Blog Archives

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.

Books that scare me

What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why?

That was the question posed as this month’s meme over on the Classics Club.  The fact it’s taken me practically all month to think of an answer is a clue to how much this question taxed my brain. My first answer was ‘nothing really’ on the basis that I’ll give anything a go (except maybe science fantasy). But as Lear told Cordelia “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again” so I pushed myself to give the question deeper consideration.

After much cogitation I decided that there were three categories or types of books which I would approach with a degree of trepidation:

English medieval literature. A friend at university took this as her degree subject so I got to see some of her books. Until then I thought Chaucer was hard enough to read. But then she introduced me to Piers the Ploughman and Beowulf. I decided on the spot that I really didn’t want to have to learn another language just to read literature.

Books in local dialect  This is in similar vein to my comment around medieval literature. Books that make very heavy use of dialect are hard to read and enjoy.  I have a copy of James Kelman’s ‘How late it was, How late‘ sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read along with all the other Booker prize winners I have challenged myself to read. It’s a classic in its own way – stream of consciousness novel written in working class Glaswegian accent (note of explanation for my non British readers – this accent comes from the city of Glasgow in Scotland and is a particularly difficult accent to understand). I suspect it will linger on the shelves until I have nothing else left on the list to read….

Scientific plots My final category are novels that contain a heavy emphasis on science. I was never much use at science at school. I have only the vaguest of notions of chemistry or physics. Quiz questions that ask for the names of elements, planets and stars, or the genus of various plants and animals have me baffled. So any novel that involves scientists or scientific theory would not be one I would open with glee. Hence why I have never read any of those science fiction classics by Asimov , H G Wells or Huxley.

I wouldn’t ignore any of these categories, they just wouldn’t be the ones I would open with relish.

%d bloggers like this: