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It’s Not You. It’s Me.

“It’s Not You. It’s Me.”

Have you ever felt that way about a book?

You know, the old clichéd way that the girl always breaks up with the boy, like George got the news broken to him in that one episode of Seinfeld. A short monologue is accompanied by a kiss on the cheek, and off she goes into the sunset.

When it comes to reading, though, have you ever felt like that? You appreciate the book. You think you understand why other people like it. But it’s just not for you.

If so, where do you draw the line? How can you tell if something is genuinely a piece of crap, and the people who like it must be border-line illiterate, or whether it’s just not your proverbial cup of tea?

We’ll always have a certain amount of subjectivity when reading novels—that’s just human nature. We talked about this a little bit a few months ago in the context of depressing and dark books. But I think, sometimes, it’s easy for us to say “that book sucks” when, in reality, that book simply doesn’t fall in line with our personal taste.

Take Mrs. Dalloway, for instance. I’m getting to the point where, even though I hated that book, I understand that a lot of people love it. Or, more recently, Lolita. As you may know, that was a real struggle for me. I had to separate myself from the story—a story which fell out of my realm of comfort—and attempt to appreciate the book as a work of art. I’m still not there.

Even more recently, Death Comes For the Archbishop, which I just finished, is another book that falls within this category. Though I loved Cather’s writing, I wasn’t a huge fan of the book. However, I can at least appreciate why other people might have more positive feelings about it.

When you’re reading from a list of 101 critically acclaimed novels, it’s hard to really sound convincing when you say one of the books “sucks.” Too many other people have liked it. In the case of this project, maybe it’s my taste that sucks. Or maybe it’s just me that sucks. That’s a real possibility.

So what do you think? Not about whether I suck, but about where you draw the line between personal taste and truly believing a book is bad. What’s your take?

By the way: 101 Books is now on Facebook. Connect with me and other blog readers here!

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41 Comments Post a comment
  1. A book to me is bad if the author deliberately obscures what he/she means, and it’s only the “chosen few” (i.e. lit majors and professors) who truly “understand” the book. Examples: James Joyce, William Faulkner, etc. Writing to obscure one’s meaning doesn’t make any sense to me, unless you’re really a pompous ass and only want the few people who are “intelligent” enough to understand your book. I don’t know if Joyce and Faulkner were actually pompous asses, but from what I’ve read of each of them, they sure seem like it. And it always seems that the critics who “enjoy” these books are those who want to say “Look at me! I understand Joyce! Look how smart I am!” Reading isn’t like that for me. Reading is pleasure. Reading is personal. Reading isn’t supposed to be about how smart or how dumb I am–or how smart or dumb anyone else is–for being able to understand or not being able to understand a certain book.

    Most writing I appreciate is usually just a story, no more, no less. At the beginning of high school English classes, when we first began to look at stories more deeply and analyze them through the symbolism they were supposedly chock full of, I thought it was cool, and in some cases I truly did end up with a deeper understanding of the book. Other times, it felt like we were digging for something that simply wasn’t there. But the worst times were when everything we were looking for was pretty clearly there, as though the author was beating us over the head with it, saying “look what I can do!”

    I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t like books that seem like they have something to prove. They don’t. Books are books. If they get published and people read them, you have succeeded. Success should not be not making high schoolers hate your writing forevermore because it only makes sense to the enlightened few.

    And now that I’ve written an essay…I’m going to stop now. 🙂

    Like

    January 27, 2012
    • I took a Joyce class in college and I think he probably had a huge ego, certainly was pretentious, but I also think there was something to the madness of his writing. I’m speaking of Portrait and Ulysses. When it comes to Finnegan’s Wake, all bets are off. The first page makes my eyes spin. I think he was just punking the publishing industry and critics with that one.

      Like

      January 27, 2012
      • The only thing I’ve enjoyed of Joyce is parts of Dubliners, because we just read a couple of little stories. We read Portrait in the same class and I wanted to rip my hair out, but that was also because my teacher was enamored with him and insisted we stick post-its in the book at every reference to St. Stephen (the martyr), Icarus/Daedalus, water, flight, the sun…it was absurd. Definitely did not help me “enjoy” or “understand” the book, just made me hate Joyce forevermore.

        Like

        January 27, 2012
  2. Reblogged this on Bridget's Books

    Like

    January 27, 2012
    • Thanks for the reblog!

      Like

      January 27, 2012
      • No problem! Glad you were able to edit my absurd amount of comments, haha! Thanks for the post, it got my tired brain started up pretty good this morning 🙂

        Like

        January 27, 2012
  3. Hi Robert. Thanks for raising a tough question with which many of us struggle. Hmmmm…. I guess I am generally unwilling to say a book sucked unless it is truly haphazardly written. Grammatical errors and such.

    Would I wonder about a book’s quality? I have a kindle and used to acquire the newly free, non- classic books that interested me. Until I started to realize they were not that good (with a couple exceptions). But there are people who like them. Some of this is genre (in which case, it is just not my taste) some, the lack of an editor and self- publishing. My response is not consistent, I know, but I am more comfortable saying some of those books were not good.

    But for books coming out of publishing houses, I think I tend to say, not my taste, rather than “sucked” or not a good book. I am picky (mostly a classics or literary reader) and uninterested in the vast majority of books others like. Sometimes I wish I were more open minded, but I am 50 with an enormous list of great books to read, I suppose I can worry about expanding when I am through my list. :-). Ruby

    Like

    January 27, 2012
    • It’s all very subjective. Even if I say a book sucks, someone else, who doesn’t even have to be an idiot, might think it’s good. I would argue that grocery store romance novels are awful, but some smart people like them. I would think?

      Like

      January 27, 2012
  4. I leave a lot to taste, but there have been times that I’ve recommended a book I’ve disliked. One example was when I reviewed “Crystal Line” by Anne McCaffrey. The series it’s in is fantastic, I just had a hard time with the last book because the main character’s plight reminded me too much of my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s. Books like that are part of the reason why I don’t use stars when I review. Different people like different books for different reasons. At the same time, if the book is poorly edited with numerous plot holes, I won’t hesitate to mention it.

    Like

    January 27, 2012
  5. I don’t know, I think you know a bad book when you see one. When you read it and it’s just full of crap– crappy characters, crappy plots, crappy endings– crap, crap, and more crap. And there’s a difference too, among the crap.

    Perfect example,and I’m going to have to duck for this one but anyways: the Twilight series.

    Oh. My. Hell. What a crappily written series. CRAP. And yet? I couldn’t stop reading it. I had to inhale all of the crap because I had to KNOW what the hell happened to these really crappy characters. I’d never want my daughter to read this series and become a Twilight fan. This book smacks of so much wrong stuff, it’s crazy. And I know why people like it. And obviously she did something right in her writing if she managed to compel me to read the entire freaking saga. I blame it on my love for vampires. Her vampires were different and she threw in werewolves and that was new and fun for me but she really just screwed everything else up. Crap. Popular easy to read crap, but crap nonetheless.

    And then there’s the crap that is crappy and unreadable. Because I do believe there is stuff that is not crap that is unreadable (Ulysses) but the opposite definitely exists.

    Like

    January 27, 2012
    • Tell us what you really feel, MutantSupermodel! Ha.

      Have to agree with you though. I skimmed through Twilight enough to say that I’m not impressed.

      Like

      January 27, 2012
    • you just eloquently said all the reasons why i couldn’t put down that CRAPPY series! i could never understand why i read that crap. now i KNOW. ha!

      Like

      January 27, 2012
  6. I think the real test is whether you really want to finish the book. If you want to finish it because you have to, its not a good book choice. If you want to know how it all pans out, then you have a good book in your hands. If ,however, you slow down because you love the book so much that you don’t want to say goodbye to that journey, then the book has been written for you.

    Like

    January 27, 2012
    • Well said! That was me with Atlas Shrugged and Jane Eyre. Monsters of books, but SO worth it. And so sad to finish!

      Like

      January 27, 2012
  7. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that was truly horrible. Some have been less enjoyable for the reasons you stated above. I think of books in 2 categories – they are either educational or entertaining. (Some can be both). Sometimes I read complete crap romance and all it does is entertain me for a while. There is nothing wrong with that. Other times I’m trying to learn about a new culture, and other times I’m reading a book that has been deemed a classic and I want to experience it myself.

    Like

    January 27, 2012
  8. The most recent book that I’ve read where I could say this was Kazuo Ishiguro’s book The Remains of the Day. I could appreciate the quality of the writing, but I didn’t like the book.

    As another poster said, it’s also a question of genre in many cases. A lot of science fiction books don’t work out as well for me as other people. I like science fiction, and I read it fairly often, it’s just not my favorite genre. So while some people rave about how good the book is, my reaction is usually more along the ‘meh’ side of things.

    Like

    January 27, 2012
    • Yes, has a lot to do with genre. I zone out of science fiction and romance. Love war books though.

      Like

      January 27, 2012
  9. I recently posted what I consider a very good indication of what makes a good book ( http://mdparker46.com/2012/01/26/depth-complexity-quality/ ). You may notice that it doesn’t leave room for personal likes and dislikes It’s still a good exercise to consider the books we have read recently and compare them to the characteristics indicated in “Depth, Complexity, Quality.”

    When suggesting books to read, one of my favorite quotations is from Franz Kafka: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skulls, then why do we read it? Good God, we also would be happy if we had no books and such books that make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. What we must have are those books that come on us like ill fortune, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.”

    Like

    January 27, 2012
    • Love the Kafka quote. Might steal it for Twitter!

      Like

      January 27, 2012
  10. Great comments! Speaking just to the 101 list. I find that I don’t like about 50% of the books – while usually seeing the quality in them. While I’m getting good at slogging through, I’d rather be reading what I like. That said, I do like “having read them”. I think about the situations and characters later and get some good insights. For example, I did not like The Power and the Glory. But I did enjoy the after-flavors of it (especially thinking about the qualities of the protagonist). Contrast “Archbishop” which I didn’t mind reading (although not a favorite) – but haven’t thought of it at all since.

    BTW I am so glad that you are beginning to appreciate that there might be some good in Mrs. Dalloway (I understand that it is just a glimmer of appreciation, but that’s a good start – hahaha). She is indeed a ditzy party thrower, but she also represents beauty and joy. Contrast that to The Judge, for example. Which would you rather be stuck in a room with?

    Like

    January 27, 2012
    • Definitely Mrs. Dalloway. Haha.

      How many books have you read from the list so far?

      Like

      January 27, 2012
      • I’ve completed 30 since last March. There are 7 others I’ve partially read (100 pages or more) including Dog Soldiers and A Dance …. both of which I’m reading right now. I will never finish the trashy Sot Weed Factory (which says a lot since I did finish Lolita and Naked Lunch) or Native Son – too much for me. I hope to finish The Corrections, Rabbit Run and Gone With the Wind. There are 17 other books I read in years past that I may or may not reread.

        Like

        January 28, 2012
        • I assume you meant The Sot-Weed Factor by one of the preeminent American postmodern authors, John Barth. What I just can’t understand is the reference to the novel being “trashy.” I can accept that you didn’t like the novel or that you didn’t finish it because of all those pages, but I can’t imagine how the term “trashy” applies to Barth or The Sot-Weed Factor.

          I suspect that an unfamiliarity with postmodern literature would obfuscate much of the great writing and exquisite narrative in a novel such as this, but with the internet providing quick and valuable introductions to such components of literature, it shouldn’t take much effort to expand our understanding of literature.

          Postmodern novels, even when we are well versed in postmodern writing, can still be problematical, especially for those readers that are just looking for a nice friendly story. But even though somewhat complex and certainly less concerned with recreating reality, postmodern literature can be great fun and very satisfying.

          Like

          January 28, 2012
      • As a matter of fact, I’ve read & enjoyed a number of post-modern books. It’s Barth I have trouble with. I am unwilling to sort through his rapes and lewdness to search for any potential insights he has buried below. It feels like rummaging through garbage bins filled with last week’s fish remains in hopes of finding a pearl or two. I don’t need the pearls. I had a similar reaction to Giles Goat Boy. He just irritates me, I guess.

        Like

        January 28, 2012
      • I’ll probably be putting the Sot Weed Factor off for awhile, seeing as it’s such a hefty novel and I’m working through Dance to the Music this year.

        Does it have a Lolita quality–creepy story that’s beautifully told at least?

        Like

        January 28, 2012
        • The Sot-Weed Factor is a postmodern recreation of the historical growth of tobacco farming (Sot-Weed) in the Chesapeake Bay area. Note that most of Barth’s work centers around that part of the country where Barth was raised. It’s a jolly romp.

          Like

          January 28, 2012
      • It’s not a book for all – jolly romp for some, dumpster diving for others.

        Actually, my biggest problem with Sot Weed Factor at the moment is that it’s on the Time 100 list while a feminine counterpart — perhaps Jeanette Winterston’s Art & Lies, a book of sensual (and sexual) beauty — is not. Grossman and Lacayo REALLY should have found a female colleague to help them find books worthy of the list from a woman’s point of view. In the genre literature, they missed LeGuin, Christie, James, etc. – Just as “classic” as LeCarre and Hammett. Sorry, I rant. I got “started” 😉

        Like

        January 29, 2012
        • Although a Top 100 reading list in Beijing might be overloaded with books originally published in Chinese and seem obscure to a western reader, it also will contain a significant number of the great books of the western world. A similar list out of Boston may not include even a single Chinese book.

          It is inherent in any “best-of” list to have a bias and to overlook many excellent choices’ often because they don’t float above the bias. We all know the term, Dead-White-Men, which somewhat accurately describes the selections in most canonical listings; it also clearly represents the obvious bias in such a list. There are many other ways in which a list can be seen as biased: most lists are still slanted to male authors even when there are excellent examples to add which were written by women; many lists skew their results forward, remembering and praising quite recent works while seeming to forget older works that are not as contemporary (or marketable)

          But sometimes there is a reaction to a biased list that pushes the criteria too far and creates a backlash that doesn’t help anyone. I deeply admire Mexican and South American literature, but I also know it’s not all great. I would like to see more of it recommended in this country (other than the love affair between NYTBR and Bolaño) but I don’t insist that it be considered for a best-of list just because it is translated from Spanish.

          As an aside, many people know I speak of my daughter (AKA The Kid) far too much on the internet, but it’s probably important to note that since she was in Junior High and told me that Frankenstein is a birth-mother myth I have been forced to consider the feminist sides to everything I read or see. The Kid is now teaching feminist literature and film at the university level and if you ever get to read her PhD thesis, let me know what it all means.

          Like

          January 29, 2012
  11. I read what genres I want to read and I talk about and recommend what I like and if I don’t “like” I say so. There is no such thing as an objective review. We all bring to the table those traits, prejudices, loves and messed-up psychies (sp?) that make us individuals. If (the collective) you don’t want my opinion on what I read then feel free to not read my reviews. If you don’t want me reviewing honestly then stop asking me to review your great American novel. But if you and I like the same stuff then I’m happy to read your reviews and even if we don’t like the same, I’m happy to know what you think. It is is just so self indulgent to think you are less because you have a contrary opinion. “Bad” is most definitely in the eye of the beholder.

    Like

    January 27, 2012
  12. Lori #

    I used to think there must be something lacking in myself intellectually when I couldn’t get into a book that was considered great or a classic. However, it is all subjective – the author is artistically expressing his or her self to an audience that is outside of him or her. Opportunities abound for misunderstanding. I have come to terms with realizing that if you don’t care for someone’s prose or plot or characters, it is not a flaw within yourself but just one of the things that make you a unique individual. How boring life would be if we all thought and acted exactly the same, if we all liked the exact same things.

    Like

    January 27, 2012
  13. DW #

    I love what you had to say and will definitely be following your blog ( I am a fellow bibliophile ) Lol
    Check my blog out if you’re interested 🙂

    Like

    January 27, 2012
  14. Siuon #

    “The writing is good” and “I like the writing” could be and should be separated. Sometimes a book considered as classics may not be a reader’s favorite because the writing does not click the reader’s mind, the theme disinterests the reader or the study shown in the book is so deep that the reader feel uncomfortable. For instance, I swear I would not re-read Notes from the Underground as it analyzes the human nature so deep that I face it no more.

    What is important, however, is the will and courage of a reader shown when he stands up and says “I don’t like the book” when the public thinks the otherwise.

    Like

    January 28, 2012
  15. Reblogged this on Paucis Verbis and commented:
    Wonderful question for all of us readers. What makes a book terrible – What’s your take?

    Like

    January 29, 2012
  16. Great Question! Re-blogged to Paucis Verbis to see if we can get you some more/varied answers.

    For me it is about structure first and content second. If I have to work too hard to figure out what the book/writer is saying (think DFW x 10 and I’m done!) or if the book is filled with typos or other editorial mistakes, then I’m usually frustrated and find the book “bad.” Second, I’ve read a great many books, just as you described above, that critics loved and I found too touchy for my tastes. I try to distance myself, or possibly read a different work by the author first, too see if I can return to the book I dislike a little later and enjoy the read.

    However, as for touchy subjects, I do believe that art should test boundaries, stretch limits, and sometimes make us very uncomfortable. It touches us, makes us questions and disavow or confirm beliefs.

    I try to remember that all books reach specific audiences – sometimes I’m just not the audience for a particular work. Thanks for such a great blog (always) and for sharing your journey with us!

    Best Wishes and Blessings, Marissa

    Like

    January 29, 2012
    • I guess I wasn’t the “audience” for a Judy Blume book?

      Like

      January 30, 2012
  17. Maria #

    The book is bad when everything obvious, when the plot is predictable and the heroes are just schemas. When the author thinks I’m not quick enough to get the point myself and explains his idea again and again with simple words. When after the book is closed I have nothing to think about exhept what to read next.

    The novel is not just my cup of tea when I feel that it is something behind the plot and heroes and writing that I probably don’t understand or don’t appreciate or even hate. But there is something behind. I need to strain my brains just to make it clear for myself why exectly I don’t like about the ideas expressed by author.

    Well, I just feel it. Has the novel touched my feelings and thoughts or not? – that’s the main point.

    For example. In my humple opinion “Chocolat” by Joanne Harris is bad because I can guess what she is about to say even before she writes a word. “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro is a very ordinary novel because it’s obvious, predictable and the author does not make me think to find out his main idea; but the writing is nice. And I don’t understand Faulkner (though I’ve read several novels and short stories) but I deeply respect him as a writer.

    Like

    January 30, 2012
  18. Maybe he or she just reads for reading. Can’t be denied some beautiful words or sentences made readers join in. Just reading as it is poem.

    Like

    February 2, 2012

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