It pained me to think of all those years when I simply devoured whatever fell into my hands, whatever struck my fancy at the local library or on my parents’ bookshelf: best sellers from the 1930s and 1940s, the names on the spines long forgotten; the comedic writers beloved by my father; and all those Agatha Christie and Stephen King novels, all that pulp. There had been good stuff, too, much of it by accident rather than design: Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, whose collected works I’d read in both Lamb précis and true form, the Brontës, Chekhov, and contemporary writers pulled from the “New Releases” shelf at the library, purely because I liked the titles or the covers. But when I thought about all the hours I’d spent lying on my bed or my parents’ couch or our lawn or in the backs of cars on family vacations, all those hours that could have allowed me the collected works of Dickens, into which I’d barely delved, or Trollope, or Dostoyevsky. Or Proust. The list went on and on, all that I hadn’t read, all that I didn’t know.
– Joanna Rakoff, My Salinger Year, p. 112.
This passage resonated with me, because I sometimes feel exactly the same, particularly when I’m confronted with all the great writers I haven’t read. I begin to regret my reading choices when I was thirteen and fourteen and worked my way through Tom Clancy and fantasy epics. In my early twenties, I felt so strongly about redressing my undisciplined reading that I began to read through some lists of classics. I’m glad I did this, particularly the forty most important Australian books chosen from a survey of writers, as it exposed me to important works I probably would have never got to. All lists are provisional and biased, and some are better than others, but many of them do give a good overview of the books which have had ongoing significance to readers and writers.
On the other hand, serendipitous reading is important. Allowing a book to leap ahead of the long To Be Read pile just because the impulse takes one. Buying an intriguing and unknown book from a second-hand book sale, and temporarily rescuing that writer from being forgotten. I especially treasure certain forgotten or underrated books outside the canon which I’ve discovered and loved like John Christopher and Hans Koning. And while I do regret reading Clancy, I don’t regret the experiences I had at my small primary school library when I had no choice but to read almost everything on the shelf.
There are at least two issues here. The issue of canon, which will be debated forever and I don’t particularly want to tackle. And the more personal issue of our reading choices. I’ve been trying to focus my reading to help my PhD, to make sure everything I pick up relates in some way to my research. But I stopped, because it makes me resent my research and turns reading into a chore. I need to keep reading things which aren’t ticking off the list in my head of what I Should Be Reading, as well as then sometimes forcing myself to read things on the said list.
And this is the paradox: the pleasure of reading is in both the random discoveries and the discipline of forcing one’s way through a classic against one’s inclination. I don’t think Joanna Rakoff really regrets her motley reading list, and neither do I.