A very interesting read. The article argues that we should read books that we don’t particularly like (hate is such a strong word). I find this idea oddly appealing and very timely for myself. I was just thinking this morning that my FB feed is so “me” — the people I follow share my views, the pages I follow share my interests. I was lacking variety and ultimately found myself bored. I can see why – so maybe the next book I pick up will me Atlast Shrugged — I’ll give it a 3rd attempt.
Here’s a reading challenge: 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.
Sound like hell? You’re off to a good start.
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.
At a time when people are siloed into narrow sources of information according to their particular tinted worldview — those they follow on Twitter, the evening shoutfest they choose, AM talk radio or NPR — it’s no surprise most of us also read books we’re inclined to favor. Reading is a pleasure and a time-consuming one. Why bother reading something you dislike?
But reading what you hate helps you refine what it is you value, whether it’s a style, a story line or an argument. Because books are long-form, they require more of the writer and the reader than a talk show or Facebook link. You can finish watching a movie in two hours and forget about it; not so a novel. 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. What about them makes you so uncomfortable?
My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism. I thought it was a book about building things. I even showed it off to a French friend, an architect and a die-hard socialist, thinking he’d be impressed.
“How could you bring that into our house?” he asked in disgust. “But it’s about architecture,” I replied weakly. Or was it? Within pages, I found myself suffering at the hands of its tyrannical egomaniac of a protagonist, Howard Roark, forever plunging a fist into soil and holding forth. The lead female character, Dominique, who naturally took second place to the godlike Roark, kept striding across rooms in long, column-like gowns.
Still, I persisted. A hundred pages later, I was more of a French socialist than I’d ever been before or since. I finished every wretched page of “The Fountainhead” in alternating states of fury and despair, and when it was finally over, I tried to leave the vague echo of Dominique, stomping around in her evening gowns, behind. What stuck was the abiding knowledge that I was not, nor would I ever be, a libertarian.
In earlier, blithe days, I’d simply allowed the contents of books to gather agreeably in my head as I read and then file out when I was done. Either I enjoyed a book or I didn’t. 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. Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.
As debaters know, sometimes you figure out your position only in opposition. All it takes is for me to read a book by Howard Zinn or Paul Johnson, each gleefully hate-worthy in its own polarizing way, to locate my own interpretation of history. This is what’s so invigorating about hate-reading. To actively grapple with your assumptions and defend your conclusions gives you a sense of purpose. You come to know where you stand, even if that means standing apart.
I’ve hated my way through many books, thinking, I will read you no matter how hard you make it. But as I go on, I often find that loathing is mixed with other emotions — fear, perverse attraction, even complicated strains of sympathy. This is, in part, what makes negative book reviews so compelling.
One of the most scathing reviews I’ve ever written was for this newspaper as a freelancer. The book I’d been assigned was a parenting book. I wanted to like the book. I agreed with much of the book. But the authors were too credulous of certain research, and in ways that served their thesis. As I put it in the review, the authors’ “penchant for describing psychological studies and research projects as if they were chemistry experiments, with phrases like ‘the test of scientific analysis’ and ‘the science of peer relations,’ conjure up the image of Thomas Dolby repeatedly exhorting ‘Science!’ ”
It came across as manipulative, and I felt betrayed both personally (I had written a parenting book and bristled at seeing the genre compromised) and on behalf of readers who might not have the background to parse the data. New parents are a susceptible lot — I know because I used to be one.
It can be interesting, and instructive, when a book provokes animosity. It may tell you more about a subject or about yourself, as a reader, than you think you know. It might even, on occasion, challenge you to change your mind.
Of course, many hateful books simply clarify and confirm. I can tell you straight out what I loathed about the novel “Flashman,” by George MacDonald Fraser, though I read it nearly 15 years ago. “Flashman” is a cult novel, which didn’t bode well for me when I picked it up at the suggestion of a new boyfriend. For whatever reason, when it comes to cult fiction, I am never part of the cult. Beloved in the same way Wodehouse is beloved but by fewer people, “Flashman,” published in 1969, is the first in a series whose subsequent titles each felt like a slap in the face (e.g., “Flashman and the Redskins,” “Flashman’s Lady”). The cover of “Flashman, Volume I” featured a swaggering bloke in uniform with a bare-breasted maiden of “exotic” background, in, of course, the background. Sometimes you can tell a book by its cover.
But I went in anyway. There, I met the title character, Harry Paget Flashman, who romps across the British Empire, landing variously in Scotland, India and Afghanistan. Accompanying him are minor figures from British history — Lord Auckland, governor-general of India; Thomas Arnold, headmaster at the Rugby School; and the like. But the main action concerns Flashman, a light dragoon and a womanizing drunkard who skips from duel to romp to “forceful seduction.” Most of the time, he frequents prostitutes, but he also enjoys raping an Afghan dancing girl. I have nothing against a good antihero, but I didn’t even enjoy hating this guy. I just wanted to get away from him. Also, it turned out, I wanted to get away from the boyfriend who’d recommended him. This was a perfectly useful takeaway.
Yet hate reading can actually bring readers together. Sure, it’s nice when people like the books you like. But an even more stimulating excitement comes from finding someone else who hates the same book as much as you do (welcome, fellow “Pickwick Papers” loathers). This is why book critics love commiserating. Some of the most spirited discussions I’ve had with other readers have been over just how despicable or disheartening we’ve found something we’ve read.
So go ahead, bond over what you hate. Or hate it all on your own, knowing that someone, somewhere wants to throw that same miserable book against the wall. Just please finish reading it before you do.