Tasting All the Shelves


David Mitchell

I visited a local bookstore yesterday, a national chain but one that I shall leave nameless for reasons that you will soon understand. I approached the information desk and asked where I might find Madame Bovary. The bookstore worker smiled at me for a few seconds until I realized that the smile was a blank stare. At a loss for words, all I could manage to mutter was a feeble, “Ummm . . . it’s a book.”

The young fellow at the information desk snapped out of his apparent confusion and began to type on his computer keyboard. After a few seconds, he asked, “And who is the author?” I replied “Flaubert.” The blank gaze quickly returned.

“F-L-A-U-B-E-R-T,” I offered, and the clouds lifted, the sun shined brightly on the information desk, and my young aide showed me where to find my quarry.

As I walked out of the bookstore, I could not help but wonder who was more unsophisticated—the bookstore worker, or me. Admittedly, the clerk had no apparent knowledge of Madame Bovary or of Flaubert, but I might just as quickly be criticized for not having read any of the current books on the New York Times Best Seller List. For that matter, I doubt I could name any of them at this point. The book store clerk was probably twenty-three years old and even if he was interested in the classics, for him that might mean Charles Bukowski or Jim Carroll. After all, there is only so much time in the day to read, and there are tens of thousands of titles in the bookstore. 

When I was growing up in the 1970s, I read classics. I read them not because my parents made me do it and not even because my school required it of me. I read classics because I loved the texture of Charles Dickens and the passion of Victor Hugo. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell intrigued me, and Bram Stoker made me sleep in a fully lit room for a few nights.

I still read them but at about the same time that I realized my parents were not wrong about everything, and that when choosing a career it is best to err on the side of security, I also realized that I might have been reading classics—exclusively—because I was arrogant. Although Dickens had made me familiar with the Poor Laws of 1830s England, I knew nothing about contemporary fiction. While I had journeyed to the end of the night with Louis-Ferdinand Celine and looked through the looking glass with Lewis Carroll, I had never been frightened by Stephen King or cozied up with a book that had been on the New York Times Best Seller list during the last half of the twentieth century.

That was just wrong of me. More specifically, it was wrong for me. While in childhood I may have enjoyed the sense of superiority that I found in my English classes, in adulthood the opposite was true. I lacked a very basic knowledge of contemporary fiction that left me seemingly ignorant when books were discussed in my office. Just as the fellow at my local bookstore gave a blank stare at the mention of Madame Bovary, so too did I fade into the woodwork whenever contemporary fiction was mentioned.

At this point, I have remedied that omission in my knowledge base, at least to a degree. I read books that I want to read, and I read books that people recommend to me. I no longer label a book as acceptable or unacceptable based solely on the year it was published. I have enjoyed all of Dan Brown’s books and look forward to the his new book, The Lost Symbol. I’ve stayed up many a night reading Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, knowing full well that their works are instant classics that will withstand the scrutiny of the coming decades. And I know that there are dozens more contemporary authors I should be reading, but have not yet discovered.

More importantly, perhaps, I no longer force myself to try to get through books that I sometimes hate just because I feel that I have to read them, even if they are classics. I have tried over the years to read Don Quixote, but with all due respect to Cervantes I fail every time because I find it just too tedious. I loved Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night but have accepted that I do not hold Death on the Installment Plan in the same regard. Indeed, I have even accepted that I may never read The Catcher in the Rye, even though every other person who has attended an American high school in the past forty years seems to have both read it and loved it. That’s all okay, too.

At the same time, I do wish our culture took the same view of the classics that remain so near and dear to my heart. It would not surprise me if while wandering in the literature section of a bookstore I saw a tumbleweed bounce down the aisle next to me. It is the loneliest section of the book store. Self-help, history, best sellers and reference books are wonderful too, but they should not get all the attention at my bookstore. Certainly there must be some level of inquiry that should drive readers back to the original “best sellers.” Sadly, as one friend learned when she suggested Jane Austen to her book club, the response was “But why would I want to read something that was written 200 years ago?”

You should want to read the classics for the same reason that I should want to read contemporary fiction and for the same reason that we all should want to read selections from the range of books that are presented to us. We should want to read it all because none of it is all good and none of it is all bad. If we do not take the time to read it and assess it on our own, we are deciding we do not like one of the flavors of the literary palette without even taking the opportunity to taste it. Moreover, even though the times may change, human nature really does not. It is comforting to know that we share common experiences with our literary ancestors and nice to think that by digging deeper into our literary roots, we might actually be able to learn things about ourselves that current generations of writers and readers may have forgotten.

So, my helper at my local bookstore, if you are reading this, pick up a copy of Madame Bovary the next time you are at work and, the next time I am in the store, let me know what I might be missing.

Books mentioned in this column:
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005)
Don Quixote by Cervantes (Signet Classics, 1979)
Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (New Directions, 1983)
Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine (New Directions, 1988)
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Back Bay, 2001)
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown (Doubleday, 2009)

David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David.



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