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.