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The Literary Rants: Must-Read Novels

January 23, 2017
Whenever there's a must-read list, this one's on it.

This novel is on almost every must-read list, so it must be pretty good.

Whenever I see a Must-Read Novels list, I automatically don’t want to read the books on the list.  It’s a stupid knee-jerk reaction, I know.  The authors probably didn’t ask for their books to be put on the list.  I just don’t like being told what to read anymore.

There are only two legitimate reasons for a book to be a “must-read.”  You fail a class if you don’t read it.   Or you get fired from a job for not reading it.  I don’t have to worry about failing classes anymore, and I don’t have to read books for my job (I have to read stuff that’s worse than most books), so there are no must-read books anymore.

I understand that using the term must-read is hyperbole.  I have nothing against a little hyperbole.  And I usually don’t like it when people take hyperbole literally.  During the political season, politicians use hyperbole, and then other politicians accuse each other of lying when they were using hyperbole.

Even if the term must-read is hyperbolic, the idea is that these books are better than other books which haven’t made the list.  A must-read book has something that other books don’t.  A must-read novel has to have some cultural significance.  There has to be a reason everybody “must read” it.  It has to be more than good.

To Kill a Mockingbird shows up on almost every American Must-Read Novels list.  It’s a little unfair because To Kill a Mockingbird is assigned reading to a large part of the U.S. population.  Plus, there’s a fairly decent movie that goes along with it.  Calling a book that everybody has to read must-read is unnecessary.

Several lists also consider Ulysses by James Joyce to be a “must read.”  To me, Ulysses is a Must NOT Read Novel.  I’ve tried reading it a couple times because I’ve seen it on so many lists, but I’ve never gotten past the first few pages.  I wonder how many people have read Ulysses to the end, and then I wonder how many of those few have actually understood and enjoyed it.  I think Ulysses is one of those novels that people claim to have read but haven’t.  There’s no way to prove that, unless you walk around with a Ulysses test and hand it out to everybody who’s claimed to have read Ulysses.

No book can be a must-read before it comes out.  Every list that proclaims “New Books You Must Read!” is a lie because because nobody knows yet if a book is a must-read (if there is such a thing).  Maybe readers can look forward to those books, but anticipation is not the same as must-read.

In fact, a book should be out for at least a decade before it reaches must-read status.  A few years ago, The Fault in our Stars by John Green was on a bunch of Must-Read Lists.  Now, it’s gone.  If a book is a must-read, it should stay a must-read.  If a book is only temporarily a must-read, then the list compilers should admit to their error.  To be fair, there was nothing wrong with The Fault in our Stars except that it might have been a bit overrated, but sometimes it’s not the book’s fault that it becomes overrated.

There are so many must-read lists, and all of them have different novels.  If you tally all the novels on all the must-read lists, it’s into the hundreds and hundreds.  I don’t have time to read all the books I want to read, so I definitely don’t have time to read must-read books.  The list compilers should respect their readers’ time enough to at least have the same books on all their lists.

Below is a list of novels that seem to be on most of the Must-Read Novels lists.  These aren’t my must-read novels.  I’m not saying anybody has to read these.  If you’re interested in which books tend to make Must-Read Novels lists, here’s your general guide:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by JK Rowling

1984 by George Orwell

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

*****

What do you think?  Is there really anything such as a must-read book?  If so, which books do you think should be on that list?

*****

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18 Comments
  1. I think this is a great list. I’ve read most of them, and several of them (Gatsby, Potter) I can read over and over again and never get sick of.

  2. I agree that Ulysses should not be a must-read book. I read it, and I still have very little idea what it was about. It mostly made me angry at James Joyce. Out of your list above, the only one I haven’t read is the Bell Jar, and the only one I thought was a little overrated was On the Road, because it just went on and on. I do like these kinds of lists because I am often pleasantly surprised by great books I wouldn’t have otherwise read.

    • “I do like these kinds of lists because I am often pleasantly surprised by great books I wouldn’t have otherwise read.”-

      That’s true. Every once in a while, a list will have something that no other list has. I just hope nobody ruins it with a “Must-Read Novels That You’ve Never Heard of!!!”

      I hope you start writing for your blog again. It’s been a while.

  3. I have nothing against lists, sometimes they prompt me to seek out a particular title, but seeing the term “must-read” sort of kills it for me too.

  4. I’m with you…I immediately don’t want to read something if someone says I “must” read it haha. Good points!

  5. A must-read book is whichever book happens to “speak” to me at a particular point in time. We all have such different tastes in books, different backgrounds etc, so how can there be the same must-reads for everyone (and why should everyone read the same thing anyway)? I read what I feel like when I feel like and never look at lists. Not even the “best of” for a particular year.

    The thing with must-read books (like those you’ve listed) is that we’re all “forced” to read them by the schooling system so I’ve automatically got a block to them. I mean, a whole year of Great Gatsby…arrrrghhhh, no….definitely won’t recommend it as a must-read. If I ever see that book again….

  6. I am also a knee jerk no way I am reading, watching, etc that now. Although sometimes I live to regret it. Like when everyone was insisting the Martian had to be read and I didn’t. By the time my irritation wore off and I read the novel I knew he got off Mars and so there was no stress for me. I think it diminished my enjoyment of the novel. If I had read it when it was first everyone’s darling, I wouldn’t have known he lives and could have experienced the novel the way the author meant it to be experienced. See what I mean?

  7. I somehow just could not get into 1984. I think it had something to do with having just finished Fahrenheit 451 and the former being vaguely reminiscent of the latter. I gave up three quarters of the way through and now I berate myself because I know I shall have to start from the beginning when I do get round to reading it. I think ‘Atonement’ is a ‘must-read’. I thoroughly like your must read list, I have indeed read all the books on it and frankly, enjoy them over and over again. I think a book is a ‘must read’ if you can read it over and over again.

    • shawneelynn permalink

      I couldn’t quite get into 1984 either. I pushed through just to have the full experience of the story, but tbh, after reading Brave New World, this one was nowhere near as detailed or interesting. I cared more for Huxley’s science fiction descriptions to 1984’s leaning more towards political plot.

  8. I loved this entry. I have, in fact, read all those listed but I am not young. I often look at those lists of worlds greatest literature and note how many I have not read and will not read. I avoid best seller lists and spend a lot of time worrying that I will not finish my TBR pile. I do not allow people to give me books…you cannot possibly cater to my reading taste unless I tell you exactly what book I currently want.

  9. This entry was so funny–I thought it was just me who felt that way about required reading and must-reads. As a Missouri native, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been chided for never ever reading the Mark Twain books listed on my school’s required reading list. I opted for the automatic F instead. Later I began coming across many of Mark Twain’s essays which I found humorous and relevant even today. I’m hoping this lets me off the hook with the diehards in the show-me state.

  10. shawneelynn permalink

    I definitely don’t like being told what to read unless I explicitly ask for suggestions. To Kill A Mockingbird is definitely a great book though. But I’ll say I’m partial to legal thrillers anyway. I’m sure some would think it were boring or overrated though.

  11. I think that in a few years, all the must-read book lists might include The Art of the Deal by Donald Trump.

  12. I’m fine with ‘must-read’ lists that mostly contain books deemed so culturally significant that they’re usually set as part of curricula, because then I at least think their inclusion sufficiently justified. But at the same time, I’d consider them more a part of a literary/cultural ‘canon’ than a ‘must-read’ list, which has all those off-putting connotations you discuss in your post.

    As for what I’d call ‘popular must-reads’, I’d rather those lists stick to ‘top books of 201_’ or ‘bestsellers of 201_’, since those are much more accurate representations of their often ephemeral popularity.

  13. Your comments leading up to your list is fine, actually excellent. But the list….

  14. I haven’t compiled any lists like that yet. I don’t think I will. I do use the term must-read a lot because I review up to ten novels a month and there are only so many unique and big words I can come up with ha ha.

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