01 April 2011

Literary Blog Hop: What does canon status do for your reading?

Literary Blog Hop

What a long, strange week it's been!  Working two 13+ hour days can take it out of a gal, but it means our store had two really, really great author events, both of whom are among the most articulate and engaging with their audience as I've ever experienced: Jodi Picoult, clocking in at about 825 audience members, and Alexander McCall Smith, keeping close to 400 audience members in stitches the entire time.  So I'm a little tired and this blog has been a little, well, quiet, this week.

But Mother Nature is playing an elaborate April Fool's Day joke on us Bay Staters this morning, so there's a beautiful snow falling outside and I'm curled up indoors with the avowed intention of blogging and watching the last disc of the incomparable Downton Abbey with a bottomless pot o' tea by my side.  

This week's Literary Blog Hop question, sponsored by The Blue Bookcase, asks whether we are predisposed to like or dislike books that are generally accepted as great books and have been incorporated into the literary canon. 

Well.  While I frequently revisit many of my favorite canon authors, I actually don't read that many classics for the first time these days.  (Does that sound awful to admit?)  I read them quite a lot for high school, then later as an English major in college and in grad school.  Almost everything I read for school was part of somebody's canon--if not Harold Bloom's  dead white man canon, then part of the Women Studies canon, or African American Lit canon, etc--but I'm afraid whether I liked any of these works had very little to do with their canon status.  I might have respected them more as having stood some kind of test of time or meeting some tipping point with enough critics to be designated canon, but liking? No, I'm afraid not.

Liking a book is such a personal thing (and that's the verb we're supposed to address in today's question, insipid as it is.)  I understand why Moby-Dick and Ulysses are important contributions to English language lit, but I will never like them.  Reading Henry James, Marcel Proust, or Charles Dickens might actually be a better experience in Reader's Digest condensed forms since they clearly didn't have the benefit of a really good editor back in the day. 

To modify the question somewhat for contemporary books...most of the books I read these days I'm reading a few months ahead of their publication dates, which means there are few, if any, existing reviews of these books when I pick them up to read, and thus reading reviews rarely sways me because they simply aren't there.  For the twenty percent of the titles that I read after the pub dates, I'll say this: a good review often convinces me to pick up a book I'd not paid attention to before, but it's rare that a bad review will sway me from a book I had already decided to read.  And that might be an answer closer to the spirit in which this week's question was asked.  Yes, other opinions sometimes matter. 

Interested in winning a signed copy of a book of your choosing?  Please read this post


  1. First things first: Really enjoyed Downton Abbey, and can hardly wait for the remake of Upstairs, Downstairs to air on April 10 (http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/mar/20/upstairs-downstairs-returning-to-pbs/).

    Aside from that, I find it interesting that a bad review WON'T sway you from it, and now that makes me reconsider my own position. If people raving about a book makes me NOT want to read it, why am I equally influenced by other people's bad reviews? If you follow that logic, I'm more inclined not to read a book than to read it, which makes you wonder how I bother reading anything at all, and yet we both know I read quite a lot. Bringing it back to you, though, what are the biggest triggers for getting you NOT to read something? Your own personal opinion upon trying it?

  2. First things first: I like that! My friend Liz also told me about the Upstairs/Downstairs remake and I'm looking forward to it, too.

    It's a little bit funny...bad reviews will keep me from seeing movies that I was otherwise interested in, but I'm not sure why it's not the case with books. Maybe because I feel pretty sure what I'll like and dislike, I can discount other people's negative reviews of a book I was already inclined to read. Now it often happens that a negative review reinforces my feelings already of not wanting to read it.

    I'd have to go with lack of time as the biggest trigger for not reading something. I bring home exponentially more books than I will ever have the hope to read. Is that too much of a cop-out?

  3. I can respect books that are part of a literary canon but I'm always wary of reading classics. I assume they'll feel like work, something you're supposed to read because it's good for you and not that you want to.

    Have you read any negative reviews about a book you were on the fence about reading that swayed you against picking up that book?

  4. Red, it is statistically certain that it's happened, but I cannot think of a specific instance at the moment.

  5. being in england have seen the upstairs downstairs remake & actually preferred it to the original. back to question, Status is merely a reference point, can point the way, but no more.

  6. You're right about not having good editors in the old days. I do like Charles Dickens, though. But gee, he goes on a bit. Well, so would we, if we got paid per word! :-)

  7. It would be a different experience reading a book before it's been reviewed everywhere. Even so, certain authors come with certain expectations. And there is often hype generated by the publisher that is intended to sway you. But you're in a unique position, getting to read many books so early.
    As for the great literary works, I've reacted differently to things that I've re-read in my more "mature" years versus school assignments. Some I liked better when I was younger. It was a new experience. And I had more time (even if I thought I was sooo busy.) But there were other classics that I was just too young for that I can appreciate better now. Unfortunately, there are some books that I will probably never like.

  8. Susan, you're so right. I do have certain expectations from many writers, and those are the driving force (fair or not) behind whether I pick up one of their books to read. And many of the classics I read as a teen I may find value in today, whereas I couldn't find much to admire then (Ethan Frome comes to mind, though I've really enjoyed other Wharton titles that I read later in life(.


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