Monday, August 16, 2010

Conditions under which I would reread The Ambassadors

I had a lengthy discussion the other day about books, and what we read and why we read them. It was a thoroughly frustrating conversation in which the person I was talking to tried to coerce me into both reading the Twilight series and watching The Notebook by telling me that I should be open minded – and in which I actually admitted that I would rather reread Henry James’s The Ambassadors than reread Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, I said it, and yes, it’s true.

I am someone who knows what I like. And I know what I don’t like. My tastes are rather specific. I like classic literature. I like some contemporary literary fiction. I like some of the better written science fiction and a smattering of other genres here and there. There are very few instances in which I am surprised to like something. Maybe this makes me different than the general public. I don’t know. I doubt it though.

Once I attempted to be open minded about what I read. I participated in a book club for a bit, and that’s how I discovered Cormac McCarthy – though he and I were likely to meet at one time or another. I read the memoir The Glass Castle. It wasn’t horrible. It wasn’t boring. But I quickly discarded it after finishing it, and haven’t missed it since. I don’t even remember the author’s last name. It was expendable to me. Other people may like it, and they are free to do so, and I try not to knock them for it. I can understand why someone would enjoy it, but I did not in particular, so let’s stick to our respective niches and respect each other’s boundaries. Eat, Pray, Love was my last attempt at being open minded. Sorry.

I reason this way: I only have so much time in my life to read – both in terms of hours per day and years to live. And there are literally hundreds and hundreds of books I want to read currently in publication, not to mention those that haven’t been published yet. Why would – or should – I spend that precious time on books that I doubt I would enjoy as much as I would, say, read The Age of Innocence, which I’m absolutely loving, or even rereading The Great Gatsby? Why would I put them away and pick up the Twilight books just because someone who doesn’t know anything about me believes that I would just love them?

I tried to explain this in analogy after the straight-forward “I don’t want to read your book” approach didn’t work. I tried the following metaphor: if I had one pass to the movies, and could see a movie I wanted to see, or a movie I didn’t want to see, why would I ever go to see the one I didn’t want to see? If I hate cheesecake (which I do), should I be expected to eat it – to be “open minded” about this particular type of cheesecake - when there are other options – options I know I will enjoy? Like German chocolate cake? Or maybe an apple pie?

I was once accused of only reading depressing books. And that’s probably largely true. Or at least books that aren’t exactly a romp through the giggle forest. Some people read to escape their reality – to go to a world that is better, more ordered than our own. A world in which lovers reunite in the end and live happily ever after. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I believe that I also read to escape reality, but I go to a world that is worse – less ordered than our own. Because it makes me feel better about reality. Because, after all, who wants to live in a Kafka novel? The funny things that I enjoy are often intelligent, absurd comedies. I just don’t do low-brow. Not because I’m to uppity, I just don’t like it. Even as a kid, I was disgusted by low-brow. You take your Sweet Valley High and R.L. Stine and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I’ll be over here with my Jules Verne, thank you very much. One time, in high school, my friends insisted I watch Ace Venture, because it was SOOO FUNNY! I said ok – so long as we could watch Romeo & Juliet afterwards. The 1969 version. Needless to say, there were no more movies they insisted that I watch. Maybe it’s an inborn trait, somehow, what we like.

Typically I don’t recommend books to other people unless I’m pretty sure they will like what I suggest. Because I would be wasting their time otherwise. In a perfect world in which I was queen, maybe everyone would like what I like. But I’m not queen, so I have no right to assume that everyone should read what I like to read simply because, well, I like it. I’m sorry, but your enjoyment of a book is not a sufficient reason for me to want to read something.

It occurred to me later that I could have quickly put a stop to this, as I did back in high school. Instead of insisting for a half hour that I simply am not interested in “sparkling love-muffin vampires in abstinence metaphors” (as it was awesomely put recently in a blog post I read about an entirely different subject, which is why I haven’t linked to the quote), I should have responded, “Sure – I’ll read your Twilight book, if you read a book that I recommend,” and handed her Joyce’s Ulysses. I doubt she would have gotten much past “Stately, plump, Buck Mulligan” before asking for her Stephanie Meyers back.


Tom Goodfellow said...

Yep, I agree with pretty well every word of that. I've tried with Stieg Larson and Dan Brown The Celestine Prophecy and, guess what? They're rubbish.

One point you don't touch on; this is why books can be such a wonderful gift, a way of saying "I read this and I think you'd love it because of who you are" rather than "I loved this and therefore you must read it".

eclectic-indulgence said...

Great post. There are many situations where I have found myself explaining using the same examples and I generally get the look or a verbal comment about not being open minded, being stuffy, antiquated, snobby, etc. I like the Ulysses idea... and I'm going to try it.

I haven't read "The Ambassadors", but based on your hatred for it I think I'll eventually give it a shot. Extreme opinions of classics make me want to read them more, and in some cases (like 'Lolita'), I am pleasantly surprised. I got into a fight with my spouse about reading this one... but it was well worth it. :)

SocrMom78 said...

For a while, I was ashamed to bring the books I've been reading for my blog to work, because I'd always get the wrinkly-nose "ewww, why would you read THAT, here, you should read "Sparkly Seventeen" or whatever by Janet Evanovich." I read one of those Stephanie Plum books just so I could stop my mom from going on and on about them, and they were STUPID. I don't get their appeal. Same with Twilight. I began reading it to appease my daughter, and didn't even finish it. No time for that stuff.

I agree with you. I've always read heavier books than most people, even as a pre-teen. The way I look at it, there are hours and days of my life I can't get back if I spend them reading fluff. In a world where we've all been dumbed out by CNN crawls, TMZ and LeBron selection shows, I like to continue to keep my brain active. :) Cheers to you for doing the same!

Aleks said...

I agree. I cannot stand it when people talk about the "literature" that interests them... like..oh, I don't know... Dan Brown, Tom Clancy, the lady that wrote stories about a boy that has geeky glasses and ridiculously too much time on his hands. And after I say to them something like, "I just prefer more literary stuff." They go on to tell me how great this and that is and oh my god I don't want to hear it about an 800 page plot-driven book that has skeletons for characters!!!

Kristin said...

@Tom: They are my favorite thing to give someone! My husband and I have very different tastes in books – he has no interest in fiction! – but I love spending time researching works on a topic I think he may be interested in. Your point of “I read this and think you’d love it because of who you are” is fabulous, and exactly what I was thinking!

@eclectic-indulgence: Getting into a fight about Lolita? What a fabulous book that is! My mom once asked me,“Your sister is reading Lolita. Should I be worried?” Haha! All I can say about The Ambassadors is good luck to you!

@SocrMom78 – Believe it or not, I am not overly vocal about my negative opinions of the fluff, because I know some very nice people who love them. In most instances, though, because I won’t attempt to hide a snicker at those who take Dan Brown very very seriously.

@Aleks - it's funny how those interested in more popular fiction try to convince those of us who aren't how wonderful it is. I think if more us start to push back, and try to get them to read our books. It would either open THEIR minds, or get them to stop bugging us!

ayak izleri said...

You are right about this sooo subjective matter. But recommending a book, film, even a painting to others, the others we respect and like and keep akin to us, is a centuries-old habit. And actually, no one can avoid falling into this trap, even you yourself, as it is reflected in your own words: "Typically I don’t recommend books to other people unless I’m pretty sure they will like what I suggest." You can never be sure or know what other will, even may, like. It is absolutely impossible, first epistemologically, and than socially, historically, etc. etc. Long live to read lots of books.