My preferences are not important. Just look at what I've read, note what's lacking, and tell me to read it posthaste.
The most worthwhile knowledge is perennial. If something is truly good, then it remains good, and relevant for all people in all times, and in all places. At least that is the ideal that any writer, or any artist ought to strive for. It is with this frame of mind that academics construct canons of literature. Many people feel intimidated by this labyrinthine library of books. Many times it feels alienating because it appears at first glance to have the same cemented status as a religious canon. This misconception is unfortunate, since it does not encourage people to find their own path to cultivation and self-improvement. Touting the notion that all the things you need to know are contained not just in a single set of books, but one book, period ties one unnecessarily to all manner of pedantic obsessions that put up roadblocks to understanding what is truly universal. This too is a pity, considering that the canon of western literature-- as opposed to most religious canons-- is not cemented, but constantly evolving: new writers continue to add to it and occasionally some of the old writers lose their relevance. Even so, these great books often feel as if they have just as little bearing on people's lives as some of the outdated notions in the Bible or the Quran. People who feel alienated by this body of literature either devalue themselves by saying, "Oh, I can't understand those books; they're too smart for me," or they devalue the books, insisting, "I can't understand a word of those books; they're so pretentious!" The argument for an objectively good canon of literature is made doubly hard to argue by the presence of a still ongoing generation of writers that have taken the subjective "write what you know" mantra to unhealthy extremes. Rather than try and get outside of their own heads, these writers would rather write some of the most solipsistic fiction in the world. They are a symptom of an attitude toward fiction with which writers and readers have always struggled.
These two conflicting attitudes concerning perennial wisdom, are that of the dogmatist, and that of the relativist. The dogmatist says that truth is absolute, and you have to imprint indelibly on your memory what those truths are so that you always have them in mind, and can live your life accordingly. Unfortunately such thinking often ties itself not so much to the underlying principles of any given truth, but the superficial facts by which people once came to identify them-- usually the facts as they were known to a group of people living thousands of years ago. These are the people we would say operate according to the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law. The relativist offers the counterpoint to this stance: there is no absolute authority on anything, so everyone has to just learn to live and let live. Unfortunately this approach, though offering a much nicer alternative to dogmatism on the surface, is just the other side of the same coin. Whether we like it or not, the decisions we make every day are going to have some basis in fact-based reality, and those decisions are going to effect the people around us. Not only that, but the live-and-let-live creed to which the relativist allegedly adheres often fails to endow the relativist with any kind of self-restraint when they come across an opinion that counters their own. One need not seek out a relativist, and attack them personally to draw their ire. All you need do is soberly state an opinion with sound logic, and if it in any way goes against their own opinion-- which, according to their own ideology, has no authority anyway-- they will try to undermine the relevance of what you say with a very polite, but ultimately condescending thought-terminating cliché. They will say that they are only intolerant of intolerance, but simple disagreement is not the same thing as intolerance. Disagreement and debate are normal and healthy symptoms of a group of people trying to live harmoniously together.
If we deny that there is some objective truth to strive towards, fraught though the journey may be with mistakes, then there is no reason for us to communicate, and we actually find ourselves clashing fruitlessly, rather than constructively with some shared understanding being reached. Since there is such a thing as perennial truth, and fiction has a role to play in how we acquire it, there is also such a thing as good and bad fiction. Resorting to relativist clichés of how beauty is in the eye of the beholder, how everyone has a right to their own opinion, or how opinions are like assholes and everyone’s got one, is pointless. It’s true, opinions are like assholes, and some stink more than others. It just depends on what you’re eating and your sense of hygiene. Devolving into relativism encourages the same solipsism and self-involvement that plagues any dogmatist; it just wears a different face. If there is one truly ennobling benefit to fiction, it’s the ability it grants to connect the people who read and write it to other people. True there will always be the problem of who knows what is good and what is bad. Who has the right to pass judgment? People who care enough to keep curing their ignorance one page at a time, every day, and never feel like the work is done have the right. These are the people who are truly trying to find common ground with those around them. If we don't try and do the same we only end up retreating into groups of people that already agree with us. You may say, “But I can’t help liking what I like. Can I help it if I read something, and it makes me happy?” Of course you can’t, and I am not suggesting for a moment that you feel bad for having enjoyed something. Every happy moment on this earth is a gift, and it’s in very poor taste to return a gift. However, the more one reads, the more one discovers how our ideologies-- our values, prejudices, hang-ups, and fears-- contribute to what we like. Since no one is perfect, and life-long self-improvement is the only way to engage constructively with the world, constantly testing the boundaries of what we like to read is a rewarding and enjoyable way to cultivate ourselves. You cannot truly be sure of what you like unless you have experimented with your personal taste.
Any number of rewarding experiences are opened to the reader who chooses to explore. Perhaps you felt alienated reading those novels in school that your teachers assured you were great. If so, read something that bears the appellation of great literature that your teachers haven’t required you to read. The simple act of making a book a choice and not a chore lends pleasure to the experience in and of itself. If you do so, you’re bound to come across something that strikes home in a potent way at some point. Also, don’t be afraid to return to a book that bamboozled you in school after a few years have passed. You will be delighted at what a few years’ fermentation will do to your understanding of a book. If a specific genre has made its home in a beloved corner of your heart, explore the history and boundaries of that genre; if you like crime thrillers don’t just read the Michael Connelly paperback that you bought at the airport for a fifth time. Read John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels instead; read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett’s pioneering works of hardboiled detective fiction; read Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; read Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
When I first started to branch out, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden was one of the first literary novels I read from which the alienating veil of respectability fell away. In it the narrator says, “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.” What Steinbeck taught me in East of Eden, and what many other great authors have taught me-- several of them falling into my favorite genre, fantasy-- is that you do have to learn about yourself, but you are a part of something larger; you are a part of the human race, and you live in a complex, fascinating world. Eden’s foundation rests on scads of Steinbeck’s personal life and family history, but the beauty in the book comes from how Steinbeck goes on to erect a narrative that concerns itself more with people removed from Steinbeck himself by several degrees. Steinbeck himself appears only briefly in the novel. Steinbeck’s empathy travels backwards in time, until he walks in the shoes of his relatives, their friends, and people he would never have known otherwise. Throughout the multi-generational narrative, Steinbeck’s characters try to make sense of where they fit in their families, their communities, and the world at large. By using his own experience as a point of departure rather than the destination, Steinbeck reveals to us the universality that binds his characters not just to himself, but to us as well. Not only that, but through these characters we come to know our own families and friends in a way we might not have otherwise. More exciting even than that, we are now conscious of a connection we share to people we have not even met. Had Steinbeck been content to live inside his own head he would not have written a story that quickens on the page the way Eden does. Likewise, if we as readers do not step outside the boundaries of our personal taste as it already stands we rob ourselves of the ability to nurture our empathy and compassion. If we don’t seek out where the ties that bind lie underneath our differences, we find ourselves drawing back from each other, often angry and afraid when we need not be.
But, just as Steinbeck had to grow his Eden from the seeds of his own life and family history-- as do many writers-- so do we as readers have to start from our visceral reactions to the books we read. This is why broadening your understanding of your favorite genre is a great way to cultivate your taste, and learn more about yourself, and how you relate to other people. If you pick a favorite author, and find out what writers inspired them, you’re already on your way. Not only will you discover exciting new stories that already have a comforting note of familiarity, often the strains of influence tie immediately back to great pieces of literature. If you like A Song of Ice and Fire, presumably you must be interested in the nature of war. You therefore already have a reason to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Frankly, if I may indulge in a curmudgeonly aside here, you really ought to be ditching Martin’s overrated fantasy epic for a novel that says more in 1,200 pages about the nature of warfare than Martin has yet done in the 3,800 pages of his still unfinished series anyway.
Most of us gravitate to a favorite genre as adults because of the books we liked as kids. When you’re a kid, real life feels ordinary, and we read books that offer an escape to a reality that is extraordinary, and filled with characters and places that are more exciting than the people and places among which we find ourselves. We all understand on some level that this is a wild goose chase, yet the number of people who continue as adults to try and fill the shoes of the larger-than-life characters to whom they are drawn as children is staggering. Certainly there are people who understand that an ideal is just an ideal, and you can never faultlessly embody it; they are able to enjoy escapist tales for what they are and live their lives with a happy minimum of dysfunction. The fact remains, however, that we learn by imitating role models, and the fiction we consume contributes models for imitation whether we like it or not. Fiction is not the sole source from which we draw the blueprints for our relationships, our livelihoods, and our other endeavors, but it is an important one. When someone reads a story that lays out a schematic for how to resolve a conflict or engage in a relationship that is overly idealized, at best it’s often a waste of time, and at worst it’s a debilitating opiate that draws someone into a way of living that leaves them dissatisfied and frustrated. They are drawn to imitate people that they know deep down they can never measure up to, but they feel as if they don’t know where else to turn. “Isn’t it better,” they may ask, “to at least pretend for a little while that we can be a knight errant, a cowboy, or a superhero, if it’s all in good fun?” Not if it comes at the cost of living a life that is sheer drudgery, and your only joy comes from escaping it.
None of us can help but be drawn to a stories about the world as we would like it to be rather than the way it is. For those of us who spend a great deal of time reading fiction, chances are we have been drawn to visions of the world as we would like it to be because we want to test how much we can make the real world like the worlds we encounter in books, and how much like our favorite characters we can be ourselves. We know that the real world always falls short. Sometimes we can laugh it off, but the symbols by which we come to understand the world through fiction are embedded in our brains, and they are not going to go away. The characters we admire are as close to us as our own family, and we often spend as much time in a watered down feudal Europe as we spend out and about in our own neighborhoods, but we have to venture out. Since we all have to start somewhere, there’s no shame in just walking out the front door. If, like me, you love fantasy, and the world around you is always competing with a world full of wizards and dragons, there is a far-reaching genre that you’ve already begun to explore. Fantasy is chock full of conventions that aren’t just recycled, but subverted, deconstructed, and sophisticated. If there is no conventionally respectable book that you have an interest in, just see what else there is to read that draws on traditions you already understand, but that complicates those traditions. Read something that shows you a new side of something you thought you knew, or turns a character archetype on its ear in such a way that you find there are sides of yourself you never knew could be tapped into. If you do that, then you may find yourself letting go of an ideal that was just a millstone around your neck rather than the uplifting source of inspiration you thought it was. You may find yourself not lost in a time and place that you can never reach, but connected to the time and place in which you already live; you may discover that you don't have to pretend to be someone you like, but actually transform yourself into someone you like, and that the raw materials from which you build that person are already there.