“ … sometimes i have to wonder if i’m reading the same book as everyone else when they rant and rave about it and i’m practically falling asleep.”
“It made me feel like a bad English major, and reader, and writer.
I’m a music lover, and my failure to adore Ulysses nagged at me in the same way that I feel like a fraud when I can’t muster up much reverence for The Beatles.
I had gained nothing except the checked box, a mild, fleeting sense of accomplishment, and relief.”
On Learning to Love Ulysses, Finally
“Buying a book is not about obtaining a possession, but about securing a portal.”
“Then I let the stories live
inside my head, again and again
until the real world fades back
into cricket lullabies
and my own dreams.”
“And you can’t help but ask yourself,
‘Is it me?
Am I just not smart enough for this book?'”
No one likes to feel stupid. Period. No real discussion here. I say that to provide some context for this peiece because today I am talking about books, books we have read (or tried to read) and how books can’t make us feel stupid but people can.
What started me down this path is 1984 by Orwell. With all the ‘big tech’ discussion and ‘censorship’ (whether it is actually censorship or not is another question for another day) and silencing voices 1984 has been tossed around as a metaphor for what is happening. Now. I feel fairly confident 80% of the people tossing that metaphor around have never read 1984 and I also feel relatively confident the majority of things being tossed around under the guise of 1984 are quite misguided.
** note: does anyone else see the irony in technology being defined by printed literature?
But 1984 does make me think about how books, and reading, is used by people to make statements about people.
So <part 1>. I am a book lover, a voracious reader and a lover of words.
Trying to resolve thise two things means I have thought about this a lot <far far too often I have stared at the titles of books I know I am supposed to adore, but do not> and I imagine I can summarize my stupid in one of two ways:
1. I just don’t get it.
I pick up a book … read it … and regardless of whether it is popular or not … I just don’t seem to grasp what the hell it is about. Inevitably I feel stupid because someone somewhere had to believe it would have some redeeming value, but I don’t get the book. And even though I know I am supposed to have found the reading of it valuable in some way, I see no value.
2. A lot of other people get it and I get it, but don’t like it.
It is popular, or famous, or is considered ‘great literature’ and I think it is something other than great. In fact. I think its shit. Ok. I just don’t get it’s popularity or fame.
Yeah. I understand the book and a portion of me may not feel completely stupid, but a portion of me does because I believe I must be missing something. Regardless, as I sat there thinking about all the books I was supposed to salivate over and instead was just feeling stupid I found something called “the Hawking Index.”
Basically this index is supposed to measure how far people get into a book before giving up. The index was flippantly proposed by Jordan Ellenberg, an American mathematician, in a blog for the Wall Street Journal. He named it after Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time < a book I have never read nor envision ever reading and apparently one of the least-finished books according to this measure>.
Just to be clear. It’s statistically flawed index model <print readers aren’t counted nor are Kindle-readers who don’t use the highlighting feature>, but I don’t really care about its accuracy because I was hoping it would not only make me feel less stupid but also it sounded interesting to think about.
Anyway. The standard is about 50%. This means about 50% of books picked up <with an intent to read and not used for some other purpose> are actually completely read. For example, Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games novel, scores 43.4%. By comparison, the average reader of Fifty Shades of Grey made it only 25.9% of the way through it.
The best news for me? I felt slightly less stupid because apparently many of the more prestigious pieces of literature have a really low Hawking Index.
But, really, feeling stupid about a book actually has nothing to do with whether you are ‘in the average’ with regard to how many people make it thru a book, it really has to do with whether you ‘get’ a book that somehow has attained ‘great literature’ status. If you don’t get it, you feel stupid.
And this thought led me to an awesome piece in The Guardian on books that make you feel stupid:
The author, Swapna Krishna, talks about how “you pick up a book you’ve been looking forward to, a ‘smart’ book that everyone and their mother has loved, settle down with it, start reading, and … You hate it. Or maybe you don’t hate it, but you certainly don’t love it like everyone else seems to.
And you can’t help but ask yourself, ‘Is it me? Am I just not smart enough for this book?'”
Which leads me to the unfortunate uneasy feeling that the whole ‘books that make me feel stupid’ was me in a nutshell. It is me because I know I have found myself talking to people and they talk enthusiastically about ‘their favorite book’ and it is quite often what could be referred to as ‘great literature’ and, well, my head begins to hurt. And I have to decide whether I want to tell them:
<a> I couldn’t get past the first 25 pages, or
<b> I didn’t get what made it ‘great’ … or
<c> I think I wasn’t smart enough for that book.
Yes. I have examples of my stupidness.
I can only really enjoy Dickens in chapters. I haven’t made it through a full book non-stop. Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I should have loved it <because I love the topic and Russian history>. This novel of the French invasion of Russia is considered one of the greatest literary works of all time weaving its way through the economic, emotional, and philosophical effects of societal shifts from one regime to another. I got frostbite weaving my way through an inetreminable winter of words.
I gave Doctor Zhivago several tries, and Anna Karenina also, but just couldn’t make it through another Russian winter.
Sticking with great literature, maybe the worst book I have ever picked up?
Lots of Shakespeare. To be fair. Though he was a wonderful wordsmith and I love aspects of his sonnets and I could take bits & pieces. But any whole? Shoot me.
Joyce’s Ulysses? Yikes. Wanted to gouge an eye out. I tried reading “Atlas Shrugged” and wanted to gouge the other eye out. Proust? Wading thru quicksand. One grain at a time.
Modern authors? The guy who wrote The Shack. Or was it The Road? I just don’t get it. Harari’s Homo Deus? Garbage. Herman Wouk? I struggled to make my way through his two most famous novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance and, yet, Don’t Stop the Carnival was a delightful comedy about escaping middle-age crisis in the Caribbean.
Something else I’m somewhat ashamed of never having finished?
Faulkner. For gods sake all of it bored me.
Now. It helps me that I do like books that can be long like War of the Rats <maybe 500 pages> and I felt it could have been longer. I devour all of Michener books.
I loved 1984, On the Beach, Alas Babylon and even A Clockwork Orange <sticking with a theme here>.
It helps me that I do like books that can be short like The Old Man and the Sea <maybe 99 pages>.
I do know what I like. I like intellectual puzzles <Eco’s Foucalt’s Pendulum, any of Arturo Perez Ravarte early books and Le Carre> and stories that inspire dreaming despite the cruel indifference of Life, the cruelty of humans and the challenges and everything else that can stand in the way of hope.
All that said it doesn’t change the fact I can feel incredibly stupid when it comes to books. While loving books in general, not liking a book someone else loves, particularly larger culturally loved books, does make me feel kind of stupid <which even as I type sounds stupid>. I feel like I am just not ‘getting’ something. And maybe I am just not smart enough … or at least as smart as the person who does get it.
I tend to feel more embarrassed about liking a book that is fashionable to trash.
Which leads me to people rather than books.
Reading is very personal and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that it might not be the right time, place or chemistry for a positive experience to occur between you, the reader, and the book in your hands. A book is a book and no one should tell you whether you should like it or not or you should feel stupid because one person thought it was great and you did not.
In fact. A book may work for you at another time. I know I loved some great stories when I was younger, but I didn’t truly underatnd the metaphors until i reread therough the eyes of someone a bit more experienced and knowledgeable to gain some context.
All that said. I found that nearly 30% of men have not read a book since school, according to a survey commissioned for World Book Night. The reasons men don’t read are varied, but ‘not really wanting to’ is the main one.
To me? That means someone just has not met the right book.
I am not asking anyone to spending six weeks slogging through some interminable Shakespeare and test themselves with those ‘educational’ supplemental reading questions or even write some thoughtful critical analysis <as many people expect students do at school>.
All of that sounds mind-numbingly boring.
And reading should be anything but boring.
And reading shouldn’t make you feel stupid <but it will more often than you care to admit because people suggest you are>.
In the end.
I imagine I take solace in the fact I always do have another book to read … and an endless supply of books that I have put down in the past as unreadable that I will most likely attempt to read again at some point.
I imagine I take solace in the fact that my <admittedly subjective> experience of reading the final chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird is the closest version to heaven I have possibly attained so I know it is there somewhere else in some other book yet to be read.
I imagine I take solace in the fact that it really isn’t stupidity … it just personal.
Pick a book.
You are entitled to be a Roman emperor, thumbing up or thumbing down a book, destining one for greatness or destroying one.
You are entitled to love some weird, scattered, slightly ludicrous metaphor driven novel and bring it to people expecting to be credited with the literary find of their life and hear they hated it <all of them>.
No literary work is greatness to everybody. But the sense that we could find something peerless, or literary greatness, is what tends to keep us death-marching through books that are wrong for us.
It is hope that keeps us trying and that occasional glimpse of literary brilliance and the ‘once in a lifetime read’ that makes us pick up the next book … and the old book we just didn’t ‘get’ the last time we picked it up.
Look. Someone <no idea who it was> once said that no two people ever read the exact same book.
Everyone brings their own history, personality, and feelings to the experience of reading a story, and because they are different, they react differently.
This is why Baskin Robbins stores sell 31 <actually more> flavors of ice cream. Nothing is universally loved; not even chocolate <or vanilla>.
Now. What I do find stupid is referencing a book I have never read to make a point <back to the 1984 reference>. Just because you are supposed to ahve a read book doesn’t mean you have to and because you haven’t does mean you should find another reference point if you want to make a point. In other words. It is okay to not have read something and it is okay to find another way to make your point.
All that said.
I formally refuse the idea that a book is just a book.
A book is rarely ever “just a book.”
I still feel stupid when I don’t like some book someone else gushes over.
I still feel stupid when I don’t like some book of ‘literary fame.’
I still feel stupid when a book makes me feel stupid.
But at least I am comfortable in my stupidness and still keep reading.