On the Perils of Feeling Dumb While Reading

It’s happened to all of us. You pick up a book you’ve been looking forward to, a “smart” book that everyone and their mother has loved, settle down with it, start reading, and . . .

You hate it.British Library

Or maybe you don’t hate it, but you certainly don’t love it like everyone else seems to. And you can’t help but ask yourself, “Is it me? Am I just not smart enough for this book?”

It’s happened to all of us. And what’s worst about it isn’t the self-doubt or the fact that you spent time on a book that you really wanted to love and just didn’t. It’s the people that make you feel like you’re an idiot, like you just didn’t get it and don’t have the wisdom or knowledge or mental capacity to appreciate it, and obviously that’s why you didn’t like it.

Now, there probably are certain books where this is indeed the case. For example, if you’re an English teacher and pick up a mid-level book about quantum mechanics without any introduction to the subject, yes, you’re probably out of your league. You likely just don’t get it. That doesn’t mean you can’t, but you picked up the wrong book for your knowledge level. But when it comes to popular fiction, to Margaret Atwood and China Mieville and Haruki Murakami, why do people feel as though, if I didn’t love the book they did, I’m just dumber than them? (Disclaimer: I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Margaret Atwood, I tried Kraken by China Mieville and found it DRAGGED, and I’ve never read anything by Murakami.)

This has happened to me many times, but the most recent was with the book American Gods by Neil Gaiman. You all probably know Neil Gaiman: author/nerd god and pretty much beloved by all. I’ve read a few of his books and really enjoyed them (Neverwhere is really awesome). But when I picked up American Gods, a novel about a man who basically goes on a road trip rounding up the old gods of mythology for battle, it just didn’t work for me. It plodded along, without any sort of direction; it was slow and boring. I muddled through it to the best of my ability, but something did just not click for me.

But this was Neil Gaiman. Everybody LOVED Neil Gaiman. Everything he touched turned to gold.

Was it just me?

So I got on Twitter to discuss my middling feelings about the book. And of course, someone was waiting there to tell me that, yes, it was just me. I was stupid and didn’t appreciate the book’s complexity because I didn’t have the proper background to appreciate it.

It wasn’t said in so many words, nor so confrontationally: more of a “Well, I’ve read quite a bit of mythology and so I was able to appreciate the allusions and metaphors.” (You can imagine this person also drinking tea with a pinky finger raised and turning up their nose at pretty much everything.)

The fact is that I’ve read a lot of mythology as well. I have the background and the knowledge, and dammit, I am smart enough for this, or any other, book. But it didn’t work for me. And that’s okay. Not every book is going to click for everyone; that doesn’t mean you aren’t smart enough for the book you’re reading. It just means you’re smart enough to come up with your own opinion, separate from the masses.

Has this ever happened to you? What book did people make you feel as though you weren’t smart enough for?

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