Harry who?

Around here things are pretty quiet. I’m trying to keep focused on writing and everybody else is reading. The Mathematician is reading the sixth HP while the Girlchild is reading the seventh. He’s just tiding himself over until she’s done and he gets his turn. I’m not worried. I don’t need to read it — the day after it came out, I read the whole detailed summary on Wikipedia. This is how I’ve handled all the books. I read the first one with the Girlchild, and after that the Mathematician took over and I was no longer obliged.

The thing is, I’m just not all that interested. Rowlings has an incredible imagination and she tells a fantastic story that has caught the interest of millions of people — not just children — around the world. But not every story is right for every person, and this is just not the story for me.

When I was teaching, we’d talk about this quite a lot. Students would be puzzled by their own lack of response to some story or novel with a stellar reputation. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, a college freshman said to me one year. But these Chekov short stories are boring. I don’t get anything out of them at all.

It’s not a crime to pick up a book and then put it down again. If it isn’t what you need to read at the moment — if it’s not what satisfies your need for a story — then by all means, set it aside. You may find that a year from that point, or two years or twenty years that you adore the story.

Or you’ll still dislike it. You may hate it. You are not the right reader for that book.
In fact that particular novel may not have many readers at all, but somehow or another it has got on the canon and so people of a certain mindset feel they are obliged not only to read and understand it, but to value it.

Here’s a pretty good definition of canon:

A rule or especially body of rules or principles generally established as valid and fundamental in a field or art or philosophy.

In as far as literature goes, this means basically that a small group of people take it upon themselves to decide what goes on the A-list. Those books that are of such great and universal value that everybody should read and understand them. Academics often claim the authority to add to or revise the literary canon.

There’s a lot of discussion about this in academic circles, and two extremes: the Harold Blooms of the world who are sure they know good from bad and exactly what deserves to be read; and his polar opposite, those who would reject any kind of list like this at all.

Really, I don’t think it’s worth arguing about. In the end it’s an aesthetic. Harold Bloom likes what he likes because of who he is. On the basis of his education and body of literary criticism, he has assumed the responsibility for maintaining a literary canon. On the same grounds, he expresses his contempt for anybody who doesn’t agree with him. His canon is very deep and narrow. And that’s well and good for Harold, but I’m not interested in his opinions. At least not in any now-I-know-what-to-read kind of way.

Would I benefit from reading some or all the books that have made it onto his list? Sure. There’s benefit to be had from reading almost anything. But I’m not intellectually lazy because I prefer to make such decisions for myself. I would not let Bloom order for me in a restaurant, and I won’t let him decide for me what stories I should make my own. And there are many other lists of literary masterpieces, other takes on the canon. Some of them founded and maintained by publishers (who want to sell more books, of course).;

All this is my way of saying that while I’m not enamored of Rowlings, I’m also not enamored of many other writers, some of whom have made it into the so-called canon. And in every case, this is my failing. I could not make the book work for me. But there are other readers out there who will enjoy it.

So a short list of books I am supposed to find enlightening, educational, and worthwhile which I do not.

Ulysses (Joyce)
Golden Bowl (James)
Wuthering Heights (Bronte)

All three books have loyal and enthusiastic readers. I’m just not one of them. Is there a book whose value you recognize, but you cannot like? Name names, go on. I dare ya.