Two Reasons to Read Second-Rate Books

February 22nd, 2007

from John Berryman’s afterword to the Signet Classics edition of Theodore Dreiser’s The Titan:

Thank the Lord for second-class novels, or what would we read after the age of twenty-one, and how insufferable would be a criticism that devoted itself solely to first-class novels (the fifty-two or eight-six there are).

and from Zadie Smith’s wonderful essay, “Fail Better,” which appeared in the Guardian on 13 January 2007, but is no longer available online:

If it’s true that first-rate novels are rare, it’s also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honourable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfilment. The art is in the attempt….

Few of the books featured on this site qualify as first-rate or first-class, by Smith’s or Berryman’s standards, so it’s good to know that there are such eloquent justifications for reading them.

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