Newspaper article International New York Times

What Were the First Books You Felt You 'Should' Read, and Why?

Newspaper article International New York Times

What Were the First Books You Felt You 'Should' Read, and Why?

Article excerpt

Anna Holmes says figurative or literal checklists of published texts can take the joy out of reading and should be avoided at all costs.

Anna Holmes

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 -- 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. …

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