I recently bought a book called the A-Z of English Literature. I’m a sucker for books on literature, especially of the A-Z type. But, more especially, I love the idiosyncratic type. Another book I bought years ago was a little book called Literature: A Crash Course. That book has pride of place on my bookshelf. It’s an overview of 3,000 years of writing from Homer to Cormac McCarthy, all in 130 pages. But – most importantly – it’s written in a gloriously subjective, biased voice. The author tells us who’s good and who’s rubbish and why this is so. What is it that makes them so good? Or bad? It’s nice to read someone writing about literature who’s calling out the naked Emperor.
Because that’s the elephant in the room when it comes to talking about great literature – some of the so-called “classics” are just unreadable tripe. For instance, I’ve always imagined that I wouldn’t be a fan of Henry James, that he’d be too long-winded and ponderous for me. And in the A-Z of English Literature, the entry on James says that he is a “great novelist only marginally diminished by being unreadable”, and that his style is “wordy, diffuse, full of double negatives, and packed with complex imagery”. Even his friend, Edith Wharton, said there were passages of his prose that were almost incomprehensible. So, I think that will do it for me on Henry James; I can safely mark him off the list.
Henry James. Looks like a right barrel of laughs, eh?
Another book is Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. I glanced through it again in a bookshop recently and I realised that it would take months to read. And there’s absolutely no guarantee that a word of it would make sense. Even armed with a library of reference books. And, let’s face it, being armed with a library of reference books and having to stop every sentence to look up a word is not an ideal way to read a book. Of course, advocates of the book would probably say that that’s not the way to read Finnegan’s Wake; that we should simply let the language wash over us. But, the fact remains, from what little I’ve read of the book, it’s just too much hard work. I can admire the sheer colossal achievement that the book is; I can admire Joyce’s resolve, spending ten years – years beset by illness and financial troubles – working painstakingly on the book. I can admire all these things but I still can’t read the book.
But there are a lot of books and authors that I DO want to read. I realised some years ago – as most people do – that I was probably never going to get around to reading the entire canon of English Literature. You have to be selective. The problem is, how do you know which ones will be to your taste? I really don’t want to trudge through something just for the sake of reading it. I’ve had to do that on occasion on my Literature or Philosophy courses and it’s no fun. So, what to do?
I conceived a cunning plan.
I started compiling a list of all the authors mentioned. Now, this list would be a similar one to most great author lists, with perhaps a few exceptions. But, generally, it’s got the usual suspects from Homer to Milton to Joyce. I studied some of these authors on my Literature course, but there are still many others that I haven’t read. And I decided that I would read at least one thing by each author, to hopefully give me a flavour as to their style, and help me decide if I’d like to read more of their stuff. A short story, perhaps, or a poem. A snippet. A taster, if you will. A literary hors d’oeuvre. (Okay. I’ll stop now).
Now, reading one story by a writer may not seem like a fair way to judge their entire oeuvre – after all, someone like Balzac alone left behind ninety novels. But the fact of the matter is, I’m never going to read those ninety novels, and, realistically, the only other option is not reading Balzac at all. So, henceforth, I shall embark on the project of crossing writers off my to-read list and will report back with my thoughts.
Meanwhile, what do you think – is reading a little taster of an author enough to give you an idea of what they’re like, or do you just accept the fact that there are some books you’re never going to read? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below.
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26 thoughts on “The Literary Bucket List (Or How I Plan to Read Every Author Ever Published)”
Terrific post, Derek! I totally agree with you on your theory, though I may disagree on individual authors (I quite like Henry James, for example, though a taster is all I needed to know that I despise Dickens).
Reading a bit of everyone is something I decided to do in college, but I’ve gotten sidetracked over the years. Maybe I’ll start again, maybe I won’t. Either way I wish you luck with your endeavour. Let us know how you get on!
Good post….and completely agree. Not sure your strategy would be officially accepted by literary snobs, but that’s why they are snobs. I guess I would also ask about any book I’m deciding to read: what’s the relevance? Why do I need this and why do I need this now? I’d much rather read someone trying to interpret today’s crazy world, or the one I grew up in, than something from decades ago. Not always, but most of the time anyway. Enjoyed the column!
This is great Derek. I particularly love your point about the Naked Emperor – James Joyce is a classic example of this for me. I suffered through Ulysses in college, and I did so not out of enjoyment (it was the opposite of enjoyment) out of pure, dogged determination to tick a literary box (and not let it beat me). It took me weeks. Out of respect for those unfathomable people who genuinely enjoy reading Joyce, I won’t deliver my verdict on it.
Similarly to yourself and Jane, I resolved to do something similar after I finished my English degree, and I did get through quite a few authors. Sometimes having a list helps to focus the mind. I wonder, if anyone else is up for it, if we could try a virtual book club? 🙂
Great post Derek, I love James Joyce but could never get my head around some of his larger works.
Keep us informed us with how you get on.
Haha. You’re right. There is no way we can read every book by every author. Certainly trying a taste of a story could be a clue as to whether you want to read more or not, but how do you choose? Some say authors become better writers with each new work. If that’s true, how do you decide which short story, poem, snippet, etc to start with? If that’s not true the same question still applies.
Good luck! 🙂
My heart beat faster the moment I saw the name Cormac McCarthy–I’ve enjoyed exploring his particular darkness. I wonder sometimes if we’re not all led to read what we do, perhaps by those hovering guides who want us to find insight, inspiration, or force us to recognize something.
It’s good to dip into different things and challenge yourself I think, but you sound a bit like the ‘autodidact’ from Satre’s novel ‘Nausea’ who that that if you read every book in the library you would know everything there was to know!
I really enjoyed this post, Derek. I remember studying Shakespeare at school and did not enjoy it at all. However, by the time I did my degree, and with some perseverance, I changed my mind. We are all governed by that literary canon, especially during school,and even as adults. Sometimes I buy Booker Prize winners. I have to say, though, that I never did finish Howard Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’ and found it tedious and slow. I’m afraid I am the person in the bookshop who reads the first three pages, and the end. (gasp!) If I don’t like what I read, I’m unlikely to buy. I think even a tiny snippet of someone’s work can give you a flavour of what’s to come. As you suggest there is so much great literature to read, it’s impossible to choose. Sometimes a particular writer’s work just ‘speaks’ to us as readers. When that happens you know you are in safe hands and want to go back for more. Great post. Now feeling inspired and am presently scanning my bookshelves for something to read!
A great plan, Derek. Henry James’s brother was a very early psychologist, so methinks he may have been trying to keep up with his brother. An obtuse form of sibling rivalry! I have similar issues with Salman Rushdie. His work is highly acclaimed, yet I have never been able to finish his books. I give a book 50 pages (unless I’ve promised to review it). If it doesn’t grab me by then, it’s back on the shelf.
Totally agree with your approach, Derek. I was given Susan Hill’s book ‘Howards End is on the Landing’ for Christmas and it made me want to dive into the entire ‘back catalogue’ of literature and have a quick sample of each and every bit of it. I’m looking forward to your updates!
Great thought-provoking post, Derek! I took a Henry James course in college and was certain I’d fail because the books were so dull. Fate stepped in in the form of a sprained ankle and during the down time I lined up the books and read them all. I sort of got into at the time even though I can’t remember single word or title now.
I once tried to read “Ulysses” strictly out of prurient interest to see why it was banned. I couldn’t understand a word Joyce wrote. I’ve got to hand it to the censors for hanging in there until they found something written clearly enough to be deemed obscene.
I like your snippet idea and I think it has merit. I look forward to your updates. (Meanwhile, I’ll be lounging on the couch eating chocolates and reading bodice rippers.)
Great post as usual, Derek! This is a much smarter plan than my “If they made a movie of it, read the book” plan. Good luck!
From someone who suffered through the joys of translating ‘Beowulf’ in its entirity !! I’m totally with you Derek – loads of luck. A taster always does me – so if yours past the test and get to stay on the list – good enough for me gossun 🙂
“A literary hors d’oeuvre,” Derek – a fabulous idea – and some very interesting comments! I too look forward to your updates. I haven’t yet read Henry James (a taster sounds fine) – but have loved Charles Dickens since I read, ‘The Old Curiousity Shop’, as a child. Cormac McCarthy, for me, is a definite NO – I hated ‘The Road’ – both the story and the way it was written and I was really disappointed with the end of ‘No Country For Old Men’! I recently purchased ‘Dubliners’ after I failed to finish Ulysses and have heard it’s the chosen book for One City, One Book this April – we’ll be tripping over copies all over Dublin, so absolutely no excuse not to read it now . . .
It’s always good to have a plan, if nothing else it sets you on a course, one which you can always adjust based on experience travelling it. Keep us updated – a great book is a marvel to experience, so I say pack them in if you can.
I read for 10 pages and if I’m not hooked by then, I dump. That said, I like Henry James, although I agree with you on Joyce.
Yep… Agreed–one of the very very few reasons I’d ever consider smoking is to prolong my life in order to read more. It depresses me no-end that I’ll never get to read everything I want to, and every year–every month, even, now–more great books come out. So I like your idea of literary hors d’oeuvres, but, like other readers, I’m stumped as to how to choose *which* to start with. For example, I *love* Garcia Marquez–and I’ve read almost everything he’s written. But one of his most popular works is Hundred Years of Solitude, which (although it’s not a short piece) might be the starting point for many unfamiliar with his work. I *hated* that book. I won’t go into the reasons why here, but if that was the only book I’d read of his, I’d have crossed him off the list without a qualm and moved on, which would have led to me missing out on Love And Other Demons, for example, or Memories of My Melancholy Whores, or–God forbid!–Love In Times Of Cholera.
I do agree with the theory of selection, though, so please do keep us posted on the actual selection process 🙂 Might give the rest of us ideas 😉
I think you’ll get the gist of whether or not you like them by reading a poem or a short story. You’ll know from those whether or not you like their style, how bad!
Good luck brave man!
This post had me laughing so hard! You spoke out all my secret thoughts!
Can I just add, babble hema gimmel dorset torpid? Mastabatoom galosh derryjinge and heavenward toggle? Oh my stuttering hand and the rhyming, mingle in the broad swipe of a gawdling mini traveste. High!
“great novelist only marginally diminished by being unreadable” – I laughed at that. I imagine you did too when you read it. Sounds like something a friend of mine would say.
I like the idea of reading every author ever published except that now with the advent of self-publishing that would include a lot of authors. How did you select who would make it on your list?
I tend to think that a little of many different things is often the way to determine what you like. You can’t say whether or not you like Indian cuisine if you have never been offered a taste.
My bucket list is a bit different, & I’ve been working at it for years – I doubt I’ll get all the way through it. It is an eclectic mess including writers like Dalton Trumbo, Sophocles, Alfred Hitchcock, as well as Vladimir Nabokov, and L. Ron Hubbard, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
I hope you will share with us some of your thoughts as you work through your literary buffet
Great post Derek! I like this idea a lot. I think though you should choose your Hors d’oeuvre wisely because certain books are classics of their TIME, just like certain movies are. Sometimes audiences believe themselves more sophisticated or simply ARE more sophisticated and suddenly the classic is seen in a different light. It’s a shame to dismiss such works outright because we outgrew them.
Having said all that, I can’t stand James Joyce’s Stream of Consciousness style, it’s just brain numbing and yet I enjoy Shakespeare’s use of the language, sometimes inventing new words as he went. I would say there is a lot to be said for “how” a book should be read: on a beach, in a plane or in your private study while you sip from a brandy glass the size of a fish bowl, sometimes the mood just has to be just right.
I’ll be looking out for your recommendations.
You know, sometimes reading the “classics” is akin to meeting one’s favorite actor, only to find that we don’t like them at all. It ruins everything. I tried reading The Count of Monte Cristo, but found it difficult. I read Catcher in the Rye, and didn’t get why it was so highly regarded. I also remember trying to read Dante’s Inferno and not enjoying the experience.
I think anything that helps one choose is worthwhile, but needs to be taken with that proverbial grain of salt. Opinions are like what again? 😉
Wow! What an endeavor! I can barely keep up with what I am doing now…I can’t imagine adding more reading to it! It is very important as an author to be familiar with great prose, though. Very admirable! Good luck!
Derek – superb idea – good luck on your mission.
When I should have been studying Hamlet, the school library tempted instead with the oddly titled, Aku, Aku – who could resist but take a look ?
It proved one of the best reads ever – the story of Thor Heyerdahl’s, expedition to find the secret of the huge Easter Island statues. A masterpiece of adventure, it left the Prince of Denmark decidedly lacking!!
Excellent thought-provoking blog post Derek and a very interesting idea. It is so subjective really (and that applies to music, art, photography, food, wine, etc). What one person describes as ‘great’ may be utter rubbish to someone else’s taste. I’m a bit like Sharon above – if a book hasn’t grabbed me in 50 pages then I’m loathe to struggle on with it. That was my experience with Emma Donoghues’s ‘Room’. I almost felt like a philistine for not liking it after so many of my friends recommended it. I think there’s a lot of ‘naked Emperor’ stuff going on when it comes to so-called classical music too and I say that as someone with fairly wide-ranging taste in music. But hey, vive la difference! 🙂