Friends chide me for never reading the classics. I have copies of Slaughter House Five and 1984 on my shelf that were purchased for me by friends who were appalled that I’d never read them. Purchased, as in, believed so strongly that I needed to read a book that they pulled out their wallets, spent their hard-earned cash, and put the books in my hand.
Okay, Moya bought me a $7.99 Vonnegut paperback at a 30% employee discount and Abe Froman handed me a stripped copy of Orwell he’d rescued from the trash, but it’s the effort which matters, the love of reading which is so strong it can’t abide someone calling himself a reader without having experienced these particular titles.
If I read everything I should’ve read if I took more English Literature in college, I’d have no time left for anything new.
Which dodges my real problem. Patton Oswalt, in the glorious, buy-it-now-if-you-haven’t-heard-it comedy concert Werewolves and Lollipops, does a bit about the Star Wars prequels. “Do you like Angelina Jolie?” George Lucas asks. “Well here’s a picture of Jon Voight's nutsack.”
“I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from,” Oswalt raves, “I just love the stuff I love.”
A few times I’ve tried to discover where the stuff I love comes from and it’s ended in tears of boredom. Akira Kurosawa's “Seven Samurai” comes to mind. The first disc was fine, but not fine enough for me to ever put the second disc in and see how it ended – particularly not after having seen so many decades of derivatives that the ending was never in doubt. The second disc sat on my TV stand for weeks before I admitted to myself I’d never watch it. Besides, I had another classic in my queue, just waiting to ship. “Dawson's Creek,” or something.
I went through a noir phase with mixed results. “The Third Man” blew my hair back, for sure, but “Laura” was only decent, and “The Big Sleep” put me to sleep. Twice.
When it comes to books, I balk at going back. Reading The Old Man and the Sea didn’t make me want to read The Sun Also Rises. I loved Pride and Prejudice, but not enough to pick up another Jane Austen. Put all the zombies and sea monsters you want in there, I still ain’t biting.
I imagine I’ll read Bleak House one day, and I’ve always planned on reading Great Expectations (although knowing everything which happens in the latter will surely dampen the reading pleasure), but… when? I could bust out a shelf of books in the time it will take me to slog through a Dickens, regardless of the fact that he’s the favorite author of two of my favorite authors (Stephen King and John Irving). Woolf? Dostoyevsky? The Great Gatsby? All gathering dust on my shelves while I read the next stunning / original / mesmerizing voice of his / her / our / generation.
It’s just no fun recommending a classic. Suggest Tolstoy (no, I haven’t read him) and it's like saying Meryl Streep is a good actress. Well, no shit. Thank God I asked you for help, bookseller. I think I'll just go home and wait for Oprah's next book club title.
Ah, but when you can sort through a glut of new titles and match one to its reader, you have power.