Reading into How We Read

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The first time I tried to read Pride and Prejudice I was an adult, and an English major in college, and no one was forcing me to read it, and I was expecting to love it, so everything should have gone swimmingly.

But 75 pages in, I still didn’t get it. I didn’t get what there was to love. Or any of the humor. Or why people had worshipped it for centuries. Part of the problem may have been that I just read a couple pages at a time, or that I was distracted by college classes, or whatever. But I shelved it.

Years later I fell in love with the new Focus Features version of the story, the one with Keira Knightley, and I decided to try the book again. This time, I loved it from the first page, and not for any of the same reasons I loved the movie. The book had a whole different character to it, a humor to every bit of dialogue and every character description, and I couldn’t put it down.

Shannon Hale recently had a post about re-evaluating how we evaluate books, and John Green responded to it with a great post of his own. I love their comments, because I think it’s so important to realize that what we think of a book doesn’t necessarily equate to how good it is. What if I’d gone around telling everyone how stupid Pride and Prejudice is before I gave it a second try? Well, I’d sound like a moron.

I’m not saying every book deserves a second try. I guess I just like the idea of continuing to question how we read.

For example, I wonder about the idea of who is qualified to judge whether or not a book is well-written. On goodreads, I don’t look at reviews until after I finish a book, and I look at them to compare notes and see how my reading experience matched others’, and it amazes me how often a book that the book world (big-name reviewers and authors) have labeled as well-written will be touted as horrible by some random reader. Does it mean that they just didn’t get it, like me with my first P&P exposure?

I just finished Feed by M. T. Anderson and encountered one such review. Well, Feed is a satire, and it’s written from the point of view of a dumb-sounding teenager, so I can see how someone who didn’t get it might think it wasn’t well written. So does that make that person’s review invalid? To me, that becomes more reflective of the reviewer than the book. But then, where are the lines? When someone says they loved a book that wasn’t praised by the book world, is that an invalid review too? What about some of the award winners over the years that ordinary readers have never really embraced? Which is more important? Or should we take all of it into account?

I think of Twilight as the epitome of this over the past few years. Those who love or hate it have been equally venomous toward the other side. But isn’t there room, if we are more self-evaluative in our reading, to say that “this or that aspect didn’t really work for me, but I can see how the book might appeal to others”? For me, I was amazed at how real the characters were for me, even days after I finished the book, and that balanced out the fact that the writing itself didn’t really sing to me. If we automatically jump to love or hate, does that cause us to miss a more complex view of our own experience?

There are times, though, when I do love a book, no snags. I think it’s okay to say that, too, so long as you leave room for others to have a different experience with it.

Also, I agree with John Green’s two points (too much emphasis on liking a book versus whether or not it accomplished a worthwhile purpose, and too much of our own biases getting in the way) and with what he said about being grateful that someone else was able to articulate what you’ve been stuck trying to think through. I love that blogs allow for this kind of thought-provoking discussion.

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One response »

  1. Pingback: In the Mood: Why Traveling Light Is Impossible When You Go with Your Gut « All About the Words

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