As a self-ascribed subject to the cult of literature, I believe it’s important to admit that there will always exist a list of ‘impenetrable’ books. Perhaps ground-breaking, Booker Prize winning but undoubtedly impenetrable. Books that you may have read once, even twice if you’re the courageous type, but eventually tossed back into the library or beneath some inconspicuous shelf. Or perhaps, somewhere along the arduous journey to completion, you simply gave up (we’ve all done it). In fact I’ve done it so many times my father now dubs me a ‘book-grazer’ (it’s always comforting to be likened to a member of the Bovine family.)
More often than not, these books belong to a class of what I like to call ‘Pretentious Reads’: literature that has stood in the shadows of its own greatness and esteem, a greatness that has grown over time through the waves of platitudinous literary articles and has now earned a place in the ‘Hall of Fame’. Of course, it goes without saying that writers do not create books with the intention of their creations appearing pretentious; that comes later. Books that lack the ability to speak for themselves instead frequent the ‘New York Times Bestseller list’ to shout their importance. And so, insignificant bookworms such as ourselves pick up this ‘Pretentious’ book, palm it over, recognise the famed title or author and immediately choose to read it. Now, I understand that it’s simply ridiculous to blame an unpleasant or unsatisfying read solely upon the advertising industry. But these ‘elite’ reads stand atop generations of the principle of social proof (i.e. humans are herd creatures by nature). We naturally assume that their longevity must testify to quality. Specifically, it is that Professor X from perhaps Oxford or Cambridge decides what book is of literary merit and what falls short, and that we use the directions and opinions of others as heuristic to choose a book. Take F.R Leavis’ elitist but admittedly critical canon ‘The Great Tradition’: in 1948 Leavis controversially boiled down the population of English novelists to “Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James and Joseph Conrad”, deeming them the greatest writers in the English language, a decision considered almost secular by many literary scholars. Such cultural tyranny has trickled down the decades, until in the minds of both scholars and ‘grazers’ alike, the ultimate literary canon is formed.
The issue arises when someone dares to denounce such a novel. Such individuals are swatted away, under a shroud of assumed unintelligence or perhaps deemed lacking in ‘profound artistic qualities’. I myself have been ‘swatted’ when, as a 13 year old, I declared that Shakespeare was ‘boring’, or when I was perplexed after page three of Murakami’s ‘The Wind-up Bird Chronicle’. Perhaps it’s our own stupidity that compels us to put down a book,or lack of maturity -- or the simple matter of lacking interest. I have been outfoxed by the mordant ‘Slaughterhouse-5’, ‘Catch 22’ and the verbosely exotic ‘100 years of Solitude’ that offered more magical escapism than magical realism. However, amidst the failures of a reader, often we hit a snag. Because the mere six months between my readings of ‘Wuthering Heights’ must have filled me with newfound understanding, because it now has a permanent place on my bookshelf. In the literary discourse of today, we continue to ravish and burn books to no end. And despite the continual bone-picking of Austen’s work, scholars and students alike continue to revisit them. And so goes the age-old adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Through the relentless advertising and Penguin Classics lists, some books will touch our souls, while others may forever remain untouched and abandoned. But for each and every person, Harvard scholar and primary schooler alike, there will exist a canon that has wormed its way into their hearts.