About four weeks ago, I took a book out of the library that I was supposed to love. A good friend of mine recommended it to me about a year and a half ago and it had been on my to-read list since then. Looking for one last ‘literary’ read before harvest sets in and my life becomes consumed by physical work and I’m too drained to read anything other than quick, fun books, I checked it out.
The book was called Ironweed by William Kennedy. A quick Wikipedia search told me that I was SURE to, at the very least, WANT to love this book. In fact, my literary credentials were at stake if I DIDN’T love this book: It was a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1984, which means that, for all intents and purposes, it was the BEST BOOK IN AMERICA for a single year. THE BEST BOOK. Who the hell am I to tell the Pulitzer judges that their choice of book wasn’t quite up to snuff for me, and that they had better go back and pick a different one because I couldn’t get through it?
And yet, sadly but surely, I couldn’t get through it. I read the first twenty pages, laughing out loud. They were funny. Then the next twenty pages, which were a bit more somber. Then the next fifty pages, which frankly made me want to die. The subject matter – homeless bums on the vagrant path, sick, hungry, and drunk, lost in dreams from their past lives – was depressing enough that I was seriously worried about falling back into the weeks of blackness I’d so recently pulled myself out of.
I put the book down, feeling somewhat guilty. Just finish it, I reprimanded myself. Maybe that last page is fucking glorious. Maybe the last chapter makes the whole thing worth it. Maybe the second half brings the whole thing together and you’ll think it’s the best goddamn book you’ve ever read.
But, I reminded myself, suffering through page after page of misery just to get to a last page that may or may not deliver some moment of poignancy isn’t necessarily worth it. You shouldn’t have to force yourself to read anything, unless you really really want to. And in poor Mr. Kennedy’s case, I really just didn’t want to.
I’ve had people tell me they thought Tolstoy was trash. That they hate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. That Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls was the dullest read they’d ever choked down. And yet, for some reason, we come back to these classics, over and over again, simply because we’ve been told they’re classic, that we OUGHT to read them, that we MUST love them, that they have some sort of literary credential that has STOOD THE TEST OF TIME. And that frankly, if you don’t love them, there’s something wrong with YOU, the reader, not with the book or the author.
This is a huge stigma in the world of literature, publishing, writing. There is an idea that, once a book or an author has been thoroughly vetted and approved by the mass of critics in the New York Times and the New Yorker, he or she becomes sacrosanct, untouchable, uncriticizable. Once you have attained that status, you’re a literary god. And if by chance some plebeian reader happens to dislike your work, well, that’s the reader’s problem.
Of note, too, is that the books that achieve this status are almost always in the genre known as literary fiction – contemporary, real world, adorned with golden phrases or “muscular” prose. Rare is it when a science fiction, fantasy, or (God forbid!) romance novel achieve this untouchable status. No, only literary fiction authors can achieve these heights, and once attained, it is the reader’s, not the writer’s, fault if he or she doesn’t like the book.
Maybe that’s true and maybe that isn’t. But I come back to my previous statement: You shouldn’t have to force yourself to read anything. If you’re enjoying it, continue. If not, put the damn book down and find something you will.
There are some books, of course, that almost demand a bit of sacrifice before you get to the good parts. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace requires that you struggle through the length of an entire normally-sized book, about two hundred pages, before you finally get to the real story, when the book becomes a page turner and you simply can’t put it down. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky requires about seventy pages of penance before the action picks up. And pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to says that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - by all accounts an action-packed, dark, gritty story – is boring as hell before you get to the meat.
But if you’re half-way through the book and the only thing urging you on is a sense that you haven’t quite lived up to your own literary standards, that you aren’t enjoying a book you’re supposed to enjoy – “it was a goddamn Pulitzer prize winner!” – that some agent or professor or editor will one day find out that you thought Ironweed was shit and look down upon you for it, then for God’s sakes, put aside your pretensions, put down the book, and go read something else.
We only have so much time in this world, and there are hundreds of thousands of books to be read. Don’t waste your time reading something you’re not enjoying, no matter how much anyone else insists you’re missing out. No matter how much the New York Times Book Review insists you’re putting down the best book of the decade. No matter how much the New Yorker insults your intelligence for not being able to keep up with the literary masters. Read what you love. Not what you’re supposed to love. The end.