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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

by Michelle Gagnon



There was an interesting post on Slate this week entitled, "Overrated: Authors, critics, and editors on 'great books' that aren't all that great.



The article got me thinking about which stories endure, which eventually fall by the wayside, and why. In a world where people now fit their innermost thoughts into 140 characters or less (counting spaces), lengthy descriptive passages such as those found in TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES probably strike the modern reader as tedious, while back when it was first published, that type of writing was the norm. It's also interesting to see that some of the people quoted cited both GRAVITY'S RAINBOW and Joyce's ULYSSES as being overrated, but for very different reasons.



I've read a decent number of the canonical 'great books,' and enjoyed most of them (including TESS, although I'm not generally a big Hardy fan).

But there's one that has become my own personal white whale: appropriately enough, MOBY DICK. It's one of the few books that I've never finished, despite gritting my teeth and picking it up a half dozen times. I always enjoy the beginning, and sweep through the first twenty chapters.



Then I hit
Chapter 32: Cetology, and my eyes glaze over. I have yet to make it through Ishmael's attempts to classify whales scientifically. I read a page or so, then set the book down. One thing leads to another, and MD inevitably ends up back at the bottom of my TBR pile. I suppose I could always just skip the chapter, but I've never done that with a book before and something inside me balks at the thought.



Plus, I honestly have a fairly limited tolerance for sea shanties.



Yet this is supposed to be one of, if not
the, "Great American Novels." So am I really missing out by not finishing? Or has Melville passed his expiration date? How relevant are the classics to our contemporary lives now? Are some so outmoded they no longer qualify as great literature? More importantly, are certain books lauded as great simply because they've managed to survive the tests of time?



In the article, Elif Batuman points out that, "the right book has to reach you at the right time, and no person can be reached by every book."

I love that observation. Sometimes I wonder if I'd still enjoy Milan Kundera as much if I read him now, or if Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE would make such an impression. I rarely go back and re-read books- there are simply too many amazing new stories coming out every week.



So today's question is this: which great book let you down?



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