I graduated college in 2013 at nearly 29 years old. All of a sudden, for the first time in years, I had free time. So I started reading again. I had been a decent reader as a kid, and here and there as a young adult, but I had never made time for it. So, now that I wasn’t going to have homework, I thought I’d do some reading.
I had never been into reading the classics, and had avoided reading pretty much all of them, even throughout school. However, one of the things that I’ve tried to always keep up on, has been cultural literacy. I knew a little bit, about nearly every genre of movie or music, and could keep up in most conversations, but no literature. I had no clue.
As I began reading, I knew that just reading the classics, would likely become a daunting task, and that I would probably give up on it quickly. So I decided that I would read what I considered one fun book, followed by one classic. I’ll admit that I don’t do a great job keeping up with this rate, because a lot of the books that I consider more fun, end up being part of a series, and I usually read the entire series in a row, but then there is a classic.
I read the Percy Jackson series, then I read The Great Gatsby. I didn’t expect to like The Great Gatsby, half of the people who had talked about it, seemed to be unimpressed, and didn’t think it had lived up to its classic status. I loved it. With Gatsby, I had finished my first classic, and I was feeling good about the undertaking I had embarked on.
I should explain, I also had made a rule for myself, that I would finish every book I started. I wouldn’t start the next book until I had finished one, this would help me to keep going on books that I didn’t think were going well.
Fahrenheit 451 was the first big hiccup. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the book. I found it interesting, but there was something that just wasn’t sucking me in. I probably didn’t read for nearly a month. Then I started working on my Master’s and soon I had mandatory reading, and that rekindled my desire to read, and ultimately I finished Fahrenheit 451. The book got better, and I ended up really liking it.
Because of Fahrenheit 451, I instituted a new rule: If for whatever reason, I’m not into a book, I will force myself to read a page a day, and I could begin the next book. This worked well.
After a year, I had read Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, The Metamorphosis, and other classics, but none of them were keeping my attention. By this time, I was nearly thirty, and books like Catcher in the Rye and On the Road didn’t affect me the way they would a high school or college student. I was feeling burnt out on them, so I began to reevaluate. Instead of just classics, I would read books that had some other educational or cultural value to them. This opened up Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Into The Wild, and so many other options.
Then I hit my second big bump in the road. The book that would make me break a rule. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I struggled for two months with this book. Not intellectually struggle, but it didn’t hold my attention, and I didn’t have any desire to keep going. I would hit a section of the book that would be great, and it felt like it was going to hook me, but these sections never added up to more than two pages. I thought for a little while, “I’ll just do a page a day minimum until it gets interesting.” That was a good plan in the past, but after two months I had read about 150 pages of the thousand-page book, and I knew I didn’t want to commit any more time to it.
I’ve seen people write about how great it is, talk on TV and things about how great it is, but ultimately I couldn’t force myself through, and I quickly realized that I didn’t actually know anyone who had read the entire thing for precisely the same reason. So another new rule went into effect: I could give up on a book over a certain size, after dedicating enough time and effort.
A side rule, not about reading, but about my way of thinking went into effect as well: No matter how good people say something is, if I can’t force myself to read it, I will not feel inferior. This rule is really important, Infinite Jest may have been the book that finalized this lesson for me, but having read all these ‘classics’ certainly helped get there. Sometimes a book is a classic because it strikes a certain age group, as I think is the case with On The Road, and Catcher in the Rye, and I was too old, and that’s not a knock on those books just a fact. Sometimes it may be a generational thing, there are going to be books I cannot appreciate, because I wasn’t part of the generation that it was written for (although so far I don’t think this has happened yet). Finally, sometimes the popularity around a book is a product of expectations or hype or whatever other influence, and not the book itself, like Infinite Jest—we’re told it’s brilliant, but probably by people who were also told it was brilliant.
I suppose there is a little bit of this same type of thing with William Faulkner, I read The Sound and The Fury, and then quickly after I had to read As I Lay Dying for school. If I’m being honest, I found both books interesting, and I certainly wouldn’t say I disliked either, but I found his style to be needlessly complicated. A year after reading these two books, I had to read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and I loved that book, but I was able to follow along better because it clearly borrowed some of the style from Faulkner.
So basically, this journey through literature—which is ongoing— has taught me a few lessons, and I hope to impart on you. First, don’t be ashamed of what you like to read, you’re reading and that’s the most important thing. Second, don’t be ashamed if you hate a book that seemingly everyone else loves, you can both be right. Keep reading things you love, it’s nice to challenge yourself, and I won’t try to talk you out of it, but switch it up, I’m on my eleventh Rick Riordan book, I’ll be reading The Girl On The Train just so I can justify seeing the movie. There isn’t really a wrong reason to read! So subscribe to this blog and keep reading. Sorry for the shameless plug.