In this second musing, I’ll ramble somewhat coherently about reading old books and cannon. (This is somewhat related to Part One, which was a discussion of influences.)
Award season made me realise two things. First, I’m never up-to-date enough with my reading to have much opinion on the long- or short-lists. I’ve got books from the previous hundred years to get to before I can think of this year or even last! I don’t want to give those books up just to stay on the pulse, and anyway there are too many new books out every year to even dream of keeping up with. Moreover, I like books that stand the test of time, books that not only give you a window on a different fantasy world, but on the different real world in which they were written. (See, already letting my personal taste cloud things!)
The other thing awards bring up is the concept of “best” and the implicit development of a recommended “canon”, as if either can be objective. Sure, there’s a minimum standard of quality most of us would agree on – grammar, structure, spelling, consistency – but even then some readers won’t care, and any attempt to agree criteria above that minimum will not even approach consensus. Just look at the puppies nonsense, or read recommendation threads on internet forums. No matter how many opinions are on one side or the other, your own is the only one that really matters in the end.
On the other hand, I feel quite strongly about the books I’ve really liked (as most of us do), and will fight for their reputation. I also often read “major” works of the genre more out of obligation and curiosity than personal taste. And yes, some of this has been out of a desire to complete a sort of “canon” of central, important works so that I could feel like a true fantasy fan (whatever that means), or, at least, a knowledgeable one (again, a personal motivation). The more I’ve read, however, the more I’ve accepted that there is no single canon of fantasy literature, and nor should there be.
I think it’s good for fans to read some popular or influential works that may not immediately appeal to them. This allows them to feel included in discussion, share touchstones across differing perspectives, and be exposed to things they might not otherwise read. And of course I still especially recommend those older books that laid the groundwork for modern fantasy, and which are often neglected. I also think it’s important for writers to read widely, as I’ve discussed time and again. But I’m not going to call any particular book “essential” anymore, not even Lord of the Rings.
I also try to refrain from un-recommending books these days. In the past, I may have got a bee in my bonnet about a particular “terrible” book and wanted the world to know it should never have been published. Now I’ve seen examples of how every book can make an impact on the right reader, and also appreciate just how difficult it is to write a whole book. I may still give a negative review, but I’ll try to frame it in less objective terms at least. After all, good and bad are relative, reading is personal, and taste is subjective.
At the end of the day, read as much as you can, don’t limit yourself, but don’t feel obligated to read any particular thing. As much as I’ve believe in the benefit of perspective, and love reading the classics myself, all I really want is for people to be aware of relevant books so they can make their mind up. No required reading, just a huge list of recommendations.