Make Your Own Must-Read List

by syaffolee

In The Freedom World, Jessa Crispin argues against reading books that everyone else has read–that there’s no such thing as canon or a must-read.  In many ways, I agree with her.  After all, we all have different experiences and backgrounds.  We all have limited time and it is better to use it well to read the books that we want to read rather than what other people tell us to read.

But while I agree that there is little utility in putting stock in what other people tell us is a “must-read”, I think there is use for a literary canon–not as something to be forced on people–but as a tool for teaching.  Sure, we can all say that we should just read for our own pleasure, but I think there is merit, too, in picking a few books that everyone else has read and analyzing the heck out of them.  It’s a way of trying to get into someone else’s point of view in how to approach reading, another way to empathize.  I’m not saying that we should do this all the time, but that we should all do this at least once to see what the other side is all about.

That said, though, reading books (especially fiction) is not the same as studying algebra, the periodic table, the organelles of the cell, or even grammar.  Fiction is an art form and thus subjective.  Let’s say you’re someone who hates Picasso but loves Thomas Kinkade.  While there are, of course, critics who may question your taste–no one in their right mind would attempt to make you live in a house filled with Picasso paintings if you preferred Kinkade instead.  Similarly, no one should try to force you to read a book you don’t want to read because it’s all about taste.  And there’s no such thing as “correct taste.”

So if everything is subjective, then why on earth does everyone else want to read a must-read or something on the supposed canon?  I think that while everyone does have their own unique experiences, people still crave a shared experience.  But how you go about getting that shared experience is another matter.  Human beings are social creatures–and many find it in their nature to try to fit in with everyone else by doing what everyone else is doing.  And as for the rest of us?  Well, I can speak for myself.  I read what I want to read.  But after I’ve read the book, I tell other people about it or stumble upon other people who happened to have read the book.  And that is the crux of it.  Are you a follower or someone who forges their own path, hoping that others will follow after them?

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