Image: Detail from Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pollice Verso, 1872 [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At the completion of every Books@Work program, we try to talk to as many participants as we can to understand their experiences and their perspectives on the program, the professors and the books. Often we hear how much participants enjoy the books, but invariably there is at least one book that doesn’t please the reader. It would be safe to assume that we could simply excise that book from our “library,” but often, no single book can be identified.
In a recent set of interviews, for example, we talked to a group of participants that read a wide variety of books, from Bram Stoker’s Dracula to a newly published book of short stories by a local author. Dracula elicited a wide array of responses from “I couldn’t finish the book because it was so hard to get into,” to “I loved the book so much that I was angry when I watched the film because it didn’t do justice to the book.” So do we keep or cut Dracula from our offering?
“Likes” and “dislikes” are the currency of our digital world. But one of the most limiting questions one can ask when considering the impact of a book is “did you like it?” We’ve never met a reader (ourselves included!) that has not, at some point, fallen into this trap. While this may feel like a good icebreaker, it has a “chilling” effect on the rest of the conversation.
Whether a reader likes or dislikes a book rarely gets to the value of having read it. Said more specifically, the author takes us on a journey of his or her creation. We, as readers, choose to go on that journey, reshaping and reconstructing it to make it our own. But declaring our preference often takes us to the end state of our reflection, as if to suggest that a less enjoyable book cannot change us – much less take us on a journey of exploration or understanding. This short-circuits one of the most valuable reasons for reading: to encounter and experience the “other.”
A different group began Books@Work with Annie Proulx’ Close Range: Wyoming Stories, a book of stories made famous by the film adaptation of the story, “Brokeback Mountain,” When we went to talk to the participants – seven months later – they were, to a one, at pains to tell us how much they disliked the book. Every single participant! But as the conversations unfolded, many reflected on the powerful impact of the book’s dark stories and the challenging characters, looking back with more appreciation for the author’s efforts. In an odd way, the strong response was part of the group’s cohesion: a pride of completion and a sense of community that came from disliking that book together. And several of the participants were surprised at how much they had to say about a book that, at first blush, was more effort than pleasure. But most importantly, by opening themselves to appreciating a book they initially didn’t like, they learned a great deal about themselves – and about each other.
Well-reported research links reading literature with strengthening empathy, permitting readers to step into the shoes of others and to try on new experiences. To be truly empathetic, shouldn’t we suspend disbelief when a story pushes out of our comfort zones, challenges our worldviews or takes us someplace hard to go?
Then, how can we change the narrative? Perhaps instead of asking ourselves whether we “liked” a particular book, we might ask, “what is this book asking of us?” or, to honor the journey, “where is this book taking us?” In my case, I find that asking myself these broader questions keeps me in a book long enough to take a true measure of its impact, sometimes even keeping me long enough to transform an initial negative reaction to a deeply meaningful outcome. It can often mean not giving up on a hard-to-get-into book too soon.
We’d love to know what you think about reading books you don’t like. How do you make them worth your while?