What am I Missing?

I’ve mentioned on this blog before about how I’m trying to watch as many films as possible, but another thing I’m working on is reading more. I’ve always loved reading, but during my years at college and Uni I barely read anything other than stuff for my courses. When I left Uni, I made a concerted effort to change this, and started searching out lots of classic sci-fi and fantasy novels. It was my favourite genre, so it made sense to start there.

This went fairly well, as I’ve now read quite a few of the classics (Dune, Foundation, I am Legend, Rama, 2001 a Space Odyssey, I Robot, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Man in the High Castle, Lord of the Rings), even if I did basically take a year out to read everything that Asimov wrote because I fell in love with his stories. There’s still plenty left to explore in the genre, especially considering I haven’t read hardly any modern sci-fi, but I figured that it was time to branch out a bit and check out other things. After checking out a few mystery and crime novels, I figured it might be good to start reading the all time classics.

A lot of the books I intend to read are what most people talk about having read in high school, but my school experience came with almost zero reading recommendations. Other than studying a single Dickens’ novel, I wasn’t encouraged to pick up any classic literature, and as a result I feel like I’ve missed out and need to catch up. I’ve now already read 1985, and still have books like Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird still on my list.

However, while there were a few titles I’d heard of, I was largely at a loss as to where to start with reading more classic literature, so I did what I did when I first started seeking out the most important sci-fi novels: I looked up lists online. Now, it can be argued that ranking books is a fairly pointless task, but lists are helpful in that if you look at enough of them and keep seeing the same titles popping up, you can assume that they’re worth reading. Once I started looking up lists of the ‘greatest’ books of all time, I noticed there was quite a disparity between where certain books like 1985 appeared, sometimes being in the top 5, other times not even making the top 30.

However, one novel kept appearing at either number 1 or 2 in the lists: In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Everyone seemed to agree it was an absolute masterpiece of fiction, this epic length novel that would speak to everyone, that had something to say about so many aspects of life that it was impossible for it not to impact on you. Considering such universal praise, I was happy to find out that my local library had the first volume (it’s so long that it’s split into seven volumes), and I figured this book would be a great start in my search for great literature.

I hated it. Well, I hated all that I read, which wasn’t all of it because even though it was only volume 1 of 7 it was still ridiculously long. It’s not that I found it difficult to read, or that I didn’t understand what was being said, it was just that it was incredibly tedious and not particularly well written. I figured that even though the description of the story online sounded boring, if this many people were raving about it, it had to be interesting anyway, right? Turns out that I was dead wrong, and I’m now incredibly hesitant to read any book considered incredible when the story sounds bad.

Perhaps it was just this author in particular. The style of writing annoyed me, using sentences that had ridiculous amounts of pauses and side notes within them. Here’s an example of the kind of sentence that would keep appearing (it’s not actually from the book):

“My grandmother was, though I find it hard to admit at times, which I consider to be an odd trait (when one really thinks about it), though that’s not to say it didn’t occur to me, even if at times I didn’t want it to (or perhaps I did, subconsciously), and one could argue I was better off not thinking about it – try as I might – or put it out of my mind, old.”

There was a sentence like that on every page. I’m wondering if literary snobs were patting themselves on the back for reaching the end of a sentence and remembering what it was actually about; I had to re-read the start of every other sentence to remember what the hell he was saying in the first place. Perhaps it’s because it’s been translated into English, and it reads better as actually written, but either way I hated it and gave up fairly quickly.

So my question, after all of this explanation, is: what am I missing? Does the fact that I couldn’t get through this book mean that I’m missing some important brain power that let’s me enjoy ‘proper’ literature? I feel like genre fiction, like sci-fi or crime or whatever is looked down upon as simple, and that truly great writers wrote literary fiction about the human condition. I find that assumption absolutely absurd. Proust may be considered a genius by some, but to me an author like Agatha Christie or Asimov is a thousand times better; they create stories I actually want to read. Perhaps I’m branding myself as an idiot, and that I just need to think harder when attempting more ‘advanced’ fiction, but the thing is I read to enjoy myself, and literature like Proust isn’t enjoyable. It’s bland, boring and written in a style that’s continuously irritating.

Am I asking too much when I decide what to read that I look for a good story? I want interesting things to happen to interesting people, not ordinary things happen to boring people. I’ll still be checking out the odd classic that pops up with a story that actually sounds good, but otherwise I think I’m done trying to read things that people say is amazing when it sounds rubbish.

People are welcome to try and change my mind, but from now on I think I’m sticking to genre fiction, because I’m certain that if after 20 pages of Proust describing the inside of his bedroom a spaceship had flown in and started tearing shit up, I would have had a much better time.

/end rant

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