Last month GQ published a list of a bunch of classic books that they don’t recommend you reading – it gives a little description as to why the book should be stricken from the canon, and a suggestion of an alternative text that you may enjoy instead. It seems like an interesting idea but, when you start to dig a little deeper into the list, it proves an incredibly problematic list of suggestions.
Some of the ideas that have made this list do so, it seems, because the compilers apparently haven’t understood the meaning of the work. Of Catch-22, Emily Robbins writes that ‘it fails to capture the absurdities and impossible conflicts of war,’ despite the fact that the book is about exactly that. Nadja Spiegelman suggests that we shouldn’t read Slaughterhouse-Five because the female characters ‘die early, are porn stars, or are “bitchy flibbertigibbets,”’ and that you shouldn’t drink with a man who enjoys the book.
Texts seemingly cannot be problematic and well-written at the same time
Tommy Orange sums his views up quite succinctly: ‘Mark Twain was a racist. Just read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was a man of his time, so let’s leave him there. We don’t need him.’ I don’t know if Orange has ever read the book, but it’s a satire about why racism (and other entrenched attitudes) is bad. Critics call the book racist because it uses the n-word and treats Jim (a slave) as a comic character, playing his lack of education and ignorance for laughs. The point, though, is that Finn tries to look past this, and all of the received values of the time, because of a moral choice – he recognises Jim’s friendship and human worth. If that isn’t an equality story, I don’t know what is.
The rest of the list is full of similar suggestions, with the Bible being the one that has received the most pushback – apparently, it is ‘repetitive; self-contradictory; sententious; foolish; and even at times ill-intentioned.’ (GQ’s alternative recommendation is The Notebook, for people who like the Bible’s ‘nasty bits.’)
There’s a general consensus among all the critics here: that these books shouldn’t be read because they are racist, sexist, etc. – you should expose yourself to more progressive texts, like Olivia: A Novel (essentially Lolita with lesbians), because texts seemingly cannot be problematic and well-written at the same time.
Students nowadays are attacked as snowflakes, unable to deal with challenging ideas
Now, it’s easy to rag on a list like this, but things like this do actually matter. Students nowadays are attacked as snowflakes, unable to deal with challenging ideas – following a list like this would only reinforce that idea. We should be encouraged to engage with potentially problematic texts from the past, rather than deeming them unworthy of being read. I’m not going to say that these books may not be overly long reads, or too boring to keep turning the page – that may be the case – but it’s reductive beyond measure to decide that a book from 150 years ago isn’t progressive enough to warrant your attention.
There’s a place for both classic and modern literature, tackling all kinds of themes and ideas, and they should be able to exist together. Sure, you may not want to try some of the books on this list, but don’t do it because they don’t fit nicely into a comfortable worldview. They say that literature has the power to entertain, educate and challenge – GQ is right that you don’t have to read these books, but you shouldn’t strike them from your mind on the basis of a nonsense list like the one they offer.