WHAT THE HELL

Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Reading for masochists

Why did this piece in the NYT on Sunday rub me the wrong way? Pamela Paul, editor of the Book Review,  says we should all be reading books we hate. She calls it “hate reading.”

Maybe she’s mad because she has to read a lot of books she hates as part of her job. She gets paid to read books she hates. But the primary example she uses from her own life is reading Atlas Shrugged when she was in college. Hey, we all have to read books we hate in college. I’d never have read Pamela on my own. Or any James Fenimore Cooper novel. What Paul is advocating now is completely different: Waste your precious adult reading time on material that drives you nuts.

As many of the commenters to the piece pointed out, there are too many great books to read in a lifetime. Why would we cast some of them aside in order to read junk in genres we don’t enjoy, or political propaganda that gives us ulcers? I’ll never read a book by Ann Coulter. It’s that simple. She’s not writing for me, for one thing, and for another I wouldn’t expose myself to that kind of repellant thinking unless it was imposed on me as punishment for something I did. Something really terrible.

Paul’s theory seems to be that we need to get out of our comfort zones so we can learn how other people think, what other ideas are out there in the world. She says reading stuff you hate “helps you refine what it is you value.” Why does a particular kind of story get under your skin? Because you don’t like zombies? I need no help with that.

The piece seems like one of those intentionally provocative arguments that even the author doesn’t believe or practice. It just sounded like it’d make a cool column and would probably garner lots of comments (482 as of this moment). You could as easily argue that Catholics ought to pop into a mosque now and then to get a feel for why they they’re not Muslims — and vice versa. Or I ought to go to a NASCAR race sometime just to confirm that the South should be allowed to secede. What’s the point?

Recently I had to bail out on a book I was reading, God: An Autobiography, As Told to a Philosopher, by Jerry L. Martin. I didn’t exactly hate it. Instead it was just that I wasn’t buying any aspect of it, so that it began to grate on me and feel like a waste of time. Now I’ve moved on to something I appreciate and am learning from, and that feels better to me than going through the motions with Jerry. That’s what it boils down to in my eyes. What am I getting from a book? Something positive (which can also be fairly trivial, like “pleasure”), or just aggravation and sadness that this bum managed to get a novel published?

Have you read a book you hated lately? Name names!

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22 comments on “Reading for masochists

  1. islandeditions
    April 18, 2017

    As we’ve discussed privately, Kevin, I’ve been flummoxed by pretty well all the big award-winning novels this year (US, UK and Canada) and have scratched my head wondering whether my own reading of them was off or if the judges were all out to lunch when they chose those particular books. I didn’t “hate” any of them, however.

    Perhaps “hate” was the wrong word for Paul to use. Maybe what she meant to say was that we should read books that “challenge” us and our beliefs so we can see how the other sides think. Definitely, I do believe we should all be encouraged to read outside our comfort zones. Especially writers.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 18, 2017

      I agree that hate is a dumb word for her point. That’s what I mean: I think she got all giddy over the idea for an essay. But it’s true that so many of the lauded books are overrated that you wonder about nepotism or cronyism or just plain politics.

      When I read out of my comfort zone, though, I’m usually helping out another indie writer or trying to get through something I’ve always wanted to read, like effing Proust!

      • islandeditions
        April 18, 2017

        It’s the idea of “triggers” to warn “sensitive readers” about a book maybe containing difficult material they will want to avoid reading that really bugs me. Bring it on, I say!! No triggers allowed, and as long as the writing is great, I think we should all be encouraged to read even what we “hate” – although I do hate using that word.

        My further thoughts on this … and you knew I would have more to say … is that we should read books and articles that promote opinions and ideas that are counter to our own, because if – and that’s a really big IF – the writing is so good to be able to make us rethink what we hold to be true … then I want to learn how to write like that! Not to think like that or change my opinions, but learn how to write clearly and persuasively. That’s the real reason why we should read books and authors we don’t agree with – to learn how to emulate, or to completely avoid as the case may be, their style of writing.

      • Kevin Brennan
        April 18, 2017

        Good point about the quality, because quality is more likely to be persuasive, or at least explanatory, than slapdash stuff that yells at you. I can get through most novels that are well-written, even if the subject doesn’t appeal to me. Different with opinion-writing. Ann Coulter can jump in the lake (of fire!).

  2. kingmidget
    April 18, 2017

    Hate is a very strong word. I generally don’t hate anything I read, even the right-wing bloggers. I do agree in some respect with the idea of getting out of your comfort zone, expanding your reading repertoire. And I occasionally read a book that doesn’t do anything for me.

    I’ve been blogging about the six books I bought before my trip down to Arizona for Spring Training. The first five books were good — page turners of different types. The sixth book? Eh, not so much. I got to about the halfway point and gave it up. It’s called Imagine Me Gone. It’s one of those award winners your other commenter mentioned — A finalist for the Pulitzer and on all sorts of top ten lists. And I’m much like that other commenter — the award winners are typically so muddled I can’t make my way through them. Imagine Me Gone is the same. A muddled mess, as far as I’m concerned. Hate? No. Completely disinterested? Absolutely.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 18, 2017

      I guess it boils down to taste. What strikes one reader as brilliant is bland to someone else. Looks like Imagine Me Gone has all the critics in its camp, but how does it play in Peoria?

      • kingmidget
        April 18, 2017

        In reading books that are award winners, I can see certain patterns and styles. They are all ground-breaking. But wait … if they are all essentially following a similar pattern and style, are they really ground-breaking? Seems that part of the pattern is self-indulgent, tiresome characters.

  3. John W. Howell
    April 18, 2017

    I generally don’t go much further than the first 50 pages of books I don’t like. I forget the names and just set them aside.

    • pinklightsabre
      April 18, 2017

      I was going to write the same thing as John. But there were two while we were on a recent sabbatical (one, Stranger in a Strange Land and the other, by an English writer living in a small village in Connemara). I labored through the latter because my friend Loren gave it to me and really wanted me to like it. And I really liked a lot of the writing, but it had this myopic quality and no sense of pace or no real story-telling. The guy is a map maker; he painstakingly created maps for the territory. There’s all these stories embedded in the countryside and characters there and somehow he couldn’t make it interesting. I’d even thought to go find him and ask him to sign the book for me so I could give it back to Loren like that, but then I decided I really didn’t want to meet him, and I abandoned it in a rental in Killarney.

      • Kevin Brennan
        April 18, 2017

        It’s tough when you see so much potential in a book and it just doesn’t deliver. It’s like the writer didn’t see the gold mine he was sitting on.

        Maybe the next person to pick it up will find some nuggets in it …

      • John W. Howell
        April 18, 2017

        Ha ha ha. And so it goes (To quote Kurt Vonnegut) 😀

      • pinklightsabre
        April 18, 2017

        I just read that book a bit more than a year ago. Talk about a writer having fun, and fully realizing a theme. And mixing the garish with the ridiculous.

      • John W. Howell
        April 19, 2017

        He is one of my favorites. Read Jailbird by him.

      • pinklightsabre
        April 19, 2017

        Thanks John for the tip.

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 18, 2017

      That’s a pretty good rule. You have 50 pages to wow me. After that, you’re toast! 🍞

      • John W. Howell
        April 18, 2017

        Yup and all is forgiven after the fifty

  4. Carrie Rubin
    April 18, 2017

    I could never read one of Coulter’s books either. I would pop a blood vessel. Or three. Bill O’Reilly has a new one out too, one where he pines for the good old days, the good old days being when white men got to call all the shots and didn’t get the resistance they get now. On the other hand, either one of these two might be a good choice for a long-distance audiobook listen. I’d get so angry I wouldn’t fall asleep at the wheel… (And if you really want to throw up in your mouth, read the blurb on Amazon for O’Reilly’s new book “Old School.”)

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 18, 2017

      OMG, I just read the blurb. And TUIMM. 😐

      I guess Donald Trump is a Snowflake …

      • Carrie Rubin
        April 20, 2017

        Ha, those might be fightin’ words to him.

  5. 1WriteWay
    April 19, 2017

    Ah, yes, life is indeed too short to read books we don’t want to read. Years ago, my husband went a tear, reading books by conservative writers. As he put it, he wanted to understand the enemy. But he also learned that some of them were good, effective writers and that there can be power in “plain writing,” even if what you are writing are lies. I don’t mind being challenged; often times, that’s why I read: to get out of my comfort zone, my relatively sheltered life with the boring 8-5 job. And sometimes I’ll push myself to finish a book that I’m not enjoying (which, strangely enough, is easier to do when it’s an audio book as opposed to a printed book). But there is so much GOOD writing out there, why for goodness’s sake, should I waste my time on books that I KNOW I won’t enjoy. Sorry about the caps … I’m in a mood. I don’t regret listening to The Goldfinch. Parts of it I enjoyed but it was more an exercise in why I can’t always trust the prize-winners. I think you’re right that Paul was writing a column for the sake of inciting some buzz. Sad!

    • Kevin Brennan
      April 19, 2017

      It’s true that there are conservatives who write well, or with humor like P.J. O’Rourke, but they’re usually not the ones who get the attention. Then again, I don’t read Michael Moore or Franken anymore because their books tend to be light on content, with big type and lots of white space. Why is that?!

      For some reason I have trouble with audiobooks. I can’t concentrate and drift in and out of them before realizing I missed something. Whatever floats one’s boat, I guess …

      • 1WriteWay
        April 19, 2017

        I like audio books for when I’m knitting or doing housework, stuff where my mind is freed up. But, yes,sometimes I drift away so I’m particular about what I’ll listen to. I find it really difficult to listen to nonfiction (like White Trash) or literary fiction, although I don’t have a problem with classics like Dickens. Go figure. Part of the appeal for me is no one read stories to me when I was a kid. So I’m compensating 😉

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This entry was posted on April 18, 2017 by in Writing and tagged , .
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