Firing from the canon?

Cover of "The Great Gatsby"
Cover of The Great Gatsby

I am on holiday and I am waiting for kernel compile to finish, so I am going to write about literature here – mainly because I have been inspired by this on Slate: which great works of literature are over-rated?

Until relatively recently my knowledge of “the canon” was pretty limited – only a couple of Dickens works (Great Expectations for ‘O’ level English Literature, Hard Times for pleasure a decade later – is it wrong to agree with Gradgrind?) for instance.

But in 2005, as my time working for the Labour Party was coming to an end and I knew I would have to change careers and outlooks, I made a conscious effort to change that. I picked up The Great Gatsby literally as I was walking out of the house to go into party HQ on the evening of the election. (Of course I chose that book for semi-political reasons: in The Line of BeautyAlan Hollinghurst‘s examination of the glitter and hypocrisy of the Thatcher years, the protagonist, Nick Guest, (is he a hero or anti-hero, I don’t quite know) is a sort of latter-day Jay Gatsby: I cannot recall at this distance whether he makes this comparison himself or I read it in a review, but in any case it informed my choice.

The drive continued for most of the following four years – perhaps a reflection of my job or something else (I more or less stopped in 2009, not least because of demands of the MSc). Sometimes I read a book because I had never finished it before – The Moor’s Last Sigh fell into that category, but it then encouraged me to read the fantastic Don Quixote (that the world’s oldest novel is also so modern it is the first post-modern novel is simply amazing – or maybe that’s the point?) and so on.

But which ones would I fire from the canon. I discovered great works can be hard going – that applied to Don Quixote as much as any other. But three works stand out, in various ways, for their frequent tedium – even if they are, in their way, undoubtedly brilliant.

First – One Hundred Years of Solitude. This was one of the ones I had not finished earlier, so I ploughed on through it. There is something about Gabriel Garcia Marquez: I have read three of his novels and not really enjoyed any of them, so why did I keep coming back? (The other two were Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in His Labyrinth).

Secondly – Crime and Punishment: oh just get over yourself and kill her, why don’t you?

And thirdly – Moby Dick. Herman, enough of the whale facts already, get on with the story.

Of course, I am quite pleased I have read them all. But as Dr Johnson (correctly) said of the Giant’s Causeway, worth seeing, but not worth going to see.

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