Some time ago, I stumbled across people discussing some reference to Pride and Prejudice. To my surprise, one of the points raised was that one cannot consider oneself a book-lover if one has not read Pride and Prejudice. That gave me a pause. I definitely consider myself a book worm, but at the same time, I haven’t read anything by Jane Austen. And come to think of it, I haven’t read a bunch of other books considered classics either.
Why? Part of the reason is having grown up in a non-anglophone country. When I went to school, Poland had just won its freedom back from the oppressive communistic regime, and the Western literature was pouring into the bookstores, but most of it was cheap pulp, and not the classics. Of course, I’ve read some of Shakespeare, but he wasn’t more than a stepping stone in the history of the literature, just like Sophocles or Hemingway were. A brief mention or an except was all we got, and reading a full work was a rarity.
Instead, I’ve read a bunch of great Polish writers, most of them unknown outside of Poland, and some other classics that not necessarily make their way to British or American schools such as Kafka’s The Trial, Goethe’s Faust, or Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment. If they do – let me know!
Later, when I was studying Elementary Education with English – a field of study aiming to teach English as the foreign language the youngest pupils, and incorporating it into other subjects – we had a class on the literature from the English-speaking countries. We breezed through some works of Shakespeare, more Hemingway, Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, and Emily Bronte, and probably few more than I can’t recall. For a 1-hour class per week, it was quite an impressive pace, but it still meant we’d only scratched the surface of English literature. And Jane Austen wasn’t on the list.
Entering my adult life meant I had much less time to read, and I became more picky about what I read. I simply didn’t have time to devour anything anymore, and I focused on the genres I loved: science-fiction and fantasy.
But did I do better with those genres’ classics than I did with the general ones? A little bit..
Along with the wave of pulp literature I mentioned above, I got introduced to Robert E. Howard and his stories – books that in a way were formative to me. I stumbled upon Mercedes Lackey’s books too which I still think of with a hint of nostalgia, and I discovered Mike Resnick – some of his works are still among my favorite books of all times. But Isaak Asimov? I don’t think I ever read a single book. Philip K. Dick? One book and a half maybe. And Tolkien? Sure, but I read him after I became Andrzej Sapkowski’s fan, so I don’t hold the Lord of the Rings in such a high esteem as some other fans.
The list could go on.
Does it mean I shouldn’t consider myself a science-fiction and fantasy fan? Does it mean I’m not well-read? Maybe. But with every year I realize the time I have in the world is limited, and I become even more picky about the books I read. Catching up with classics is always a consideration, but in the end it’s about the books I think I’m going to enjoy. Be it in the pure entertainment aspect, or in the deeper connection with the book’s themes. That meant I enjoyed Samuel R. Delaney’s Babel-17 as it deals with language, but never felt compelled to get acquainted with Narnia. Though I admire George R.R. Martin for his work, after reading Game of Thrones I know his books aren’t for me.
As much as I tried to, I couldn’t bring myself to read Stanisław Lem’s works that many Polish fan of the genre would consider a must. On the other hand, I read many works by Jacek Dukaj – a shining star of ambitious contemporary science fiction in Poland.
Yet, I’m not entirely missing out. In the era of the ever-powerful Google engine, I can ensure I at least somewhat follow the new releases and broaden my knowledge of what old publications I missed. I might not read the book, but I can at least read up on what the book was about and what themes did it touch on. This broadens my reference points for the current works, ensuring I at least know the basics. I like to be aware of how dystopia and postapocalypse are actually two very distinct genres, or how other genres formed.
At the same time, I huff at all the “must-reads,” classic or contemporary, because in a way, being well-read and a fan of the genre means that I don’t pick my books blindly. I make conscious choices based on my preferences, focusing on what I like, and every now and then broadening my perspectives with a chosen classic or even a book outside of my comfort zone. Sure, I could read a bit more in general, and I regret that I don’t, but it doesn’t mean that there’s a checklist I have to clear before calling myself a fan.
So, even though I’m sometimes curious about it, Pride and Prejudice and all the other classics will have to wait. I’m sorry, dear Jane Austen, I really am. But before I get to you, I have Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Dan Simmon’s Hyperion to read for the tenth or twentieth time, and a looming pile of other books to dive into.