Books I’ve Read v. Books I ‘Should Read’ (and all those books I never finished)

book v book

No prizes for guessing which is the bigger pile.

As a literature student, I’m only all too aware that I will never be able to read all the books I should have read, let alone doing the thing that made me go to university in the first place – that forgotten feeling, that utopian memory: reading for fun.

You might not be surprised that there are a lot of ‘classics’ in my already read pile – a few particularly hefty volumes of which I am smugly proud, although admittedly these were mostly all on my first-year reading list. You also might not be surprised that there are more than a few thorough-bred ‘classics’ on my should-read-or-never-quite-finished pile: War and Peace, a good smattering of Dickens, and – to my shame – all of the Austen novels except Persuasion, which has featured twice on reading lists in my short literary career.

But, so what? Should I be ashamed to call myself a ‘literature student’ if I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice?

The literary canon does have its place, in a way. Some classics are considered ‘classic’ for a reason, granted. And, though Austen may not really be for me, I know that there are many Darcy-lovers (not to be entirely confused with Colin Firth-lovers) out there – and that’s great.  But the idea of reading a book simply because some critics at some point said “this is good” is a very limiting way of reading. Who and why have these books been awarded their cultural “greatness”? More often than not, it will be white middle-class men choosing books by white middle-class men who wrote in support of the dominant status of white middle-class men in society.

Of course there are many exceptions to this rule – and I’m not saying I haven’t enjoyed my fair share of said ‘classics’ – but it’s important to be aware of these issues when reading, for study or for pleasure. And, more than anything, it makes me feel a little bit better about never having read any Hardy…

Oh, and for all those Colin Firth – ahem Darcy – fans out there:

This blog post was inspired by a recent post on a frequent favourite of mine – so please visit!

27 thoughts on “Books I’ve Read v. Books I ‘Should Read’ (and all those books I never finished)

  1. Aw, thanks for the hat tip at the bottom!

    As you say, reading should be a pleasurable experience – not one we have to endure. Having said that, it does sometimes annoy me when people won’t even experiment with books outside their comfort zone. You need to try new flavours sometimes.

    • It’s a pleasure, as always. This is very true – I think it js also important to read books which make you think and inspire you (slightly different from pure enjoyment) and I’m sure that there are many classics I will come to one day and love. You’re talking in part to the ravings of a student subject to the horrors that subscribed reading lists can entail…!

  2. I’m not sure it’s a gender issue (says me, a white middle class man). How many people get through Middlemarch, regarded as one of the greats, but written by the female George Eliot? Likewise, of course, Jane Austen. It’s the weight of these books that’s the problem. They’re so demanding of time and concentration.

    • I most certainly agree with you there – though I can say that I read, and enjoyed, the whole of Middlemarch.

      But the fact that George Eliot had to write behind a pseudonym shows that, as a woman, it would have been very difficult to even be published and so enter the canon in the first instance. Publishers and academics for example, who historically would be men, will have chosen the books that appealed to them most – thus ruling out any books which were particular subversive, and affecting our notions of what is ‘good’. On one hand, it just leads me to wonder how many other women writers were rejected? Or, having been published, have since gone out of print due to critical reviews and reception? An interesting read on this issue is Shakespeare’s Sister in Virgina Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

      But I do agree that gender is by no means the only factor in the creation of literary canons! Another issue is, of course, class and I’d be interested to read more on that. I do wonder how, or if at all, future generations will perceive the ‘canon’ and what will be included.

      Thanks for your interest and engagement again!

  3. I am with you on your thoughts about reading and preferences. My bookshelf is like an autobiography in itself; if you saw all the books, then you’d receive a pretty good impression of who I am. I did a cull recently from around 5000 books to about 4950. Not much of a cull, but the ones I did let go were mostly books I thought I should read, haven’t, and have been sitting on the shelves for years. Why do I keep them? I suppose the books are all there for different reasons; I tend to re-read quite a bit. Perhaps my views are a little limited but all the books I’ve read and own help facilitate my journey through life. Always healthy to get off the beaten track, but at the end of the day, we need to make our own choices and create ourselves and the life we want. Undoubtedly, classics provide an infinite source of knowledge and wisdom, but for some inexplicable and intriguing reason, in my life at least, I read them when I’m meant to. Thanks a lot for a great post!

  4. Just as a little aside, Leonardo Da Vinci scholars have often mused why Leonardo didn’t have many books (or as many as one might have hoped) when he died. One of the theories about Leonardo is that he believed true knowledge was derived from experience rather than received wisdom from others. As Henry David Thoreau said, “If a man loses pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured, or far away.”

    • Very interesting thought, and thank you for taking the time to respond so fully to the post! Wow, even so, 50 books is a lot to get rid of! I suppose one day I will have to do the same (mostly for space!) but there’s that ever ambitious and optimistic part of me which thinks I may, one day, finally get round to reading War and Peace… And I haven’t heard that about Da Vinci, how fascinating! It’s interesting that a lot of ‘classically good’ books are such a cultural password for ‘I’m in the know’, something I’m sure I can be guilty of, and I suppose that feeds into why we expect people to have read certain books – I haven’t read Harry Potter, for instance (more of a Narnia girl), and that usually surprises people. All interesting stuff! Do you have any particular recommendations, or any classics that I shouldn’t leave to gather dust on my bookshelves of never-quite-got-there books?

      • Thank you, and its my pleasure. Its a great discussion to have so thank you very much for initiating it! The 50 books I parted with were a combination of books I’ll never read again and those I’ve never read and don’t expect to read. I’ve still got a bunch I haven’t read yet. It’s a really interesting question, and as you say, certain titles carry a cultural password. But I suppose if you want to be a literary academic, then you need to know the classics, if you want to be a writer, then the classics are a very useful auxiliary to one’s career but not mandatory. Because I’m an artist, my books could be broken up into the following categories: Artbooks (all kinds) 80%, Personal Development 5%, Biography 5%, Novels 2.5%, Poetry 2.5%, Cookbooks 2.5%, Esoterica 2.5%. Of those, perhaps 90% are non-fiction, 10% fiction. And, as I am also a teacher/lecturer, that doesn’t include any education manuals, periodicals,etc. I also have some 400 magazines dating from the late 1980’s. I sound like a hoarder right!!!! But like I say, its all nice and neat and everything is kept for valid reasons. For me, the books I tend to go back to, in no order: clutches of Andre Malraux (eg,Anti-Memoir, Man’s Fate), clutches of Ernest Hemmingway, poetry of Rumi, poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca, Leonardo by Martin Kemp, Rembrandt – Painter at Work by Ernst Van de Wetering, Vanished Splendors – biography on Balthus, Secret Life – Biography on Andrew Wyeth, clutches of Umberto Eco (eg,Travels in Hyper-reality, On Beauty), Machiavelli’s The Prince . . . h’mmmm what else. Anyway, that gives you a pretty good idea. I’ve also read a little Proust but found it hard going. How about you, what books are at the forefront of your collection?

      • That’s an interesting mix, and some collection! My ever-growing collection of books consists largely of novels, poetry, and plays as well as quite a few theory and criticism books more relevant for my degree – many of which I would love to the time to really revisit. I’m impressed that you reread a lot because it’s something I always mean to do but don’t always quite get back to.
        I really enjoy James Joyce actually (despite the above post about the canon!) and can also never be without a copy of Wuthering Heights in the house – not into Austen but love the Brontes. At the moment, I’m trying to dip my toe in the waters of contemporary fiction, something which has been barred to me recently by sheer volume of everything else I need to read first, and am currently reading John Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor. So not too interesting now, but I do like a bit of Salman Rushdie and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is an excellent (and wonderfully short) read!

  5. Well here’s an interesting link I posted on FB recently and it provoked a response I didn’t expect:

    The reaction was simply that they were pretty much all English language writers. There are a few that are not but by and large, never mind white middle-class men the greatest authors are supposedly not to be writing in German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Urdu etc. I am closer to 60 than I like to think but I remember leaving university and convincing myself that I would reread for pleasure all the texts that I supposedly read to pass my degree course. I think I managed two. Twenty years later all those carefully preserved textbooks were given to a local school. I even delivered them. I remember the teacher drooling over them and saying how difficult it was to get a budget for an extra copy of Andorra by Max Frisch!

    Moving to HK space was suddenly at a premium and it broke my heart to give away books. But I did. 6 huge cardboard boxes full. I wanted to give to a good cause. I was approached by a lady who said she was starting locally a coffee reading room. People would come in, buy their coffee and supposedly pick up a book to read. I wondered how it would pay financially but as I needed to offload the books before we moved house I parted with the books. The shop never opened as far as I know. Still I have many bookcases full to overflowing with books from rare first editions to what might be considered frivolous material like P G Wodehouse. I now use E readers too. I couldn’t be without books but have I read Dickens from end to end, or Jane Austen? No. I have read more Goethe than Dickens! Read what you want. it will evolve over time and you can always do what I did and promise that you will read the classics later. I still have not read Lord of the Rings. Probably never will. Nor Harry Potter. My top tips today: Carlos Ruiz Zafón and Kamila Shamsie. If you read Shamsie go for Burnt Shadows. A truly memorable novel.

    • That’s a really valid point to add to discussion, thank you – and I absolutely agree! I am fortunate enough that my university’s department puts a strong emphasis on foreign language literature, and have studied a few modules specifically dealing with issues of translation and language on a more global, multi-lingual scale, though this ‘global’ emphasis was admittedly limited to Europe, Africa, India, and the Caribbean. They have been absolutely thrilling modules, and I only hope that this issue will be released more and more from its limited space in a module in a degree programme.

      It’s a hard task to give up well-loved books, but I suppose it is good to pass them on too (however begrudgingly!) and I am also in possession of an e-reader, to my somewhat guilt as well as delight.

      Interesting that you mention Shamsie as well – I have never read any of her work, but I saw her speak at university about Pakistani women’s writing and it was a really thrilling discussion! Thank you for reminding me of her, as well as for your insightful contribution.

      • I have spent quite a bit of time in Karachi and a little in Lahore and Islamabad. Pakistan gets a bad press on the whole but it has some fine writers and I found the people delightful. South Asian writing generally is growing in maturity and should not be overlooked.

      • I’m always excited to hear recommendations from any genre or category, so thanks again! I will definitely be interested in looking at this more. Hm, I can feel another blog post coming on!

  6. Although I’m not a lit student, as you well know, I find myself in exactly the same situation! I have read all the Austens I feel that was because I liked them and enjoyed them, not because I felt I ought to – which is probably the right way to go about it! I set myself a mini reading list of about 5 or 6 books at a time and then once I’ve gone through that I set myself another one. It’s all about achievable goals! Haha.
    Ps, your blogs looking awfully familiar!

    • Yeah I think a smaller goal is also more achievable than a whole bookcase of classics staring back at you! Haha I know, I was after a bit of a change and then went on your Lichtenstein post yesterday I realised where I recognised it from!!

  7. I still need to read Price and Prejudice and a lot of the other great classics.

    I need to start concentrating on fiction and stop reading so much Non-Fiction.

    I just love my History,Memoirs,Biographies,and True story’s though.

    But it is time I expand my Literary palate.

    Great Post!

    And thanks for subscribing to my blog, (I am new to blogging and Writing…but bear with me I will be trying to produce great content each and every day)

    Can’t wait to sink my mind into some more of you work!


    • No problem at all – I’m really interesting to read more of your work, and thank you for taking the time to return the favour.

      Of course, the post is absolutely biased to fiction and I definitely think you should engage with fiction, simply because there is so such wonderful stuff out there – but then again, if fiction isn’t your thing, fair enough! You won’t catch me often reading biographies or science books for example…

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  9. The eight bookcases in my apartment are a constant reminder that i’ll never get through everything I want to read. But I’m always optimistic that I’ll get through the important ones. I read as much for pleasure as for knowledge. Those two overlap quite a bit. I read “classics” because I operate under the assumption that the great writers are engaged in a dialogue that spans across the centuries. I’m always amazed to discover how writers outside of the “canon” contribute to or interact with that dialogue. This pushes me to include writers outside of the English-speaking world and in differing genres since I want to see all sides of the dialogue.

    • A good point. I do think, especially for academic work, it is important to understand the key issues in literature, for example to study or write about a certain time period. Study of why (or why not) a book or text has become a so-called ‘classic’ is also an interesting line of inquiry, for example, the social and political factors for the rise in popularity of Gothic fiction in the nineteenth century. Actually, I find the popularity of different fantasy genres particularly intriguing, for example, what are the reasons behind our interest in witches and wizards in the last decade (I’m thinking mostly of Harry Potter here, among others) and the more recent move into vampires? I digress – but nonetheless, very interesting!

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