That Book You Loved? I Hated It

Whilst it doesn’t seem important at all in the great scheme of things that other people should enjoy the same stories we do, it’s often a moment of rupture and dissent to hear a friend express a negative opinion on a book we’ve loved. I’ve been planning for a while now to talk about why it should be so upsetting to have other readers dismiss a book that has brought us great pleasure or joy, when I noticed that the wonderful Nymeth had discussed it as a topic in her Sunday Salon (motivated by a post from C. B. James), saying that ‘We tend to feel personally invested in the books we love, as well as in the recommendations we make.’ I couldn’t agree more, and it intrigued me to think further about why this should be, why books should matter to us to this extent and what form that personal investment might take.

I was thinking about all of these things when I picked up Marshall Gregory’s Shaped By Stories again and found the next chapter was on literature as companionship. His argument is that we enjoy the company of others not just in the flesh but also in the mind. As the blogging community can testify, the fact that people have never met each other face to face doesn’t mean they can’t form meaningful and lasting relationships. The people we love in three dimensions aren’t with us all the time, and that doesn’t necessarily alter the quality of our affection.  Whether the companionship offered to us comes in the virtual form of a fictional narrative or a group of flesh and blood people, we tend to use the relationship in similar ways, comparing or corroborating desires and values, finding models of behaviour we admire or reject, embracing the insights and new perspectives on offer. In fact, we can do this more easily with a narrative in which the inner life of the characters is made transparent to us, as opposed to real people, whose motives and intentions we are often obliged to guess at.

When a story makes us feel welcome in it, when we feel at home for whatever reason, among friends, or if you’re that way inclined, beloved enemies, then we feel affiliated to it, we open ourselves up to it and belong. To describe this experience, Gregory calls to mind Northrope Frye’s ‘moods of identification’. Frye asks his students to imagine themselves on a desert island. Most of the time, he suggests, they may feel dislocated and homesick; but there would be moments when calm would descend: ‘in this Robinson Crusoe life I’ve assigned you, you may have moods of complete peacefulness and joy, moods when you accept your island and everything around you. […] they’d be moods of identification, when you felt that the island was a part of you, and you a part of it.’ This is the marvelous feeling of identifying with a story, with its inner landscape, if you like. Reading the right book offers a transformative experience of great peacefulness, acceptance and engagement, a moment of being in the flow, no longer separate from life but immersed in it without fear or threat. It’s the same experience as being with someone we dearly love, who makes us feel good and accepted. And so for someone else to dismiss this experience, to reject it, is not just saying, I didn’t like that book, but it’s saying, ‘I don’t like the spaces in which you feel completely at one with yourself’. And ‘I don’t like your best friends much, either.’

We can look even deeper at this experience by considering the act of reading itself. I’ve been working my way through Maryanne Wolf’s book Proust and the Squid: The story and science of the reading brain, and fascinating reading it’s been. We have no idea how complicated the neurological processes involved in reading are, and yet by late childhood we can accomplish them without a second’s thought – literally.

Wolf takes her reader through the child’s learning process as she lays down the mental tracks that will make reading possible. First of all she must learn to decipher letters and group them together phonetically. Then she must overcome the gap of reference between word and world. Whilst all this happens, her vocabulary is growing, her associations with words are expanding, and experience is offering her a mass of confused perceptions, emotions and feelings. When she comes to read a book properly, the result is the powerful confluence of all these different resources. When, as adults, we read a word, our brains sift through every single association provoked by it, in order to provide us with the right associations, the right feelings to guide us in the process of making sense. Our reading is underpinned by an unimaginable wealth of experience, built up since childhood, coloured by our unique sensory and emotional responses. When books speak to us, they hit the right notes in our vast memory banks, although we have no conscious knowledge of this happening at all. The process goes by much too fast for us to grasp it. But the books we love, for whatever reason, produce a symphony of associations in our minds of great resonance and beauty. When other readers don’t like the same books we do, it’s almost as if they are saying ‘I don’t like the way your mind works,’ or ‘I’m underwhelmed by your processes of association’, when of course all they really mean is that their own layers of life experience made for a different kind of response.

And finally, a thought about how books offer enlightenment and a projection of ourselves into the future. Adam Philips (a great favourite of mine), reminds us that when we talk about ourselves, we are working every day at the limits of our language, at the furthest reaches of our capacity for storytelling. By which he means that we’ve refined our stories of ourselves so that they are the best, the most accurate, they can possibly be. But as psychoanalysis testifies, there are always parts of our personal narratives that are opaque, painful and distressing. Philips describes how ‘People often come to psychotherapy these days suffering from translations of themselves that they don’t feel that they have corroborated in.’ He’s referring to the way that family, friends and acquaintances can all interpret our behaviour in ways that feel wrong, limiting, unkind or simply offensive. We’ve all been stuck in other people’s stories, playing the wrong character, or typecast in ways that seem to deny outrageously the experience we have of ourselves. So much of life is about being misrecognised and miscast.

Reading stories that speak to us can give us versions of ourselves that appeal and placate and enlighten. At the level of the sentence, they may give us words for feelings and experiences that had been only a bewildering blur. At the level of the story, they show us patterns of beliefs and emotions we can relate to, insights into our responses and reactions, possibilities for growth and choices we didn’t understand that we had. We can feel finally understood, represented, encouraged. But we might not know all of that whilst reading; there might only be a sense of rightness about the story, a sense of fit. When other readers don’t like this kind of book, it feels as if they’re saying ‘I don’t like the person you think you are’ or ‘I’m indifferent to the great sorrows and hopes that underpin your existence.’ And once again, the issue here is simply one of the uniqueness of each reader’s situation.

So when another reader doesn’t like the book you’ve fallen in love with, it isn’t a judgement on your being, on your friends, on your aspirations or on your experiences. It’s simply an indication that everyone is different. We bring to the reading experience great untapped reserves of memory and desire, opening ourselves up to stories in a way that is completely unique, expecting, and often finding there, so much of immeasurable worth. And that is really all that matters. That we find the treasures of comfort, recognition and understanding in our reading life, and hope that others, in their own way, will do the same too.

22 thoughts on “That Book You Loved? I Hated It

  1. I have a great deal of sympathy for this argument. I learn a lot from the dislikes of other people and value that variety. Although the argument also highlights why I try so hard to move away from likes and dislikes, the incommunicable part of my response to a book. I really want to know not whether some one likes a book, but whether he understands its. Then I will learn even more.

    And maybe I should warn people – I am judging, sometimes. Some people have bad flesh-and-blood friends, friends who are not good for them. Some people have bad book friends. And some treasures are false.

  2. This is a marvelous post. It makes me think of the fact that I simply do not recommend books to certain people — even if I love the person, I know we are too different for our tastes to coincide, and when something I love is misunderstood or dismissed, I feel misunderstood and dismissed. Similarly, my best friend and I exchange book recommendations all the time, and neither of us has ever misfired with the other. He introduced me to Cloud Atlas ; I introduced him to No Name . Our reading habits are quite different, but each of us knows that our needs as readers are exactly parallel, and so recommendations are always a safe form of communion that deepens our relationship.

    And on another note, I want this on a t-shirt: I’m underwhelmed by your processes of association

  3. What a great post, Litlove! I tend to get so emotionally invested in what I read–especially when I click with a book. I don’t mind so much when someone says they didn’t like it or get on with it as we really are so very different, but it’s when a reviewer will trash it–no holds barred that I do feel bad and start wondering why I feel the way I do and must be wrong. I’ve been thinking that I need to stand back more and become more analytical but it can be hard. If nothing else it’s nice to know there is a reason why I react the way I do and I have been trying to be better about not taking it all so personally! That Gregory book sounds like it’s full of all sorts of useful stuff by the way!

  4. What a wonderful exposition of the reading experience, Litlove, and the subtext of conversations about books. As a writer, I can’t be sure that my friends (chosen for other reasons) will even like my books, and I don’t take that personally unless…they “misinterpret” (ie differ from mine). It’s okay if they don’t like it, but not if they don’t get it, ie get me, and that applies to other books as well. I don’t mind if someone likes a book I dislike or hates a book I love, as long as it isn’t because they misrepresent (ie represent differently) the characters or situation when it’s one close to my heart. So next time I will bear your post in mind.

  5. I see that your blog, without change, has instantly served up an excellent and mind swirling array of thought and erudition. I feel that, however, having served a multi-course meal of ideas from different places, you may have allowed your wonderful rational, kind being to step aside a little. This of course may simply be a reaction to what I have been reading myself, more of which anon.
    Yes, I know you strive for rationality, clarity, decency, and to be honest, as a woman don’t have the same hormones as about half the population, including me, so having mentioned so many psychologically deep facets of reading and identifying things with one’s essential being [whether that exits or not], it could be that you don’t allow them a big enough role, even at a subconscious level.
    Here’s an unseasonal little story, probably not well written, but..
    So it’s Christmas, that time of generosity and kindness par excellence, and your lovely child has set his/her deepest desires on this year’s must have toy. Let’s say it’s a little princess, which at least on tv, dresses beautifully, lives in a land of dreams, dances gracefully with the prince, even though you know you are searching out yet another plastic replica of last year’s dream offering with a suitable twist. Yet, you know that in the hand of your child it will become that tv princess. So, having searched out dwindling supplies, put in a reservation, you arrive at the store, and having queued for several millennia you reach the till. The assistant presents the prize, but it is the wrong model, is the wrong product totally despite sporting the required unique identifying barcode, techno label designation, etc. As you accept the inevitable, smile resignedly, accept the profound apologies of the assistant, who after all only works here, and slouch away in a Christmas mood to die for, perhaps for a moment, a second, a microsecond, do you not, like your child, envision the machine gun on the wall, come to reality to eliminate the entire staff, the scale replica chieftan tank turned actual to reduce the store to bricks and rubble, the wonderfully evocative Wellington bomber equipped to eradicate the whole producing factory? Instead you slouch away to search the internet, phone the toyshops, in a desperate hope. And as you drive off, do you not vow never to darken these doors again, that next year, even if means crossing the Himalayas on a bicycle, that you will shop elsewhere?
    Later you will be rational, kind, considerate, especially if you have located the wonderful plastic object of a little person’s dreams and your own nightmares. Probably! And will you not deep down associate yourself with the name on a canal barge I passed other day, The Grumpy Git, and laugh.
    Perhaps I exaggerate, and I point out for accuracy that my children are teenagers now.
    But when you hear that opinion of the book you loved, which bit of you is responding, the bit you like to think of as your sensible, logical self, or something deeper and darker, and not so well known?
    So finally to say that I think the book I have just been reading, ‘Brodeck’s Report’ by Phillipe Claudel, is an insightful and fascinating study of the evil in mankind and how it flourishes, given nourishment and the fertile growing conditions that life can often provide. I think you might, maybe, just possibly, even if only a little bit, [hedging my bets], like it, and you could even read it in the original French, to boot!
    Hope I haven’t gone on too long!

  6. Wow, you all just never get tired of stating the completely bloody obvious like it’s some big fat insight, don’t you, eh?

  7. This is such a good post because it goes to the heart of what reading is about. I remember being horrified in bookclub when someone dismissed a book that I had liked. I felt they were dismissing me. But now I can see that the process of separating out self from others, and our likes and dislikes and feelings and hopes etc. from those of thers is a lifelong process. I’ve just been reading people’s responses to “To the Lighthouse” as part of the “Woolf in Winter” reading challange. There was such a sharp division between those who loved it and those who didn’t. But there was also an appreciation that everyone is different and that some books just don’t work for some people. I like to think that the book they didn’t like is different from the one I did since their reading experience is unique to them. Thanks for another great post. One to save and return to.

  8. Amateur reader – I see your feelings replicated in several of the other comments – that likes and dislikes are one thing, but whether the reader can show a deeper understanding of the book is quite another. I agree – and I think that that’s what happens to readers who have the benefit of a literary education (on the whole – apart from those who end up hating the books they have to read!). It’s focus is all about understanding the book from a neutral stance. And it’s okay to be judging, I think, so long as that judgement is owned. There’s a huge difference between saying ‘I felt this book didn’t work because of…’ to ‘This is a bad book.’

    David – lol! Now you’ve pointed it out, I’d like a t-shirt, too. I couldn’t agree more that some people’s recommendations sit perfectly with me whilst other people’s don’t so much, and this happens in a dependable way. And it isn’t about love and friendship, just neural pathways. You remind me I’d like to try Cloud Atlas, too.

    Danielle- oh those reviewers can be the worst when it comes to prejudices, throwaway judgements and just plain evil remarks. I went through a phase of being quite unable to read reviews in the papers because I couldn’t bear to see authority misused in that way. And I don’t think it matters who you are, if you love books, it’s wonderful when other people love them too, and disappointing when they don’t.

    Lilian – I think it must be ten times worse for writers. To have your book thoroughly misunderstood by a reader must just be galling. It’s fine if people say, oh that wasn’t my sort of thing, that’s not the kind of book I’d normally read. But to have to listen to them attributing you with motives and intentions that you disagree with. Ouch.

    Bookboxed – In fact, I could have done with a bit more there, my friend, to be absolutely sure what you are saying. What I can certainly say is that I’d like to read Broedeck’s Report (which I have heard lots of good things about), and that whilst I do think that we can split ourselves roughly into what’s readily available to consciousness and managed to some extent by reason on the one hand, and the dark, hidden depths on the other, I think that the contents and form of each are continually changing, and that there is no basic Ur-text or original that reveals the ‘true’ self. Which is why we can sometimes return to a book we didn’t like later in life, and find it quite transformed. So responses always come with a best before date, they are continually in flux, aided by the process of reading itself. I wrote this post from the perspective of the reader who felt wronged by the dissenting opinions of others, and was intending to show both how the wrong might feel, and how it might be possible to understand it otherwise. That may not have been clear! Do say if I have misinterpreted you.

    Troll person – oh you are probably quite right and it IS all very obvious. Such a shame then that you lacked the courage to put your name to this comment and a link to your blog. I would imagine that you write posts of amazing depths and rigor and I, for one, would have been very interested indeed to see the products of your incisive mind.

    Pete – I think that the experience of reading a really good book literally becomes a part of you, and that it is distressing to feel it dismissed out of hand by others. Woolf is certainly a writer who divides readers; she’s so particular. And I’ve been reading the posts of another blog group who were in opposition over Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It’s almost better to have a sharp divide like that, as then it becomes obvious how personal the responses are, and how some plot devices or characters trigger very negative responses.

  9. Love your post. I just started reading Satre’s Nausea and I’m up to the part when he describes how a persons’ yearning for an adventure manifests itself in the retelling of your life experiences as an anecdote with a clear beginning, climax and most importantly an ending. Satre goes on to say how deluded and out of touch with reality this is since life experiences aren’t structured in that way. I was mulling over that when I read your blogpost, and I think I agree with you in that without ‘anecdoting’ our experiences (which we learn to do from reading), we are unable to form a proper identity of ourselves (regardless of whether we yearn for adventure or not).

    How do you think Satre would react to your post then? Would he say that ‘true’ identity does not come from story-telling or forming anecdotal ‘adventures’ but from something else?

    Anyway, I’m not sure whether I should be asking such open-ended questions in the comments page – don’t feel like you have an obligation to answer it! Just wanted to point out a literary reference that might be interesting.

    I love your blog – especially all your insights on psychoanalysis and your reading workshops!

  10. pertinent post. Arts, especially the literary arts, are experienced on a communal basis- When someone asks: “What’s your favourite book?” they seek and hope for a common touchstone

  11. Oo, I’m excited to hear your thoughts on Proust and the Squid – it’s one of two books with Proust in the title on my list that don’t seem to have an enormous amount to do with Proust. 😛

  12. That makes so much sense — it explains the positive as well as the negative — why I feel so elated when somebody loves a book I love as well as disappointed when they don’t. When we agree, it’s as though we’ve gotten a glimpse into each other’s minds and recognized something there.

  13. You are, as ever, so right! I always tell people that different books strike different folks in different ways and don’t generally feel upset if someone dislikes something I enjoyed, or vice versa. Though I often wonder if my opinion is wrong…We do tend to leave little bits of ourselves floating around in the books we read (and they in us); the ones we care deeply about leave us vulnerable. Eons ago, I was required to read an essay on “The Phenomenology of Reading” which is far less homey than your Mr. Gregory, but makes a similar point: we become what we read as we read it. Small wonder then if we become protective, even defensive, of our favorites.
    As for playing a discomfiting role in someone else’s drama–oh yes.
    You have made some creaky old wheels start turning again. Thank you.

  14. I think this is one of my favorite posts of yours – one I will certainly print out and return to over time. I particularly like the discussion about people going to psychotherapy for translations of themselves they haven’t participated in – I often feel that way, myself. Additionally, I do become very attached to books I particularly enjoy and can’t believe it when someone else doesn’t like my recommendation – that is why I tend to lend most of my books to my brother – our tastes run along the same lines.

  15. “So much of life is about being misrecognised and miscast.”

    Heh, I feel this way every time I go visit my parents in CA. I’ll be visiting the end of March and I have already begun to dread it. Anyway, so what does it say about me that if people don’t like or dislike the same books as me I think there is something wrong with them? 😉

  16. Irving – thank you for your lovely comment, and I’m always delighted to find a reader interested in the reading workshops and the psychobabble (which are some of my favourite posts to write, too!). As for Sartre, that’s a tricky question. But I think he might be interested in the way that reading a book becomes an act that’s subsumed into our identity. He would see it as a trap for mauvaise foi, or ‘bad faith’, that we might say ‘I only read THIS genre of books’, or ‘I always respond to books THIS way’. And then reading would be something else we’d use to bolster our sense of self and impose it on others (which is what he thought we were all trying to do). He wasn’t much interested in the psychoanalytic perspective, so I’m guessing that this would have to be the angle that would intrigue him!

    eeleenlee – that’s very true. I was reading about the critic F. R. Leavis the other day, and he said that the basic interchange over a book went along the lines ‘That’s so, isn’t it?’ to which the answer would be ‘Yes, but..’ Leavis was a big arguer, and a formidable literary critic, though, so he would be bound to put conflict, even of the most gentle and benign nature first. However, he felt that in the interaction over books, communities were forged and progress was made in thought and ideology. So whatever the route through books, the result ought to be the same.

    Jenny – lol! There’ve been a rash of books that use Proust without referring so very much to the literature, it seems to me. I’ve enjoyed it a lot, anyhow, and it’s well worth a read (the Maryanne Wolf, that is!).

    Dorothy – I love the way you put that. I think that’s exactly the basis of shared appreciation of books – the glimpses into other reader’s minds.

    ds – I will have to look that essay up as I don’t know it. But I like the idea of becoming the book as we read it, and think that it is quite true. In a moment-to-moment sort of way, we are the products of our consciousness. I’m really interested in what happens in that moment when we wonder whether we’ve been wrong to judge a book the way we have. I’ve experienced that feeling enough myself! And it feels very precarious for a moment, before some sort of stability reasserts itself. You see, you give me a lot to think about too! 🙂

    Courtney – oh thank you! That’s so lovely to hear! I don’t think I have ever lent my brother a book in my life – our tastes are radically different. But then, so different that I don’t think it would ever upset me to find that we’d had opposing reading experiences! 🙂 It’s always a pleasure to find someone whose taste truly coincides with one’s own.

    Stefanie – lol! I like your way of thinking about that difference of opinion a lot. So much so, I shall instantly adopt it. We must all help you plan some fabulous reading to take with you on your trip so that you can have titrated doses of relaxation, distraction and encouragement! 🙂

  17. Went away to think about this a bit, LL, and I’ve concluded I quite like wildly divergent views… perhaps I’m always bruising for a bookish sort of blue, but back before book club went belly-up, nothing was more pleasing to me than a book that produced wildly different responses. It’s so exciting, and such a good reminder that reading remains a deeply personal, subjective experience despite our best and constant efforts to share it. Having said that, it’s a body blow whenever someone I like and respect hates a book I adored enough to recommend. It’s the backfiring recommendation that really kills me, because it creates these vast doubts about how well we really know each other (‘Why on *earth* would she think I’d like *this* boring, wanky crap?’) – it’s the dread phenomenon of Christmas gift-giving all over again.

  18. Like Courtney, I love the idea of people going to therapy because they are victims, so to speak, of other peoples’ stories. Contrary to what “Anonymous” said, that (despite having been a psychology major and also being one who goes on and on about how we make sense of our world through stories) was never “bloody obvious” to me. But I guess I’m just thick.

    I’ve noticed a male/female difference when it comes to responses to books I’ve recommended that my friends didn’t like. It seems my female friends will hem-and-haw a bit and maybe not QUITE admit that they think I’m nuts for loving something and will try to find something good to say about it. My male friends tend just to come right out and say, “I don’t know how you could have liked that crap. I didn’t.” Now, see, that makes perfect sense if it’s all about relationships, doesn’t it? Because women, according to all the psychologoical and brain studies, are supposed to be the ones who are all about living in relation to others.

  19. I’ve been thinking a lot of this post for days and now that I’m going thru everyone’s responses to To the Lighthouse and wondering how people get intimidated by authors – well, it just fascinates me beyond articulation. WHY do I like stream of consciousness books, why do I not care if a book has ‘plot’ or not, what does one mean by ‘plot’ anyway? and how can a book that hooked me so be considered boring by another? by someone I respect? it’s endless and so fun. But mostly, in my new infatuation of Woolf, I wonder if knowing too much before I attempt her next book and learning more through very learned discussions – is it positively influencing my enjoyment? the whole experience and backgrounds and expection conundrum. I will never know, I think.

  20. While reading this post, I recalled a conversation I had on an airplane with a charming and studious-looking young lady. She had a degree in literature and so we were talking about 19th and early 20th century novels, and I had excitedly just brought up Portrait of a Lady when she exclaimed, “Oh, I hate Henry James!” with an emphasis on “hate”. Since I had just met her, and since she knew nothing about me, I didn’t feel slighted in the least. In fact, we spoke about books for close to 2 hours afterward, and she suggested that I should try reading Jacques Derrida. I’m still working on that, really, _really_ slowly, because Derrida is so difficult for me.

    I think that, if it was someone I knew intimately, someone whose thoughts I cared a lot about, then I would have felt really bad. And as someone who always gives one book recommendation too many, these situations arise far too often for my liking. Bertrand Russell, I am sorry that I have not promoted you convincingly enough!

    From your last paragraph:
    “We bring to the reading experience great untapped reserves of memory and desire, opening ourselves up to stories in a way that is completely unique, expecting, and often finding there, so much of immeasurable worth. And that is really all that matters. That we find the treasures of comfort, recognition and understanding in our reading life, and hope that others, in their own way, will do the same too.”
    I relate closely with this and think that I should put more emphasis on “And that is really all that matters”. Without that, it is so hard to take when someone summarily scorns one’s recommendation.

  21. What an interesting post. The idea of our enjoyment of a particular piece of prose comes from how it evokes associations of our own fits very well with what we now know about how memory works. A memory is not stored as a single unit, but as a pattern of firing neurons. When we retrieve a memory, we attempt to recreate that pattern – we literally send electrical impulses along pathways until they resolve into a network which requires the least energy to maintain, because it is well established. By this model, the associations generated by reading will very nearly match our own neural patterns, built up over millions of individual experiences. Hence the sensation of deep identification when the author “hits” with words which evoke our own past.
    Perhaps that’s a little too reductive for some people, but it’s what is actually going on in our brains at that moment.
    And it also makes sense in terms of the idea that rejection of our favourite books can feel like a rejection of ourselves. If a piece of writing works for us because it very nearly fits our own experience, someone who doesn’t “get” it is saying that they don’t “get” us, and in perhaps the most basic way – at the level of our very neurons.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s