Marie Moser of The Edinburgh Bookshop ponders those titles which everyone has read… everyone… surely, you know – you haven’t!
The theme of our bookshop window at the moment is “Books people pretend to have read”. Originally this was a game we played amongst ourselves in the shop – which books do people lie about having read, or pretend to have finished. There were some obvious contenders:
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
Ulysses by James Joyce
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Once the conversations got going, however, it became clear that the pool of potential titles was very much affected by age and the thorny question of who exactly decides a book is a classic. Is a classic a book which has been around for a long time and still generates excitement? Are classics books we read in school or are given to us by parents? Do we still cling to F.R. Leavis and The Great Tradition?
Certainly each generation adds to the pantheon of greats. Catcher in the Rye and Fahrenheit 451 were first published in 1953, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in 1974 and the first Harry Potter novel appeared in 1997.
As the new are lauded, others slowly fall by the wayside. Will the ‘screen’ generation tolerate the thick detail of Charles Dickens’ writing or the slow starts of Thomas Hardy’s novels? Likewise, changing views of women may well reduce the stature of some literary characters. While some see Tess of the D’Urbervilles as a victim of the fates, others with more modern sensibilities want to give her a good smack and tell her to pull herself together.
Perhaps great books are ones that connect with us across generations and backgrounds. As Shakespeare’s longevity shows, ambition, love, hate, death, life and faith are universal threads which touch upon lives the world over. Yet it is not just the themes which make for greatness – it is the language. The Great Gatsby is not considered a great book purely on the basis of the characters and their story – Fitzgerald’s use of language is beautiful and nuanced, and makes re-reading a true pleasure despite knowing how the story ends.
We should, perhaps, treat reading like a healthy diet. Enjoy what you consume but try to avoid overdosing on either fibre or rubbish. Read only the traditional classics and you may miss out on some exciting flavours and unexpected joy. Feast only on froth and nonsense and your brain will become flabby and dull. To save you some time, however, we can recommend a few stinkers to avoid:
Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L.James. It may have sold 125million copies world-wide but this is a really, really badly written book. Couple this with the author’s inability to understand the difference between the S&M lifestyle and an abusive relationship, and this is one book you should avoid.
The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep by Carl-Johan Forssén Ehrlin. Another appalling book which inexplicably gained a lot of media coverage last year. Dreadful illustrations and a narrative that suggests the author has either never met children or actively dislikes them. We concluded that children fell asleep out of sheer boredom.
Jessica Vesica in the Land of the Wedge Women. Yes, this is a real book. Probably the weirdest book we have ever been sent in the bookshop and proof some people really should work harder to resist the urge to be a writer. Jessica has an oval shaped (Vesica) head and uses it to crack nuts and free the Wedge women from their labours. Allegedly this is aimed at children. We have no idea why.