Saturday, 10 May 2014

Great books not to bother with


What great books should we leave unread? An article in the Guardian asking this question prompted me to answer it.

I would start with all books by Henry James. Perhaps Fitzgerald and Hemingway too? And T.S. Eliot's poetry, but not his prose. Definitely The Scarlet Letter. Three or four people recently have assured me that Don Quixote is worth reading. I have grave doubts but may have a go. I did start and hugely enjoyed the Decline and Fall, then put it aside but shall finish it. I managed to get through and enjoy even Paradise Lost by listening to the BBC audio version. I started the Fairy Queen when I was 11 which was much too young (or perhaps was exactly the right age). Perhaps I shall go back but I know I am kidding myself.
Looking at what I wrote it seems I like all books that are not American but I do like some Americans: Raymond Chandler, Mark Twain, Damon Runyon up to a point, Archy and Mehitabell, James Thurber sometimes, Dr. Seuss.

I am annoyed to find people who studied or even lectured in English are not particularly well-read but then the hero of Lucky Jim, was a university lecturer "whose policy it was to read as little as possible of any given book." Someone quite well-known, I forget who, who went to my college did a Ph.D. on Morte d'Arthur without having read it. I read it and loved it aged 11 -the only age when you can enjoy it - and was furious when I learnt about this.

Another article in the same paper gives an interesting list of overlooked books that you should perhaps read. I only read one, The Young Visiters, which is very funny. I have been meaning to read Oblomov all my adult life but have been too lazy.

Another overlooked novel is The King of Elfland's Daughter which I thought the best book ever written when I was 12. Then it was replaced by Taras Bulba which held the title till I was 26 and discovered Stendhal. Charterhouse of Parma still my fave but I am no longer the same person I was at 26.

My teenage tastes sound highbrow but I also read Conan the Barbarian which is the thirteenth stroke of the clock.


  1. I like funny books or ones with murders, I dislike, intensely, long drawn out exquisitely expressed low grade confusion and suffering. There is most of life in Larkin, Wodehouse (my younger son is uncoincidentally called Bertie, a brave choice) or Richmal Crompton. I never liked raw tomatoes, spent thirty years eating them thinking I would start liking them, eventually gave up the struggle. Similarly have tried with "proper/grownup novels" and have found myself lacking. Orwell great, the worst well written story I have ever read was by the Canadian dirge Margaret Atwood.

  2. One of the unspoken paradoxes of your quote would imply that knowing about art makes you unsure of what you do like. One hopes that art should be beautiful or at least interesting. Much of the rest is taste. For me Saudek kicks Newton and Bailey into a generously proportioned cocked hat, Caravaggio renders pallid Rubens, Tintoretto et al, and thinking about it have lost my stridency re music but J S Bach is undeniably "The Daddy."