Gentleman’s Quarterly has proposed refashioning contemporary culture by unmooring it from the past, a feat that can be accomplished — in part — by updating lists of required reading to fit the modern Zeitgeist.
In their essay titled “21 Books You Don’t Have to Read Before You Die,” the editors of GQ recommend rewriting canons of Great Books by swapping out works that are hard to read, dangerously backward, or politically incorrect with more contemporary works that conform to the values and sensibilities of the modern cultural elite.
So, out with Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and of course, the Holy Bible, and in with chick-lit, inclusive language, edgy plots, and entertainment purged of traditional values or outdated suppositions about the human person, family, and society.
The Great Books are taken down in one fell swoop. “Some are racist and some are sexist, but most are just really, really boring,” we learn.
First among these “overrated books” is the Bible, for which the GQ editors reserve some particularly choice epithets. It is “repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned,” or, in a nutshell, “certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced.”
As a substitute, why not read Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, the editors suggest, “a marvelous tale of two brothers who have to get along when things get rough.”
Their scorn extends well beyond the Good Book, however.
Pulling no punches, GQ says that the “cowboy mythos” of Lonesome Dove, for example, “with its rigid masculine emotional landscape, glorification of guns and destruction, and misogynistic gender roles, is a major factor in the degradation of America.”
Instead, we are told to read The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford, which “acts in many ways as a strong rebuttal to all the old toxic western stereotypes we all need to explode.”
Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, on the other hand, “is without any literary merit whatsoever” and therefore should be replaced by Olivia, the Sapphic story of a British teenage girl who falls in love with her teacher Mademoiselle Julie.
Goodbye to All That, by Robert Graves, is definitely out, since it is “incredibly racist.”If one really must read about war, a more sanitized option is Dispatches by Michael Herr — we are told — which properly conveys “the cruelty and violence of modern warfare.”
And so, on and on.
One reads that Ernest Hemingway, with his “masculine bluster and clipped sentences”should give way to kinder, gentler writers. The Old Man and the Sea can be fruitfully substituted by The Summer Book, a “heartwarming” series of vignettes about a grandmother and granddaughter living on a remote Finnish island that “teaches us what it is to be in sync with the world.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gets the axe, of course (“Mark Twain was a racist”), as do The Bible, Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Try reading instead Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica, we are told, “in which emotions are so present and sensory they almost hold a physical weight.”
The exercise seems aimed primarily at avoiding contact with antiquated beliefs, racist language, and sexist assumptions.
In keeping with similar crusades on college campuses, it also seeks to bring in many more female writers, which GQ seems to think especially necessary for domesticating its predominantly male readership. Of its original list of 21 “required” works, not one is written by a woman. The new list, on the contrary, is dominated by women authors.
It is also noteworthy than its original list, GQ includes not a single volume from antiquity or even the Renaissance. Unlike the Great Books, here there is no Homer, no Plato, no Greek drama, no Virgil, no Dante, no Cervantes, and no Shakespeare.
According to Gramsci, society can only be changed by changing culture, and this can only be accomplished by developing a new cultural hegemony, which is necessarily rooted in folklore, popular culture, and religion.
The brave new world that the cultural left wishes to establish cannot come about as long as “folklore” (which includes art, literature, history, and other sources of national identity) remains rooted in the ideas and values of the Judeo-Christian West.
21 Books You Don’t Have to ReadTHE EDITORS OF GQ
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
6. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Instead: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Hemingway’s novels—with their masculine bluster and clipped sentences—sometimes feel almost parodic to me. If you want to read about the intersection of love and war, Hemingway’s subjects in A Farewell to Arms, consider Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire, about the fallout of the Second World War. Though it was published in 2003, the book feels both contemporaneous with that period and wholly contemporary. Hazzard just writes so damn well, every sentence a gem.
—Rumaan Alam, ‘That Kind of Mother’
7. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
Instead: The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
I’m a great admirer of Cormac McCarthy’s sparer masterpieces, but I’m ambivalent about Blood Meridian, the historical epic often cited as his greatest work. Set in the Old West and written in an impenetrable style that combines Faulkner and the King James Bible, Blood Meridian is a big, forbidding book that earns the reader bragging rights but provides scant pleasure. If you’re looking for a more human-scaled, emotionally engaging novel set in the same time period, I’d recommend The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. It’s a dark, funny, brutal Western about a pair of hired killers, at least one of whom has a conscience. It covers some of the same ground as Blood Meridian and has a lot more fun along the way. —Tom Perrotta, ‘Mrs. Fletcher’
8. John Adams by David McCullough
Instead: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard
David McCullough is one of our foremost historians, and his books are written with great care and impressive attention to detail. They also happen to be the driest, boringest tomes you’ll ever sludge through. One time I read his book about the history of the Panama Canal, and it required about as much sweat and labor as it took to build the actual canal. For some kick-ass history, read Destiny of the Republic, about the assassination of President Garfield, the doctors who tried to save him but actually ended up killing him, and the frantic attempt by a deranged Alexander Graham Bell to invent a machine to find the bullet located in the president’s body. All in a relatively tidy 339 pages. At no point will you feel like there’s a test at the end. —Drew Magary, GQ contributor
9 & 10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Instead: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Fredrick Douglass
The worst crime committed by Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is that it makes first-time Twain readers think Twain wrote tedious, meandering stories. He did, as is evidenced by this, his book of tedious, meandering stories—but he also wrote a lot of richly entertaining meandering stories that are not constrained by the ham-fisted narration of a fictional backcountry child or suffused with his sweaty imitation of a slave talking. Alternatively, read Frederick Douglass’s firsthand account of slavery, which is equal parts shocking and heartbreaking. It’s also an invigorating revenge story: Douglass identifies slave owners by name and hometown, detailing their crimes with such specificity that their descendants will be embarrassed forever. While Jim, the affable slave friend of Huck Finn, exclaims things like “Lawsy, I’s mighty glad…,” Frederick Douglass makes observations like “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” You were saying, Mr. Twain? —Caity Weaver, GQ writer and editor
Instead: The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll by Alvaro Mutis
Mark Twain was a racist. Just read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He was a man of his time, so let’s leave him there. We don’t need him. If you want adventure, or misadventure, read The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll,by Alvaro Mutis. It’s one of my favorite books: sad, poetic, philosophical, and funny, with some of the best writing I’ve read. —Tommy Orange, ‘There There’
11. The Ambassadors by Henry James
Instead: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
Several people described The Ambassadors by Henry James in such a way as to make me impatient to read it, but between those descriptions and my experience of the book lay a chasm of such yawningness that it will never be crossed. Alternatively, I recommend The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. I suspect that contemporary readers feel no great urge to pick it up because—in a way that doesn’t happen with fiction—it has been rendered somewhat obsolete by more recent books on the subject. It’s actually still as gripping as any literary classic. —Geoff Dyer, ‘White Sands’
12. The Bible
Instead: The Notebook by Agota Kristof
The Holy Bible is rated very highly by all the people who supposedly live by it but who in actuality have not read it. Those who have read it know there are some good parts, but overall it is certainly not the finest thing that man has ever produced. It is repetitive, self-contradictory, sententious, foolish, and even at times ill-intentioned. If the thing you heard was good about the Bible was the nasty bits, then I propose Agota Kristof’s The Notebook, a marvelous tale of two brothers who have to get along when things get rough. The subtlety and cruelty of this story is like that famous sword stroke (from below the boat) that plunged upward through the bowels, the lungs, and the throat and into the brain of the rower. —Jesse Ball, ‘Census’
13. Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Instead: Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
I loved all of Salinger’s books when I was young, but now I feel that they’re shallow. It’s not that Salinger isn’t a very accomplished writer, but there’s a sort of slick, brittle, midcentury veneer to his work. It’s very polished and not very profound. With Franny and Zooey, there’s some Buddhist-y stuff in there, and there’s stuff about being disenchanted and the real world around you seeming fake, but is that really profound? Instead I’d recommend a hidden gem, Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop. Cather is a beautiful writer. She’s very unfashionable, and I love that about her. Death Comes for the Archbishop is about a priest in what I’m pretty sure is Santa Fe. And it’s incredibly calm and contemplative and open. It’s the opposite of the kind of glossy, slick New York narrative. When you read it, it’s like having a spiritual experience. It’s not too long, and it’s not effortful. —Claire Messud, ‘The Burning Girl’
14. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
Instead: Earthsea Series by Ursula K. Le Guin
I liked The Hobbit. A lot. But while Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books are influential as exercises in world building, as novels they are barely readable. It never seemed to me that Tolkien cared about his story as much as he cared about rendering, in minute detail, the world he built. Why not instead read Ursula K. Le Guin’s magnificent (and as beautifully rendered) stories and novels surrounding Earthsea? Le Guin captures the world of Earthsea through a powerful, dark, gorgeous kind of storytelling that is irresistible. Perhaps Le Guin’s work—along with an entire universe of fantasy fiction—wouldn’t have been possible without Tolkien’s influence behind it, but in its time, Le Guin’s books are more influential and make for better reading. —Manuel Gonzales, ‘The Regional Office Is Under Attack!’
15. Dracula by Bram Stoker
Instead: Angels by Denis Johnson
Gothic-horror classics like Dracula and Frankenstein always leave me cold. If you want to read a truly terrifying literary gem, try Johnson’s Angels. It unspools as a sort of nightmare that begins on a Greyhound bus. Poor Jamie grew up in West Virginia and leaves her abusive husband back in their trailer when she runs off with her two small children. On that fateful Greyhound bus she meets Bill Houston, who’s done everything bad except kill someone, although by the end of the book he will have done it all. —Matthew Klam, ‘Who Is Rich?’
16. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Instead: The American Granddaughter by Inaam Kachachi
I never could get into Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It fails to capture the absurdities and impossible conflicts of war. However, one of the most arresting novels I’ve read about war is Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter. Set at the beginning of the Iraq war, this book tells the story of Zeina, an Iraqi-American who signs up to be an interpreter for the U.S. Army and finds herself stationed in her hometown of Baghdad, where she must hide her work from her formidable grandmother. What follows is a thoughtful, nuanced, and often uproariously funny meditation on war in the 21st century. —Emily Robbins, ‘A Word for Love’
17. Life by Keith Richards
Instead: The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
I’ve nodded along—or maybe plain lied in agreement—when people extol Keith Richards’s memoir, Life. Richards’s cockiness and conceit about the wrong things jars; it’s a book that somehow makes me sympathize with Mick Jagger. I’d rather read The Worst Journey in the World, a memoir in which the author spends no time at all trying to convince the reader of his own greatness. Quite the opposite. In 1910, a 24-year-old Cherry-Garrard joined a British expedition to the South Pole. As the title of his book hints, it didn’t go well. Their leader, Captain Scott, was beaten to the Pole by a Norwegian explorer, and those who reached the Pole died on their return. Keith Richards suddenly looks very petty. —Chris Heath, GQ correspondent
18. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Instead: Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
Freedom is intolerably boring. The risks of frustration and asphyxiation while reading in bed are equally high with this huge, much vaunted American über-tome. But freedom is at the heart of this tiny Czech novel, Too Loud a Solitude. In around a hundred pages, it tells the story of Hanta, who has found wisdom in his job, compressing paper and books in a totalitarian state. The jokes are funny, and the stories lead us to ever richer revelations. The book is over almost before it has begun. —Richard Flanagan, ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’
19. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Instead: Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
When young Thomas Pynchon was writing Gravity’s Rainbow, he was fixated on the Big Things (punishingly boring and confusing things) of a Big World War II Novel that would announce him as a Big American Writer in 1973. Fortunately for us, nearly four decades later he brought us his recollections of everything else that was swirling around him back then. The world Pynchon conjures in Inherent Vice(published in 2009) is the world he himself was living in while writing Gravity’s Rainbow, when he was shacked up in a small apartment in the real-life Gordita Beach. Inherent Vice is where you should start if you want to dine on a small plate of Pynchon’s stuff instead of a potluck platter. —Daniel Riley, GQ features editor
20. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Instead: Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
When men on dating apps list a book, they invariably list Slaughterhouse-Five. I’d rather not get a drink with a person who’s taking his cues from Vonnegut: The few women in Slaughterhouse-Five die early, are porn stars, or are “bitchy flibbertigibbets.” Instead, read Gaitskill’s Veronica, in which emotions are so present and sensory they almost hold a physical weight. Gaitskill understands how you can sense a loved one’s mood radiating from the next room as clearly as rain out the window. This empathy drives her characters closer to cruelty than to kindness. —Nadja Spiegelman, ‘I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This’
21. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Instead: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
Why Swift’s dreary satire is routinely inflicted on high school English classes is a mystery to me. Tristram Shandy at least has the virtue of occasionally being funny. It’s also deeply weird: postmodern 200 years before postmodernism, with a deeply unreliable narrator, typographic trickery (a death early in the book is followed by a solid-black page), and a list of character names that would make Pynchon jealous (Dr. Slop, Billy Le Fever, and a certain Hafen Slawkenbergius). It is an important achievement in the history of the novel, a reminder that literature is an ongoing experiment—which means you should treat it like Don Quixote and read the first half before calling it a day. One can admire the pyramids without feeling the need to scale them. —Christopher Cox, GQ executive editor