

And let’s be real — if history is written by the victors, literature is defined by the privileged. In any age, you can find incredible non-white and women writers. Their works just didn’t make it into the classics section of the library. So what defines literature as ‘classic’ or ‘essential’ is flawed from the outset.

Now going back to The Lord of the Rings: If I’m honest, I am proud of having read the books. But if I’m even more honest, they didn’t do squat for me. Who I am – what inspires me, how I view the world, and what I love to read – is far more influenced by the works of writers like Terry Pratchett, Diana Wynne Jones, and Laurence Yep.

Or maybe I’m just giving myself excuses to read what I feel like, and not what challenges me. Who knows? I sure don’t. Anyway, do you consider The Lord of the Rings essential reading? And what defines essential reading for you? Should there even be such a thing?

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