Is there something in the human soul that makes us blame ourselves for not reading the books we feel we should have? A few years ago, Amazon gave us a “list of books to create a well-read life” (or at least to make us feel bad for not reading enough). Last week, Sian Cain exposed herself by admitting that she hadn’t read Ulysses (neither did I, although I own two copies, which surely brings me a little closer to the goal of finish it).
This week, YouGov tells us that only 4% of Britons have read War and Peace, although 14% wish they had; 3% have read Les Miserables, although 10% want to; and 7% have read Moby-Dick, with 8% intending to.
The survey of 1,664 British adults aimed to discover the “classic 19th century novels that Britons say they would most enjoy reading if they had the time and patience”. Oliver Twist was the most popular classic on the list, read by 21% of respondents, with Pride and Prejudice and Little Women at 15%.
It would be fair to say the list has angered a few authors – including our own Stephen King expert, James Smythe, who took issue with YouGov’s description of his range of books people would read if they had “the patience”. “To say that it takes patience to read these books demeans the books and suggests that you are not mentally capable of reading them… Here’s a new thought: stop acting like a book is a mountain. Start acting like they’re something people read for fun, in their spare time,” Smythe wrote on Twitter.
Novelist Sarah Perry agreed with Smythe – but added that “readers shouldn’t avoid anything BECAUSE it’s a ‘classic’ either, you know? They are just books. “More people would read Tristram Shandy, for example, if his reputation didn’t precede him. “You’re gonna LAUGH with laughter, that’s a good ol’ laugh” is a much more accurate and compelling line than “oo you really should,” Perry tweeted, before offering a repackaging campaign for the classics to ” strip them of their supposed prestige.” and get people to read them.
Author Sophie Hannah participated in:
(By the way, I reread Wuthering Heights for the first time in years over Christmas, having been swept away by the excellent repositioning of the story by Alison Case, Nelly Dean. I always loved it, but in reading it as an adult rather than a teenager… oof, that’s crazy.)
Do the classics need a name change? I think Pulp! The new Classics looks for Metamorphosis (tagline: “Change really bothered him”) and Alice in Wonderland (tagline: “That cupcake was crazy!”) are brilliant. I know exactly what Perry means when you jump into a book you feel you should read – and then you realize that, wait, maybe it’s a classic because it’s good , not because it’s hard. This is exactly what I did with War and Peace; giving it a crack because I felt like I had to, and then being surprised to find out it was really fun. Not a trial at all.
I have read half of the books on the list. Some that I loved. Some that I hated. I feel like I should have read them all – and I’m missing something to not like the ones I didn’t like. But I’ll drop the guilt this time because Smythe is right: Books aren’t stark endurance tests. We are meant to benefit from them, as well as be enriched, educated and challenged by them. This is worth double for the classics.
And with that in mind, instead of increasing my kudos by launching into one of the many classics I haven’t read, I think it’s time I give Anna Karenina a try again. I hated it when I was a teenager, but I was very busy not liking Anna as a character. I’m curious to see what I’ll do with it at 36. I’ll let you know how I get on – and how, when it’s finished, I’ll rebrand it.
How many on the list have you read? Do you feel compelled to read certain books?