It began in an unassuming fashion. He who I have called Batman here once or twice thought it would be a good idea to go through the Rotten Tomatoes Top 100 of All Time list and see what we (read: mostly I) hadn’t seen. And this selection would become a list of films to watch over the coming months.
Batman studied theatre and film at university and is a playwright and general writerly person on things theatrical. Let me just clear that up. I have an English degree and my entire adult life has been spent in bookshops. (This is me illustrating a clear difference in our backgrounds that will come back to bite me as this post goes on.)
Mercifully, I had seen #1 on the list – The Wizard of Oz. “Citizen Kane?”
“You haven’t seen Citizen Kane?”
“I’ve seen most of it.”
“The Third Man?”
“…I haven’t seen any Orson Welles.”
“You know he didn’t direct it, right?”
Grimly, we continued. We got to The Gold Rush. “You haven’t seen it?!”
“I haven’t heard of it.”
“It’s Charlie Chaplin!”
“I’ve never seen anything with Charlie Chaplin.”
Shocked and appalled would be the right descriptor, I think.
“You’ve never seen anything with Charlie Chaplin. Or Buster Keaton?”
“That’s like… not having read any Dickens.”
…I haven’t read any Dickens, either.”
Yes. It’s true. I have an English degree, coming up on eight years working in bookshops and I just spent the last year studying publishing. And I have never read anything by Charles Dickens.
Or Jane Austen.
Or Herman Melville.
Or Ernest Hemingway.
Or Kurt Vonnegut.
Or countless other ‘classic’ authors who, depending on your personal tastes and views, would horrify you, my literary readers.
And I’m torn between being totally okay with that and wanting to mend my ways.
I can understand Batman’s surprise that I hadn’t read any Dickens at my (admittedly very privileged and posh) school – but we actually read very little in terms of ‘classics’, except for Shakespeare (and Katherine Mansfield) – most of what I read was written post-70s. I was vocal in my view, in conversation with Batman, that Katherine Mansfield was far more important to the NZ high school English programme than Dickens or his ilk (Batman himself never did Mansfield at school). Pioneer of the modern short story? Kickass female author who came from Wellington?
Yeah. Mansfield. No contest.
The argument for wanting to ‘mend my ways’ that I wish to immediately tear down is one of a sort of cultural or literary obligation. There are too many books in the world that are Good and On My To-Do List for me to feel shame for not having covered them all. And too many of those ‘classic’ books are by white men. We all know that, by now. The modern literary canon is evolving beautifully, but when one stomps back through the puddles of the classics, it is SO drenched in privileged Y chromosomes that you just want to give up. Obviously there are exceptions – the Austens of the world, and such – but that’s a whole other BBC-dramatized kettle of fish to deal with.
The ‘mending my ways’ comes more out of the genuine recommendations that I get from people. Batman is a big fan of Vonnegut, and is keen for me to read some, not from a “so you’ll have read some Vonnegut” perspective, but rather a “because it’s actually really very good, and I think you’ll like it” perspective. If someone will personally recommend a classic to me, I’m not going to jerk away just because it’s older than The Luminaries. I just don’t feel as if every single book on those Top However Many Books Of All Time* lists are necessarily going to be up my alley. 99% of people I interact with seem to love Breaking Bad – I just don’t get it. Sometimes, there will be books that I just don’t get. So feel free to tell me that Middlemarch is amazing, or that nothing will every compare to Wuthering Heights. If I trust your opinion, I’ll roll with it.
As for the being totally okay with it end of things, that seems pretty clear, right? I’m a young woman living in a city brimming with new literature – AND I work in a bookshop (one that hosts a tonne of launches, to boot). I am constantly inundated with new suggestions of what to read – from co-workers, from reps, from customers. I am tantalised by covers of new releases on a daily basis. And new release books tend to sit higher up on the Eternal To-Do List than older titles, because of the whole bookseller business. New books mean publicity mean people are asking about THOSE books more often. So it pays to be up-to-date.
Which does lead to an interesting segue, though… but one for another time. Recommending books (as a bookseller) when you haven’t read them. Lord know I know more about the average book than most people, but that certainly does not mean that I’m more likely to have read it. I’m professionally good at rehashing other people’s opinions, I guess, and reading reviews and blurbs like a champion. But I’ll elaborate on that later. Another time. New year, more posts, and all that.
As you were, readers.
*Despite my supposed disdain for such lists, there is still obviously a place and time for them on occasion – and with movie lists, as mentioned at the beginning of the post, it seems a little more doable since you aren’t committing as much time. Just so that I don’t seem like a total hypocrite in one post, you know?