I’m similar to a lot of people in that I didn’t like the books I was forced to read in school. Some people loved the assigned reading, and probably had a one-up on the rest of us, but most people I knew didn’t care much for any of the books. This included Great Expectations, The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby, Macbeth, and A Farewell to Arms, among many others I can’t remember. I hated almost all of the books I was forced to read and was told were classics. As I got older, I realized a lot of my hate had to do with my issues with authority/being told what to do, and my general distaste for school at the time. Nowadays, I read a lot on my own. I’ve read a fair number of books over the last handful of years but most are contemporary. John Kennedy Toole and Kurt Vonnegut are some favorites from the mid/late-twentieth century, and I’ve read, and enjoyed, a smattering of Sinclair, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Bukowski. But I haven’t really ever dug into any classics that I might have missed when I was too moody and stupid to read, like Mark Twain or Walt Whitman or James Joyce.
With that in mind I picked up William Faulker. Not only is he considered an all-time great, I saw that he had a stream of consciousness style that I might recognize from the Beat writers (and more contemporary writers like Tao Lin). I got possibly his best known and most celebrated work The Sound and The Fury*. Around 250 pages in, with 70 pages to go, I put it down for good. For the first 50 or so pages, I tried to like it. I looked over the little gripes I had right off the bat. I tried to enjoy the way it was written, find the positive and interesting aspects of the characters. But after the first section, I couldn’t find any redeeming qualities. Not to say it’s a bad book or poorly written. I’ve read books that were plain bad, and this isn’t one of them. But it didn’t connect with me on any level. It’s not that I have to recognize my life perfectly reflected in a book, but I think I do need to recognize the thoughts and motivations behind whatever actions are being played out in the story. I need to understand the people to some degree and I did not understand anyone in the book, at all.
Reading a book you don’t enjoy is a lot worse than watching a bad movie or tv show, or listening to bad music. With all of those, you can tune out when you want a break from the bad sound, acting, or writing. You can wash the dishes or surf the internet while that nonsense goes on in the background. With books, however, you are immersed. And you need to be immersed or you won’t get the most enjoyment out of reading. That’s why, even though I try to finish books when I start them, I decided not to push through with The Sound And The Fury. And I want to avoid that terrible reading experience in the future.
I don’t know how to shift through the books that, for one reason or another, simply don’t appeal to me. Faulker seemed like safe bet. Coming away this disappointed makes me hesitant to pick up another classic, but I wouldn’t want to miss out on the Upton Sinclair level of amazing novel.
I’m thinking I should try again. Maybe pick up a Nabokov or something. I did like Death of Salesman and some of the classic science fiction (though that can get very gimmicky, childish, and boring).
It appears that I’m asking for recommendations. Any classic literature (defined however you like, from American twentieth century classics to Edgar Allen Poe to anything else) you would recommend? I’m interested in more options based on personal interest and not a “best of” list on the internet.
Thanks for taking the time.
*Not that these things are gospel but The Sound And The Fury was ranked #6 on modernlibrary.com’s 100 Best Novels.