Remember when you were in math class and would complain, "When are we ever going to use this?" Remember how adults would spaz out like you were asking a stupid question? Remember the last time you used any of that math? It was in math class. You were right to complain. Outside a few highly specialized professions, most of the math you learned never surfaces again at any point in your life. Your teenage gripes were spot on.
Do you feel guilty that you havén't used it since? No, you don't. You don't even think about it.
So it is curious to me that so many adults express guilt over not having read much classic literature, the type of stuff that like trigonometry, they were forced to study in high school and college. They will even struggle repeatedly to endure classic works of literature they don't understand or enjoy. Why?
You don't force yourself to read the great math books. You don't make a New Year's resolution to finally finish that stack of peer-reviewed scientific journals that has been sitting on your shelf for ages. So why sweat War and Peace?
My guess is that it is because verbal intellectualism is so much easier to fake than mathematical intellectualism. Most folks can't fake math smarts, and don't want to accept or admit they are average, so they try to immerse themselves in the trappings of word nerddom, which means reading lots of Russian tomes that mean nothing to them.
OBVIOUSLY there are people, myself included, who derive great joy from reading the BIG IMPORTANT BOOKS. Some people actually enjoy Naked Lunch. Some people also like having diarrhea. There is no accounting for taste. I on the other hand wish Mr. Burroughs had used that cut-up method to cut up his own work and throw it in the garbage. To each his own.
Quick piece of non-fiction: A friend recommended Melville's Bartelby, the Scrivener. I'd never read Melville, and Bartleby was a hoot, so I felt compelled to work through a bundle of Melville's other short works. They should have come with alarm clocks, because they were all whale-sized snores. I cannot believe I resisted the quite logical urge to stop causing myself the boredom sparked by reading them. Thankfully I stopped after the short works. I will get through life just fine without having read Moby Dick. So will you (I am not discouraging those who enjoy Melville). If you don't like a classic, it is impractical to force feed it to yourself.
Some will protest: Being a good conversationalist has all kinds of practical applications, and being able to discuss literature is part of being a good conversationalist.
Yes, being able to credibly reference classic literature can help you posture as worldly during job interviews. And yes, you can often gain a sense of someone's worldview from whether he prefers Ayn Rand or Upton Sinclair, so it is useful to have an idea of what those authors were about. But none of this means you have to scorch your eyes with endless dreary reading.
Unless you plan to be a writing/English teacher (in which case, get in line and don't delete that temp agency from your cell phone contacts), having actually read the classics will probably not assist you much in your career. If you work in a field in which classic literature often appears in conversation--law, for instance--, read the Wikipedia synopsis for whichever classic works are mentioned most often, Google a few of the related keywords (Naturalism, Existentialism) and work them into your sentences in a vague enough way so that there is really nothing for anyone to challenge. Don't worry; the person you are talking to probably hasn't read War and Peace either and therefore is in no danger of exposing you.
As for having enough knowledge to be able to debate literature, this seldom happens at work. These arguments are much more likely to occur on dates or at parties, so the stakes are much lower. And certainly these debates can bring zest to a dull evening. But you should try to find your way to the people who have read what you like so you can have an actual discussion. This isn't as hard as it sounds. Dating profiles and Facebook pages provide long lists of people's favorite authors. And don't feel bad if you're at a party and someone smirks at you for not having read some entry from THE CANON. If all that person is looking for is a literature stand-off (WHAT??!! YOU HAVEN'T READ FILL IN THE BLANK?!?!?!?), chances are he is the kind of zero you shouldn't be wasting your time on anyway.
There is also no reason to feel ashamed about reading a novel again. You're not competing with anyone and there are no term papers to write (remember, you are reading for pleasure), so it does not matter if you have made it through a large chunk of THE CANON or not (nothing matters, haven't you read Sartre?!?!?!?!?). Part of what makes novels such a great form of entertainment is that almost no one can remember an entire novel, so a few years later you can return to it and find "new" surprises; not to mention the nuances you'll only notice the second, third, fourth time around. I just went through a phase of rereading Kafka and was delighted by how "new" much of it seemed. Better to revisit entertaining works as opposed to burying myself in the tedium of some jackass Beat writer.
It is perfectly fine as well to only read an author's slimmer works. I enjoy Dostoyevsky, but will probably never attempt Crime and Punishment. I'm pleased to say I think I have finally parted with the idiotic guilt I used to feel when I wasn't constantly seeking out new classic authors or assigning myself their longest volumes.
Once you're an adult you have very, very little time for personal leisure. You wake up early and spend time getting ready for work. Then you spend time getting to work. Then you work at least 8 or 9 hours. Then you spend time getting home from work. Then you spend time in the evening running errands. And because you have to get up early, you can't be up too late, so once you're settled in for the night, there isn't much time left for recreation (this assumes you don't have kids or more work to do at home, in which case forget about it). And while you're trying to engage in recreation you still think about work, so even that time isn't entirely yours. With that as a backdrop, to do something as insane as giving yourself homework probably means that syphilis you thought was cured is now eating through your brain like Pac-Man. You are going to die one day. There is no such thing as spare time. Don't read the classics unless you enjoy them.
Speaking of, thank you very, very much for devoting some of your priceless time to reading this.