Sunday, October 5, 2008

The 1% Well-Read Challenge

Or: Why I Don’t Read Lit-Tra-Toor

Being all full of noble purpose from the Banned Books list, I decided to check out the 1% challenge. I’ve seen a couple of references to it here and there and had been meaning to look it up.

Today, over a cup of coffee, in my PJs with the kids playing/arguing downstairs, I finally got around to it. As it turns out, I am 5.4% well-read. Maybe our school system isn’t so flawed after all, because a lot of the ones I’ve read were from school assignments in junior high and high school. (Um. Other than the erotica, that is.)

Then again, there are some titles on that list that probably aren’t ever going to show up on any high school English teacher’s list, at least not in the US. Lady Chatterly’s Lover? Not as sexy as you’d think. 120 Days of Sodom? Seriously gross (I started it many years ago but couldn’t finish). Lolita, The Story of O, Delta of Venus—also not likely to show up on any recommended summer reading list for the < 18 crowd. Not that a horny 15 year old might not want to read them… but most adults probably aren’t going to suggest them. I read one of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez titles and actually thought that I might end up in the past when I finished, it was so slow going.

Lucky for me, there were a couple of Douglas Adams titles on the list, although how Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency ranks above The Restaurant At The End of the Universe is beyond me. And three of my all-time favorite books-- Gone With The Wind, Catch-22, and The Once and Future King-- made it, hurray.

Mostly though, it seemed to me to be a list of about 900 tremendously depressing books. I will tell you right now, I am NEVER going to read American Psycho, The Virgin Suicides, or <shudder> The Tin Drum. I have absolutely zero interest in reading about unspeakable acts that humans are capable of perpetrating on themselves and on each other. I can always read the news for that.

Reading for me is entertainment and escapism. Perhaps I am being intellectually lazy by not slogging through Dostoevski and Updike (and yeah, I consider them to be about equally readable, as in: not very) but I have concluded that I can live with that. So I’ve decided that I’m not going to bother with the 1% well-read challenge. I’m well-read enough.*

Why is it that pain and hardship and depression and death and disease and cruelty and horror seem more intellectually valid than love and desire and pleasure and joy? Why is a happy ending code for “non-literary” and non-intellectual?

I don’t know. And I don’t much care any more. I read books that I enjoy, that make me feel good. Of course some conflict is needed to make the story interesting, but I want it all to come out OK in the end. I want my happily ever after, dammit.


*It's an interesting list, and an interesting challenge though. I encourage you to check it out for yourself and draw your own conclusions.


Shannon said...

huh. I have read 16 of the books on the list. I gues that is approximately 1.6%. That is about what I expected. I stopped read the books everyone says you should read a long time ago. Like you, I read for enjoyment. MY enjoyment. I want to be entertained and be able to put the book down happy at the end. Grapes of Wrath may be a classic, but I really don't want to end a book that depressed.

Nicola O. said...

Yeah, I can never unread that last scene with the hungry old man and the young woman.

Marsha said...

Hm. I wonder about this list - not that these books aren't interesting, because most of them *are* in some way - but because it is so heavy on recent works. I hesitate to designate books that haven't yet stood the test of time as universal must reads. I'm sure if I really wanted I could find out more about who made the list and then suss out his or her POV but...nah.

With a quick scroll starting from the bottom I flagged 37 that I've read and probably another 50-70 that I'd like to get to someday. Some of those books I simply won't pretend to be interested in and others' reputations I find so precious that I can't be bothered.

Nicola O. said...

You're right, Marsha! I thought it was telling that there were almost 300 books dropped between the 2006 and the 2008 editions.

Really? 30% turnover in 2 years? Also, it's hard to take any list seriously that doesn't include Homer's The Illiad and/or the Odyssey.

It's almost interesting enough to check out the original book to see how the author justifies what's included....

But then again, maybe not. Lisa Kleypas and Christine Warren have new books out and JR Ward's Insider's Guide comes out Tuesday. So I have better things on my TBR list. ;-)

Michele said...

Well for whatever it's worth, I've got a copy of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. All I can say is it's a good thing I didn't pick this book up when I was 90. That would seriously suck.

I don't think I'm near as well-read as I like to think of myself, ha.

Anyway, just a shout "hello" to a fellow Seattle-ite and mom!


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