American Culture

On reading a book one doesn’t like…

“There is always room and occasion enough for a true book on any subject; as there is room for more light, the brightest day and more rays will not interfere with the first.” – Henry David Thoreau

Books – I like them (image courtesy of

As I’ve mentioned on other occasions, I am one of those people who feels a weird sort of moral, ethical or, most likely, neurotic need to finish books that I begin reading. As a reviewer, it seems to me that it is a courtesy writers deserve. As a writer, it is a courtesy I hope – but don’t always get the feeling – that reviewers give me. As a bibliophile and avid, perhaps compulsive reader, it seems to me that books and their writers deserve my attention – and possibly my affection.

The problem with a weltenschauung like this is that it compels one to wade through books one doesn’t particularly like. I am doing just that at present. 

My reasons for why I am wading through the particular  book I don’t like are not really relevant to this brief essay. I’m more interested in why readers decide that they dislike a particular book. Our idiosyncrasies, our biases, our personal preferences about the reading experience – those are the stuff of interest.

My own biases in reading are fairly well known to those who have read a few of my essays. I have a strong bias for classic literature. Over the past few years I’ve written about medieval romances, classics of British, American, French, and Japanese literature, for example. I have also occasionally gored a beloved classic or, even worse to some readers, mehed one.

I am also biased against genre fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy, deeply loved genres among friends and colleagues. I have sincerely tried to like sci-fi over the decades and I have read many of the giants of the genre: Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert, Dick. The sci-fi writers I refer – Bradbury, Vonnegut – seem, if I understand my colleagues correctly, to be more about discussing contemporary ideas through sci-fi and less about science fiction as a genre per se. The same is true of fantasy writers. I have read some of the giants: Tolkien, Gaiman, even Rowling. But I don’t feel any strong attraction to read more fantasy works after having read these writers, some of the best the genre has to offer.

Finally, I have strong biases about the writing itself. No matter what kind of work I am reading – fiction, history, poetry, science, nonfiction – good writing draws me in. For example, I’ll read or re-read anything by John McPhee, anything by Barbara Tuchman, anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Twain and Austen are, of course, sacrosanct. How do I recognize good writing? I’ll explain by quoting a Supreme Court justice who used the same word in describing how he recognized pornography: “I know it when I see it.” I also know bad writing when I see it – and the book I’m currently reading has some bad writing in it. Hearing the sound of nails on a chalk board once is painful; hearing that sound again and again is torture. In the case of the work I am now reading, the latter is occurring.

I read an interesting essay many years ago in which the author discussed “growing into” books. His contention was that we can encounter a book at one point in our lives and find it unlikable, then encounter it years later and think it a treasure. The essayist attributed this change in one’s appreciation of books as a proof of our need to find a kind of “reading maturity” that allows us to appreciate works we could not appreciate due to what one can only infer was reading immaturity.

I have tried that hypothesis out on a few occasions. My results have been mixed and not quite as widely different as the essayist claimed. Examples: even the passing of years and the gaining of much reading maturity (and academic training) do not convince me that the long section on the science of whaling in the middle of Moby Dick is worth the time and effort or that Bleak House isn’t simply too damned long and drawn out for no good reason.

I could go on, but I must go and try to finish this chore of a book I’m reading. Feel free to comment and offer your own biases or your own examples of works that you simply have found a chore to read (textbooks and IRS documents excepted for obvious reasons).

7 replies »

  1. “Reading maturity” happens with music, too. When I was young I didn’t get Van Morrison at all. Once I cleared 30 it started making sense.

    I’m the same way you are with wanting to finish what I started, and that can be hard when you like genre stuff the way I do. A lot of people get published and make a few bucks without having any discernible talent, and the bigger issue is that reviewers in the genre fields are totally unreliable. I have seen cases where dozens of reviewers fall over over themselves trying to outgush the next guy over a book that turns out to be utter … let’s just call it underwhelming and move on, shall we?

    Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell won a Hugo and was raved over in all quarters, and while I thought it was okay, that’s as far as I’m willing to go.

    The worst offender in the last couple of years, though, had to be China Mieville’s lauded Perdido St Station. I fought as hard as I could but I never made it past the end of chapter 2. As a famous reviewer once said, this is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown, and with great force.

    Now, our friend Wufnik will disagree with me on this one. If he wants to explain to me what I’m not getting I’m happy to listen. But its greatness was not, for me at least, immediately apparent.

    • Well, as you remember, Sam, I did a piece on the criminal case of paid reviews. It’s much worse in genre reviewing than anywhere else, as you note. And talent? The successful writers I have met in that last 5 years are talented at the same thing – self-promotion. That may be a key to why you’re being disappointed regularly.

  2. I love Heinlein. But his classic “Strangers in a Strange Land” is such a case: I’ve read it cover to cover once. But I’ve read the first two-thirds of that book dozens of times. The last third? Too much of Heinlein’s plainly stated political philosophy rather than advancement of the tale.

    McPhee, however, is someone whose work I treasure. I think he taught me how to tell a story through his many examples. I’ve interviewed him long ago. I’ve attended book signings of his. He simply does not disappoint. I have several of his books in my office. If a student asks, “What should I read that will help me write better,” I point at the shelf and say, “Pick. Any one will do.”

    Thank you for this series. It’s immensely instructive.

    • I did the same with “Bleak House” by Dickens, Denny. Read big chunks of it at least three times before I finally made myself finish it.

      When I did a creative nonfic seminar course while doing my doctorate, my professor spent one 3 hour session on McPhee and his writing methods. I don’t think I have forgotten anything about that class – was especially impressed when the prof explained that when he finished a piece he called “The New Yorker” office and read them the first 100-200 words. They decided then and there whether to accept it. If they turned it down (which was extremely rare), he then called “The Atlantic.” I want that job….

  3. So you mostly read male science fiction and fantasy? Why don’t you read some female writers like Octavia Butler, Elizabeth Moon or Ursula Le Guin or any number of neglected women writers. Your selections are overwhelmingly male at least as listed above with the exception of Austen. Women writers have much more egalitarian world view and are less about the me, me, me of male protagonists.

    • I have read Le Guin. She’s a wonderful writer, love her writing, not so much her subject matter. I’m simply not a scifi/fantasy sort of guy. As for reading more women writers, I have bunches I like, have read, and have written about: Willa Cather, Ellen Glasgow, Doris Lessing, Lee Smith…. I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point. It’s not gender – it’s genre and writing quality where my biases lie.

  4. One book I was reading had a whole section on the meaning and significance of this other book. I looked up the book being analyzed online and found lots more praise – apparently it is a feminist classic I’d never heard of. I got it at my library and just could NOT find anything about it to like, not even anything feminist really. It drove me bats for about a month – pick it up, put it down, pick it up… I even had to ask my s/o what his philosophical stand on finishing a book was. I finally ended up returning it to the library, but I felt kind of, um, dirty about it, guilty.