As I type this, I have two different books underway. The first is one that I will review here in a week or so, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Durbervilles. The other is a reread of a Glen Cook noir fantasy omnibus called Garrett Takes the Case.
Let’s start with the latter. This one is part of the PI Garrett series, which I reread every few years. It always starts the same way… tired of whatever I’m reading in parallel, I pop open the first of the omnibuses in my library… and I don’t stop reading them for weeks (I don’t abandon the reading of stuff I’ve never read before, just pop into the Garrett books when the mood strikes – which can be pretty often because I simply love to lose myself in the world of these novels. Utterly awesome.
This is a typical example of books I love to read, no matter how many times I’ve already done so. I have a lot of writers who write books like this: Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, Asimov (particularly his essays), Eco, Pratchett, Bill Bryson. Wonderful books I grab off the shelves time and again, which I wear out and which are replaced, whenever possible, by better editions.
Other books were wonderful when I read them for the first time, but not necessarily something I’d reread every few years. Still, those fall into the category of books I love to read. You can probably pick them out from my reviews. Many of the classics, such as Austen or Thackaray fall here. Wonderful stuff, but a little dense for simple pleasure-reading.
But not all reading is purely enjoyable. Sometimes it is necessary to improve one’s knowledge of the literary giants upon whose shoulders I, and all modern writers, stand. I won’t pretend that Ulysses, for example, was light, wondrous reading. Bits of it are good, but mostly, it’s a work that demands concentration and much furrowing of the brow. But once the first go-through is done, the pleasure begins. You can reread passages for specific meanings, you can think about what the whole work might signify, you can be delighted by details. There’s pleasure in removing that chink in your wall of knowledge, of knowing where that particular book fits into the sum of human literature. And yes, you have permission to bask in the fact that you, unlike so many others, have actually read the thing. This is a book I love to HAVE read, even though I struggled through it.
A lot of books work that way. Off the top of my head, here are some books that nearly killed me which I now consider jewels, and which I look back upon with pleasure. Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Divine Comedy (the edition I have of that one has the Doré illustrations) were both long, involved reads. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible are also in this list.
Everyone, writer or not, literati or Netflix binger, is poorer for having missed any of the ones listed above, just as I am poorer because I have yet to read Tolstoy or Finnegan’s Wake. Some books are fundamental in the cultural education of any human on the planet. No excuses.
The good part is that many, many of the fundamental books are either partly or wholly wonderful. We’ve mentioned Austen and Thackaray, but there’s so much more. The first few books and last few books of the KJV are great fun (as are a few of the minor prophets). Shakespeare’s Histories are better than everything else he wrote, and so are MacBeth and Much Ado About Nothing. Then there are the unexpected ones; who would have thought that Crime and Punishment was such an entertaining read? Or that The Great Gatsby would be such a perfect book?
When you’re in the middle of a particularly difficult book, my advice is to always push though. I get so much pleasure from having these books bouncing around in my mind, occupying a definite place in my head, that the effort is always worth it in the end.
But that doesn’t mean I won’t let my mind wander and temper the great with the merely good–but beloved–work that I know I love.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside explores the consequences of being a little too online all of the time. You can check it out here.