The Benefits of Reading a Book You Don’t Like

A.J. O’Connell is the author of two published novellas: Beware the Hawk and The Eagle & The Arrow. All she’s ever wanted to do in life is read and write books. Despite earning an MFA in creative fiction, she remains a huge dork for sci-fi, fantasy and comic books. She blogs at www.ajoconnell.com. Follow her on Twitter @ann_oconnell.

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There is an expectation, if you’ve gone to grad school for literature or writing (or if you hang out in Very Serious Literary Circles) that you’re going to love certain books or authors. Except here’s my problem: I don’t.

How many times, over a glass of wine after a reading or an event, have I heard someone rave about Sylvia Plath or Graham Greene? And as my colleague talks about this love of hers, heads around the table to bob in agreement and I begin to feel like an imposter, remembering that time I put down The Heart of the Matter in favor of reading a few chapters of The Hunger Games.

Here’s the confession I keep to myself at these events: I find Plath’s work deeply unpleasant. Whenever I pick up The Bell Jar, I dislike both the protagonist and the author. The prose is beautiful and the story compelling, but I can’t read more than a few pages at a time. I do not like it.

You know what I do like? Jurassic Park. There are dinosaurs, what’s not to like? But while I recognize that Michael Crichton was at the top of his genre, it’s an understatement of apatasauron proportions to say that his prose is not as good as Plath’s.

Recently I mentioned this to my brother. He’s a voracious reader. We regularly trade Stephen King and Patrick Rothfuss novels. When I brought up my struggles with Plath, he looked at me like I’d sprouted dragon wings.

“If you don’t like it,” he said, getting to the heart of the issue in one sentence, as always, “why are you reading it?”

All of a sudden I was defending Plath and The Bell Jar.

I did a lot of thinking after that conversation. I even brought it up to the people in my Very Serious Literary Circle. Everyone had something to say about whether personal taste has a place in a serious discussions of literature, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of my Very Serious Literary Friends share my tastes.

So, why read something if you don’t like it?  Here are a few answers:

If you study literature, you should read widely. You’ll be able to communicate more with your colleagues if you share common experiences. You don’t have to like Wuthering Heights, but your peers will have read it, and if you want to join the conversation about gothic literature, it helps to have read as much as you can in that area.

You can love an author’s prose and hate their content, or vice versa. For example, Joan Didion is one hell of a writer. If she described a crushed soda can for 10 pages, I would read it and think soda cans were beautiful for the rest of time. But I really don’t enjoy the plot of her novel Play It As It Lays. The story doesn’t hold my attention, but the way she tells it does.

I think the best reason to read something you don’t like is to learn from it. When I was studying for my MFA, we were told (rightly) never to say that we liked or disliked a book, but to explain what worked or didn’t work.

Why? Well, it wasn’t helpful to say, “I hated Ethan Frome,” and leave it at that. You don’t learn anything from a statement like that. If you can explain what it was about Ethan Frome that makes a reader uncomfortable, that’s the beginning of a productive conversation.

You don’t even have to be learning about literature or writing when you read something you don’t like. Wuthering Heights taught me about an era. The Heart of the Matter taught me about life in Sierra Leone. The Bell Jar is helping me to understand a certain brand of despair.

I don’t have to like it, but I’m learning from it.

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