Sorry, Editors of GQ…

To say that “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read” by GQ is pushing boundaries is an understatement.   Has GQ lost its appeal?  Perhaps this is a pitiful cry for attention.

I chose to pose an open-ended question to the cohorts in my Creative Writing program about their thoughts on the article, and one of the responses I received was from a professor:

This is a great way to get writers to start some heated late night fights! I personally love Huck Finn, but agree with many of the others. I think every American should be familiar with Huck Finn, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the Great Gatsby…thanks for sharing this, I’ve got some books to read!

Okay, so my professor agrees with some of the suggestions the editors of GQ made, and while some may be valid, I found this list to be missing the point of reading entirely.  Books aren’t merely entertainment; they are an art form.  Art is subjective, and as such, most books will not appeal to the masses. Aside from that, the authors who write said books are human with a limited purview, making their written works influenced primarily by their personal history and the times at which they were written.  The nuances of language are ever-evolving, and it is not uncommon to read a book from an era outside of our lifetime and wonder what the heck they are trying to say.  This happens to me all the time! The Bible, which is featured on the list is a prime example. Nevertheless, there is beauty and wisdom in its words.

So what about the accusation that some of these books are racist or sexist?  Again, a sign of the times.  Are we supposed to ignore the past or learn from it?  If you read a book that makes you uncomfortable, it gives you an opportunity to reflect and grow because of it, not in spite of it.  Books are full of knowledge.  If you do not care about diving deeper, learning, or broadening your horizons, then, by all means, stick to what you find entertaining, but if you want to grow and develop as a reader, writer, or even human, then don’t limit yourself.  Read a lot and read a wide range of subjects and authors.

One of the books on said list is The Alchemist.  I couldn’t believe it! I read it for school at the insistence of the very professor who wrote the quoted comment above.   You can read my thoughts on The Alchemist hereThe Old Man and The Sea is another all-time classic; basically anything by Hemingway is worth your time. What about The Catcher and The Rye?  That is on my list of books to read; I haven’t read it yet, but I have heard so many brilliant things about it.  Again, a classic.  How can we dismiss these books now?  That would be like removing Mozart and Michaelangelo from our Music and Art History books because they are dated and lacking of modern appeal.  I cry: What is the world coming to?!

I know this is an open invitation to duke it out, but I would be curious to hear what you think…

Below is an excerpt from “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read” with numbers 1-5.

We’ve been told all our lives that we can only call ourselves well-read once we’ve read the Great Books. We tried. We got halfway through Infinite Jest and halfway through the SparkNotes on Finnegans Wake. But a few pages into Bleak House, we realized that not all the Great Books have aged well. Some are racist and some are sexist, but most are just really, really boring. So we—and a group of un-boring writers—give you permission to strike these books from the canon. Here’s what you should read instead.


1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Instead: The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

I actually love Lonesome Dove, but I’m convinced that the cowboy mythos, with its rigid masculine emotional landscape, glorification of guns and destruction, and misogynistic gender roles, is a major factor in the degradation of America. Rather than perpetuate this myth, I’d love for everyone, but particularly American men, to read The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford. It’s a wicked, brilliant, dark book set largely on a ranch in Colorado, but it acts in many ways as a strong rebuttal to all the old toxic western stereotypes we all need to explode. —Lauren Groff, ‘Florida’


2. The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Instead: Olivia: A Novel by Dorothy Strachey

I have never been able to fathom why The Catcher in the Rye is such a canonical novel. I read it because everyone else in school was reading it but thought it was totally silly. Now, looking back, I find that it is without any literary merit whatsoever. Why waste adolescents’ time? Alternatively, I’d suggest Olivia, the story of a British teenage girl who is sent to a boarding school in France. It is short and written in a kind of levelheaded and deceptively straightforward style. Olivia eventually falls in love with her teacher Mademoiselle Julie T, who in turn, and without reciprocating that love out loud, is equally in love with Olivia. Julie never takes a wrong step, but there are signs for those who know how to read them. I read Olivia many, many times, bought it for many of my friends, and consider it the inspiration for Call Me by Your Name. —André Aciman, ‘Call Me by Your Name’

3. Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves

Instead: Dispatches by Michael Herr

Goodbye to All That, the autobiographical account of Graves’s time in the trenches during World War I, is entertaining and enlightening. It’s also incredibly racist. Graves includes samples of near unintelligible essays produced by three of his students (“Mahmoud Mohammed Mahmoud,” “Mohammed Mahmoud Mohammed,” and “Mahmoud Mahmoud Mohammed”) from his postwar stint as an English instructor in Cairo. The joke is twofold—all these silly natives have similar-sounding names, and they lack the basic intellectual capacity to grapple with the literature. A better option is Dispatches by Michael Herr. It concerns a different time, country, and war, but this is still, in my mind, the most indispensable personal account of the cruelty and violence of modern warfare. —Omar El Akkad, ‘American War’

4. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Instead: The Summer Book by Tove Jansson

My father loved The Old Man and the Sea, so I tried to love it. It left me unmoved. Mostly, I kept hoping the fish would get away without too much damage. (When my grandpa pushed me to catch a trout at a fish farm, I threw the rod into the pond.) I’d rather read Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book. This series of vignettes about a grandmother and granddaughter living on a remote Finnish island is not just heartwarming: In its views of both Nature and human nature, it teaches us what it is to be in sync with the world. All of Jansson’s adult fiction is deeply humane and beautiful. —Jeff VanderMeer, ‘Annihilation’

5. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Instead: Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

Somehow, even at 208 pages, The Alchemist is 207 pages too long. A dude wanders the desert, trying to uncover his Personal Legend (capitalized as such throughout the book) while meeting people who speak in the inane aphorisms of a throw pillow: “Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.” If you’re after a book of existential meandering by a Brazilian author, pick up the similarly slim Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector. Unlike the entitled desert wandering of The Alchemist, Wild Heart‘s contemplations are inward and complex. For Lispector, there aren’t easy answers—and her universe sure as hell is not interested in your hopes and dreams. —Kevin Nguyen, GQ senior editor


  1. Reply

    Mark Newman

    April 27, 2018

    Great post and I so agree with you. Consider the source. Five of the first six books are replacing guys with girls, nuff said. Total agenda on this story idea. Who ares whether they thought it was boring, anyway? “Boring” is a word used by people with no attention span. It was kind of laughable. Have my Hemingway reader right here.

    • Reply


      April 27, 2018

      I couldn’t agree with you more! It didn’t take long to view this article as laughable…when I saw that they replaced “The Catcher and The Rye” with “Olivia”, a book about two women falling in love, I knew immediatly there was an agenda here. The director of my Master’s program always says that when we think a book is boring or not worth reading it says a lot more about the reader than the writer!!

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