May 1, 2015

On reading and not reading

I mentioned in a post the other day that the first book I chose from our town's new little free library was The Thirteenth Tale, which I had read and reviewed some years ago but did not remember well (save that I enjoyed it). Not wanting to spoil things for myself I didn't actually read my review -- not that I tended to give spoilers away (much) but because I didn't want to trigger any memories of the book's plot at all. It's rare that I forget a book's contents so completely, and so I wanted to come at it fresh. A second first reading, if you will.

The verdict, this time around? 

I couldn't even finish it.

In fact, I couldn't even finish the first third. 

The writing, you guys. The writing is so bad. It's got the most overblown, purple prose, and I just couldn't do it this time around. A glance over my review from back in 2009 shows that I thought that the prose was bad then, too, but had been sufficiently captivated by the plot to declare, in effect, that I loved it and would read it over and over again forever. 

So much for that. 

This did get me thinking, though, about the nature of literary taste and how it changes (or doesn't) over time. I think that one of the reasons that I decided to put down The Thirteenth Tale is that over the last six years I have learned to read with more discrimination. I have less patience for bad writing (whether objectively bad or simply not to my taste) and I am much more willing to simply stop reading something if I'm not enjoying it. Part of this is certainly related to how busy life is right now: I'm doing a master's degree and I have an infant, and since my for-pleasure reading time is constrained, I want to make sure that I'm using it on things that are actually pleasurable. I think that I also have less stomach for the unpleasant. It's not far into The Thirteenth Tale that we are into the region of incest, sadism, and sexual assault. I don't think that I'm afraid or upset to read about such things, but again, I'd rather be reading things I'm more likely to enjoy. If the writing were better, perhaps I would have lasted it out; like love, good prose covers a multitude of sins. 

At the same time, I find that I apply these standards somewhat arbitrarily: I judge books that are new to me much more harshly than books I've read and enjoyed before. (At least as far as the books that I remember reading, that is!) If a book was a favourite in my childhood or adolescence, chances are that it will remain a favourite despite the very real flaws that it might have. Likewise, there are some books I own that do not have, perhaps, the most literary merit, but that are light enough that they get read and re-read when I need some brain candy. 

The issue of timing also comes into play. Sometimes we read, or try to read, books when it's just not the right time for them. The first time I read Pride and Prejudice I thought it was boring and didn't finish. A few years later I read it again, and it became and remains one of my all-time favourites. The first time I read Wuthering Heights I thought it was garbage. A few years later I had to read it for a class -- and while I will never count it as a favourite, I did come to appreciate it in many ways. That year I think I read it three or four times, and I wrote two papers on it. Perhaps I would have had more patience with The Thirteenth Tale if it weren't coming at the not-quite-end of a very stressful semester.

Of course, books can either suffer or shine depending on what books they're following. A book that's kind of run-of-the-mill will appear stellar if it follows a couple of flops, or like a pretty bad book if it follows a few that were brilliant. Some books are just tough acts to follow. 

Will I try reading The Thirteenth Tale again? I might. Evidently I loved it the first time around, and while I don't always agree with my past self's opinions, I'm still willing to hear them. What doesn't work at the end of the school year might work a month later on vacation or at the pool. Time will tell.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Yeah, I couldn't re-read it...