None of us read in a vacuum. What we choose to read, what we expect of our books, and how we approach our reading is often affected by other people’s opinions. I often hear people talk of this phenomenon as if it were a bad thing, but I’m not so sure.
One area where I do think other people’s opinions can have a negative effect is when it comes to “hype.” By hype, I mean a constant drumbeat of effusive praise for a book, seeming to come from everywhere and often beginning before the book is published. (Think about The Passage last year or The Last Werewolf and State of Wonder right now.) Even when the chatter is completely organic, driven entirely by readers, I get skeptical about it. When it comes all at once, I can’t help but think that there’s something behind it that doesn’t reflect the quality of the book. Is it getting read because the publicity campaign was particularly good, or because it touches on some hot issue of the moment? Will it still be widely read five or ten years from now? Is there a good reason to put aside all the other books on my TBR pile to read this particular hot book of the moment?
If I do give in to the pressure of hype, I end up reading with all these questions in the back of my mind. And more often than not, I end up resenting the book for not being as amazing as I was led to believe. So I usually try to tune out the hype, reading the book only if I was already interested in it before noticing the hype or if a particularly trusted reader recommends it—and supports that recommendation with reasons that it’s worth reading that go beyond its general awesomeness. Even then, I’ll often just add it to my list and wait a while (sometimes years) before I get around to it. By then, my inner skeptic will likely be quieted, often because more measured reviews have appeared in the meantime.
More complicated is when I get personal recommendations or when people whose taste I trust love a book. Personal recommendations are tricky. Over the years, I’ve cultivated a finicky attitude that I think keeps people from recommending books to me personally. This is a good thing on the whole, because it means acquaintances aren’t always telling me to read the hot book of the moment that everyone must read. But there are people I’m close to who do recommend books to me and usually get it right. And then there are bloggers whose taste matches my own and whom I rely on for reading ideas. So what happens when I pick up books that these trusted sources recommend?
Most of the time, I enjoy the books such kindred literary spirits suggest—that’s why we’re kindred spirits. But it doesn’t always work out that way. I’ve discovered, however, that reading books on their recommendation makes me a more generous reader, more prepared to see the good in a book than I am when I’m reading something hyped by “the crowd.”
Let me give you an example. Y’all know I trust Jenny’s taste just about implicitly. In 20 years of sharing books, she has never steered me wrong. We tend to only differ in the degree of affection we feel for a book, not on whether a book is worth reading or not. But when I first picked up Amsterdam by Ian McEwan on Jenny’ recommendation, I had a heck of a time with it. For the first 50 pages or so, I found it frustrating and hard to get into. “How can this be?” I wondered. Because Jenny loved it, I couldn’t accept that it was a bad book, so I reexamined my own reading. And as I turned the book over in my mind, I recognized its Hitchcockian elements, at which point everything clicked into place, and I ended up loving it. You see, my previous McEwans did not have that tone at all, so I went in expecting something more serious. Knowing Jenny’s opinion made me more prepared to like the book, and I ended up having a better reading experience because of it.
Does letting others’ opinions affect me in this way make my opinion less pure? I don’t know. I’m not even sure what it means to have an untainted opinion. Aren’t all of our opinions “tainted” by our backgrounds and personal biases? I do know that looking for the good in a book makes me a happier reader and is probably fairer to the book in question. And if I can do this when I’m reading books recommended by trusted sources, why not take this approach with everything I read?
Reading generously in this way doesn’t mean liking everything. It does mean not going in with knives sharpened, ready and eager to find the flaws. Yes, it is satisfying at times to notice the problems and perhaps even more satisfying to write a review making note of the problems. (Or maybe I’m a bad person for enjoying writing the odd negative review?) What I want to avoid doing, when I can, is letting the problems with a book define my reading experience. Sometimes that won’t be possible. Some books simply do not work for me. Period. And when that happens, I say it, even when someone I trust recommends it. But usually when someone I trust recommends a book, I end up finding something to enjoy about it, and why not let that positive quality take center stage in my thinking (and thus my writing) about a book?
Let me be clear: I’m not advocating dishonesty about books. What I’m contemplating is more of a mind-set shift that looks for the good in a book—reading every book as though a good friend with good taste loves it. And as a blogger who writes about books, it means imagining that the friend will read my thoughts. (I would hope that the good friend is not so fragile as to be unable to bear any difference of opinion.) Imagining that this hypothetical friend exists makes me more willing to look at books more carefully, trying to find an angle from which it looks good and then reading it from that angle.