What Books Do You Really "Have" to Read?

This weekend's New York Times Book Review poses the following question to its "Bookends" columnists:

What Were the First Books You Felt You 'Should' Read?

This struck me as oddly phrased. A lot is packed into the idea of "should" there. Who is behind this "should"? Your parents? Your teachers? Your friends? Western civilization?

Apparently I am not alone in finding it odd. Founding Jezebel editor-in-chief Anna Holmes doesn't so much answer the question as challenge its premise:

I'm less attracted to the question of books I felt I should read and more interested in the idea of "should" as an auxiliary verb applied to anything other than treating others with kindness and respect, paying taxes and the consumption of leafy green vegetables.

She chalks the feelings up to her own "stubbornness against culturally mandated consumption and a lifelong disdain for authority, legal or literary." And also says she worries that that she worries "figurative or literal checklists of published texts can suck the joy out of reading and should be avoided at all costs."

I am attracted to this sort of reasoning. Possibly because I have a totally unreasonable chip on my shoulder about a life in which the label "well-read" has always been a moving target.

I am also stubborn. And my reading life hasn't really followed any kind of canonical list either. First and foremost that is because I did not grow up with a silver Tolstoy in my mouth, so to speak. My parents exerted little control over what I read as a kid. This meant that I read a great deal of "junk," in the sense of it being books no one would insist that anyone "had" to read: Babysitters' Club, Sweet Valley High, quite a few Canadian young adult "mysteries" set at national historical sites (also, the West Edmonton Mall), and any number of cheaply bound teen romances.

Also, as that list might suggest to you, I grew up in Canada. What gets stuffed down the young reader's gullet there does seem to vary considerably from the comparable stuff my American friends describe. In the matter of those checklists, and class syllabi, ours were dominated by books many of my American friends have never heard of, like Margaret Laurence's The Diviners and Robertson Davies' Fifth Business. That peculiar Canadian nationalism kept me largely too busy to bother with a lot of what the agreed "should reads" are here.

And maybe that's fine. The point at which resistance to a really rigid canon of "should reads" turns anti-intellectual isn't totally clear to me. Most writers will tell you their intellectual heritage is more eclectic than textbook. Holmes' column reminded me of an old(ish) Ta-Nehisi Coates post, actually:

I believe in a great canon, but as a writer, I don't much care. The artist's canon must be personal. My canon happens to include Clifton, Neal, Rakim, Raekwon etc. and Fitzgerald, McPherson, Hurston, Melville, Wharton, Doctorow, Hurston and so on. Perhaps one day it will include Augustine. But there's a lot of great stuff I haven't read...

If you name an important book there is a very good chance I haven't read it. I'm not against important books. I hope to write one someday. But I read what I like, before I read what's important.

[Photo via AP.]