I love to read books. So much that I sometimes even read several books at the same time. I also like to talk about books with other readers, I like to receive new suggestions on what to read next and make recommendations of my own.
But there is something that I don’t like about these conversations. Every now and then somebody will scream out “What?? You haven’t read War and Peace/Jane Eyre/Vanity Fair/Ulysses/To Kill a Mockingbird/Crime and Punishment/Homer yet?” with a condescending look and implying that I am not to be taken seriously as a reader because of this omission. Students of literature seem to be especially prone to displays of this behaviur. Similarly, some people will show off at what age they read a certain book that I have just recently read: “I read The Magic Mountain when I was 15.”
I don’t understand the sentiment behind these statements because
- While you were reading the books you know and deem indispensable, I was reading something else which you just may not know. It doesn’t mean it is less good.
- On a similar note, especially students of English literature should realise that other languages and literatures do exist.
- Outside of school or university, there is nothing that I must read.
Beyond these fundamental points, I even agree that some classics deserve to be classics. I might disagree with you about which classics are worth being read, but I am not disinclined to admit that some of the books which have been read and recommended for decades or even centuries are indeed more worthwhile than most of what occupies the weekly best-seller lists.
But even among these masterpieces, there is no need for this rush. Life is not a contest to read as much as you can as quickly as you can. And actually, it is much smarter to take your time with good books:
- Our life expectancy is around 75 or 80 years. We still have plenty of time to read these really good books.
- This is especially true if you consider that great authors like Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Hermann Hesse, Boris Pasternak or Heinrich Böll don’t write anything new any more.
- If you read all the classics in your teens or twenties, you might be forced to read Harry Potter when you’ll be 40 and dime novels in retirement. Save some of the good stuff for later!
- Afraid of running out of time? I can assure you that nobody will regret not having read Moby Dick or The Divine Comedy once they’re dead. But when you are 80 and alive and there is nothing good left to be read, you might regret having rushed through all these volumes earlier.
- I don’t care how smart or educated you were when you were 12 or 17, but I doubt you had the same life experience as a 35- or 55-year old. With increased life experience, you will read One Hundred Years of Solitude or Doctor Zhivago quite differently. – The Catcher in the Rye might be an exception, better to be read in your late teens.
Two years ago, I recommended Catch-22 to my father. It is a classic and one of the best and funniest books I know. It caught me by surprise that my father hadn’t read it yet because he is a well-read person in his 60s and a fan of anti-war literature. But only the fact that he had not yet read this book allowed him to enjoy Catch-22 for a few wonderful warm summer evenings, sitting in our garden and casually smoking a cigar.
No, there is no need to rush. Neither with books, nor with other things in life.