This is a guest post by Ashley Riordan. Ashley is a graduate student in California who works in a library, makes videos about books at climbthestacks.com, and blogs about reading, writing, and travel at ashleyriordan.com. Follow her on Twitter @climbthestacks.
I had an experience recently of not loving a book that means a lot to other people. I am a fan of Haruki Murakami, but Kafka on the Shore was not my favorite of his books. When I shared my personal experience of finding the book too long and not as powerful as his shorter novels, some people agreed with me, and others debated me, but a number of people tried to explain the book to me, as if I must have missed everything about it that is important.
I understand the instinct to explain and have undoubtedly been guilty of it in the past, but not understanding a book is not the only reason a person can have for not liking it. Everything that people offered in explanation was interesting to me, but it did not change my experience of the book. I liked many of the elements, I could see what Murakami was doing, but the story did not come together for me.
When a book matters to you, of course you want other people to appreciate it. You want to share in the experience of a book or somehow prolong your enjoyment of it by discussing it with other people. It’s nice to have your opinion validated and it can throw a relationship into question when two people disagree fundamentally about a book.
I think most of us accept as a basic fact that we all have different tastes, but so much rhetoric in defense of particular genres assumes that you must not have actually read that genre or, if you did read it, you must not have understood it. If you don’t like a story, the assumption can be that you don’t understand its context or cultural relevance. These arguments seem to rest on the idea that you can shame or talk someone into liking a book they did not enjoy reading.
This raises the question of how much context or history should contribute to the way we regard a book. My English professors were taught to consider only the text itself, but by the time they were teaching me, they were interested in at least discussing the personal history of an author, whether it was relevant to their writing or not. That information certainly can affect my reading of a book, but does it affect my enjoyment of it?
This question would be easier to answer if the author was any but Murakami, whose style has challenged me more than any other contemporary author. My deep American optimism at first made me resist his stories, which all seemed so lacking in hope and the possibility of transformation. My attitude to his writing did change slowly, but that happened as a result of reading further and not because someone explained to me why my initial reaction was wrong.
The best conversations I had about Kafka On The Shore were not with the people who explained to me why I should have loved it, but with the people who simply disagreed with me and explained why it mattered to them. They allowed me to have my own opinion and assumed a basic level of thoughtfulness on my part, instead of offering a condescending explanation that invalidated my personal experience.