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.

22 Replies to “Harry who?”

  1. I admit no great fondness for Jane Austen. EEK! It’s the equivalent of romance writer heresy, I know. But side from P&P, which I’ve read a number of times, I much prefer the movie/TV adaptations. I count Wuthering Heights and A Tale of Two Cities among my all-time favorites, yet I have never been able to finish Mansfield Park.

    And I’m with you on the Potter thing. Loved Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, by contrast, but Potter never sang to me.

    Oh, and I have a post on historic photographs you might enjoy. I was thinking of your exercise on writing character blurbs based on pictures.

  2. Gonna get some hate mail for this one..hey I respect the guy, he writes a good story..but with the exception of maybe one or two of his books, Stephen King dosen’t really do it for me. Harry Potter..maybe I’m just being contradictory to popular opinion but it just seems so contrived to me.
    But it’s like Rosina says 5/10 years from now who knows..

  3. I forced myself through about a third of Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” because you know Faulkner is a ‘literary giant’, but I absolutely *hated* it. I think I gave the book to Goodwill. I will never try it again.

    I also had a really hard time with Doris Lessing. I still have a volume of collected works, and I should probably try that one again.

    Recently we watched Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket” for the fourth or fifth time since we saw it in theaters oh so long ago, and I finally understood what the movie was trying to say and saw that it was a coherent piece from start to finish. Before this I always thought it sort of fell apart after boot camp and the rest of the movie made no sense.

    Like Carrie, I loved Philip Pullman’s trilogy, and I hope the movie does it justice. I’ve never read Rowlings — it’s just too popular right now — but I am interested in seeing how she treats/uses modern myths.

  4. Daisy Miller by Henry James…I’ve started it three times and made it to page 77 each time, finally deciding it wasn’t worth the effort to read again…

    Moby Dick by Melville. Even though I read it all the way through, discussed it with an academic who LOVED the book, I just never really saw the value in it…but am so glad it was written so that it could inspire Sena Jeter Naslund to write Ahab’s Wife.

  5. The Grapes of Wrath. I just couldn’t get into it. It was supposed to be a great book and a really moving story, but I couldn’t get myself into it. I felt a little dissapointed because I also couldn’t get into Dracula. I’m determined to try Dracula again, though.

    On the other hand, I loved Harry Potter. I haven’t read the His Dark Materials that someone mentioned above, but I want to. I’ve wanted to read those for about a year now, but now that a movie is being made of the first one I’m determined to read it before the movie comes out.

  6. Margaret Atwood and as a canadian I am ashamed. I own a couple books but everytime i open them i get distracted by another book.

    I haven’t found a Stephen King that i like either. The movies are great.

    thought i might try the 1st Harry Potter with the kids while at camp.

  7. For some reason I really struggle with Indian writers. I can’t figure it out.

    Midnight’s Children: I enjoyed the first hundred or so pages but it was a mission to finish it.
    The God of Small Things and Namesake: I failed to see what people raved about.
    Just recently gave up on The Sea by John Banville (not Indian). Most of these were lauded books, in fact I tend to only like 1 in 5 Booker prize winners.

    The sign of disconnect for me is a) I can’t finish it or b) I can’t remember anything about it.

    The Road Less Travelled was one book I tried reading in my early 20s but put it down after two or three chapters. 10 years later I loved this book.

    I like Margaret Atwood’s short stories. They are quirky but her novels don’t grab me. Though I have not read The Blind Assassin … one day.

  8. “The Last of the Mohicans” is a book I wanted so desperately to love…but didn’t. In fact, I detested it. To make matters even worse, I adore the movie. Oh, the shame of it all…..

  9. Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger: I just couldn’t get into this book even though I had heard all these wonderful things about it – I did finish it though as I have this thing about feeling guilt at putting down a book and judging it before getting to the end.

    The Chrysalids (U.S. title: Re-Birth) – John Wyndham: I was made to read this at school and it just didn’t float my boat at all. Usually I enjoyed the literature part of English at high school but not this one, ugh!

    And on a movie basis (just to vary the tune a little) it would have to be Gone with the Wind. I really wanted to like it but just didn’t – I was a lot younger when I saw it though and would like to attempt the book now.

    As an aside; gotta put my hand up and say I’m a huge Harry Potter fan married to someone who hugely is not, so totally get the whole ‘is it, or is it not your cuppa tea’ argument.

  10. Ooo, just thought of one more book on this list – I had to do a bit of digging for the title but it’s The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. It made an impression on me by how much I detested this book that I vaguley recalled it being set in Mexico but not much else… this is one book I didn’t finish.

  11. For the Term of His Natural Life – Marcus Clarke. An Australian classic, but I just can’t crack it.

    Wuthering Heights – Ditto. I love the idea of it, but the book just doesn’t work for me. And when I really think about it, neither do the characters.

  12. As an English teacher, I must admit there are a lot of great writers that I just don’t enjoy, even if I can appreciate them in an aesthetic sense. Henry James is one, Steinbeck another. And Faulkner…as a Southerner I should be ashamed, but he bores me to tears.

    On the other hand, there are certain writers from the canon who are less popular for various reasons nowadays but whom I adore. Hemingway is one, especially his short stories and ‘The Sun Also Rises’.

  13. LOL Ang in NZ; I liked P&tG, and it was set in Mexico. I suppose we’re proving Rosina’s point. ^_^

    For me, it would be pretty much anything by Dickens. I recognize it’s greatness but it’s just so *dreary* that I don’t like reading it.

    As to the HP debate, I was quite enamored with them in high school, but I hated the fifth one so much I stopped reading, and then when I tried going back over the first four I was surprised to find that my enamor had entirely worn off, and I had a vague mystified feeling of, “What was wrong with me back then?” :D

  14. In my musings last night I also remembered that I wasn’t crazy about:

    A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by Joyce

    Last of the Mohicans by Cooper

    The Life of Pi (though the rest of my bookclub loved it)

    The Kiterunner (again bookclub loved it and I didn’t)

  15. Let’s see. . . I never could stomach Faulkner, The Grapes of Wrath was like torture to read (but unfortunately it was a crime to lay it down since my final paper was on it. Sigh. . .) and finally, here’s my big confession that I’ve always been a little embarrassed to admit. . . Little Women. I just never could finish it. I must have tried four times before I recognized this book simply wasn’t for me. I never could get it since I was wild about Anne of Green Gables (and pretty much any other L.M. Montegomery), The Little House Books, Heidi and all those other young women coming of age a long time ago staples. But Alcott just simply never got it done for me. Oh well. . .

  16. I was such a voracious reader, I read everything my teachers threw at me and then some. But I did find that some worked for me and some didn’t, much like anyone would and decided it wasn’t a matter of me being “stupid” but that I “knew” what I liked.

    I am with you on the Wuthering Heights. I liked Ulyssses but not so much Portrait of an Artist. I liked As I Lay Dying but not Light in August. I enjoyed The Stanger by Camus but not anything by Kafka.

    And so it goes…

    BTW, I like the story of Harry Potter, but not so much Rowlings style of writing.

  17. I should also say that I’m one of those weird people who thought the fifth Harry Potter book was actually the best of all. Everyone else hated it–I loved it. So my taste is obviously a little out of whack. :)

    Another poster mentioned ‘The Life of Pi’. I’m so with you on that one. It was recommended by two of my closest friends, and I couldn’t get a hundred pages into it before I put it down for good. Same with ‘The God of Small Things’.

  18. I can’t seem to bring myself to get anything out of that whole lost-generation 20th-century set of authors — F. Scott Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Faulkner, and probably the biggest disappointment: JD Salinger. I read Catcher in the Rye because it was supposed to be some Important Book, and I found it to be nothing but a bunch of angsty whining by a guy who desperately needed something productive to do. Which I suppose is perhaps the point? I dunno. It just didn’t move me.

    Also, I confess that I have a hard time getting into Dorothy Dunnett. (ducks.)

    re: HP: I’ve recently read the first two books, and taken separately from all the hype surrounding them, I don’t think they’re anything out of the common way, personally. They’re not pointless or stupid — by no means the Paris Hilton of the literary world — but at the same time, I fail to see why they elicited SUCH a stir. Marketing? Herd mentality?

  19. I LOVE Harry Potter. My 13 year old doesn’t read them and has no interest in reading them; she prefers to watch the movies. I pre-order, stand in line and read the entire book the first day a new one comes out. I can go on and on this subject. So sad it’s all coming to an end.

    As for books I couldn’t get through I’d have to say anything Shakespeare. Love movies on his work but I can never get through any of them in print. I love Diana Gabaldon’s Outlandish series but didn’t like her spin off of Lord John Grey. I didn’t care for the John Grey character in the Outlander series and didn’t really care to read more about him but since it was Diana’s work I did.

  20. Books by Patrick White. Again Australian classics so I am a traitor to my country but I just couldn’t cope with him. Also I tried The Satanic Verses and didn’t last more than about three pages. I made more of a sustained effort with the God of Small Things but I felt the author was trying to be too clever with her language and it kept throwing me out of the story. On the other hand, I was amazed by how much I loved and was awestruck by Portrait of the Artist as a young man. And I read the final Harry Potter last night/this morning (finished at 4am) and must pay her my ultimate compliment – I found her language and construction a bit pedestrian at first but then the story sucked me in and I stopped noticing. I found the ending satisfying in a way I find few stories satisfying, everything was so completely right.

  21. I’ve read several of Oprah Winfrey’s “book club” picks and I can’t say there was one of them which really knocked my socks off. Most, when I reached the end, made me ask, “and what was the big deal about that?”.

    One book on her list — which I actually put down — was ANNA KARENINA. Just couldn’t hack it. I know detail is good but this one had so much that I felt as if my own imagination had no room to soar.

    I’ve decided life it too short to read any book that doesn’t suit me. A book may be well-written but if the subject matter does not appeal to me — why bother? Even if it’s a classic. Or something every one else says I should read.

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