You have to read The Catcher in the Rye before you turn 18. To Kill a Mockingbird is essential reading for all GCSE students. If you’re tanning by a pool in the South of France then it really has to be Fifty Shades of Grey, or, a few years ago, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. What do you mean you’ve never read Jane Eyre – do you even like books? If you’re an avid reader, it can often feel like you’re drowning under a series of literary rules, the books you absolutely have to read, no matter what.
Everyone has an opinion on the essentials and, it seems, everyone has a set of standards by which they judge others. My yardstick is The Great Gatsby. Whenever anyone asks me about books, it’s the one I instantly start talking about. Partly it’s because it’s the one I remember the most quotes from, so when I talk about it everyone thinks I know what I’m talking about, partly it’s because it really is my favourite book, and partly I just like talking about it.
The issue is that when someone tells me they’ve not read it, to my shame I recoil in hor- ror, and I don’t know why. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying people shouldn’t recommend books. The best thing about being an avid reader is the community spirit, the sense of being part of a group of people trying desperately to navigate the excessively large amount of available content by any means necessary. It’s the literary snobbery that gets me. There seems to be some idea, permeating through society, that there are certain books you have to read in order to say you enjoy reading with your head held high.
This wouldn’t be an issue if there was an actual list, a tangible body of texts that we can work through, with an end-point. Except there’s not. It’s an entirely subjective thing and although a teacher might judge you for not reading the complete works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, your friends could be equally disgusted by the fact that you’ve never picked up a John Green book. It feels to me sometimes like I should just collapse under the sheer weight of it all, give up and read only what I want to.
Surely, we should just surrender to our own subjectivity. If you can’t read it all, you may as well dig tunnels that take you to places you want to visit. If you like Romance then naturally you’re going to steer towards Austen, Gaskell and Green. If you enjoy violence and intrigue, then these would point blank be the worst authors you could possibly read! I don’t believe that one book is inherently more valuable than another, or at least I certainly don’t think we get to choose that. It’s important that we engage with books on our own terms so that we get the most enjoyment out of them.
The classics and high literature are, obviously, wonderful but they’re far from the only options. It’s not about ticking items off a list or proving yourself by reading the hefty tomes of Hugo and Tolstoy. It’s not about reading One Hundred Years of Solitude in the original Spanish because “you miss so much in the translation.” No, it’s about having fun. It’s about reading the things you enjoy, the things you can curl up at night with and have long, exciting conversations about. It’s about finding something that speaks to you. That is, unless you choose to study English Literature for a degree, in which case the very joy of reading is crushed by a titanic list of books you never wanted to read and probably never will again.