Across time and space there have been hundreds of different standards about what is ‘worth reading’.
Philosopher and professional sad-sack Arthur Schopenhauer advocated reading only the best literature had to offer, ‘for life is short, and both time and strength limited.’ This is in my view a poor idea, because by only consuming what is good we lose the basis for comparison, the ability to tell what is bad. Losing that means we lose the ability to tell what makes quality content worth our time – so we forget how to make it. Schopenhauer’s idea is, dare I say it, stupid and dangerous.
Nassim Taleb, as usual the smarter thinker, advocates reading either the most temporally-weathered classics, the works of the Greeks, Romans, etc etc, or the most banal trash. For him, it’s either Seneca, or Women’s Weekly. But there’s nothing wrong with a novel that sits in the middle; it doesn’t touch profundity but it’s also better than an airport read. Something like Samarkand, by Amin Maalouf, fits. That’s something worth spending time on. (Ironically, I did read it in an airport).
There’s something to be said for reading utter crap, and it’s partly because we can pull whatever lesson we like from it. Some years ago, I read a spate of Japanese light novels, because they were related to something I was watching. They were utter rubbish. The plot was poor, the characters flat and generic; the prose was utilitarian in the worst sense. I cannot overstate how terribly these things were written. But it revealed to me, when searching for these various light novels, the potential for interesting stories in that market. Not the actual written work, but the stories of the authors who write it. Often, they are passionate fans of the genres they copy. Sometimes, they share far too much personal information. Other times, they go by curiously modern pseudonyms such as One or Kazuma Kamachi. They either write tremendously fast, or ridiculously slowly, apparently. Enough about them.
Those light novels taught me a little about the publishing industry and revealed a few interesting people; and so, did that make them worth reading even though they were absolute trash? And another point: I read Mrs Dalloway and got almost nothing out of it. I actually received more insight about the world from a collection of terrible light novels than from one of the seminal works of 20th century literature.
This isn’t so surprising, or as sacrilegious as other writers would have you believe. As I’ve said repeatedly on this little soapbox of mine, it all depends on the framework, on the question you ask of the text/event/situation. At this point, Mrs Dalloway has been poured over and analysed so often, and its themes so entrenched in culture, that reading it has almost become pointless (unless one wishes to admire the excellent prose). Thematically, and in terms of ‘innovation’, it is outmatched, if only because it came along so early compared to me (and I am my own reference point). Stream of consciousness writing is no longer revolutionary; it has become largely annoying.
This feeds into a wider point I’ve been making about ‘the classics’ for some time, which is that reading many of them is a waste of time since their wisdom has become conventional. Unless the actual account provides entertainment, or contains nuances still unmatched by contemporary accounts (think Plato, who is routinely misunderstood even thousands of years after he wrote) there isn’t much point actually reading it. You would do better to use your time finding books that weren’t on lists of the ‘Top 100 Greatest Books of All Time.’ If everyone read the same books, after all, there would be far less interesting discussion. There is no point enslaving oneself to a Canonical List of Books One Must Read Before Death because when one forces oneself to read, they transform what should be a pleasurable experience into a painful, page-counting slog.
Harold Bloom, the Yale professor and great proponent of the canon, may be right when he says that a certain piece of art is worth looking into. But many of the works on that Western Canon have, like Mrs Dalloway, become so obvious that the casuals, the amateurs, and the dilettantes are just wasting their time.
I am not railing against the concept of a literary canon. I think that having standards is important in literature, and even, some months ago, made the argument that art was objective (something that could probably be disproved easily, but no one has said anything yet. I await an argument).
I have, for the past several years, used a simple heuristic for determining what I read. You can borrow it if you want, it’s pretty fun. You should be hunting down books that no one else you know in real life is reading – that way, you can think in a different direction to the people around you. There’s a lot of practically undiscovered literature worth reading that won’t show up on any list. A lot of these books are assumed to just never exist, frequently, because in the minds of the people who advocate only the best they’re basically unknown unknowns. The attention we pay to literature is a lot like comparing Bill Gates’ wealth to everyone else’s; he gets 99% of the total while the remaining 1% is shared between every other human being on the planet. And so it is with classic literature.
Of course you’ll run up against rubbish if you use that method: I’m never reading Shogun again, for example. But there’s plenty of content worth reading that isn’t in any canon. It really is a terribly limiting idea to restrict oneself to what Harold Bloom talks about.