This is a guest post from Nicole Mulhausen, who tends a large garden and reads and writes in the maritime Pacific Northwest.
I used to meet every month with several lady friends for what we called our Fake Book Club. We’d have dinner together and discuss whatever we happened to be reading. Or not—sometimes we’d just gab.
One night we met at a dark and moody restaurant that serves drinks with fancy names that sound like they were lifted from a P.G. Wodehouse story. A new gal had joined us that evening, Kate. At that time I was on a YA dystopian jag, trying to understand what all the fuss was about. I’d just finished Divergent, and had decided not to continue with the series.
“It’s just… bad. So, so bad.”
“Oh, no!” said Kate. And she reached out, imploringly, or perhaps drunkenly, and touched my forearm. “That’s a good book! It’s wonderful!”
We looked at each other a long moment. Her face was open and earnest. I had a sense of a huge gulf between us. I was gobsmacked.
She went on to describe why she thought the book was so marvelous—she and her daughter had enjoyed deep and engaged conversation about “the themes.” And while I disagreed with her about the specific “themes” she mentioned I heartily approve of curiosity and connecting with our teenagers. If Divergent helped pave the way for conversation, well, who am I to judge?
But that doesn’t change my mind. Interesting premise, okay pacing and structure, but I still think the writing is subpar. But so what? I gobbled it up; I enjoyed hating it. “Enjoyed” being the operative word. Later I read The Maze Runner and enjoyed hating it even more! I gleefully ripped through all three books, picking out non-metaphors and awkward, meaningless sentences that one might use as examples of dreadful writing in an English class.
Books don’t have to be high literature to be enjoyable. And just because they’re enjoyable doesn’t mean I have to agree with Kate. I just can’t bring myself to call Divergent a “good” book. And while the writing in The Maze Runner appalled me, it seemed quite obvious that it would make a fine movie. Value and quality don’t always align.
And it goes the other way, too. The first time I read the Iliad, arguably an important work in the canon of “great” books, I got to the scene where Achilles is crying by the river—“Mommy! Mommy! He stole my concubine!”—and I thought, “If this is the foundation of Western civilization, we are screwed!” I was able to appreciate many things about that work, and there were a few moving scenes, but, frankly, reading it was torture. There were just far too few bits for me to enjoy hating. Maybe it was the wrong time in my life to read it. Someday I might give it another whirl, and it’s possible I would find that second reading pleasurable.
So I keep at it. I try to find something of value in each book I read, and I try to read widely. All the young adult dystopian books, the terrible and the fine, tell us something about who we are, culturally, and what we fear, and what we think adolescence is all about. Award-winning “high” literature tells us something about what we value, about our identity. (Or, perhaps, about the values of the committee conferring the honors—but that’s another topic altogether.)
I never saw Kate again. Our little Fake Book Group disbanded, and I sometimes miss those conversations. I sensed that Kate and I probably would not have become friends, but I enjoyed meeting someone whose perspective was so vastly different from mine. I enjoyed hearing her articulate her ideas. And every opportunity to practice navigating a disagreement with civility and kindness is “good.”