Article published on May 20, 2016.
I do love a good book list: 33 books to read on holiday, 51 books to read in May, 99 books to read in your lunch break, 2 million books to read before you die, I may not have the titles quite right but you know the sort of thing. I’ve recently celebrated a milestone birthday – although why it’s such a milestone, I’m not quite sure, but that’s for a different article – so imagine my delight when I discovered there were indeed book lists for this very milestone, or more precisely book lists to have accomplished before this milestone.
The internet was awash with lists detailing all the books I should have, must have, absolutely definitely can’t have not read by now: 30 (it seems that a book a year is the pre-requisite; but hold that thought) books you should read before you’re 30; 30 books everyone must (my emphasis although the implication’s there) read before they turn 30; 33 (that’s not a typo, don’t ask me the significance of 33) books everyone should read before turning 30; 30 superb books you should read before turning 30 (well I suppose that beats 30 rubbish books you should read before turning 30); 33 (again what’s with 33, answers on a postcard) business books to read before 30; 30 books every woman should read by 30; and naturally 30 books every man should read by 30, (heaven forbid men read any of the books on the women’s list or vice versa).
Now I’ve had a fairly voracious reading life [Ed: slight understatement here, Jade.] so I was intrigued to see just how well I’d fared, whether I had indeed met the expectations for my age and read the books I must read before reaching 30. So I took a sample of three of the lists and of 89 books, I’d read a measly 8. What on earth did this mean for me? I clearly hadn’t read everything I should have, in fact not even 10% of what I should have. There were no lists of all the books I should read before 31, so I’d obviously failed somehow by not having completed the required reading by my 30th year. Oh dear!
So what exactly should I have been reading? Well, it’s a fairly eclectic library, everything from Marcus Aurelius to Zadie Smith, with big hitters such as Tolstoy and Shakespeare alongside more modern classics by Milan Kundera and Arundhati Roy, as well as a few writers admittedly I’d never even heard of (perhaps I really have been reading the wrong books all of this time?). But none of the choices felt particularly obvious, or struck me as having a special affinity with the first triennium of one’s life, and did it really matter if I read them after I was 30? Of the eight titles across the lists that I have read (The Dream of a Common Language, Adrienne Rich; Hamlet, Shakespeare; A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf; Lord of the Flies, William Golding; 1984, George Orwell; To Kill a Mocking Bird, Harper Lee; For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway; The Great Gatsby, F.Scott Fitzgerald), there’s only one that I really consider as being a book I personally needed to read before I was 30, A Room of One’s Own, but there’s no reason why it’s not as meaningful for someone reading it before they’re 40 or at any point really. Whilst I’d agree that Lord of the Flies is most impactful for a younger audience, one to read maybe before you’re 20 even, and that To Kill a Mocking Bird is often a formative part of one’s growing up, I don’t think there’s an age limit or deadline on their consumption, or on the consumption of any book at all. If you haven’t read 1984 by the time you’re 30, or even by the time you’re 60, it’s not the end of the world, nor should you think oh well that’s that then I can’t read it now.
Yes, I know these lists are a bit of fun and I’m guilty of seeking them out, but their message can seem a bit proscriptive, if you haven’t read this yet, why not? It’s too late to read it now. What drivel have you been reading instead? When really it should be a case of reading whatever you like whatever your age, whether that’s Harry Potter when you’re eighty, or Kant when you’re eighteen. And if you happen to read Even Cowgirls get the Blues, War and Peace, and Iron John by the time you’re 30 and feel enlightened by doing so, you can cross them off the list fulfilled, but if not and you decide to read them when your 42, or 72 or 102, it still counts and you may just learn something from them that you wouldn’t have at 30. And perhaps you might choose to not even bother with them at all, after all who’s to say what’s worth reading and what’s not apart from ourselves. I know for sure that my own list of the books I’m glad I read before 30 looks a lot different to what ‘people’ suggest I should have been reading, and I feel no worse off for it being so. Having said that, these lists can be a good place for finding your next read, just don’t worry if you don’t meet the deadline.
Who knows maybe if I’d read all the books I haven’t, the Doris Lessings, the Sun Tzus, the Hermann Hesses, then the world would all make a lot more sense, but not to fear, I’ve since discovered a new set of lists: the books I must absolutely, definitely, without hesitation read before I’m 40. That gives me a whole decade to get round to it and maybe by then I’ll see what all the fuss is about. Or perhaps I’ll just stick to what I’ve been doing and make up my own lists.