A reader sent me a blog written by a librarian who, after having a daughter, admits she fell into a “cultural wasteland” where neither books nor movies existed. Eventually, her librarian instincts kicked in, and in 2015 she read 164 books, some with pleasure, some because she thought she ought and others because she wanted to be conversant with titles recognized as the best of the year. One of those in the last category was Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s latest publication, which the librarian/blogger, Amy McLay Paterson, concluded should never have been set to print. (“I read 164 books in 2015…” by Amy McLay Patterson, vox.com, 12/29/15)
Much of what Paterson wrote in her blog is self evident. Reading should be a pleasure and not a chore. It should expand the mind. And, some of life’s lessons are “better learned through characters and stories than presented as facts.” Roots fires our imagination against slavery with a greater force than details from a history book.
I also agree no book should be endured simply because others say it’s good. That’s why I was surprised when she wrote she chooses her material from a list of the “best” books. I confess I’m uncertain how that list is assembled but suspect it derives from titles published by the 5 large publishing houses and ignores small imprints or self published manuscripts. Rather than expose herself to an expanded view of the world, as she desires, Patterson narrows it.
Not every well written book becomes a best seller or wins a prize. But each tells a unique story. Why a title doesn’t appear on a list stems not from an inability to write but an inability to convince a New York agent that the work will be a blockbuster. But blockbusters, as I have observed more than once, don’t always represent the best in literature.
Serious readers have their work cut out for them. They must take risks, plow through many titles, listen to the opinions of their friends and only then, consider the cannon of the “best” list. If its appearance on that list were the sole criteria for reading a book, Moby Dick would never have seen the light of day.