The older I get, the more I believe that it is a book’s job to engage me, not the other way around. If a book cannot hold my interest, I no longer blame the author, or myself. There are too many things I want to read to slog through books I hate, even if they are Important Books. Even if they are Literature with a capital L. This does not mean that I value literature less than anyone else. Perhaps I value it even more.
Anyways, coming up with an actual, measurable literature value book by book is too hard. It’s too subjective. If you’re anything like me, you do not have the entire day to sit around and read, no matter how much you might like to. And so we must pick and choose the battles we fight. I just don’t want an experience as pleasurable and edifying as reading can be to ever devolve into something I’d call a struggle.
Every time I decide to read something (or re-read something) the outcome is uncertain. This was not always the case. I was a huge fan of finding enormous booklists full of books that everyone “should” read, and I’d dutifully start grinding it out and checking off boxes. As if the value of literature could actually be demonstrated by a list and experienced as a mere series of tasks.
I had a ten year battle with Joyce’s Ulysses, just so I could get it off one of my lists. I returned to Anna Karenina again and again, only to resort to a (surprisingly) great audiobook just so I could say I did it. This is the opposite of why I want to read. But at the time I was an English major, both literally and in spirit. I did not read just for fun, pleasure, or personal education–I read so that I could say “Oh, I read this. And that. And that too.”
I could name drop. I could always sound smart because I could always quote something of substance from a book, although my parroting rendered it less substantial immediately.
The beauty of literature, for me, is that its value is entirely different for each person. And a book’s value to a person can change, sometimes radically so, just because that person ages and accumulates new perceptions and experiences. The most valuable book is always the one that gets a person to take some action, even if the action is simply to keep reading just because you’ve experienced one more reminder of how wonderful it can be.
Every book worth reading leads to self improvement and personal strength. But not every book can do it for every person.