Booking Through Thursday: Unread

May 28, 2009 at 3:36 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 8 Comments

Here is my response to this week’s Booking Through Thursday:

Is there a book that you wish you could unread?  One that you disliked so thoroughly you wish you could just forget that you ever read it?

This question is so beautifully tempting – it’s the perfect opportunity to slam those authors we love to hate.  But I can’t say that I wish I had never read something like The Da Vinci Code, for instance, because I feel a sort of duty to keep abreast of wildly popular fiction.  So no, I don’t think there is any one particular title I would single out.

There are probably enough lackluster books in my reading history, though, to fill a piano crate.  I look back at some of the things I’ve read and I just feel sad.  I wish I had focused more on reading the classics when I was younger.  The Brothers Karamazov, in particular, is a book I am profoundly glad I got to read in my lifetime – but I could have read it that much sooner if I’d skipped some of the chick lit or the self-help books.  You know, like Women Who Love Books Too Much or Librarians Who Run With the Wolves.

I’m going to predict that many of the people who single out a certain book and wish they never had read it will choose either something disturbing or a classic they thought was really boring.  Frankly, I tend to be drawn to disturbing things, having developed my chops reading horror and true crime, so a book with a reputation for creepiness, violence, or a really harsh ending will work its way higher up my list.  The classics go without saying.  It takes fortitude.  Ire will no doubt be raised when I say that if you don’t like a classic book, you are missing something and you didn’t try hard enough, but that’s really how I see it.

Some things are better left unread.  If you are prone to nightmares, it’s good to find out ahead of time that a book has been known to shock people.  A lot of third-tier titles can just be left to gather dust.   But the time we spend ploughing through “boring” stuff that is a notch higher than our comfort level pays off in making the next challenging work that much more approachable.


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  1. I wouldn’t say this is ire-filled, but I don’t necessarily think that just because someone reads and doesn’t enjoy a classic that means they didn’t try hard enough, that this was somehow a failing on the part of the reader. After all, “Classic” encompasses A LOT of books, and they aren’t all going to suit each person’s tastes given that there’s a huge deal of variety within the genre itself. At some point, each classic novel was contemporary, and for every person in 2009 who looooves Wuthering Heights (or Little Dorrit, or War & Peace, etc.,) there was probably some person back when it was first published who read it and thought “Meh”. Some classics I’ve read and loved, and others I’ve read and not loved, but in those cases I’ve been able to appreciate why they were important in their day and how they shaped the face of literature – I was able to dissociate my emotional response to the book from my evaluation of its literary merit. But honestly, I think it’s a misstep to value a book’s worth simply on the basis of how much it tortures you when you read it. I mean, how does slogging through a book you’re not enjoying in any way make you a better reader OR somehow signify a book’s greatness? I don’t think reading need be a painful experience in order to signify the expansion of one’s mind. Enjoyment and appreciation of a book are two separate things, I think, and they are nearly impossible to equate with one another (and should not be conflated); how do you use one measure to determine whether a reader has tried hard enough and not the other?

    • Hmm, now this is exciting!

      I don’t say that everyone should be equally enamored of every classic book – I singled out the idea of hating one so much one would wish to have “unread” it, which was the theme of BTT this week. I have heard people express this feeling about what I think are some really amazing books, including Pride and Prejudice, Crime and Punishment, and War and Peace. As far as whether the contemporary audience of a book appreciated it based on the merits we see now, well, I think that hardly ever happens. That’s why so many (now famous) artists have died penniless.

      The feeling of slogging or torturing oneself is not something I endorse. I have felt out of synch with challenging material before, like everyone else, but I will put it aside and come back to it when I’m in a different frame of mind.

      If you look up reviews of classic books on Amazon, you will always be able to find a one-star review from someone who says something along the lines of “why was this book even written?” I think there’s a strong tendency out there to write off books that ask more of the reader than the cursory commitment to light fiction.

      • I guess I misinterpreted your take on the classics – by my reading it didn’t come across as though you were referring to someone disliking a classic to the extend of wishing they had never read it (which I suppose could be read into your statement, given the topic of BTT), but simply not liking a book in general.

        I still think that while certain books are well-respected, it’s important to recognize that no book is universally lauded! We may both love P&P, but I also love Mark Twain and he HATED Jane Austen’s work, and thought it was trivial and not worth reading. Harold Bloom, a hugely respected lit critic, considers Toni Morrison to be “supermarket” fiction. These aren’t idle readers or grumpy highschoolers, yet they take issue with certain classics (Toni Morrison may not currently be considered a classic author, but given her track record, I’m betting her books will still be read 100 years from now). All to say that these are not readers who were likely to shrink away from challenging fiction but still would not pass your test of “enjoying” certain classics. Even the point you make of the one-star Amazon reviewer confounds enjoyment with appreciation. Certainly the person who asks why a book was written is unlikely to have enjoyed the experience of having read said book, but moreover, they clearly don’t understand the book – they can’t see its literary merit. These readers might be able to change the latter state, but to take from my own personal experience, I understand why “A Room With a View” was an important piece of fiction, and yet that understanding didn’t mean I enjoyed the experience of reading it. To the same end, maybe I enjoyed “The Da Vinci Code” as a mindless page-turner one summer, but I wouldn’t under any circumstance call it an (good) example of literary fiction.

        I guess all I’m trying to say is I don’t get why as soon as something is generally considered to be a “Classic” why it would be conferred literary invincibility. I can’t personally think of any books I wish I could unread, because every book I do read helps shape me as a reader – but part of that is understanding what I do and don’t like in books that I read. Such honing necessarily means that I’ll neglect certain books in favor of others, but given how many books there are, this was always going to be the case! If someone reads and hates The Mysteries of Udolpho and then doesn’t want to read Northanger Abbey, that’s their prerogative!

  2. This was such a great response. I agree with what you say about the classics. I don’t think it is a question of liking or not liking them that is important though, it is whether we appreciate what it is that the book is trying to teach us. They are classics because somehow they transcend the time in which they were written, and still speak to a modern reader. If we can’t appreciate a classic, I think we might have misunderstood it.
    By the way, I’m a newbie at BTT too!

  3. @Steph – (reply function doesn’t appear to be working)

    I grant you that there is room for debate on what constitutes a classic. I will argue, though, that far more people read and appreciate Morrison’s work than Bloom’s! You also have to admit that Twain must have been at least somewhat impressed with Austen, or he wouldn’t have deigned to waste his time writing about her. But men in general don’t always seem to understand the appeal of Austen’s writing.

    I feel obliged to point out that I never actually used the word ‘enjoy’ in my post. ‘Like’ may have been a bit imprecise. What I meant to get across was not that you must “like” a book, as in “have fun reading it,” but rather than you must not let yourself *not* like it. For instance, I didn’t “like” Portrait of a Lady because it was depressing, but I *loved* it for its power and beauty and the lasting impression it made on me. What I really wanted to say was, don’t wish you’ve unread something if, objectively, it deserves more attention.

    As it turns out, my prognosis was wrong, in that I didn’t find any BTT responses where someone wished a classic unread.

    • Well, I don’t think that we can use popularity of a book as a metric for how good it is (re: your comparison between Morrison & Bloom), because a lot of people have read and appreciated (in their own way) things like the Twilight series and John Grisham novels. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that one author (or whoever) explicitly insulting another indicates some kind of secret reverence – certainly when Steven King slammed Meyers’ prose it wasn’t because he felt she needed more publicity or nurtured certain positive (but unexpressed) sentiments towards her. I think some people just get fed up because they see flaws in certain things that others don’t (Twain is not the first to criticize Austen, but certainly he tends to be in the minority), and they want to express it. I mean really, I violently dislike the Twilight series and am willing to talk/rant about that quite openly… Is it because there are elements about the books that I actually admire or impress me? No, honestly it’s not. It’s because so many people seem blind to things that bug me about it, so I want to point those things out or get them off my chest. Perhaps Twain felt similarly about Austen…

      Your distinction between “like” and “love” seems essentially to be what I was saying using the terms “enjoy” and “appreciate”. You can dislike something and still respect or admire it on a less personal level. But again, I think that if someone doesn’t like OR love a work of fiction, then is it really so bad if they wish they had unread it, even if many other people esteem it to high heaven? You talk about the objective merits of a book, but I feel like only the literary scholars amongst (and maybe not even then) are able to attain that objectivity. Reading is so intensely personal, and again, who is to say that a books objective merits should be value more to a reader than that person’s own subjective response to the book?

      Anyway, I agree that from my perusings, few people wish to unread anything, and those that did seemed to choose more of that light fiction you were talking about rather than things based on sheer boredom (I did see a few things flagged for that reason, but not anything anyone would consider a classic… yet!).

      (BTW, I’m greatly enjoying this discussion, even if it is really just the the two of us prattling at one another. 😉 ).

      • You are cracking me up! 🙂

        I happen to dislike Harold Bloom, esteemed as he is, partly because I think he has far too restrictive an idea of what should enter The Canon. Like he gets to decide just because he’s snarky…

        Speaking of snarkiness, I have to agree with King on Meyer just as I have to disagree with Twain on Austen. That said, I think kids will still be reading Twilight for some time, or at least the first volume.

        Popularity is one of the last criteria I would use in rating a book, but it can’t be ruled out entirely. Can the thousands of readers who have passionately adored Pride and Prejudice over nearly 200 years be wrong, just because there are so many of us?

        I agree that reading is personal – there’s nothing I like better than knowing that people hold books close to their hearts – but we can’t thorw over objectivity in favor of subjectivity. There are only maybe three reasons why this is important, but I think they’re big ones: what gets published, what kids are asked to read in school that may or may not make lifetime readers out of them, and lastly, how I know which recommendations to read! I need more than “I enjoyed it” to encourage me to spend time with a book, because they say we only get to read about 3,000 in our lifetimes. If we can’t have quantity, we need quality that much more.

  4. @ Jessica (apparently you can only reply to a comment twice!) – Oh, I don’t really care for Harold Bloom either, for much the same reasons you mention (he has a thing for dead white folk, specifically men, and he is a pompous blowhard), but I only brought him up as an example of someone who is well-respected in the literary world but has eschewed certain books that have been accepted as classics (in response to the idea in your original post to the notion that people who don’t like a classic just aren’t trying hard enough; or also the sentiment that people who don’t like certain classics might be constrained to the one-star Amazon voter).

    And I don’t disagree with King either. I simply wanted to counter the point you made regarding Morrison being more popular than Bloom – Twilight is also more popular than Bloom, but we would be remiss to consider it a good book. I suppose we will see how long Twilight lasts – if people are still passionate about it 200 years from now (heck, even 50!), will it be considered a “Classic”? If so, I think readers then will have a very different metric in terms of evaluating literature and what is valued in it.

    I understand that it’s not enough for you to use a “I liked it” as a sufficient recommendation to read a book, but I’m still stumped by what you consider a novel’s objective value… Isn’t literature inherently subjective, it’s only value that which we the readers place upon it? Classics novels may be revered, but isn’t that only through large consensus of subjective opinion? But even there we’ll find outliers – someone who loves Proust but hates Thackeray. I understand feeling with a classic that there’s a high probability that you will take something away from it – there’s gotta be a reason people still read it – but I suppose I just think it’s possible that there will be certain cases where you don’t. You don’t connect with the writing, you don’t connect with the themes, and it’s a horrible flop. Classics are fallible, they won’t necessarily please everybody and I hate the idea that readers need to squeeze blood from literary stones. Sometimes I think we read too much into classic fiction. Perhaps certain stories were merely intended to amuse and entertain the audience, no hidden agendas, no attempts to advance the language, literary technique, or the concept of the novel. No desire to turn a magnifying class on social issues of the time. Just fun. And if that’s the intention, and a modern reader does not “get their money’s worth” as it were, then is that really a failing on the part of the reader? Some readers may not take away enough from their reading experiences, but some readers may see things there that aren’t. One thing I might wonder is that if someone has battled a wellknown classic and made it through to the end, are they more likely to value it simply because they had to work for it? That is, you don’t want to feel like you put all that effort in only to find the emperor is not wearing any clothes…

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