Read books you’ll hate: it’s good for you

Are there some genres you will never ever read because you know you’ll hate them? Or maybe some specific titles that will never find room in your bookcases for the same reason (yes Moby Dick, I’m looking at you!) . If the answer to either – or both – of these questions is a YES, then an opinion piece published recently in the New York Times  might make you rethink your ideas.

In “Why You Should Read the Books You Hate”  NYT Book Review editor Pamela Paul argues that confining your reading to those books you think you’ll appreciate and enjoy is a mistake. Her own experience has shown that it’s not until you tackle the texts written in a style you usually find difficult or about subjects and issues that you find hard to grasp, that you’ll gain the skills to be a better, more thoughtful, more knowledgeable reader.

It was only by burrowing through books that I hated, books that provoked feelings of outrage and indignation, that I truly learned how to read.

Reading ‘hated’ books, claims Pamela Paul, will challenge you to think more deeply about why certain kinds of books make you feel uncomfortable. Is it the style, the story line or a particular argument? If the latter, the more you think about why you disagree with that point of view and gather supporting evidence in your mind, the more actively you’ll engage with the text.

Sticking it out for 300 pages means immersing yourself in another person’s world and discovering how it feels. That’s part of what makes books you despise so hard to dismiss. Rather than toss the book aside, turn to the next page and wrestle with its ideas.

You may may even think of chasing down other texts dealing with similar issues.  You’ll end as a more thoughtful, more considered reader than one who gets the end of a book thinking simply “I enjoyed that/I didn’t enjoy that” but not being able months later to recall much of what you read.

Her challenge to readers is to put aside preconceived ideas by delving into a ‘hated’ book:

Pick up a book you’re pretty sure you won’t like — the style is wrong, the taste not your own, the author bio unappealing. You might even take it one step further. Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page.

This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.

Until I saw that comment that the idea is not to deliberately read a ‘bad book’ I wasn’t convinced by her arguement. When I have so many books on my shelves that I know I will enjoy why waste my time on something that doesn’t bring any pleasure.

After a day or so reflection I can see that her suggestion makes more sense now particularly when I think about my own reading prejudices – you will never find me reading a science fiction book for example. Over the years I’ve convinced myself that I do not enjoy this kind of fiction so I never go anywhere near that section of the bookshop or the library. And yet in my teens I did read science fiction; maybe not to the same extent as I read historical fiction but I did enjoy Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 Space Odyssey and a number of John Wyndham’s novels.  More recently, despite feelings of trepidation I did actually enjoy Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights and Mortal Engines by Phillip Reeve more recently. Which means that I can’t be as averse to science fiction as I thought. I’ve just built up this notion that I won’t like these books but I can’t explain why. except that I prefer novels about real people and realistic events. And yet people who read science fiction tell me constantly that the plots and themes found in the best of these novels are convincing and the characters are authentic. Perhaps my aversion stems instead from my incomprehension of a lot of scientific principles – in other words if I can’t understand what is being written about, how can I possibly enjoy it?

Maybe the time has come to slay this particular dragon of mine by following Pamela Paul’s advice. Reading some of the best examples from this genre will at least help me understand some of the characteristics and the styles employed by authors to create parallel universes or scientific and technological innovations.

My difficulty is knowing where to start. There seem to be a multitude of sub genres from dystopian to science fantasy (or is that a genre of its own?). And of course a whole clutch of authors. Many of those on the list created by Forbidden Planet of Top 50 Science Fiction novels I don’t even recognise. There are others whose names I recognise but thats as much as I can tell you about them. So do I go for  Ursula le Guin or Diana Wynne Jones; Margaret Atwood or Iain Banks? Or do I go back to the classics with Asimov and co? I need your suggestions please – just bear in mind I’m a beginner so go gently on me and ease me in…..

Would you read ‘hated’ books?

Are there some genres or authors that fall into the category of ‘hated books’ for you? What do you think of the idea of pushing yourself to read some of them? Do leave a comment here about your reactions to Pamela Paul’s opinion piece.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on April 20, 2017, in Bookends, science fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 47 Comments.

  1. Thanks for sharing the points of the NYT article. Fascinating idea; I’m inclined to agree. Suggestions: IMO – Dune by Frank Herbert is the gold standard of the genre. Some have said that Herbert is to Sci-Fi, what Tolkien is to fantasy…so there you go. Beyond that, I haven’t read a lot myself. I used to read a lot of Ray Bradbury (need to revisit those one of these days), and really enjoyed him, but he’s sort of a mixed genre, ski-fi, horror, magical realism. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is excellent…hopefully you didn’t see the movie, because the ending is MAGNIFICENT. That’s all I’ve got.

    • I’ve heard of Frank Herbert but somehow never put him into the sci fi category though I wouldnt really know what other genre to put him in.

  2. As you’ve probably gathered from reading my blog, I force myself to read a lot of books I don’t think I’ll enjoy. I’ve been right some of the time. But — and I think this is important — I’ve been wrong, too. So I do think there’s something to be said for reading widely, and putting preconceived notions aside once in a while. And even when I do dislike a book, it often helps me better define my taste and my views on certain subjects (which can be useful if I ever have to argue them).

    On the other hand, I would love to fall head over heels with every book I read. I’ve gone through month-long streaks of disliking every book I pick up, and wondering if I should take up another hobby instead (haha). I suppose balance is key — it’s worth seeing through SOME books we don’t enjoy/agree with, but there’s no need to spend all our precious free time hate-reading.

  3. This is how I discovered that I like graphic novels. There is a difference between picking up a book that is outside of one’s comfort zone, such as a genre you don’t normally read, and picking up a book you “hate” for other reasons: the content is problematic, you don’t like the author, it’s just a terribly written book, etc.

  4. I’m a little old-school when it comes to Sci-fi maybe because there was a phase during my teens when I devoured all Asimov (Robot series, Foundation series), or the Dune books by Frank Herbert. I also loved Ben Bova’s books. After that, I never seemed to find good Sci-fi books – I think the recent “The Martian” was the latest Sci-fi book that I read and enjoyed.

    I will be checking the comments here for ,more recommendations.

    • Herbert I have heard of but not Ben Bova. My visit to the library yesterday was a deep disappointment – most of the authors I looked up were not in the main branch at all which seemed really odd.

  5. I think it’s a great thing to try something a little out of your comfort zone, but I’m not going to read a horror book or medial thriller that is going to upset me! I recommend Diana Wynne Jones for fantasy and Connie Willis’ “To say Nothing of the Dog” for wonderful sci fi, and it’s not a genre I spend a lot of time with, either.

  6. Ah so you’ve already done Wyndham (see twitter). My colleague highly recommends All the Birds in the Sky as a gentle sci-fi fantasy blend.

  7. I agree that it’s good to give our reading minds a stretch on a regular basis! I read a novel by Howie Carr, who is a conservative talk show host. I didn’t hate it, but the political viewpoint was definitely outside of my comfort zone. For a long time, I didn’t want to read “historical fiction” but realized that when I did read one, for a book club maybe, they ranged from good to bad, like any other genre!

  8. If I could give you two likes I would. I am in the middle of writing my Top Ten Tuesday list for next week and it is like the thoughts of Pamela Paul and yourself are predicting my own.

  9. I’d struggle with Mills and Boon books, and most modern novels…. As for sci fi, I’d go for what I call Wellsian sci fi – a bit old fashioned but quite readable. The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle might be a good place to start.

  10. Before recommending any ScFi, I wanted to ponder it. Most of the authors on the list I’ve never heard of either.

    If you haven’t read Bradbury‘s Fahrenheit 451 that’s a must read for all bibliophiles. To us banning and burning books is sacrilege. If you want to ease into it War of the Worlds and The Time Machine are good ones to get your motor running (that is if you haven’t read them). The Forbidden Planet (FP) list has Flowers for Algernon on it, which I wouldn’t consider ScFi but I see how FP came to that conclusion – it involves a medical experiment on a mouse and then a human test subject.

    I would also recommend Kindred by Octavia Butler simply because she is considered a pioneer for women and in particular African American women being published in the genre. Neil Gaiman is pretty popular right now. has a pretty good list, too.

    • Yes some of those Forbidden Planet choices did seem a bit odd. Maybe NPR will have a better list. The Octavia Butler seems an interesting option given her pioneering status – maybe I’m wrong but it seems therearenot many female writers of SiFi

  11. I certainly think it’s a good idea to try different kinds of books, where I mean to seriously try reading it but I wouldn’t persevere if I found it too much of a chore. I sometimes find that an otherwise unreadable book can become bearable by changing my reading approach, such as slowing down, speeding up, reading in small chunks, reading alongside more enjoyabl books etc.

  12. Good points Lisa. I can’t see someone doing a 360degree turnabout in their reading habits – like asking an avid reader of chicklit to read a full-on classic. It would be taking them from a comfort zone into a panic zone. A bit like asking someone who only ever eats ‘British’ food to try a Thai curry. But they might move a few inches out of that comfort zone and try one of the ‘lighter’ classics if they were given a helping hand on choosing the right book? Understandably they have to be ready and willing to give it a go – the schoolteachers attempts probably didnt get anywhere because they were working with people who really didnt want to go down that path at all.

  13. I’m not familiar with this particular article but can wholeheartedly recommend Pamela Paul’s forthcoming memoir, My Life with Bob. One chapter of that (probably the source of the article) is about engaging with books you hate. She says she doesn’t rule out publishing negative reviews in her role as the New York Times Book Review editor for that same reason: you might still learn a lot from books you despise, and it helps you to clarify your own opinions.

    Science fiction is a tricky one for me too, and there have been plenty of examples of books I just couldn’t get on with. A few I have enjoyed, though, are Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden, Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber. None of these would probably count as true/’hard’ sci fi, but they have sci fi elements.

    • if her op ed is indeed linked to her memoir I’m surprised it was published now without reference to the upcoming book. You’d have thought it would act as a perfect teaser for the memoir. Thanks for those recommendations – I shall have a good lengthy list to take to the library with me

  14. I’ve been edging into sci fi territory as well recently and really enjoying it! Agree with the recommendations of Station Eleven (not really dystopian as there is no government; more post-apocalyptic, but hopeful), Ursula K Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood. I’ve also recently really enjoyed Embassytown by China Mieville, Ann Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy starting with Ancillary Justice, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.

  15. You might try Naomi Novik. Or Emily St John’s Station Eleven. Latter is a dystopian book – but it’s great. I bravely tackled Middlemarch earlier this year, and was amazed at how much I enjoyed the book.

    • I heard Station Eleven mentioned a lot a few years ago, I don’t know Naomi though so will have to take a closer look. Thanks for those suggestions Alison. Glad to liked Middlemarch since its my favourite book of all time ….

  16. I remember reading some Asimov in my twenties and it read like an engineering manual and bored me utterly but then I loved John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids etc and I love Star Trek! I don’t view myself as enjoying fantasy but then I really loved Mervyn Peake and I think he would count as fantasy and I loved Pullman’s books so … I suppose it depends if you can get into the world that’s being created. I’ve read three on that list and I’m surprised it’s that many. I suppose I assume all the writing is going to go into ‘world building’ and nothing into character but I haven’t read enough to know if that prejudice has any truth to it.

    • If I want an engineering manual I’ll go and find one (highly unlikely I have to say) but it wouldn’t count as bedtime reading for me so shall skip Mr Asimov. 🙂 Good point about the world building – I know that was central to Tolkein’s work since he spent a long time creating the maps and the language before he ever began writing

  17. This is one of those arguments you have to grit your teeth to test but I can see that if you never venture outside your tried and trusted territory then that territory may well become narrower and narrower. As for science fiction, as a non-SF reader I’d suggest William Gibson, a very prescient novelist. Several of the things he was writing about decades ago have become part of our everyday lives since.

  18. I am all for trying books that are out of my comfort zone, and particularly for trying again with those that I read long ago in school and hated at the time — my teenage reader self was so callow and unformed, those really deserve another chance. It’s perfectly possible to hate a book at one time of life and love it later on (or vice versa). I find that fascinating.

    I also think for a mature reader there can be many different levels of enjoyment and appreciation; I can now “enjoy” books that I don’t resonate with on a personal level, because I learn something from them or because I find them interesting in a wider context of literary development or historical events. I would not consider those books that I “hate,” even if there are aspects that I dislike or would prefer to be different.

    But forcing myself to finish a book every aspect of which I detest, in which I can find no redeeming quality? Nope, I’m not going to do that, even if it’s “good” for me. Life is too short.

    • I cant see me deliberately choosing something that I know I will detest (like 50 shades of grey) but yes my mature self is saying I need to broaden my horizons. Even if I end up not particularly enjoying the SF books I try, at least I will have tried

  19. I can see the argument and while I think it’s good not to get too stuck in a groove, there are always so many books that I want to read. Badly.

  20. maybe – but life’s short…

  21. There are several authors I don’t particularly care for or have yet to acquire a taste for. I can’t say or rather won’t say that I hate them because I think ‘hate’ is a rather strong word. I do try to push myself out of my reading comfort zone – those writers and novels constantly in the classical literary canon. Right now I’m reading A Fable by good ole William Faulkner and I have never been a fan of his and typically try to avoid him. There are others like Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickenson, Nicholas Sparks and Markus Zusak to name a few that I would be perfectly content not reading ever again.

    • One of the points that Pamela Paul makes is that if you try books that are out of your usual comfort zone and find you still dislike them, then at least you will have learned why you value the books you do enjoy. And you’ve just demonstrated that perfectly – you tried Woolf but wasnt enamoured but you do now know why that is – hence you are a more considered reader as a result

  22. piningforthewest

    If I were you I would try Ursula Le Guin and Iain M Banks and also Eric Brown. I agree that it is good to go off your normal reading track now and again, to broaden the reading experience. I got around to reading Moby Dick a while ago after avoiding it for years, it was good in parts but dragged in the middle for me, but I did have a great sense of achievement when I finished it.

    • Thanks for confirming Ursula and Iain as good options. I know MB will never be on my reading list – I dont have to read it to know why because I’ve read enough reviews and heard enough discussions to help shape my view

    • My boyfriend is reading Moby Dick now for his MA in Lit. and said the same thing. When I was a Lit. major that didn’t come up on our reading list and I’m glad it didn’t. Like Karen said, I’ve read and heard enough commentary to not read it.

  23. I think it depends where you’re coming from. If you were a mainstream reader of airport novels, thrillers, crime fiction, chicklit and romance, then delving into translated fiction, classics, and literary fiction would possibly made you “more thoughtful, more knowledgeable reader”. (Though from what I see of the scornful, dismissive, inane comment on Goodreads from this type of reader when they venture from easy-to-read commercial fiction into more challenging territory, I doubt it).
    But is the converse true? I don’t think so.
    I commend Pamela Paul for trying to encourage readers to move out of their comfort zones, but again at Goodreads you can see that legions of schoolteachers have tried to encourage this but both book and teachers are insulted there for their efforts.

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