Do you believe in the idea that there are books that everyone must read?
(As I wrote that sentence I struggled with ‘idea’ – to me it’s an idea but to many it may be a belief depending on the book in question. Thinking here of the canon, of course. I do think that perhaps it depends on the book in terms of whether or not there may be a difference between ‘idea’ and ‘belief’ though it’s also down to culture, the society you live in, and so on.)
For me, it depends on the reason – why, exactly do people say that such and such a book should be read? Does the book contain information you can’t read elsewhere or information that’s available elsewhere but not written as clearly as it is here?
Then again, I’ve never been a fan of those ‘X books about X you absolutely must oh my god read’ posts, likewise any articles that say similarly of different media. Nevertheless I think opinions ought to be considered, even if we believe in the idea that a person shouldn’t have to be a reader.
Mostly, then, I don’t believe in it. I believe in telling people that they ‘should’ read a certain book only if I’m pretty damn certain it would suit them, no matter whether or not it’s canonical. Will they really, truly, benefit from reading it as an individual rather than in the general sense of benefiting? (And I think you’ve got to make enjoyment or appreciation the priority, surely more important than ‘benefit’.)
A lot of this comes down to what I would say is the fact that some all-important must-read books are bad for one reason or another. The example I always use is Wuthering Heights, partly because that’s where my personal decision to separate enjoyment from appreciation of literature stems from. Due to this I could never say, ‘read about Heathcliff, you’ll love it’. But I could say, ‘I reckon you should read about Heathcliff because you’ll appreciate the work’. Enjoyment can be had, I believe, but in the literary sense of the word.
I’d put another Brontë sister in this category: Villette – I find it difficult to recommend Charlotte’s scathing monologue on why Catholicism is hideous, but it has value otherwise.
I think various categories have to match up before a recommendation can be made. Is the person a reader? Do they read this genre? Why do you think they’ll like it? Those last two in particular bear remembering, and whilst ‘genre’ is often broad enough in scope, it’s all too easy to forget to really consider the person’s further tastes when you’re raving about a book. Often inner dialogue is more ‘will they like it? Yes, because this book is great!’ than ‘will they like it and am I certain that I’m not putting my own interests above theirs?’
February 22, 2017, 12:26 pm
I often think of books I think I should read but I don’t extend that to other readers. As you said, so many factors like age, background and tastes will effect what is a relevant book to each individual.
February 22, 2017, 2:10 pm
One of the best things about being a teacher is getting to assign books you think everyone should read. One of the books I’ve assigned most (and always considered a must-read for American college-age women, in particular) is Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Now it seems more important than ever for everyone to read it.
February 22, 2017, 6:30 pm
I’m also averse to articles telling me I MUST read so and so. I’m adult enough to make up my own mind on what I want to read. If I want to make a recommendation to a friend I never use the expression ‘you should read this’ – I’d rather say ‘I know you enjoy [type] of books, so maybe this might be one you’d be interested in’
February 22, 2017, 7:12 pm
As a Christian, I’m placing that aspect totally to the side, since it’s not what you’re asking here. (even then, I’m not sure anything other than the Bible would fit that ‘must’ category for other Christians)
In short, no. I do not believe there are books everyone must read. We’re all individuals with totally differing tastes and I don’t think any one book can speak to all. Even in my own life, the books I’ve felt I ‘needed’ to read were often the result of my current circumstances.
February 24, 2017, 7:09 pm
Nope, I don’t think there are books everyone should read regardless of anything. Sure, if you are an English professor there are certain books you should read, likewise for a host of other professions. But if you are just an average reader? No such thing as should.