The term ‘masterpiece’ is most commonly used in the art world, describing paintings like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Picasso’s Guernica. While these works might be well considered among the artists’ best, it doesn’t mean that other works by these artists are not also worth the moment it takes to view them.
The situation is quite different when it comes to books. To read a book requires time – a commodity of which we seem to be increasingly short. A reader usually needs to dedicate hours of their precious time to finish a book. A glance is definitely not enough for even the most cursory of understanding of a work, as it can be for a painting or sculpture.
In addition, there are millions of books to be read – with quite a few currently sitting on my tbr pile – and any reader will be aware of the despair of knowing that they will not get to experience all of the wonderful books that are available, or even a taste of the work of all of the great writers.
And so, it begs the question whether it is worth reading anything but the masterpiece of the world’s greatest writers? Should we bother reading The French Lieutenant’s Woman with the knowledge that The Great Gatsby was widely considered F Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, or worth reading Blue Eyes when Beloved is often named as Toni Morrison’s best?
The question arose when I went to read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, the second book by Arundhati Roy in 20 years. Her first was exquisite, and I have often referred to it as one of my favourites. In reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I wasn’t sure if it was possible for Roy to surpass what must surely be her masterpiece, and so it was that I was disappointed by Roy’s second work of fiction.
More recently, I have been considering reading The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna, after I adored another of her books, The Choke. Despite the fact that it is widely praised, and won the prestigious Miles Franklin Prize, I still have not read it.
Sometimes, a reader’s second sample of a writer’s work is disappointing, given the expectations they have formed after enjoying the first. But the risk of a lousy read is not really of concern when I’m considering a book by an author I already admire – it’s more the sense that I have already experienced a particular writer’s best, so anything else will be a bit of a letdown, no matter how good.
So, rather than reading one writer’s catalogue of books, would we be better to select the very best, or at least, that widely considered to be the best, of each writer, exposing us to the literary world’s masterpieces, and ignoring the rest?
Henry David Thoreau might have agreed with this advice, as he reportedly said,
“Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.”
But, before you toss aside Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna or Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, there are a few holes in the argument for sticking to the ‘masterpieces’. First, who decides which book is a masterpiece, and which is not? Is it a matter of popularity, or does critical merit hold more importance? Should you choose the prizewinning book? Or the one considered interesting enough to be turned into a movie?
One person might choose Emma, while the other might be adamant that Pride and Prejudice was Jane Austen’s masterpiece.
Is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s best One Hundred Years of Solitude or Love in the Time of Cholera? War and Peace or Anna Karenina? A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations? Big Little Lies or The Husband’s Secret? Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone or Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix?
For every person who argues for one, there will be another in support of the alternative.
It is no easier to trust the professionals judging literary awards. If I was only reading the author’s most significant prize winner, I would never have read Laguna’s The Choke, which would have been a great shame.
In reality, many are the times that I have preferred a writer’s second, third or fourth to their most highly celebrated books, for the designation of a book as an author’s masterpiece can be a result of factors other than how ‘good’ it is. Perhaps one was considered a masterpiece because it has a particularly controversial theme, rather than the quality of its writing? Or it might have been particularly innovative in its structure, although not as engaging as others written by that author.
Even if all agree on which book is a writer’s masterpiece, there is also much to be gained from delving further into a writer’s work than one book, exploring their voice and range. I would hate to have missed out on reading Atonement because I had already read Amsterdam, or had not read Lady Chatterley’s Lover as I had already finished Sons and Lovers.
One book by an author can be quite different to the previous book, or it can be comfortingly similar, and the experience of reading can be richer when exploring a particular writer’s range of works, like sampling an entire album rather than just a single. It is a pleasure to settle in with a book by a favourite author – it is no wonder that readers eagerly await the next release from Kate Atkinson, Liane Moriarty or Jane Harper. It is comforting and exciting all at once.
While it might make sense for readers to sample a writer’s work by reading their masterpieces first, they shouldn’t hesitate to delve deeper into a writer’s catalogue once they find something that captures their attention and imagination. In this way, choosing masterpieces first can be a selection tool, introducing readers to who writers may become their favourites.
But, by choosing to read only masterpieces, readers deprive themselves of the thrill of discovering our own favourites among an author’s works, dictated by our own tastes and circumstances. It also enables us to appreciate the breadth, vision and depth of a writer’s catalogue, enriching our reading lives and gives us the chance to fall in love with a certain style of writing and voice all over again.
I’m off now to find a copy of The Eye of the Sheep.