An admission: I have attempted all of the following books, and—after a good deal of brow-furrowing and chin-stroking—given up a the halfway point, thrown them against the wall, and redeemed them for cash: Mrs Dalloway (too boring); The Lord of the Rings (too long); The Picture of Dorian Gray (too tedious); Catch-22 (too confusing); Ulysses (too impenetrable); and anything by Patrick White (too Patrick White).
It makes me feel all kinds of guilty and stupid. My literary friends howl at the omission of Woolf’s modernist classic. My nerd chums insist Tolkein’s book (also Australia’s Favourite Book) is superior to the films. My homosexual comrades proclaim Oscar Wilde’s only novel is genius.
But it’s Catch-22 that rubs most of my friends the wrong way, including fellow Frankie scribe Anna Krien, who threatened to chop off my actual ballsack if I included Heller’s satirical masterwork in this article. Everyone refuses to believe I’ve yet to finish it, which was given to me as a birthday present years back, and is supposed to be “totally you, Ben”. But at least we can all agree on Ulysses. That book is as long, boring and stiff as petrified shit.
As for Patrick White, my writer friend Rhianna is a massive fan of the dead Australian. “I agree that he has a small problem with tedium, but you have to approach it like you would an extreme form of yoga,” she says. “Once you break through the pain barrier, it can be blissful. Although, having said that, I hate yoga.”
Books have a special way of making you feel intellectually inferior to your peers, like no other artform. It’s easy enough for the music and film aficionado in each of us. You get a recommendation, seek the thing out. After a couple of hours, you’re done. Congratulations. You have now experienced Blue, both the album by Joni Mitchell and the movie by Kieslowski. You are now one step up in the World of Art.
But unless you’re an insomniac, or have some strange form of Asperger’s, it usually takes much longer to read a book. Every time you pick up a novel, it’s a costly investment in not just money, but your sweet-arsed time. You can hedge your bets in two ways: wait until the critical acclaim is deafening, or buy a Babel-like tower of books with the misguided notion that you’ll read all of them. This option never works.
Some people give up on books for practical reasons. My friend Krissy, who’s a novelist, says size can be a deterrent. “The one that taunts me most is Don Delillo’s Underworld, because everybody keeps raving about it,” she says. “I keep re-reading the first three chapters before realising it’s just too big to carry around in my handbag.”
Moreover, the numbers simply work against you. “With 8,000 books published in Australia each year, even the most avid bookclub member can only get through 25 of them,” says Stuart, a lecturer in English at UQ. “So we’re all just sampling literature. I haven’t read Prozac Nation, The Tipping Point, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers or The Bride Stripped Bare, but the ideas from these books circulate in my world.”
Lorelei, a book editor, says there’s no shame in giving up on books. You might rediscover them later. Right now, she is getting back into Flaubert’s Madame Bovary again, after several failed attempts in her youth. “It’s going well, and I really love it.” But for her, it wouldn’t matter either way. “Don’t agonise over it. You should feel relaxed, calm and confident to happily say, ‘Nah. Not enjoying it. Am moving on.’”
Here’s the thing: books can be read badly, or at the wrong time in your life. Last year, I read Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, a novel written as a letter by a dying reverend to his young son. But since it was a meditation on death, part of me knows I’ll appreciate it more when I’m, say, closer to actual death. Don’t resent me because I’m young and have too little experience with dying. That time eventually comes for all of us, you know.
So in the meantime, the message is this: don’t feel bad. Read whatever you want. Don’t listen to Harold Bloom, that sour-mouthed crypt-keeper of the canon. Books are books. They’re not fashion accessories, or a measure of your artistic knowledge. They are not obstacles to conquer, or props for intellectual macho contests. If you really want to engage in an actual penis-size competition, just flop it out already. It’s exhausting for everyone else.
With my hand on my heart, I’m going to try Catch-22 again. But if I get to the halfway point again, and find myself not enjoying it, I’m probably going to throw it against the wall again and give it a rest. As far as time-bending war narratives go, I’m definitely a Slaughterhouse 5 kind of guy right now. In any case, Vonnegut’s much easier to carry around in my bag.