I enjoy most books, even though I champion a small few. For the overwhelming majority of books, I enjoy them in the immediate aftermath, yet the details fade with time. These are ones I liked, but know won’t stay with me forever.
Then, there are books I feel strongly about. Like Interpreter of Maladies or Discourse on Colonialism, they may be books that I can revisit time after time, or books that inspire me to read more from a specific author or region. But like Catcher in the Rye or The Awakening, they may be books I remember for a different reason altogether. They’re the books whose reviews never see the light of day.
The older I get, the more I realize the value in that last category of books– the books that you want to toss out an open car window. I probably don’t have the mental fortitude to reread them, but learned from them all the same. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from books I disliked:
1.) How to refine future book choices: This is a given, but may be one of the most important of all, right? If books were romantic partners, I’d have learned from Catcher that I just don’t do well with whiny men (true story: I really don’t). The analogy is strange, but it holds true. Each bad book brings you closer to finding one you’ll hold dear. Perhaps it’s learning from one book that fantasy isn’t your genre, or learning from another that you can’t tolerate books with cheating as a major facet of the plot. Either way, you’re optimizing your internal Netflix algorithm until you learn you like “coming of age animal tales” or “Latin-American forbidden love” novels.
2.) The value of constructive criticism: Nothing will teach how to differentiate hurtful commentary from legitimate criticism and personal taste quite like reading a book you dislike. do I dislike Holden because he just gets on my nerves or do I dislike him because he reminds me how real white wealthy privilege is in society? Perhaps because he’d probably hate me, too. The difference is important, and not something easily learned from books you love.
3.) How [not] to write: Having tested out of the courses, I didn’t take a single English or writing course in college or graduate school. It sounds like a humble brag, but it’s really not– the reality is that it’s been a very long time since I’ve been instructed on the nuances of the English language. Books are my English courses. Fantastic books are reminders of language’s potential, while awful ones are…not. As always, negative examples are the ones that stick around the longest.
4.) How [not] to tell a story: This is similar to the previous point, with a crucial difference. Knowing how to write does not make someone a good storyteller. Sometimes I’m struck by how authors can have correct grammar, yet still leave behind a lackluster story. I haven’t taken a creative writing class (although high school script writing courses came close at times), but books have illustrated how essential structure and characters are to a book. This is how a griot can theoretically never have written a word in their life, yet still be the best story teller in the region.
5.) Not every book is written for me: Not every book will be one I adore, because not all authors are writing with me in mind. The idea that not everything is for you or me requires finesse, walking the line between something having a target audience, and being purposely exclusionary. This addresses the first, not the second. Some authors, Toni Morrison being one of them, write to speak to a culture, or to a specific group of people. Reading books I dislike sometimes means acknowledging that I wasn’t in that group. It could be something as simple as a preferred age range, but could also be unfamiliar cultural jokes, idioms, or vocabulary that adds to its authenticity for those who understand. Sometimes, it’s not obvious. When I read Between the World and Me (not a book I hated, by the way), I understood immediately that this book was not actually written for Coates’ son (he later stated this in an interview). His son, like other African-Americans, had learned much of this at a younger age. Yes, this book was partly to validate black male experiences. Really, it was to enlighten non-black people at the same level of understanding as a young child. Saying the book was for his son was a literary device. Coates had taught me a valuable lesson: understanding the true audience of a book can upend your feelings about it.
6.) That even my favorite authors have an off day: Thanks to SciFi & Scary for this comment, which reminded me that not all books I’ve hated have been by authors I’ve habitually disliked. Their worst books, where they likely tried something new or different, illustrate that even the best authors don’t always hit home runs with their books. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that every Toni Morrison book won’t be Beloved. I’m not perfect, and neither are they.
As much as I hate to say it, I’ve learned an awful lot from my least favorite books. Life is too short to keep reading books you hate out of obligation, but its worth noting that there are benefits to reading books with which you disagree. That said, sometimes you have to just throw it out the window.
Do y’all have anything to add? Ever learned something from a book or author you didn’t like?