What a wonderful world it would be if every book we read were a pleasure. But, alas, that cannot always be the case. Anyone who reads extensively is bound to run across a stinker now and then. And, of course, one person’s stinker is another person’s treasure. I’ve mulled in this space before about the difference between books being bad books and bad fits for different readers. In general, I think reading is a subjective experience. What one reader loves another may loathe. And what one reader adores this year may seem ridiculous to that same reader in 10 years. That doesn’t necessarily make one opinion wrong and another right.
That said, I’m not sure that means we should throw the notion of objectivity out the window. My thinking in the last week or two has been furthered by the discussions this week at Things Mean a Lot and Farm Lane Books (particularly the comment threads). Today, I want to tease that out a bit more and look at the reasons certain books just don’t quite work for us and why opinions might differ.
So what are the reasons for our dislike? Here are a few broad, sometimes interlocking categories I’ve found in my own reading.
Not My Thing. These are the books that just don’t suit our tastes. We might not generally enjoy books of that genre. The subject matter might hit upon a hot-button issue we don’t want to read about. The book might be too complex, too simplistic, too dark, too frothy for our particular tastes. Some books don’t aim to do much more than entertain; others aim to challenge, bewilder even. These books may not be bad at being what they are, but what they are isn’t our thing.
A Victim of Timing. Sometimes we encounter books at the wrong time. Perhaps we read a perfectly good book immediately after reading a masterpiece, and the perfectly good book comes out looking mediocre. Maybe we read a book before we were ready for it (Heart of Darkness was utterly different for me as a senior college than it was for me as a senior in high school.) Or perhaps we were feeling distracted and were therefore unable to concentrate, making a book we’d normally see as rich and layered look convoluted and unnecessarily bewildering.
Great Expectations. I’ve written before about how my first reading of Wuthering Heights was colored by my belief before reading that it was a beautiful romance. I’ve read other books that were so widely praised that even though they were quite good they could not possibly live up to the acclaim (The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, for instance). Other books are made to look like one thing on the cover and in all the marketing materials but turn out to be something else (The Pillars of the Earth, I’m talking to you). It’s like biting into a red jelly bean expecting it to be cherry but finding out it’s cinnamon.
In the Eye of the Beholder. Even if we agree on what makes a book good or bad, we might find it impossible to agree on whether a particular book has those qualities. We may agree that purple prose is bad, but what I call purple prose might look lush to you. Your plodding and dull might look meditative and lovely to me. What seems trite and overdone to me might look fresh and original to another reader who hasn’t read a lot on the topic or in the genre under consideration.
Of course, all of the above categories are almost entirely subjective as they’re based on the individual reader’s background, tastes, and mood. But I’m not comfortable with the idea that dislike of any book is totally subjective. Some books do have real and identifiable flaws. But even books with real, identifiable flaws have their fans. How could that be?
Flaws of Omission. Almost any book, even an incredibly good book, probably has some areas where it could improve. There’s nothing much really wrong with it, but there are ways it could be better. A little more back story for an interesting character. A little bit of cutting to make the pacing even stronger. But even though readers might agree on these possible areas of improvement, not everyone will agree on how much value such improvements would add.
Forgivable Flaws. Sometimes I can recognize the problems in a book, and I just don’t care because the good things (for me) outweigh the bad. But that might not be true of other readers. I have friends who loved The DaVinci Code as a mindless sort of summer read, but who also understood that Dan Brown didn’t know what the hell he was talking about when it came to theological texts. (Alas, I also know people who told me they learned something from Dan Brown, at which point I was quick to point them toward more authoritative sources that would help them unlearn what they had learned.)
Fatal Flaws. As much as I believe that reading is subjective, I do believe there actually are books that objectively aren’t much good at all. But I also think that, most of the time, if books have nothing at all to offer, they don’t stay around very long. I’m thinking of mass-produced fiction that slavishly follows a formula, or books of the moment meant merely to capitalize on some hot trend or current event. There might be lots of books like this published, but don’t they have longevity. (If they do, that often means they have quality that isn’t evident at first glance—even if that quality is just pure entertainment value, which in actuality is no small thing.)
So I’m taking my stand and saying that yes I do believe some books are objectively not much good. But, I suspect that savvy readers are pretty good at avoiding the books that are all-out bad. We figure out which books are getting buzz from actual readers, we read reviews, we ask reliable friends for recommendations. That doesn’t mean we never read books we dislike, but identifying the reasons for our dislike can help us better understand what we don’t want to read—and sharing those reasons can help our fellow readers discern which books are bad for them or just plan bad.
In other news: Registration for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is now open. All bloggers who wish to participate can register at the BBAW website. One big change this year is that bloggers are being asked to register for a particular blogging niche and, if they wish to be considered for an award, to identify five posts they believe distinguish them in that niche and publish a post with links to those five posts. (Registering for an award is completely optional, but if you want to vote you need to register.)
Jenny and I do intend to throw our hat in the ring, but we’re still thinking over which niche to register for and which posts to include. The deadline to register is July 7, and I do hope all of you with book blogs take the time to register. I discovered several new blogs and got to know plenty of other bloggers a bit better last year during the week, so do think about participating in whatever way makes sense to you.
Notes from a Reading Life
- The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. A LibraryThing Early Review book and my first David Mitchell. Excellent historical fiction.
- Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (reread). *Sob.* I just love Thomas Hardy. Love, love, love him.
- The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. For the Classics Circuit.
- Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (audio). I’m now on the eighth disc of ten. So good I find myself wanting to take the long way to get to my destinations so I have more time in the car to listen.
- Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. I haven’t read this comic novel since college, and I’ve been wanting to revisit it.
- Waiting for God by Simone Weil. A collection of Weil’s essays and letters that I’m working through slowly. Reading just one or two selections each week.
- The Holy Vote: The Politics of Faith in America by Ray Suarez. The author, a senior correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, spoke at my church last week and said what I thought were some very smart things about the intersection of faith and politics (the key thing being that people are always asking whether it’s good for the state, but we should also be asking whether it’s good for the church).
- In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. I won this novel about four Dominican sisters in an Armchair BEA drawing. I’ve enjoyed most of the Latin American fiction I’ve read (which isn’t much, I’m sorry to say), so I’m happy to have something new to try.
- The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley. Six sleuths, one mystery, six solutions. I won this from Fleur Fisher Reads, and the fact that it’s by the author of the delicious psychological crime novel Before the Fact makes me extra excited.
On My Radar
- The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. A short story cycle about a newspaper in Rome staffed mostly by U.S. expats. Kimbofo at Reading Matters says “As a novel, I’m not sure this is a great one, but it’s definitely an entertaining one and provides a humorous and realistic look at the rise and fall of the newspaper business.” I love stories about newsrooms, and who couldn’t use an entertaining book now and then?