Required Reading

Stack of BooksI’ve been out of college for a few years and free from all official required readings lists. Or so I thought. Even when the diploma’s handed out and I’m allowed to call my instructors by their first names, there’s another list waiting—actually, lists (plural). They’re unofficial lists, but more merciless than those handed out in class. I’m talking about the “you-should-read” lists, and these come in three forms: social, personal, and cultural. Here’s what I mean.

Some books are required reading on a social level (Harry Potter, Twilight, Life of Pi). If you want to be part of the zeitgeist or just a good citizen who can play nice with other people, you should be familiar with these—or at least see their inevitable film adaptations. Of course you could be the countercultural guy/gal who says, “I’m not reading that trash.” That’s been my response to the Shades series. I’ve also resisted the Game of Thrones stuff, mostly because of page counts and my lack of interest in fantasy.

Game of Thrones crosses into the other category, the books given by a friend or co-worker: “You should read this. I think you’ll really like it.” Oy. I do have a stack of these well-intentioned “gifts,” and some of them seem genuinely likable. But they feel like obligations, just like those social-required readings.

Then there are the culturally required books, those great novels that I should have read in high school or college but, somehow, avoided or missed. This list is so long that if I start now, I might get through the first tenth by the time I die. In the last year, I made my way through Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and The Sun Also Rises. That’s a start, but hardly makes a dent—Tolstoy and Steinbeck and Cervantes are standing in line, waiting for their turns. I’m now about three-hundred pages into Infinite Jest, which I will probably finish when my kids are in college.

The question becomes, do I ever get to read something I want to read? I keep meaning to revisit some of those Douglas Adams books, especially the Dirk Gentlys that I can’t remember reading. I wouldn’t mind a Ingmar Bergman biography. Here’s the good news. Sometimes these required readings turn into the things I want to read. I’ve had this summer-long desire to re-read Moby Dick. Last Christmas’s reading of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia gave me one of my new favorite books. Hemingway has changed my literary life—for the better, I think. And, if I time it right, I can read something like The Great Gatsby that fulfills all three of these reading lists.

So what is that required reading you’ve been avoiding? And do you have one that turned into a new favorite?


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