by Dana Steven and Anna Holmes)
Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Dana Stevens and Anna Holmes discuss the first books they felt obliged to read.
By Dana Stevens
I started shaping my reading list around the recommendations of people I wanted to be friends with, to get close to, to emulate, to be.
Until I was 13 or so, my primary reasons for reading any given book were that (a) it was in our house; and (b) I hadn’t yet read it. In fact, (b) wasn’t always enough of a reason, as I was more than happy to read my childhood favorites over and over again. (Even now, hand me a copy of “The Secret Garden” and I’m set for the afternoon.) Indiscriminate bibliophagia didn’t give way to the search for the right book to read until the age when the authority conferred by that notion — the right book, the right music, the right person — began to matter.
I started shaping my reading list around the recommendations of people I wanted to be friends with, to get close to, to emulate, to be. My eighth-grade friend Jen, who played guitar and somehow got me to sing a Beatles song onstage with her in the middle-school talent show, once meaningfully lent me a grubby, clearly beloved copy of C. S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” She prefaced my reading with a spoiler-filled exegesis of the ending, laying particular stress on the Christ-like resurrection of the fallen lion king. Though I doubt she was trying to convert me, Jen was a devout Christian, and she was clearly eager to share the good news as well as a good book. So I threw myself into reading the Narnia series — but perhaps because of the advance notice, Lewis’s allegorical fantasy struck me as schematic and flat, and I made it through only the first volume. It wasn’t until I read Lewis’s autobiographical works (“Surprised by Joy,” “A Grief Observed”) more than a decade later that I was able to appreciate the depth and clarity of his writing — a slow-arriving present from Jen.
Top row, from left: Rivka Galchen, Mohsin Hamid, Zoë Heller, Anna Holmes, Adam Kirsch and Leslie Jamison. Bottom row, from left: Daniel Mendelsohn, Pankaj Mishra, Francine Prose, Dana Stevens, James Parker and Thomas Mallon.Bookends: ColumnistsSEPT. 3, 2013
I was probably 15 when “The Brothers Karamazov” was pressed on me urgently by Chris, a boy two years my senior with whom I had a complicated friendship for the years when we overlapped in high school. Neither of us quite had a crush on the other — I’m not sure we even enjoyed each other’s company all that much — but we nonetheless kept trying awkwardly to matter to each other in some way, for the simple reason that we both cared tremendously about words and ideas, and had few other friends we could share that obsession with. I have no idea what Dostoyevsky’s bizarre, ungainly last novel must have read like to me then. I would reread it years later in a Russian-literature-in-translation course in college, and come to love if never fully to understand it. (As I would discover in that class, I’m more of a Chekhov girl.) But I’ll never forget the conspiratorial thrill of sneaking that thick red-and-white paperback into health class to read under my desk, or of sitting up late at Denny’s with Chris, the two of us arguing as only a 15- and 17-year-old can over what the Grand Inquisitor chapter was trying to say about faith and justice and free will.
Later I would experience the DNA-altering joy of discovering a great book at the same time as, and in the company of, a great love. I would start to choose books because they were mentioned in other books, or because I heard an author give an interview on the radio that stayed with me, or because they offered a window onto some larger body of knowledge — I became, in short, an adult capable of deciding for myself what to read next, and I’m glad of it. But there’s a power to those early memories of books as talismans, passed from one initiate to the next as in a holy rite. Even now, many of my best literary discoveries are directly traceable to passionate recommendations from friends, preferably issued as they stand next to a bookcase gesticulating with a dog-eared copy. Insisting people absolutely have to read a book you loved — what better way of telling them you love them?
Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a co-host of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. She has also written for The Atlantic and Bookforum, among other publications.
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By Anna Holmes
Figurative or literal checklists of published texts can suck the joy out of reading and should be avoided at all costs.
I’m less attracted to the question of books I felt I should read and more interested in the idea of “should” as an auxiliary verb applied to anything other than treating others with kindness and respect, paying taxes and the consumption of leafy green vegetables.
But let me back up a bit. In the interest of full transparency, I’m going to provide a list of books that, at one point or another, I felt obliged to read but didn’t: “Moby-Dick”; “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”; “Anna Karenina”; “Catch-22”; “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”; “Cannery Row”; “The Age of Innocence”; “Great Expectations”; “1984”; “Gravity’s Rainbow.” In later years — i.e., my early to late 20s — there were others: “Infinite Jest”; “Motherless Brooklyn”; “Bastard Out of Carolina”; “Jazz”; “Fight Club”; “Generation X”; “The Corrections.”
There are, of course, many, many more.
Do I feel sheepish about this? Sometimes, yes. But I’ve also come to accept that the holes in my ongoing literary syllabus are not so much intellectual failings as symptoms of a larger affliction — namely, a stubbornness against culturally mandated consumption and a lifelong disdain for authority, legal or literary. In short, my ambivalence about any number of what are commonly held to be great or important books is a direct result of the fact that they are held to be great or important books, especially when it comes to more contemporary works, whose agreed-upon influence may have as much to do with an author’s social capital — and publicity-machine marketing dollars — as the quality of the prose or the contours of the story.
This obstinacy, this default setting of suspicion, inevitably means that I sometimes throw the baby out with the bath water, like the moment in 1996 when, faced with what felt like the 500th glowing review, I vowed never to pick up a copy of Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.” To be fair, I’m 40 now, and this insolence has waned some in the 17 years since I rejected McCourt’s Pulitzer-winning memoir, which, by all accounts, is a wonderful, moving portrait of individual resilience amid economic and domestic catastrophe. But I continue to be less interested in what the conventional arbiters and gatekeepers of culture — agents, editors, publicists, critics — deem necessary than what titles speak to me in any given moment: what I would want to read as opposed to what I should. Sometimes these interests line up, as was the case with “Freedom,” by Jonathan Franzen (meh), or “Gone Girl,” by Gillian Flynn (loved it). Sometimes it takes a few months — or years, as with Colum McCann’s lovely “Let the Great World Spin” — for me to warm up to the idea of a book, to come to a particular novel or memoir or historical survey on my own, despite, not because of, exhortations like “best book of the year” or “instant classic!”
Rejecting “should” in favor of “could” seems to me preferable, a privileging of curiosity and discovery over necessity, even if this sometimes haphazard approach doesn’t always guarantee stimulating conversation among the literati. The fact is that books one “should” read are fine for high school English curriculums or collegiate surveys of American and British literature, but beyond that, figurative or literal checklists of published texts can suck the joy out of reading and should be avoided at all costs. Unless, of course, you’re a professional critic or editor of said critics, in which case, I salute you. And now I’m off to read whatever I want.
Anna Holmes has written for numerous publications, including The Washington Post, Salon, Harper’s, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and The New Yorker online. A 2012 recipient of the Mirror Award for Commentary, presented by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Journalism, she is the editor of two books: “Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters From the End of the Affair”; and “The Book of Jezebel,” based on the popular women’s Web site she created in 2007.
Illustrations by R. Kikuo Johnson
*Blogger's note: I have felt more recently like I should read a more mainstream book instead of reading books I want. But I have to realize that I have received and purchased a lot of good books and that I should be satisfied.
One book I felt I should read and am glad I am almost done is The Rosie Project. It was on every reading list in January and a few people I knew were reading it. This book I am glad I caved on.