On Reading a Book One Doesn’t Like…

“There is always room and occasion enough for a true book on any subject; as there is room for more light, the brightest day and more rays will not interfere with the first.”                                                                                                                               – Henry David Thoreau

Books – I like them (image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)

As I’ve mentioned on other occasions, I am one of those people who feels a weird sort of moral, ethical or, most likely, neurotic need to finish books that I begin reading. As a reviewer, it seems to me that it is a courtesy writers deserve. As a writer, it is a courtesy I hope – but don’t always get the feeling – that reviewers give me. As a bibliophile and avid, perhaps compulsive reader, it seems to me that books and their writers deserve my attention – and possibly my affection.

The problem with a weltenschauung like this is that it compels one to wade through books one doesn’t particularly like. I am doing just that at present. 

My reasons for why I am wading through the particular  book I don’t like are not really relevant to this brief essay. I’m more interested in why readers decide that they dislike a particular book. Our idiosyncrasies, our biases, our personal preferences about the reading experience – those are the stuff of interest.

My own biases in reading are fairly well known to those who have read a few of my essays. I have a strong bias for classic literature. Over the past few years I’ve written about medieval romances, classics of British, American, French, and Japanese literature, for example. I have also occasionally gored a beloved classic or, even worse to some readers, mehed one.

I am also biased against genre fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, deeply loved genres among friends and colleagues. I have sincerely tried to like sci-fi over the decades and I have read many of the giants of the genre: Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Dick. The sci-fi writers I refer – Bradbury, Vonnegut – seem, if I understand my colleagues correctly, to be more about discussing contemporary ideas through sci-fi and less about science fiction as a genre per se. The same is true of fantasy writers. I have read some of the giants: Tolkien, Gaiman, even Rowling. But I don’t feel any strong attraction to read more fantasy works after having read these writers, some of the best the genre has to offer.

Finally, I have strong biases about the writing itself. No matter what kind of work I am reading – fiction, history, poetry, science, nonfiction – good writing draws me in. For example, I’ll read or re-read anything by John McPhee, anything by Barbara Tuchman, anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Twain and Austen are, of course, sacrosanct. How do I recognize good writing? I’ll explain by quoting a Supreme Court justice who used the same word in describing how he recognized pornography: “I know it when I see it.” I also know bad writing when I see it – and the book I’m currently reading has some bad writing in it. Hearing the sound of nails on a chalk board once is painful; hearing that sound again and again is torture. In the case of the work I am now reading, the latter is occurring.

I read an interesting essay many years ago in which the author discussed “growing into” books. His contention was that we can encounter a book at one point in our lives and find it unlikable, then encounter it years later and think it a treasure. The essayist attributed this change in one’s appreciation of books as a proof of our need to find a kind of “reading maturity” that allows us to appreciate works we could not appreciate due to what one can only infer was reading immaturity.

I have tried that hypothesis out on a few occasions. My results have been mixed and not quite as widely different as the essayist claimed. Examples: even the passing of years and the gaining of much reading maturity (and academic training) do not convince me that the long section on the science of whaling in the middle of Moby Dick is worth the time and effort or that Bleak House isn’t simply too damned long and drawn out for no good reason.

I could go on, but I must go and try to finish this chore of a book I’m reading. Feel free to comment and offer your own biases or your own examples of works that you simply have found a chore to read (textbooks and IRS documents excepted for obvious reasons).


About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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4 Responses to On Reading a Book One Doesn’t Like…

  1. wufnik says:

    I have the same issue. I’m reading two of those novels right now. One, where I’m more than half way, I’ll likely finish–it’s one by Peter Carey (whom I have never read) where there’s a potentially interesting plot, but the characters are very unsympathetic, even unappealing, and I’ve lost interest although clearly I’m supposed to be deeply concerned about what happens to these improbable people. The other, that I’m nearly one-third through, just gets more preposterous every page, and I’ll probably just leave it. Life’s too short. It’s the first novel of a person who has written the hot book of the summer here, and it’s pretty unreadable. What did James Atlas say about Henry James? “He writes the kind of books that once you put them down, you can’t pick them up again.” Fortunately, my alternating fiction/non-fiction rule has saved me again–Andrea Wulf’s biography of Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, is a cracker.

    And on your sf choices–this is all forty-fifty year old stuff, and classics, but not because of their literary merit. That’s not usually why some sf books become “classics.” Let me know if you want something more recent. Two recommendations–Lavie Tidhar (an Israeli who lives in London) and Steve Erickson (Rubicon Beach, Days Before Stations.) (There are two of them–the other one writes schlock Nordic fantasy, I believe.) Also, Genevieve Valentine (Kingfisher Club, Mechanique) and Catheryne Valente (Palimpsest–and the two Prester John books (no third volume yet, though.) Paolo Bacigalupi–The Wind-up Girl.

    I can’t say I’ve read anything truly transformative (which is what you want form a book, after all) this year. Several OK ones, but that’s it. After my surgery next week I expect to get more reading done, and the pile is high. The last really good book? Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave this Beautiful Place. Not his best, but still very good. I like people who write small but perfectly formed novels. The Marilynne Robinson trilogy was quite good.

    Speaking of which, have you ever read Tracy Chevalier? She has a very undeserved reputation as a chick lit writer. But Girl with a Pearl Earring was actually very good. My favorite of hers, I think, is Burning Bright–it’s got William Blake.

    My wife: “You don’t read much current fiction.”
    Me: “You say that is if it’s a bad thing.”

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Lament for the Fallen by Gavin Chait | Progressive Culture | Scholars & Rogues

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