Sunday Salon: Literary Nemeses

SundaySalonEarlier this week, I posted about my unfortunate first experience reading Wuthering Heights. I didn’t like it much on first read because I was expecting a love story, but I did find it interesting. It wasn’t until I read it a second time that I could enjoy it. That got me thinking about revisiting literary nemeses.

There are lots of books that have grown on me on repeated readings. I wrote earlier this year about Persuasion, as one example of a book that I thought was only pretty good on first read and grew to love later. But most of the books that fall into this category are ones that I liked at least a little the first time. Why, after all, would I go back and read something again if I didn’t like it?

Well, there are some books that I tried when I was too young for them. Jane Eyre went over my head when I tried reading it at age 12. I think I gave up before the halfway point. But I knew at the time that the problem wasn’t the story, but the language and the length. I picked it up again in high school and loved it.

Then there are that books that, as an English major, I was required to read more than once. Wuthering Heights is one example. Another is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. I read it as a senior in high school and did not like it at all. The long sentences, the plot in which not much seemed to happen, the lack of a single likable character. There was nothing about it that I appreciated or enjoyed. It was a slog, pure and simple. However, when I had to read it as a senior in college, I liked it much more, even though it’s still not a favorite. (I prefer Conrad’s The Secret Agent.)

There are other books that were simply the wrong place to start with a new-to-me author. The Nice Tailors was the first Dorothy Sayers book I tried to read, and I gave up quickly. All that technical talk about bell-ringing! Soooo not my thing. But then after reading most of Sayers’s other mysteries and falling in love with Lord Peter, I found that when Lord Peter is involved, technical talk about bell ringing is indeed my thing.

So I wonder if there are other books I disliked when I read them but that I’d enjoy now. So many people whose taste is similar to mine love Mrs. Dalloway, but in college I found it tedious and pointless. Now that I’m older, would I see the point of it? Alias Grace is a favorite for many Margaret Atwood lovers, but the last half bored and frustrated me. I hadn’t read much Atwood when I read Alias Grace. Would I like it more now that I’m more used to her writing? It’s hard to say, and I’m not making it a priority to revisit either of these books when there are so many great books out there that I’ve never attempted to read at all, but I do wonder.

How about you? Have you ever gone back to a book you didn’t like and find that you liked it? Do you have any literary nemeses that you’re considering revisiting someday?



Notes from a Reading Life (October 24-November 8)

Books Completed

Currently Reading

  • How to Buy a Love of Reading by Tanya Egan Gibson.
  • Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (audio).
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (reread).
  • The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. I’ve reached the chapter on ballads.

On Deck

  • The Regency by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.
  • The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne.

New Acquisitions

  • Out of a Clear Sky by Sally Hinchcliffe. Via Bookmooch. 
  • Sea of Poppies by Amitov Ghosh. Via LT Early Reviewers. 
  • North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. For Classics Circuit Gaskell tour in December. 
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois. For Classic Circuit Harlem Renaissance tour in February.

Books to Remember

  • Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott. Reviewed at Save Ophelia.
  • Stoner by John Williams. Reviewed at Asylum.
  • Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Reviewed at Gaskella.
  • Come Closer by Sara Gran. Reviewed at Things Mean a Lot.
  • The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins. Reviewed at A Work in Progress.
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22 Responses to Sunday Salon: Literary Nemeses

  1. Annabel says:

    Like you Teresa, I am now getting much more out of literary classics than I ever did thirty years ago when I read some for the first time – I freely admit, I’ve never read Wuthering Heights (!) but think I would love it now.

    I’d like to turn your question on its head though … When I discovered science fiction at about age 16, and later at university Fantasy – and I read not a lot else until I was into my first job. Nowadays I will still happily read the occasional SF book, but an out and out fantasy title (excluding vampires) would have to be very special indeed to entice me now.

  2. So much of what we get out of reading is in the timing, isn’t it? I’ve always loved Heart of Darkness (which a teacher friend describes as “They’re going down a river. The boat breaks down. They fix the boat. They’re going down the river. The boat breaks down. They fix the boat. They find Kurtz. Heads on stakes. The horror. The horror.”) but firmly believe that high school is really too soon for most people to read it and get it.

    For me, it’s Kurt Vonnegut. I tried Slaughterhouse-Five in high school, and I think it went right over my head, but my husband loves him and insists that I would, too, so he’s going back on the TBR sometime soon.

    As for Wuthering Heights, I’ve started it about ten times and never made it past the first hundred pages, but after my disappointment with Jane Eyre earlier this year, I’m thinking maybe the Victorian lit thing just isn’t for me.

  3. I was just discussing Heart of Darkness with a coworker the other day. I told him I absolutely loathed it when I first read it as a college freshman. I then read it as a senior in college and while it wasn’t my favorite, I definitely enjoyed it a lot more than the first time around.

  4. Priscilla says:

    I seem to have trouble with some mid- and late-Twentieth century “classics.” I have never been able to get through a single book by Thomas Pynchon, but I’ve know so many people who believe he’s a genius. I’ve also never been able to get through anything by Saul Bellow. I’m not sure if I’m just not in the right mood when I pick up his books, or if they’re just a bad fit. And John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces? The novel that should have been a short story…never liked it.

    A book that I didn’t enjoy much the first time but grew on me later was Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve known a lot of people who love him as well. Since reading that book for the second time, I’ve been interested in picking up more Vonnegut. Another one is The Great Gatsby, which I read in high school and actually did enjoy, but wasn’t sure what all the hype was about. I read it again several years ago, and saw how very remarkable it is.

  5. That’s definitely true for me, although I have also found that when I go back to the classics I hate them as an adult or they seem uninspiring. I think there is definitely an optimal age to read some books, just like there are perfect readers for some books! (per The Guernsey Literary Society)

  6. anokatony says:

    Last year, I attempted to read “The Savage Detectives” by Roberto Bolano and gave up after 143 pages. This year I tried to read “Frost” by Thomas Bernhard but gave up after about 160 pages, even though I’ve read and enjoyed several other of his novels. Henry James and Virginia Woolf are two writers I have problems completing their works.

  7. The first time I read Heart of Darkness in high school I hated it too. But after talking about it extensively in class, I found that I really liked it because it was the first book I read where I really “got” what the whole symbolism thing was. It’s like my literature brain switched on because of the book. And when I read it again in college, I liked it even more.

    Frankenstein is another one I didn’t like when I was in high school, but after reading it a few more times in college I really love. It’s such a complicated book, but I think the complexity and flowery language is hard to deal with the first time you read it.

    Right now I can’t think of any books I’ve hated that I want to go back to, but my brain might not be awake yet this morning :)

  8. When I was little, I wasn’t too fond of The Count of Monte Cristo, but now it’s one of my favorite novels.

  9. Kathleen says:

    I have so many books I feel as though I should re-visit. Mostly they are classics that I was made to read in school and maybe that is part of why I didn’t enjoy them…I have this rebellious nature of not liking to do what I am told. Top of the list for me would be Tess of D’Urberville by Hardy. I know people that rave about this book and for me it was just okay. I’d also like to read and finish Of Human Bondage.

  10. softdrink says:

    I don’t revisit books, so I haven’t re-read any of the assigned books from high school and college. Since then I’ve avoided classics like the plague. However, lately I’ve found myself rethinking that. The Woman in White was great, so now I’m starting to consider reading some of the authors from the past.

  11. Steph says:

    I think because I didn’t study English after highschool, I haven’t really been made to return to books I really didn’t like. And as you said, if I didn’t like them the first time, there’s really little incentive for me to try them again.

    I do think the one author I truly consider to be my literary nemesis, however, is Charles Dickens, as I’ve never made it through a single book of his. I feel like there’s a good chance I might like him if I could get over that mental hurdle, but for now every time I see Great Expectations on my shelf, it’s like it’s mocking me!

    And I’m with you on Mrs. Dalloway. This seems like the book everyone loves except for me… I never make it more than 10 pages in before my eyes cross at the boredom of it all. Then again, one thing that hasn’t changed in terms of my reading tastes in the past 10 years is I really don’t enjoy stream of consciousness writing. I don’t know if that will ever change for me.

  12. Teresa says:

    Annabel: Interesting how our tastes change, isn’t it? I can’t think of any genres I’ve liked in the past that I don’t read now, although I have gotten much more finicky about mysteries than I used to be.

    Rebecca: Love that description of Heart of Darkness! And I agree that high school is too soon. I don’t remember anyone in my class liking it much. I’ve never read any Vonnegut, although I have Slaughterhouse-Five on my shelf. One of these days.

    reviewsbylola: Funny. That was pretty much my experience. I wonder why it keeps getting assigned to high school seniors and college freshman. Is it just because it’s short?

    Priscilla: My literature education stopped at about 1940, so I haven’t attempted many of the mid to late 20th century authors. Most of the ones you mention are one I want to try.

    rhapsodyinbooks: Funny you should mention Guernsey Literary… I’m on the last disc of the audiobook now! I agree with you that some books are just harder to get into at certain ages or stages of life.

    anokatony: I’ve never tried Bolano or Bernard, but, like you, I’ve struggled with James and Woolf. I did finally find a Henry James book (Portrait of a Lady) that suited me earlier this year, and I was head over heels in love with it. I’ve yet to find the perfect match with Woolf, but I’ll try her again one of these days.

    Kim: I think I understood Heart of Darkness after the class discussions in high school, but I just couldn’t appreciate it until I was a little older–and more experienced with that kind of writing. I did like Frankenstein pretty well on first reading, but it was much more complex that I expected.

    Literary Omnivore: I haven’t read Count of Monte Cristo, but I have a copy. I think it might be the thickest book on my TBR pile, but I suspect I’ll like it.

    Kathleen: Tess is one of my all-time favorites, but I wonder if I’d love it as much if I encountered it for the first time when I was older. I was 17, and the melodramatic tragedy of it was perfect for my 17-year-old self. I still love it, but I suspect a lot of my affection is wrapped up in the memory of that first read.

    softdrink: Wilkie Collins is a great classic writer! His books are so exciting. I wonder why they aren’t taught in schools.

    Steph: I’m not a huge Dickens fan, even though I credit Great Expectations for getting me into Victorian literature (and classic lit in general). GE and Bleak House are the only ones of his books I’ve really enjoyed. I tried Tale of Two Cities many times over the years and it just puts me right to sleep. And David Copperfield didn’t do a thing for me. I keep meaning to try more Dickens but can’t bring myself to do it. As for stream of consciousness writing, I don’t mind it in small doses, and I think I’m getting better able to handle larger doses of it, but I doubt it’ll ever be my favorite writing style.

  13. Christopher Lord says:

    Oh, please don’t give up Dickens because you didn’t like it when you were young! Dickens is not for children, and that’s the truth. I have devoted my reading life to 19th century novels, and Dickens holds pride of place in almost every way, although The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge are only for the devoted, I fear. But Great Expectations, a work I didn’t particularly enjoy as a teenager, I now see as almost the pinnacle of his artistic development (even though I still love Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend more). I reread each novel every few years, and my reactions always change depending on what’s going on in my life. Collins is fun, but hardly contains the layering of emotions or themes of Dickens at his best. But Dickens was justifiably jealous of Collins’s ability to tell compelling stories–The Woman in White was, by some accounts, the best-selling novel of the 19th century and, while convoluted, is still worth reading. For my money, his The Moonstone is still a compelling detective novel with a brilliant format; his technical skill, when he wasn’t whacked on opium, is second-to-none.

    I was the one who recommended Heart of Darkness recently as the perfect book for college freshmen, and I want to echo that again. It’s the book that got me to think–and read–like an adult. Yes, other Conrad books are better, but you could debate its meaning for days–like The Turn of the Screw–and not get bored.

    You might like Mrs. Dalloway now that you’re older. If I had read it at twenty I would have hated it; when I read it in 1998 because of Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, I could finally, as a forty year-old, appreciate its subtlety, even though it still is a bit precious.

    I love this blog–the readers (and of course the writer) of it are among the best-read people I’ve ever come across. As St. Ina Garten would say, how good is that?

  14. To anyone really nervous or doubtful of Dickens, may I recommend The Christmas Carol? It’s very short and really distills certain aspects of Dickens (and Christmas is almost here!). And since you know the story already, you can concentrate on the details.

  15. Jenny says:

    Christopher just made me feel better about not being able to get through The Old Curiosity Shop. I’m a big Dickens fan (and Christopher, Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend are also my favorites!) but that one stumped me. Little Dorrit is next!

    I don’t have any literary nemeses so far, except egregious chick lit.

  16. Teresa says:

    Christopher: Oh, don’t fear. I haven’t given up on Dickens entirely. I liked Bleak House and Great Expectations too much to do that! He’s just not at the top of my list these days. (Maybe I’ll go for Our Mutual Friend on my next attempt since you and Jenny both like it.) And I do suspect I’d like Mrs Dalloway more now that I’m older. I may get back to it someday. There’s just too many books I’ve never tried!

    Amateur Reader: You know, I don’t think I’ve ever read A Christmas Carol. When I was a kid, we had a record set that I believe was the full text. (It might have been abridged, but it was definely Dickens’s own words.) I loved listening to it.

    Jenny: Ok, so if I ever do go back to Dickens, I’ll not go for The Old Curiosity Shop. If you didn’t like it, I almost certainly won’t.

  17. Sadly, I missed out on a lot of classics in college and high school — I was not a lit major and I’m really regretting it since I’ve recently discoverd how much I love classics. I didn’t read Wuthering Heights until I was 40, and I really dislike it — I find the characters really whiny and dysfunctional. And somehow I don’t appreciate Mrs. Dalloway, it could be the slow pace, plus the lack of chapter breaks. But my biggest nemesis is Faulkner, I tried The Sound and the Fury recently and I don’t think I’ll EVER get through it. And I hated The Mill on the Floss at 16 but maybe now I’d enjoy it.

    I do agree that many classics are not for the young. I remember a high school friend complaining about Madam Bovary, so I avoided it for years. When I finally got the nerve, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it — she’s a train wreck, but still fascinating.

    And of course Dickens is not for everyone. I’ve been reading a lot of Dickens the past couple of years, and I still don’t like A Christmas Carol. I personally feel Oliver Twist would be a good starting point — it’s relatively short, compared to many of his books, and it’s a pretty exciting story with some great plot developments. The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge are on my to-read list, but now I’m apprehensive based on previous comments.

  18. Dorothy W. says:

    Interesting post! I had that experience with Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The first time I read it, I found it cold, but when I read it again later, I fell in love with its inventive use of language and I found a warmth there I didn’t see before. Same for Don Delillo’s White Noise. First time through I didn’t love the satire, but later I did. Some books we need to read when we’re older, I think, and some we really need to read twice — once to see what it’s about and twice to really get it.

  19. Teresa says:

    Karenlibrarian: You’re not kidding about the whiny dysfunctional characters in Wuthering Heights, but I think the book is a masterpiece anyway. The characters may not be likable, but they’re interesting. (Much like the train wreck that is Emma Bovary.)

    Dorothy: I haven’t read any of the books you mention, but I agree that there are many books that benefit from a second reading, after you know the story and can better focus on the technique. The trouble is for me is figuring out which books those are. I don’t want to waste valuable reading time on a book I only felt lukewarm about only to be left feeling still lukewarm.

  20. gnoegnoe says:

    It’s really funny that both Heart of Darkness and Alias Grace have been highly recommended to me by trustworthy people ;) I have already downloaded Conrad as a podcast and I’m waiting for a suitable moment to listen to it. Alias Grace remains on my wishlist — I am in no hurry ;)

  21. Rebecca Reid says:

    I am a huge fan of rereading or attempting to reread books that I didn’t like or abandoned. As you say, the time in your life that you read it can make a big difference.

    Some people say “I don’t have time to reread” but I completely believe that rereading some books (even those that I didn’t like) is worth not reading something else!

    I read Heart of Darkness while in high school. I didn’t get it. Sounds like I need to revisit it!

  22. Teresa says:

    gnoegnoe: I hope your first reading of both those books is better than mine was.

    Rebecca: I’ll admit I find it hard to make the time for rereading these days, but I’m trying to do it more. (Audiobooks have been great for that, and I’m taking rereads to my office for lunchtime.)

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