The Must-Read Books?

I’ve been pondering some of my reading habits over the past week or so.  Since I have so many book lovers following me with diverse tastes, I’d like to get your opinion on something.

I have a relatively low opinion of the average bestselling novels.  On one hand, I’m glad those authors have found their audience and are as successful as they can be.  On the other, I feel like to read their work tends often to read like Mad Libs, where basically it’s the same story again and again with different names and places filled in.  They play to the lowest common denominator, so I feel somehow cheated of my time and money when I’m done reading them.  That’s part of why I’m rather picky about my fiction.  I want to be entertained, certainly, but I also want the story to really mean something to me, to pull me in and hold me there until the ride is over.  It’s difficult to do that when authors pattern their work on someone else’s far better work.  The copy of a copy of a copy is never as good as the original.  Of course, for those who haven’t read the original, this is a non-issue.  There’s an audience for every book, and if a book resonates with a person, who am I to say that’s wrong?

As you might imagine, that level of immersion doesn’t happen very often, hence my low opinion of bestsellers.  Combine that with the absolute certainty that fact is stranger than fiction, I find myself reading a lot of history, and every now and again I throw in some science, arts, or some other branch of human (or possibly inhuman) examination.  I like to learn, and there’s always more to learn.  With my three different college-level experiences being worse than a joke, I feel like I’m vendetta learning, if that makes sense.  As much as I enjoy the learning process, it’s also like I’m trying to prove something to myself at all turns.

This is the part where you come in.

I recently encountered something in my reading that stated that most non-fiction books are perhaps 5% new material with the other 95% pre-existing in other books.  That sounds a great deal like my experience with fiction.  The article in question, which I truly wish I could find it so I could link back to it for you, went on to say that it’s better to be well-read in a handful of books than to be widely read.

That’s what I want your opinion on.  How do you feel about this statement?  If you agree with it, which books do you believe are the ones most worth reading and why?  If you don’t agree with it, why not?  If you’re so inclined, please give this a think and offer up your ideas.  I’d love to have them.

11 thoughts on “The Must-Read Books?

  1. I myself think either can work as a strategy. Part of it depends on finding those great works, and part of it depends on how you best learn material. Also, the wider the field in which you’re interested, the more books, I should think. And you may pick up something in one that you link to matter in another in a useful way, too.

    But the “Great Books” approach in school sometimes left me somewhat cold; who’s doing the choosing? What were their criteria? (Sometimes it was clearly “this is a famous author, and this is their shortest book, so you’re going to read that.” Alas.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • That seems reasonable. I know from personal experience on the Middle Ages, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of directions to cover it from. Cross-pollination is bound to happen: politics, philosophy, art, science, religion, sociology… the list goes on.

      The idea of greatness is something I’ve always wondered. Is greatness subjective, or is there an actual criteria that transcends basic opinion?


  2. I have a special, though it might seem weird, habit or approach to something I like. For instance, if I have a music band I love, I tend to buy all of their CDs down to EPs, singles, compilations and what not. Then I start looking for more or less similar bands and dive into their music.
    The same situation is with books. At university I had to read a lot of literature which was not to my taste. It took me several years to understand that my reading interests lie mostly in high fantasy, medieval literature, epics, legends of old and historical fiction. So I think I’d rather be well-read in this field and know and understand it as much as I can handle than try and read one book from each genre and be neither here nor there. I don’t like bestsellers and most of modern literature either, though there are some exceptions to this unfortunate rule. They have to be dug out of piles of rubbish, but it’s worth the effort.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I think that both perspectives have merit. Up until 150 years ago, basically the only way to obtain higher education, short of being part of the landed gentry, was through self-education. We live in these glorious times where we have access to world class minds with the click of our fingers – for all of the crap available on the internet, this makes it worthwhile, right? There is only honor in seeking knowledge.

    I don’t think that there is a specific set of “must read books.” If you are specifically interested in exploring the western canon, then Harold Bloom, curmudgeonly and opinionated, can point you in the direction he thinks you should go (it starts with Shakespeare). There are as many lists as there are critics to put them together.

    Having said all this, I am partial to Willa Cather and Edith Wharton and find them both to be incredible.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It has taken me a while, but here are my thoughts:

    1. Is a copy or a copy of a copy really never as good as the original? If, in the words of Ali Smith, books beget books, then what does original even mean? I was thinking about this and could not help being reminded of Wilkie Collins and the works of Sarah Waters (Fingersmith in particular). There is a definite tip of the hat by Waters to Collins. And, yet: I have not enjoyed Collins but loved Fingersmith.

    I have the same feeling about The Hunger Games, which also is a hotchpotch of all sorts of books, and mostly reminded me of Lord of the Flies – yet, I’d choose THG over Golding’s classic any day!

    It’s not that I am averse to the classics, either. I love reading what passes as the “original” so it can’t be bias as such. I just think that each book has a life of its own. In that way books are bit like people for me.

    2. Re being well read in few over being widely read: There are merits to both, but – depending on the book – being well read in a few books does not provide the same opportunity to broaden ones horizon as being widely read.
    I’m not saying that reading as many books as one can without taking time to revisit them, understand them, critique them, etc. is better than limiting oneself to a few (or even a few dozen) works, but I object to the principle of limitation. I see a logical flaw in the idea that limiting oneself will provide a better understanding of the world than if one keeps exploring.

    Liked by 1 person

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