Have you gotten mad at the internet today? No? Well GQ was here to help with its eminently clickable “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read” in which a group of writers roasted perennial freshman year favorites like Catcher in the Rye and Catch-22 and offered suggestions for their replacements within the Western Canon.
Pearls — and Moleskines — were clutched. “That GQ ‘books you shouldn’t read’ article really is cancer,” one tweet read. “It’s interesting that GQ figured it could go viral by publishing short blurbs of the most embarrassingly philistine drivel ever,” read another.
The GQ story provided an easy target, a metaphorical T-ball for anyone on the internet looking for an excuse to showcase their intellectual superiority by defending Literature (and use the phrase “philistine drivel”). But to those who were actually offended beyond performative tweeting, I offer a simple word of advice:
First of all, GQ knows they’re playfully trolling, just a bit. Most of the books — like Blood Meridian, The Old Man and the Sea, Catcher in the Rye — are passionate favorites of angry men on the internet, the most likely to sputter and spew in the comments on social media about how wrong these writers are and how they’ve misinterpreted Ernest Hemingway’s white male genius. Click, engage, link to the article in fury, and then click five more times while you’re getting the quotes right for your angry blog post.
GQ isn’t actually telling you not to read these books; several of the contributing authors actually admit to loving the books they’re supposedly maligning. Instead, the purpose of the article is to liberate you from the idea that you have to read these books, that reading them cover to cover and checking them off some invisible list is essential to your very existence and if you don’t you’ll never be able to show your face in Brooklyn again.
Unless you’re getting a PhD in literature, there are no books you have to read. Sometimes you’ll start a book that’s considered “Great” and you’ll find it really boring, and that’s fine. And guess what? No one can say you’re wrong about finding a book boring because interest is entirely subjective.
Anyone who purports to loving literature should be grateful that books, like all art, elicit new and distinct responses in its audiences and that taste is not monolithic. It’s a good thing some people love Catch-22 and some people think, like New York Times reviewer Roger H. Smith did at the time, “its author cannot write.” Cool! Art is fun because we all feel differently about it! It prompts discussions and disagreements and interpretations. Staunchly fetishizing certain books as unimpeachable, as above critique or conversation, is contrary to the purpose of art in the first place.
And the “Western Canon” is a fluid and changing organism. Remember how the reviewer of Catch-22 in the New York freaking Times thought Heller was crap? And no one in America cared at all about The Great Gatsby until it was cheaply printed and distributed to soldiers for free during World War II? Plus, for about all of human history, people thought the idea of ladies writing was a fun and charming diversion, like a horse that’s learned to count.
In truth, the GQ article is a gift to readers: it provides new recommendations for books you may not have been exposed to in high school. Clickbait-y headline aside (and remember, we all need to make a living), the purpose of the article is just to show that the literary world is broader and more interesting than the titles that you’ve seen on “best of” lists again and again, those endless, tiresome lists that cannibalize and sustain each other like a oroborus of middle-grade prestige fiction. Bringing attention to books that are less male, and less white, is not a bad thing after centuries of culture that reinforced that white male stories were the only ones which mattered.
You don’t have to read anything, and you don’t have to not read anything. Read what you want! Read something — anything! Talk about books you love and hate. But don’t be the hypocrite who hasn’t finished a book since half-reading A Farewell to Arms in your sophomore American lit class touting a stubborn and misplaced loyalty to the concept of some irreproachable Western Canon that never actually existed.