Sunday Salon: Reading Generously

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.

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34 Responses to Sunday Salon: Reading Generously

  1. sakura says:

    I have to admit I do get sucked into the hype surrounding books too, and I do resent it if my review becomes affected by it. I’m still learning how to write a properly balanced review with honesty (maybe I’ll be learning forever, ha ha). Recommendations are a funny thing, aren’t they? I’ve learnt that it’s great when you or your friends get it right, but not to take it too seriously if it all goes pear shaped. Love this post:)

    • Teresa says:

      Always learning is a good thing!

      Most of my friends have learned not to get too bothered if I don’t take their recommendations because I have a good sense of what I like. And usually when I make recommendations, I fill it with caveats and maybe even mention things others haven’t liked about it. I’m all about lowering expectations :)

  2. gaskella says:

    I love your phrase ‘reading generously’ Teresa – that strikes me as the perfect way to read. I try to immerse myself in my reading, and not think about any hype etc whilst I’m actually reading a book (emphasis on ‘try’). Afterwards, however, when writing it up it’s much more difficult not to be influenced – but if you admit to those influences, then that’s fair enough, and if it means the occasional negative review, that’s a positive thing in my book! I love this post too. :)

    • Teresa says:

      I do sometimes find that my reviews turn into responses to the conversation “out there” about a book, and I figure that’s OK because it usually means I’m adding a new perspective somehow. And negative reviews absolutely a good things. I just don’t want to go in looking for things to criticize, which I sometimes have a tendency to do.

  3. Victoria says:

    I too try not to read all the hype surrounding a book. If I start to see the same book appear everywhere, I’ll stop reading reviews etc about them, or maybe just skim them. There are only a few people that I take seriously for book reviews, mostly because we wind up reading most of the same books anyway so they probably have a good idea of what I’m looking for in a novel. I try not to go into a book with much expectation because I totally agree that if I do that I usually wind up thinking it doesn’t live up to it. I try to remember though that not every book is for every reader, and that stands for books that have been hyped, books a friend recommends to me, and books I find for myself. Sometimes that’s hard though.

    • Teresa says:

      I do the same thing when I see lots of reviews at once. If a book is everywhere and I’m unsure about it, I’ll often make a point of waiting for one of my more reliable sources to weigh in.

      And I totally agree that not every book (perhaps not any book) is for every reader.

  4. Re your second paragraph, it’s fun to look at best seller lists from ten or twenty years ago and see how many you (n)ever heard of. (ugh, hate ending that sentence with a preposition, but can’t see how to get out of it without too much retyping – heh) What that little exercise does for me is to make me feel better about not necessarily liking super-hyped books.

    But as for looking for the good in books, it’s a bit like looking for the good in people, I suppose – an attitude, a way of looking at life, or as Steinbeck said about the denizens of Cannery Row: “Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, ‘whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, ‘Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,’ and he would have meant the same thing.”

    • Teresa says:

      That is a great exercise. I’ll have to try that! I was just reading a post today from a newspaper copyeditor who makes a habit of not reading anything until it’s been out for five years.

      I love that quote and agree that it is a mind-set thing, and it can apply to so much more than books.

  5. Jenny says:

    I’ve said before that hype can often turn me against a book — if everyone has uniformly loved a book, and I find flaws, I feel like I’m the ONLY PERSON who saw those flaws and that therefore I have to scream about them extra loud. (In case that makes me sound mean, I do the same thing in reverse with books that I like and nobody else likes, I scream extra loud about their virtues. I really do. I am not mean-spirited.)

    I like the idea of reading generously, although I think it would make me feel insincere. Reading for book club makes me read generously, I think, or at least forces me to be attuned to the things that went into the making of a book. But honestly, would my life be any worse for not having read Let the Great World Spin? Probably not. I’m glad I gave it a chance, I guess, but if somebody offered me a free cupcake in exchange for excising it from my memory, I’d totally go for the cupcake.

    • Teresa says:

      I do the exact same thing sometimes because sometimes I cannot believe no one has mentioned certain things (bad or good). I consider it adding new information to the conversation.

      As for possible insincerity, I’d only consider it insincere if reading generously didn’t cause you to like–or appreciate (thanks AR)–a book more and you pretended it did. What I what is to find a way of reading that actually transforms my opinions of a book. Maybe I’ll end up loving it; maybe not—I just don’t want to be looking for stuff to complain about (I’m totally the sort of person who likes looking for things to complain about.)

  6. litlove says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I was brought up to read books in an academic way, which for me meant, open mind, reading it for how it worked, what it was doing, what it was saying, with the question of whether I personally liked it or not on the back burner. I still reckon this is the best way to read, because it means you end up appreciating so much more. If I just read the books that appealed to me in their first 50 pages, my reading life would have been so much narrower, and I would have missed so much.

    • Teresa says:

      When I was thinking about reading generously, litlove, you were the person I thought of as a great role model in how to do it.

      I will say, though, that I do sometimes give up on books after only 50 pages, but I have to be pretty miserable with it. Usually it’s the writing that does it–either it’s clumsy or too dense for my levels of concentration at the moment. Or else it’s full of failed attempts at humor.

  7. cbjames says:

    Excellent post. I like the idea of reading generously up to a point. I think this is basically a good way to deal with most of the world, look for what’s good in things and in people. It’s much more work than you’d think. One can do this while maintaining high standards, too.

    I do think that refusing to read books because they have been hyped is basically the same thing as reading them because of the hype. Two sides of the same coin. But, I probably avoid hyped books because of the hype far more often then I read them because of it. I did go for both Half of a Yellow Sun and A Visit from the Goon Squad because of their blog buzz. Loved them both. And Jenny is not only wrong about Let the Great World Spin she may come to regret all those cupcakes.

    Which brings me to my final point. Disagreeing with the friend who loved the book. While I far prefer it when friends loved the books I recommend to them, I do have some who frequently disagree with me about them. The ‘debate’ over who’s right is part of the fun as far as I’m concerned. We’re not only still friends afterwards, we’re probably better friends because of it. And, this serves to make the books we do agree about all the more powerful when they come along.

    • Teresa says:

      It is a lot of work, but I totally agree you can do it while maintaining high standards. I’d imagine that as a teacher, you have to make it a daily practice!

      Interesting point about refusing to read because of hype. I hadn’t thought of that way, but it makes sense. Most of the if I would have read a book without the hype, I usually do read it anyway, but not necessarily right away. What I’m most likely to do if I’m unsure is wait until someone I trust reads it and weighs in.

      It’s strange. I haven’t had that many people I know outside blogging disagree with me strongly over books. It happened sometimes in my old book club, but no one put much energy into defending their opinions. In my current club (at my church), we’re more likely to disagree about the ideas in a book, but the conversations around our disagreements are often excellent! Only once, I think, have we disagreed intensely over a book’s quality, and there were great conversations around that too.

  8. This is all admirably Appreciationist.

    And admirably anti-egotistical, reading as if my own opinion is not the only one that counts.

    I am, of course, an extreme case – I only read history’s most-hyped books, and I have no interest in whether or not anyone, including myself, like them.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes! Appreciation! And that can be totally separate from enjoyment. I can recognize something is good or see its value without liking it much—and, on the flip side, I like plenty of stuff that’s not so good (although I suppose it’s good at entertaining me, which is in itself an achievement).

  9. Vasilly says:

    I agree with you, Teresa, about hype. I recently bought a book that was hyped up so much by some of my favorite bloggers. When I read the book, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I expected to and thought something was wrong with me. :-( But I know that’s not true. It was a good but not great book that has me regretting buying it.

    I do love the fact that bloggers whose opinions I trust can make me pick up a book that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise.

    • Teresa says:

      I do hate when something doesn’t live up to my expectations, but I’ve found that no matter how effusive the praise, if I do pipe up with some criticisms, I’m never the only one.

  10. Frances says:

    And I wonder sometimes what I might be missing when I resist the hype too strenuously. For instance, I have a copy of State of Wonder that I have been putting off reading. Because of the hype. Which makes no sense given that I have enjoyed Patchett’s writing before. I would never be as judgmental of people as I allow myself to be about books. Perhaps a little more “generosity” is in order.

    • Teresa says:

      I wonder about that, too, but usually I regret given in if I’m uncertain. If, on the other hand, there’s a new book by an author I already love, I’ll leap right on the bandwagon and join the chorus. A new Kate Atkinson, Laurie King, Margaret Atwood, or Sarah Waters will get read and quickly, hype or no. So I say read the Patchett if you’re in the mood for Patchett! (I only sort of liked Bel Canto, so I’m in no hurry and may never bother.)

  11. Aarti says:

    What a thoughtful post, Teresa! I wrote a Sunday Salon post a while back about hype, but not so much about organic hype as “forced” hype, disseminated through the blog tour method. The more I see books reviewed this way, the more and more I dislike them and the less I want to participate in blog tours.

    I like your idea of reading generously. Separating, if possible, the book from the hype. I don’t know if I’m a big enough person to separate my personal problems with a book from my enjoyment of the book, though! I think it’s such a personal experience that it would be hard for me to think objectively as just a general someone reading a book, rather than ME reading it.

    • Teresa says:

      I find it difficult to discern sometimes when the hype is organic and when it’s manufactured. When there’s a blog tour, it’s easy, but sometimes a book gets put on the top of lots of TBR piles because the publisher sends out lots of review copies. I’m sure most of the people who are reading and enjoying it are genuine in their enthusiasm, but would it get talked about so much without the push? Is there any reason to read it now?

      I think it’s difficult to make all those separations, but I like the way AR puts it when he talks above about “reading as if my own opinion is not the only one that counts.” What I’d like to do is feel free to share my own opinion but to also look for what others might find worthy about a book. Sometimes the very work of doing that makes me like—or at least “appreciate”—a book more, and my own opinion changes.

  12. Amy says:

    I tend to avoid books being hyped mostly because I think it does have an impact on the way I read the book. I start to question whether or not I truly liked the book or just fell in with the hype. Giving myself space helps with that. I so much want to pick up State of Wonder right now but I’m forcing myself to wait — perfect example of the hype syndrome for me. She’s an author I haven’t read before (I have no idea why) but since I’m not familiar with her work I want to step back. If it’s an author I’ve read before, I’ll usually jump in but I’m relying on my personal preferences and not others at that point.

    • Teresa says:

      If it’s an author I already like, I do jump right in, but I tend to wait when I’m unsure. But in my case, I’m more likely to be critical when there’s hype. When some time passes, I can enjoy it more easily.

  13. Eva says:

    Loved this post Teresa! I try to read with the author’s intentions in mind, so that I can separate my own completely personal reactions from seeing how well the author seems to achieve her aims (which I think is similar to the ‘appreciate’ aspect mentioned in the comments). And I always start a book assuming I’ll enjoy it, although sometimes that makes me stick with a book that I probably should have abandoned. That being said, when I’m reading nonfiction that I have some kind of academic background in, I abandon all pretenses at generous reading and enjoy having a kind of mental debate between myself and the author. ;)

    As for hype, I loathe the publicity-generated kind. The organic kind…I’m kind of oblivious to: if a blogger I trust/have similar taste with does an enthusiastic review, the book goes on my wishlist, no matter how many times I do/don’t see it again! lol

    • Teresa says:

      I’m much the same in that I try to consider what the book’s goal is before passing a judgment, and I try when I can when writing to take into consideration what other people might like about a book, even if I didn’t like it, even as I’m free with my opinions. Like AR suggested, I don’t want to assume my opinion is the only one that matters. And I do that same debating thing with theology books; my book group is good at helping me see the value in books that make me grumpy!

      I sometimes have a hard time separating the publisher-generated hype from the organic hype. I mean, State of Wonder obviously had a great campaign behind it, but it would have been read a lot even without the push, you know? So I tend to be guided by my most trusted sources, regardless of how they got the book.

      • Eva says:

        You know, I’m not sure I’ve seen many posts on State of Wonder. Maybe I just scroll past them quickly because I disliked Bel Canto? I would use Before I Go to Sleep as an example of a current book getting a ton of hype! Anyway, I should have clarified, because I don’t want to make it sound like I distrust bloggers who read review copies. I don’t like it when a publisher-sponsored ‘tour’ goes to a million blogs, usually in a very short time period, and floods my reader. And loathe is probably a bit too strong of a verb…it just makes me feel protective about the book blogosphere’s independence. ;) (Of course, I’m totally participating in a tour for Laurie King’s new Mary Russell book, because I love that series to death, and I imagine author-love is a reason other bloggers participate in other tours. So let’s further refine…I’m especially turned off by a million posts for a publisher/author/publicity-sponsored tour for a debut novel, because then there’s no way that the author is already a favourite among bloggers.) And yes, I trust my favourite/most similar blogs regardless of where the books they’re reading come from! :)

        I thought of one way hype does affect my blogging! Since I read more books than I can devote individual posts to, part of my process for choosing which ones to write a whole post about (rather than discussing in a Sunday Salon) is how much publicity they’ve already gotten. If I’m reading a book that’s well known/popular in the blogosphere, I probably won’t devote a whole post to it, since I don’t feel it needs to be brought to people’s attention in the same way.

      • Teresa says:

        I’ve seen tons of State of Wonder talk (not all reviews maybe, but lots of talk). Before I Go to Sleep is a good example, too! And it’s a good example of how hype can affect me because I was interested in the premise when I saw the first review, then I got sick to death of it and was ready to cross it off my list, and now I’m seeing reviews from people whose taste is similar to my own, and I’m interested again. But I’ll still probably wait a while to read it.

  14. amymckie says:

    Very interesting post and thoughts here! I definitely agree with you about the hype. And also about recommendations. If I know a friend liked it I can usually see why and appreciate that even if I might be critical of other things in the book. But also, I expect that people recommending to me can deal with the fact that I might dislike the book! So basically, I agree with what you say! :)

    • Teresa says:

      It’s definitely true that it’s easier for me to find the good in a book a friend loves. I’d like to learn to do that for all books, even the hyped ones!

  15. Christy says:

    Very great, thoughtful post! Hype does sometimes put me off a book (still haven’t picked up The Help). I think waiting for the hype to die down isn’t a bad idea with some books, and can give them a better chance of welcome reception from me.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve avoided The Help too (but I’d probably not have read that one, even had it not been praised to the skies). Mostly, waiting ensure that I’m not sick of the book before I even start, so that’s a good thing!

  16. rebeccareid says:

    I think you make a great point. I always give the benefit of a doubt to a classic novel. I always think there is some reason its lasted: what may I have missed. I think I am harder on modern books, probably because of the hype….

    • Teresa says:

      I do the same with classics. I always assume there’s something of value there, even if I’m having trouble finding (or enjoying) it.

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