The Book Meme: Day 5

My apologies for taking a day off, but frankly, after spending the last month prepping to move, moving to the new house, and cleaning/organizing the new house, all with a self-imposed deadline of Saturday night, when we hosted some friends for dinner... let's just say I needed a day off. But here it is, Monday, with the house still clean and a good deal more unpacked, so let's get back to the meme, shall we? 

Day 05 - A book or series you hate

The interesting aspects to this prompt are numerous. For one, there's the important question of whether you can truly hate a book you haven't finished. If you absolutely couldn't make yourself read the whole thing, that's certainly a sign that you hate the writing and/or the author, but you can't really say you've engaged with every aspect of the book. An example from my own experience would be Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. I spent something close to six weeks, including my spring break, trying to read this novel for my Victorian Literature class at the University of Manchester in early 1984. Over and over again I would crack it open, and over and over I would put it down, unable to continue. I never got past page 50.

Some might suggest that I was just too young to appreciate the density of James, or the depth of his thinking, or the advanced techniques of his fiction, but I have doubts about these theories. For one thing, by that time in my life, I had already read and enjoyed works by Hardy, Camus, Beckett, and Donne, among others. For another, when I had call to read James again, in grad school, after having completed works by Garcia Marquez, Toomer, and Swift, I found "The Beast in the Jungle" to be every bit as objectionable as those first parts of James's novel. Oh, I finished the story, make no mistake. I even earned honors for the scathing criticism I wrote about it. But though I felt certain about my dislike for James's writing, I can't say that I truly hated The Portrait of a Lady.

Another issue about hating books is that tastes change. It's certainly true of music. For a good deal of my high-school career and part of my college days, I really hated the Ramones. Their three-chord/all-rhythm approach to rock and roll rubbed me the wrong way, enamored as I was of complex musical and lyrical ideas like those found on Close to the Edge or Quadrophenia. There just didn't seem to be a lot of talent on display. 

My opinion began to change around the time I found a Ramones single in the playbox at WXYC. The A-side was a political screed called "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," which castigated Reagan for visiting a cemetery full of SS troops on a 1985 trip to Germany. It didn't do that much for me, though I did approve of the political sentiment. What caught my ear was the B-side, "Daytime Dilemma." Not only did it feature a good half-dozen chords, it had a varied and syncopated chorus, background harmonies, and the kind of melodic qualities that I find irresistible, especially when those sweet elements are combined with the raw, salty power of punk. That was the camel's nose for me, and soon I began admitting other Ramones songs into my tent. I knew "I Wanna Be Sedated," of course, but now when I listened to it I could hear the creative pop song under the posturing; there was even a key change, for god's sake. And soon I began to appreciate the band's humor and snarky aesthetic in a way I hadn't before. Eventually I gave up the pretense that I hated the Ramones and bought my own copy of Rocket to Russia.

But there is one book where my tastes haven't changed. It's also a book that I completed. Twice. I had to, as it was assigned to me in 11th grade English with Ms. St. John and again in grad school with Dr. Emerson. I've also seen the stage adaptation. In short, I know it pretty well. And it is not good. It is Billy Budd, Herman Melville's allegorical tale of the beautiful innocent boy whom fate leads to an inevitable bad ending after he is impressed to serve aboard a British warship and runs afoul of the laws of the sea. It is, as you might expect, Not Subtle. (Billy is impressed from a ship called The Rights of Man by a ship called the Bellipotent, for crying out loud.) I loathed it in high school, finding it the only objectionable book we read all year (and yes, that year I read and enjoyed The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, if you were wondering.) Still, when I picked Billy Budd up the second time, I reasoned that nearly a decade had passed since my first go-round, and that my skills as a reader and interpreter of literature had been considerably enhanced by that stretch of high-intensity study. I had a bachelor's degree now. Perhaps this time I would find something in Billy's story that I had missed as a callow youth.

I did not. The story still struck me as clumsy and obvious, the prose offered me no delight, and the best thing I could say about the book as a whole was that it was at least short. 

Since then I have read and been delighted by Edith Wharton's work, which some have suggested is a sign that I might appreciate James now. I have also had a number of colleagues try to turn me around on Melville, offering me shorter works to try and hook me. But so far, nothing has worked. As I get older, I have to weigh the possibility that my tastes have changed against the certainty that there are only so many books left for me to read. Given that limited selection, I am reluctant to take up a book by a writer whose work has proven to be distasteful to me when there are so many out there whose work I haven't had a chance to examine yet.

And also, I remember the handout Dr. Emerson gave to us as we were reading Billy Budd. It was a guide to Melville's more famous novel, Moby-Dick, listing which chapters the reader might want to skip while working through the novel. If a tenured professor feels a work of fiction should be traversed with the care one usually takes when crossing a mine field, I think I can afford to give it a miss. I don't need another book to hate.

0 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: The Book Meme: Day 5.

TrackBack URL for this entry:

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 9, 2018 9:15 AM.

The Book Meme: Day 4 was the previous entry in this blog.

The Book Meme: Day 6 is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 4.0