Which of the best books did you read this year?

One of the scabrous satirical prints directed ...

One of the scabrous satirical prints directed against Pope after his Dunciad of 1727. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Surveying this year’s “best books” lists to see which ones I’d read (none, it turns out), I was reminded of a long-ago conversation.

When I was teaching English in Mexico, one of my students was a businessman whose concentration on engineering meant that his education in the liberal arts was largely self-taught. Being an intellectually curious man bent on self-improvement, he told me he only read the classics, which he defined as books at least fifty years old. The ones, he said, that had stood the test of time.

When there is so much great literature to show us how we got where we are, why, he asked, waste time with contemporary stuff, most of which will be forgotten five or ten years out?

Although he didn’t use the phrase, he was arguing in favor of the Western Canon.

For years my own reading tended toward the classics. Like the Mexican engineer, I wanted to understand the currents of thought that run through Western literature—the philosophical and cultural ideas that shape our history and reflect our humanity (often captured in language of unmatched beauty). I think that’s why I became an English major.

Yet, as enriching as the great books are, concentrating on the classics to the exclusion of the contemporary sometimes left me feeling an emotion opposite to the joy of shared humanity. I felt more like an outsider or an anachronism, the same way I feel when I pick up an edition of People magazine and don’t know nine-tenths of the celebrities mentioned.

What good is it to know the origin of a phrase like “all looks yellow to the jaundiced eye,” when most people don’t know and don’t care, and they really just want to talk about J.K. Rowling’s new book about muggles? Focusing on the canon may connect me to countless generations past, but it disassociates me with my own.

I have friends who haven’t read a classic since college freshman English. They read, but they prefer contemporary books—often New York Times bestsellers or one of the Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award winners. They read for entertainment, for the thrill of discovery, and to share in the lively buzz about books that have currency in the public’s consciousness and conversation.

Nothing wrong with that, but focusing on the contemporary to the exclusion of the classics seems as sad as the other extreme; it leaves me feeling regret for what is lost—how much deeper the conversation might be with some shared knowledge of the canon.

Judging from the “to-be-read” lists on sites like goodreads.com, most readers seem to prefer contemporary books to the classics. If you are one of them, the year-end “best of” lists will help you find books that may stand the test of time; they may even spare you from reading this year’s chaff. But if you are a reader willing to go off the popular path, why not try a book that has already passed that test?

So then, tell me, which classic are you going to read next year? And if you say Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism, my heart will glow!

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Which of the best books did you read this year?

  1. Thanks to your article, I’ve realised that there’s one thing I don’t read: best book lists. I suppose that the answer to the question is another question: why do you read? Personally, it’s an escape route from my routine, and I’d freely admit to being more a “contemporary” reader than a classics freak, without completely excluding the latter from my reading diet.

    • I read for a very selfish reason: to be delighted, and delight can be so unpredictable. I agree with you about a balanced diet. An adventurous approach, not caring whether a book is old or new, listed or not, is the best approach to reading. Thanks for your comment.

  2. I’ve found that a lot of my friends who love to read haven’t read many of the classics. When we discuss it, they say it’s because they sometimes feel intimidated by it (one said that it felt like homework which made me smile).

    I think that a lot of the classics may have been introduced to people in the wrong way: as dry, boring texts. When, in fact, they are exciting, incredible reads. After all, there’s a reason they are classics, right? Goodness, when I first read Chaucer at university I blushed! Were we actually reading such pornographic material aloud in classroom – what a class! Hahaha!

    • Hi Letizia, Yes, nothing is worse than a classic that doesn’t connect. I remember slogging through Ivanhoe and The Mill on the Floss as a twenty-something. And frankly, even old Mr. Pope out of the historic context would be tough going. But like you, I also remember the thrill of discovering Chaucer and so many others. I’ll never forget finishing the Miller’s Tale–“Tehee!” quod she, and clapte the wyndow to…” It doesn’t get bawdier or better than that!

  3. Richard Van Holst

    Tom, I’m a classics man, myself. But being on Goodreads has brought me into closer contact with contemporary literature than I’ve ever been before. One reason is that authors and friends have approached me to ask for reviews of their novels, poetry, short stories, etc. And entering the ranks of authordom, albeit in a small way, has changed my perspective as well. I believe it’s possible to achieve a happy blend of classics and modern. Next year, I’m planning to read Proust, Infinite Jest, Middlemarch, and perhaps more Dickens. But I will probably sample some contemporary works as well.

    • Richard, thanks for commenting. I agree a balance of modern and classic is best. You are way more ambitious than I, but Proust is on my list for next year, too. And Middlemarch is a book I always hope to get to, so who knows! See you on Goodreads.

  4. David

    Teaching English in Mexico, one of my students was a businessman whose concentration on engineering meant that his education in the liberal arts was largely self-taught. Being an intellectually curious man bent on self-improvement, he told me he only read the classics, which he defined as books at least fifty years old. The ones, he said, that had stood the test of time.

    The problem with this approach is that if everyone took it, nothing would EVER get read and therefore nothing would stand the test of time. And it could be worse. Let’s say that just the intellectuals took this approach and left all the reading to boobs. In that case, after 50 years or 500 or 5000 — you’d still be left with literature that appealed only to boobs.

    See how that works?

    • Good point, David. I wish I had thought to say that at the time. Nothing is static, including the canon (whatever that is). Tomorrow’s canon includes some of today’s writing for sure.

  5. Most of the people I know read fantasy books and nothing else, or bestsellers and are totally unwilling to read anything that may be layered, subtle or have big words in it. I don’t thin ki have read many of the ‘best books’ or should we say most publicised books of the year. I think a mix is good, although literary and non fiction has to take the driving seat whilst other books are just there to break up the heavy stuff and enjoy whilst the good stuff sinks in.

    Next year I plan to read a lot of classics and non fiction, just in case i get stale, Anna Karenina definitely, Camus, Orwell and Thucydides, then whatever I find when i finally unpack. I shall also look out for the Pope essay.

    • I agree. Mixing it up, classics and contemporary, fiction and non-fiction, is my preferred way to stretch the brain a bit. As for Pope, unless you read him in context with the politics of England at the time, he’s a little too arcane for my taste.

      • Then i shall further my knowledge of English politics throughout the ages and background knowledge, I am happy of the excuse to do so. Any excuse to read is good for me.

  6. A resounding vote for mixing classics and contemporaries it seems. I was lucky this year to get involved in two book-related events which forced me to read out of my comfort zone and while some of the books I read as a result only confirmed my prejudices, others won me around and, I think, enriched my reading as a result. I think I’ll go into the new year with a slightly more open mind than previously. I’ll let you know next year!

    Happy new year to you Tom!

    • Thanks, Adrian. I enjoyed reading your reviews this year because you read many books I never got to, some I never even heard of, and it’s always nice to learn about exciting new ones. That’s the challenge with the classic v. contemporary issue.

      Happy New Year to you as well. I’m looking forward to following your reviews in 2013.

  7. Hey, Tom! I’m all over the place when it comes to reading. I often read “popular” books as part of my aspiring author homework to see what all the kiddos are raving about these days. I love some good non-fiction when the mood strikes me, or obviously for research. Now that I finally have a Kindle I am excited to explore the indie variety I was unable to before.

    I just sent you a friend request on Goodreads and I would love some classics recommendations from you if you don’t mind.

  8. I find the Russians greatly under-read: Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. Their works are often cited as being problematic because of the character name redundancy (though I barely empathize with an American intellectual curiosity so weak it can be quashed by proper names). I have found insights in non-fiction off the canon such as Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro and DuBois’s The Soul of Black Folk. Both tell that side of history which Westerners tend to ignore– the perspective of history’s oppressed. Knowledge gained from these readings help greatly in appreciating a masterpiece such as Melville’s Benito Cerino just as having read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee adds depth to the ironies in Sherman Alexie’s work and an understanding of the bond of lineage in the books of Louise Erdrich. Fifty years is an unfortunate line of demarcation as the disintegration of the Western Dead White Man canon begins with the the Civil Rights victories of the 1960’s making any discussion of inclusion of female, Latino, African or AA, or Asian or Indian writers in the canon barely half a century old. Nevertheless, lists and canons have their purposes as starting points along the road to Oz and then back to Kansas and on to Hollywood and then global exposure.

    • Yes, I love the Russians. And I agree that much is missed if one only reads the canon of old dead white men. I’m surprised in fact that no one challenged the question floating within this posting: what is the canon? That discussion may have to wait for another day. Thanks for your thoughtful (as always) and thought-provoking comment.

  9. Dickens, F. Scott Fitzgerald, O. Henry, Balzac, Stendhal, and a couple of Russian and American short story collections. That’s all I can think of off the top of my head for now. I know there are other classics on my shelf waiting to be read. Let me go take a look….

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