Alex Massie

Books Overboard: What Would You Throw Away?

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Parlour game time! The Literary Canon is an intimidating thing at the best of times but these days it's becoming grotesquely bloated. It could do with losing some weight. So, in that spirit, it's time to think of what books could safely be ditched without causing too much pain or guilt.  The Second Pass starts the game by choosing ten books that (they think) your life might be improved by ignoring:

White Noise by Don DeLillo

Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The USA Trilogy by John Dos Passos

Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

At The American Scene Noah Millman suggests this isn't quite fair, and that it's too easy to pick on someone's lesser works (Tale of Two Cities or Jacob's Room for instance) while also wondering if anyone really reads John Dos Passos anymore*. In other words, is he still in the canon? And is Cormac McCarthy part of it yet? Plus, as Millman says, Franzen's desperate desire to achieve canonical status almost makes it necessary to throw him off the boat in advance of his elevation to that status...

Anyway, Millman has some suggestions of his own too. But what canonical works would Spectator readers throw overboard, wishing them good riddance and a swift journey down to Davey Jones's Locker?

It would be easy to nominate Finnegan's Wake but that's a book that truly no-one reads anyway and so that makes it tempting to choose Ulysses. But actually, even a sceptic such as myself can enjoy Ulysses if it's broken up into sensibly-sized Bloom-nuggets. Read the first and last chapters, plus two others chosen more or less at random and you're likely to have drawn enough water from that well. Then, in later years, pick it up and read a page or two at a time before putting it away again and you'll be able to reflect that it's become an acquaitance with whom you're happy to share a drink once a year. So, Joyce stays. You might hate the book and often be bored by it, but I'm not sure one can quite get rid of it.

I'm not convinced that's so obviously true of Salman Rushdie. Everyone says Midnight's Children is his masterpiece and perhaps it is. Certainly, The Satanic Verses can't be, though it too is often lavishly-praised. The fatwa was appalling (and its consequences terrible) but so is the novel. Rambling, sophomoric, self-indulgent and, consequently and unsurprisingly, crushingly boring. That's my memory of it anyway and I don't think I've read anything by Rushdie since. My loss perhaps, but overboard it goes. (And I suspect it's only because I haven't read it that Midnight's Children is saved...)

I'm tempted to include Emile Zola's Germinal too, but am not sure that it's fair to do so, if only because it's so long since I read it and I've forgotten so much from it save its length and, in my memory at least, an unremitting bleakness that, eventually, one suspected had become a mark of honour for the author and a penance for the reader. Perhaps that's unfair, but I'd rather go back to Therese Raquin or La Bete Humaine anytime...

Finally, a brace of twentieth century classics to throw overboard: The Old Man and the Sea and For Whom the Bell Tolls. The former has always reeked of fakery to me and seemed to be trying-too-damn-hard-all-the-damn-time; the latter is flabby and ponderous and filled with far too much Big (or, to be fair, Biggish) Thinking for its own good. Why read these when you can have the short stories and The Sun Also Rises? Actually, I'd much rather return to Across the River and Into the Trees than go fishing with Santiago again.

So, there's my choices**. What would you abandon? And why?

*OK, someone must, but how many people do you know who do? That actually makes it seem worth going back to Dos Passos. Could be interesting!

**That is, today's choices. Tomorrow's might be different...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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