Misguided advice about reading books

I know that ‘listicles’ (articles that are lists of things, often ranked in order of preference) are often purely clickbait. They consist of preferences of the writers of the article and have no deeper meaning. However, I am a sucker for lists of books and films and so often follow up the links just to see how my tastes compare with that of the author. This list consists of 21 books that the editors of GQ magazine think are highly over-rated and for each book they provide lesser-known alternatives in the same genre that they think would be time better spent reading.

I had read only six of the listed should-not-be-read books: The Catcher in the Rye, The Old Man and the Sea, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catch-22, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Gulliver’s Travels. The Bible is also listed as a book not worth reading. I have read a lot of it but not all.

Strictly speaking, there is not a single book that one must read. Pretty much any work of fiction or non-fiction can be substituted with others. The thing about famous books (or authors) is that one does not read them because only they can provide important insights into life. One also reads them so that one can be part of the cultural conversation. For example, the phrase ‘Catch-22’ has entered into our language and although one can learn its meaning without reading the book, you will not fully grasp its nuances. I read the books Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby very late in life and the only reason I did so was to try and understand why people considered them to be important reflections on America and literature and because references to those books and the characters in them abound everywhere and I felt I was missing something.

Some time ago, E. D. Hirsch wrote a book titled Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. He made the accurate point that not knowing the meaning of certain characters, idioms, and metaphors made it hard for one to fully participate or even understand what is going on around you because allusions to them abound. But his solution of providing a sort of dictionary that explained the essential terms so that people could avoid reading the actual sources was, I think, misguided because such a short cut deprives you of much of the depth of the original.

For example, when someone is referred to as being like Hamlet, it might mean that the person is indecisive and a dictionary might give you that understanding. But Hamlet as a metaphor means other things depending on the context and that is what is lost by not reading the original. Similarly, one reads The Old Man and the Sea not just to learn something about the human condition but also to get an idea of Hemingway’s writing style.


  1. says

    I’m impressed that there are a lot of female authors listed as alternatives. And because of that it’s probably a good thing that site doesn’t have a comments section.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    Why can’t I read both “alternatives”?
    The authors of the list seem to have no sense of history whatsoever.

  3. Matthew Currie says

    I don’t agree with many things there, nor particularly with the idea that one work must be dropped for the other to be read, but I would just comment that I do agree that Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude is a great book that more people should read.

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 2 chigau

    Why can’t I read both “alternatives”?

    Or neither? I tend to avoid “good literature like the plague and most of those books scare me. I have read a few of those “classics” but I put that down to a disadvantaged youth in the country where we did not have a lot of reading material.

    Heck, I’ve even read some Dickens but the memories have faded, thankfully. It was that or train schedules; I still have a weakness for Via schedules.

    The authors of the list seem to have no sense of history whatsoever.

    So I was not the only one who thought that. It made some of the suggested substitutes seem really weird choices. The substitution for the Graves’ book seemed bizarre. And replacing Huckleberry Finn with Fredrick Douglass’ memoirs? Those two books probably are not in the same universe.

  5. blf says

    Why can’t I read both “alternatives”?

    Or neither? I tend to avoid “good literature[”] like the plague […]

    Same-ish here. Of the listed works, the only one I’ve read in full is Lord of the Rings (multiple times). For many many years I avoided it, this was because I had to read The Hobbit for a school assignment, and like virtually all school assigned readings, hated it. So I avoided all Tolkien, until extremely bored one end-of-year’s holiday, I brought a copy of LotR and read it: One book a day, three days total. And devoured it! It caught my attention early on, and never really let go.

    I still have the copy I purchased, but the spine is broken and several pages are loose. I keep meaning to buy another, higher-quality, edition. (I also have the full “director’s cut” edition of the three movies.)

    I remain unkeen on The Hobbit, but have (now) also read it multiple times, and at least tolerate it. The old hatred is gone, but it (probably) still shows up in my not being too keen… (I do not have, and have not seen, the (three!) movies.)

  6. file thirteen says

    I think Slaughterhouse-Five and Gulliver’s Travels are books that are worth reading, even if you don’t like them. I didn’t like the author’s nasty attitudes in Slaughterhouse-Five (recommend Cat’s Cradle instead) and was entirely unconvinced by the satire in Gulliver’s Travels (but do read Swift’s A Modest Proposal) but I’m glad I read them.

    I loved Catch-22 and recommend it, for what that’s worth. Your mileage may vary.

    The Lord of the Rings was the first book of my parents that I ever read. Dad read me the Hobbit, then started reading TLOTR to me, but stopped when he discovered I was reading the next chapter ahead of him reading it to me (so I knew what was coming). So I read the rest myself. Anyway, I recommend it to other-worldly mes at age eight or so (perhaps younger).

    Hemingway has an iconic style that’s well worth reading, but one I haven’t read is The Old Man and the Sea.

    If you live in a predominantly Christian country, you really should read some of the Bible, if only to be aware of what you’re blindly worshipping (if Christian) or to know thy enemy (if me).

    Very tempted to list the books that inspired me now, but I prefer mostly science fiction and fantasy so I feel I shouldn’t. I’ll settle for mentioning Iain M. Banks, Octavia Butler, Tanith Lee and Gene Wolfe. But if I had to pick a book that I think you should read, I think you should start with Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything”.

  7. says

    So many books, so little time. I often joke that if I could make a Faustian bargain—a cultural reference many today don’t get—it would be to live as long as it took for me to read all the books I wanted to read. (To see how badly that could come out, I highly recommend Anton Chekhov’s short story The Wager.)

    Books are like music, we tend to believe that the best music is that which we first heard as teenagers. (Yes, that is an over generalization and there will be plenty of counter examples to prove—test—the rule.) Teachers of literature (and the compilers of literature texts for secondary schools) act in a similar way, teaching those books they loved as students.

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will (Read) Write

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *