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Books, Contexts, And Eternally Playing Catch-Up

A photograph of Daphne Du Maurier books - four in one pile, Rebecca standing alone as the only book I've read so far

Do you ever feel you’re playing catch up, that there are so many books, particularly of the canon/very famous variety, that you have to read? And, if so, do you think you’ll ever lose the feeling of playing catch up or having not yet read the books deemed important because there are so many of them?

I do. Jack Kerouac. Sylvia Plath. Ray Bradbury. To name just a few; I don’t think I need to name the books themselves. You’ll know which I mean.

So many books out there – though there does seem a basic line between the ones that are ‘necessary’ to read and those not so necessary – the kind that you note are often referenced or used for context in conversational events, in articles, as examples that work brilliantly so long as you’ve read the book otherwise you’re often left even more confused. And then the other, perhaps biggest, problem – modern books steeped in the background or themes of a canonical work. I read Andrew Blackman’s On The Holloway Road a few years ago and I could tell it was excellent – that fact, if I may term it so, was obvious in general – but as a work that was based on Kerouac’s On The Road, I didn’t have the context to view it in those terms. Blackman’s book taught me much about Kerouac but I couldn’t shake the feeling that my experience of the Blackman should have been full of comparing, contrasting, in addition to the lesson I took away with me. I wonder how much I missed by not having read the source material.

There have been a few occasions like that. Writers like to extend the conversation about the canon, like to create new interpretations and spin-offs, and that is all great, but it will always leave a certain number of people with a distinct lack of context when they approach it. And we could argue that one should only approach such a book after having read the source material but there are so many books out there and so many references. Some books are packed with contexts from canonical works that to read all the referenced material first… you’d never get to the more modern book (and, indeed, having read the referenced works would an interpretation then seem trivial?) Others make use of works that may be heavily referenced but you know that the referenced book is not particularly well known or falls into a niche category. (This is why I included Bradbury above – his work is important but we wouldn’t necessarily utter it in the same breath as Dickens. Some would, others wouldn’t.)

It feels very good to have read a famous book. I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s books and, in big part because my school education was lacking and I had to play catch up here myself, I get a bookish sense of delight on many occasions her work is mentioned – because there was a time when I had no idea what people meant when they talked about her work. And now I do know about it and so I can laugh or agree – that ‘umm’ that sweeps over the audience – with those on stage or so forth. There’s an academic feeling to it, that I’ve read and studied and learned and now understand along with everyone else… or at least many people.

And this feeling, I believe, can occur no matter your prior education. For me it’s a mini triumph, for others a simple pleasure.

The interesting thing is that no matter your privilege – your education, the number of books in your home growing up, your parents’ view of literature – one thing is true across the board: we are all in a position where, if we deem the canon/famous books important, we are playing catch up. Everyone is and everyone will always be. Even if we only read important books we’d never read all of those we considered important unless we had a limited interpretation on what was important… and even then we’d end up missing contexts because of the importance placed on other books by others. The only thing we can do is prioritise. I prioritise in two ways. What am I interested in personally? Which books are referenced most often? Your priorities may differ.

And if we do somehow manage the impossible and read all the works? There will be little or no time to muse on interpretations or read unrelated books. Of unrelated books some people may not worry – it’s okay to eschew modern books for classics if that’s your thing – but interpretations can be fun and they extend your experience of the important book.

When I sat down to write this post I didn’t think I’d have much to say; the post was inspired by a simple line from my notes on Celia Imrie’s talk: “I feel I’m still catching up”. It turns out there’s a lot on the periphery.

I’ve asked a few questions in this post to which I’d love to hear your response; I will emphasise this one in case your time is limited: Do you think you’ll ever lose the feeling of playing catch up or having not yet read the books you deem important?


Jenny @ Reading the End

November 7, 2016, 2:21 am

I do sometimes feel that I’m playing catch up, but most often, when I feel that way, I also remind myself that if I truly wanted to spend my reading time catching up on the Canon, I have every opportunity to do that. Instead I’m reading a lot of modern fiction, new authors, genre fiction, all kinds of stuff that’s important to me in different ways. So I have no regrets! If there are books I care about, I’ll get to them eventually, and if I never get to them, I obviously didn’t care that much. :p


November 7, 2016, 1:22 pm

I went to graduate school in English literature, and had to pass a comprehensive exam over every period of literature (we got to exclude two, so I jettisoned medieval and early American). So I rarely have the feeling of playing catch up, because I started early with a broad base.
Of course, that also made me averse to ever again reading a book because I felt I “had” to.

Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

November 7, 2016, 1:34 pm

Could one read all the books in the “canon” and get over the catch-up feeling? I think it depends on how broadly one defines that canon. My own reading wishes are too eclectic to ever feel I’ve read it all. I do get a panicked feeling sometimes at the thought of how much there is to read, but I try to be realistic and do what I can to fill holes in my knowledge, while keeping in mind that enjoyment is my main goal.


November 8, 2016, 3:14 am

“It feels very good to have read a famous book” So true. Having said that I feel that there way too many books I would love to catch up on. And there are new amazing books being published everyday. It is impossible at least in one lifetime. Thats why I have little patience for books I’m not enjoying very much. I don’t hesitate to DNF books. So many books, so little time.


November 8, 2016, 9:24 am

I do now wish I’d read more of the ‘canon’ however one defines it, if only to get more of the references, homages, influences that other writers do build into their novels. I am convinced it does enhance the reading experience – and my proof was reading Moby Dick – and discovering that so many books I’ve read have referenced it in one way or another which I didn’t get until reading the source material.

As for making time to include canon books in my everyday reading schedule – that’s another matter!


November 8, 2016, 5:45 pm

I stopped in to see if there was news about the 2017 What’s In a Name, but couldn’t resist commenting on this post. There was a time I felt I was lacking and needed to try and read more of the ‘classics’. I finally reached an age where I realized I could never read everything I should, or even wanted to read. If I can work in a couple each year, I pat myself on the back and move on. This year it was Middlemarch, The Fountainhead, Gone With the Wind, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Just a drop in the bucket.

Tracy Terry

November 8, 2016, 6:40 pm

Feeling pretty much like Kelly, whereas I used to beat myself up about what I wasn’t reading/felt I should be reading this is largely no longer the case.


November 8, 2016, 10:05 pm

Although I wish to read more classics, I don’t really class books as ‘important’ to read. I am more swayed by the stories, the history, the time period they were written in and how much they have been loved by so many others. At the end of the day, I always want reading to be a joy not a chore.


November 10, 2016, 5:17 pm

I don’t feel like I am playing catch up but I do always feel like I am behind. By behind I mean behind on reading all the books I want to read, behind because my list keeps growing and I can never seem to make a dent in it. There is definitely a great pleasure in having read books that are referenced in other books, the knowledge makes you feel “in the know” and who doesn’t want to be there? Also it adds a bit of depth to the work in which it is referenced especially if it serves as a shorthand for something. However, I think that if I can’t get anything worthwhile from a book because I haven’t read the books it references then I think it is failure of the book and not me.


November 13, 2016, 6:32 pm

Jenny: I like how you’ve written that – I always remind myself that it’s important to read new books if you’re to keep up with current conversation but you’ve expressed it very well and with a lot of extra thought. We do have the opportunity to choose canon instead. Indeed – it’s about prioritising. And even if we don’t get to those we’d like to, it’s because we instead got to those we wanted to even more.

Jeanne: Oh wow, that’s quite something! (Well, it sounds awesome from here but I can see why there was the option to exclude, and why you picked the earlier stuff). That is a good position to be in. Yep – I know that feeling well. One book per year during that time.

Lory: Good point – the more limited or specific your definition, the easier it would be. Yes, enjoyment, very good point.

Violet: Yes – not only do we want to catch up but we’re very aware that we’re missing great books no matter what genre/time/status they are.

Annabel: It does, I agree. I know I used to like to think it didn’t make too much difference but the number of times I’ve not read the referenced book and then once I had I ‘got’ it a lot better…

Kelly: 21st for What’s In A Name :) That’s a good thing to aim for, a few a year. I’m considering one a month but looking at the Dickens I have… You’ve a lot of pages listed there overall!

Tracy: A good place to be!

Jessica: ‘Requirements’ which can of course lead you to the classics! :) If it was a chore it’d be hard to take in what you were reading.

Stefanie: Yes, behind – I definitely feel that, too! Yes, ‘in the know’ – exactly. It means many conversations are suddenly a lot more accessible. The book being the failure is something I’ve been thinking about recently. It’s all very well to have references but yes, they can be a draw back, and if the referencing is such that the book is obscured otherwise, is it doing the right thing, so to speak? (Obviously category, genre, so on will influence this.)



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