In Book by Book Michael Dirda has a short piece on what he calls “patterning books.” Patterning books are those books that later authors “regularly build on, allude to, work against.” Dirda’s list is short and includes, of course the Bible, Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. But he also includes Bullfinch’s Mythology, Le Morte D’Arthur, the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson, and Alice in Wonderland. There is also Plutarch’s Lives, The Arabian Nights, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Pride and Prejudice, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and whatever anthology you can find of the world’s major folktales. That’s it. That’s the list.
I’ve been thinking about the list. It’s a good list. But of course, in the way of lists, they are either never complete or they get turned into a requirement, or a weapon of inclusion and exclusion. I can understand the point of such a list, after all, if you are a person who reads widely you will run into references to all of these works at one time or another. Heck, there are even cultural references to some of them. So a list of books is important, right?
But a list like this also makes me twitchy. I am uncomfortable with the idea that these are the books you should read if you want to be able to understand Literature. The books themselves don’t bother me, in fact I think reading them could be useful and give a person a great perspective. The should bothers me.
When someone tells me what I should read I get this tingling feeling along my spine. I am sure if I were a porcupine my quills would be standing up. If I were a cat my back would be arched and my fur pooffed out. Maybe it is my stubborn streak; I don’t like people telling me what to do. But I think there is more to it than that.
See, when I read lists like that I find myself mentally checking off the books I have read and scolding myself for the ones I haven’t. Then, if someone else tells me she has read x number of books from the list I find myself suddenly judging both of us by the x number. I’ve read more or less, I am better or worse. Luckily, I have a bad memory for numbers and within a week or two I have forgotten what x was and within a month or so I have forgotten what my resulting judgment was. Then another list comes along and it starts all over. I hate this. I hate it because I do it and can’t stop myself and because I know others do it too.
Then I worry, do others think I’m stupid? Then I realize that what is stupid is worrying about it. Reading is not a contest. None of the books on the list are required. The list is like optional ingredients in a recipe. We are all cooking our own book stews and each stew is as unique as the chef. I like that we each have our own herbs and spices. Life would be so boring if every stew tasted the same.
Update. I had a bit of a brain cloud while writing this post and neglected to mention Dorothy’s thoughtful post about personal list keeping and numbers. If you haven’t already read it, do so. And forgive me my brain cloud.