P_Ang’s comment here got me thinking about so-called “great” artists. I guess I’m a philistine, but I think even the greatest artist is, at best, the sum of his best work.
You don’t really need to read Melville, for instance, despite what they tell you in high school.* You need to read Moby-Dick. With the possible exception of “Bartleby the Scrivener” — and that mainly for historical interest, in my opinion — the rest of Melville is disposable genre stuff. It’s good disposable genre stuff, if you like that kind of thing, but all you’ll get out of, say, Typee is a typical mid-19th century adventure yarn.
Ditto Dickens. For the record, Dickens bores me to tears, but I acknowledge he’s an important figure in the history of literature. That doesn’t mean you’ll benefit from reading every word the man wrote — he got paid by the word, so he wrote a lot of words. Pick one, skim it, and unless you’re a specialist (or a masochist), you’ve got all the Dickens you’ll ever need.
And since you’re already calling me a philistine, I’ll admit to another, probably greater sin: I generally don’t read other stuff by “great” authors because I like the one I first read. P_Ang apparently is no fan of Joseph Conrad, but… I’m really not, either, despite what my response to him implies. I’m a fan of Heart of Darkness. I haven’t read his other stuff because I like Heart of Darkness so much. I’m sure that, say, The Secret Agent is a nice, well-written genre bit, but it’s no Heart of Darkness. Conrad wasn’t some kind of life-altering genius, but his best work is — it’s lightning in a bottle, and you don’t catch that very often.
And even those who do catch it more than once don’t do it every time. Shakespeare is the most quoted writer in English for a reason, but even he cranked out some real clunkers — I know I’ve seen Love’s Labour’s Lost, for instance, but the only thing I remember was speculating on how bad those actors must smell at the end of the show, wearing all that felt outdoors in the heat of summer. King Lear, Hamlet, MacBeth, and Othello are indeed heartbreaking works of staggering genius, but there’s a reason nobody stages King John or The Comedy of Errors.**
Moreover, this only covers art from eras from which a fair bit survives (there’s actually a fair amount of Elizabethan theater out there, but it’s terrible). Past about the Renaissance, what’s “great” is largely what survives. You don’t need to read The Golden Ass because it’s a great Roman novel***; you read it, if you must, because it’s the only Roman novel. And that’s not even talking about the plastic arts — I’ve been through a great European museum, I’ve seen a lot of “masterpieces” in person, and I’ll go on record that a lot of them are pretty “meh.” They’re historically important, not transcendentally elevating.
Now, this is not to say there’s no such thing as great art. The very best art really can transport you; it really does say something important, and timeless, about the human condition. But the art is in the art, if you follow me — the old image of the genius being touched by the finger of God while creating one work is the truth.
*Or “told you,” I suppose the case now is. Melville was as white as his whale, so no doubt he’s been replaced by Jay-Z or somebody on the required reading list.
**Hell, we didn’t even read those in my college Shakespeare class, and we read damn near everything the man ever wrote, including all the sonnets.
***Or whatever it is. Please go ahead and sperg out in the comments about what counts as a “novel,” and who wrote the first one. I didn’t get nearly enough of that crap as a Lit major back in college. [/sarc].