Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Reading What You Ought To

Okay, I'm going to confess. I've given up on Henry James. I started reading What Maisie Knew because so many people told me I 'ought' to and struggled along with it. I liked the contrast between the innocent child's viewpoint and the machinations of the adults squabbling and lying and manipulating over her head, but it's wordy beyond belief and Maisie herself has no more personality than a mass produced rag doll. I am afraid that I will never know what exactly it was that Maisie knew.

Other books I've given up on include Finnegan's Wake, To The Lighthouse, Middlemarch, although I have read War and Peace it was a very long time ago, and I don't intend to have a re-read any time soon. More recently I've started, but not finished, Midnight's Children, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and The Raj Quartet.

Just writing the words above makes me feel a bit guilty, as if I've failed some important test. And maybe for some people I have. But why? We can't read everything on the planet, and even if we could, why should we? Reading novels is about entertainment, and there seems to me to be no reason why what entertains me should entertain you, and vice versa.

It also takes no account of the life stages we go through. In my teens I started with Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy, then gobbled down detective novels, followed by science fantasy before moving on to the complete works of Anthony Trollope in my 20s. In my 30s I read gardening books and lifestyle magazines - but I haven't touched either for years. I've changed my tastes over time and why not?

Being told I 'ought' to read something puts me against it. I'm sure I didn't like The Artist as much as other people seem to have done because all the reviews implied that you 'ought' to, so that put me in a resistant mood from the start.

I would agree that you ought to be kind to those weaker than oneself, or that you ought not to lie or steal or cheat, but reading isn't some moral decision. It can be informative, thought-provoking, mind-expanding and utterly absorbing, but it is, at heart, a form of entertainment. And there's no ought about it.

15 comments:

penny simpson said...

Coming from the person who forced me to read Angela's Ashes as part of my course...!

Trust me,it is better to stuff a mushroom or peel broad beans than read Midnight's Children. But War and Peace I found gripping, and 'Kevin' is my masterpiece!

Anonymous said...

I once heard an interesting anecdote from the classroom.

Boy: 'I'm better at reading than you. I'm best at maths in the class. We have a house in France. etc etc..'

Other boy, after long, sage, silence, 'That's fine. But are you as good at being you as I am at being me?'

That says it all and I can't read Vikram Seth, whatever they say. It's not me. Jacky

Jean Bull said...

I tried with The Children's Book by AS Byatt. I really did. In 2010, it was one of those books everyone said you should enjoy, but not me! I didn't get past the first chapter or two.

Sally Zigmond said...

Thank God we can't all like the same things. I cannot read any Henry James but I love To The Lighthouse. And I positively loathed One Day that every one else raves about. There is so much variety out there so why should we feel guilty? I blame school and over-jealous teachers!

I also dig my heels in and will not read anything someone else raves about. I have to discover books for myself.

JO said...

Interesting what strong feeling some books can engender - I loved One Day (Sally hated it) but A Visit From the Goon Squad left me questioning my sanity!

(And I enjoyed What Maisie Knew!)

Marilyn Rodwell said...

I totally agree with you! Lately I have decided that when you get a little older, life is too short to waste. Teenagers should read everything though!!;) But I've recently given up on The Stranger's Child ...long listed for last year's Booker. It was so annoying and full of a ridiculous use of adverbs ...e.g. (all in one paragraph)- self-righteously, very properly and smilingly, very touchingly, slowly and determinedly. And this is all the way through, added to the superfluous language of other sorts.

docstar said...

I've often felt stupid because other writers are talking about various books that I haven't even heard of - so I look them up and decide I'll just have to remain stupid because they don't even sound inviting. I read what I like to write, and write what I like to read. If it ain't Tolstoy, big deal.

penny simpson said...

I'm with you on One Day, Sally. I think the thing I disliked most was it's dishonesty, pretending to be some super profound piece of wonderful writing which it most emphatically is not. I'd always liked David Nicholls but One Day to me had filmscript written all over it and I felt the author was somehow ashamed of it because the characters were so wooden. But, one has to admit, it was a great idea. I think I also often take against books that people laud to the skies. Before I Go to Sleep would be the latest - there is a really heated debate amongst Amazon reviewers and a good percentage think it is tosh. Worse, it is badly written tosh and at a level of technical competency that wouldn't make it to a junior writing class. Oh well, touch of the green-eyed monster I expect!

Diane Fordham said...

Hi Sarah. I do agree. I usually give a book a good go and hang in there, but I do have my limits. :0

Sarah Duncan said...

Really fascinating to see what works for some people, and doesn't for others. Love Vikram Seth and I liked One Day, but I know that was in part because of the cleverness of the basic idea.

It just goes to show, we're all different and we should celebrate our differences, not make value judgements based on them.

And Penny, apologies for Angela's Ashes - I'd forgotten I used to use it for a class (ambles off to the shelf and thinks, hmm, well this could be something I could teach on Friday...)

Penny said...

Good post! Much in favour of banning 'oughts' of all kinds.
Penny
[reading and loving it, Am I Too Loud? by revered accompanist Gerald Moore... a book that was recommended to me around 1960!!]

Marina Sofia said...

Ha! Well done! Say it loud and fearless! There is no 'ought' in reading. I hate the herd instinct. But sometimes books we've put off for years can surprise us. I had resisted Orhan Pamuk's 'My Name is Red' ever since he won the Nobel Prize... And neither the multiple narrators nor the blurbs on the back cover (medieval arabesque, exotic and august) encouraged me to persist with it. However, I just picked it up a few days ago and gave it an honest try... and I am hooked now!

Graham said...

I wouldn't recommend Henry James's Portrait of a Lady. Had to do that as part of some set reading, once. In a word, excruciating.

I feel much the same about Middlemarch. But when there are so many other fantastic Victorian authors to enjoy, I think we're allowed a few foibles...

womagwriter said...

Finally, I've met another writer who gave up on Middlemarch. My inability to finish that book has long been my guilty secret. Thankyou for 'coming out'!

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree with you in principle but I disagree when you say that “reading novels is about entertainment.” It can also be about education. On the whole I dislike easy reads—I don’t find I get much out of them and often regret the time wasted on them—whereas a book that I feel the need to reread (and when doing so get more out of) is something I relish. I like to be stretched when I read. Of course it’s all about what people find entertaining. I’m struggling to get people to review my latest book because they think it’s going to be a hard read. I think that’s rather sad to be honest especially because it’s anything but a hard read.

There are though a few books I’ve given up on: the second volume of Don Quixote, Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man, Gertrude by Hermann Hesse and War and Peace but I was only about ten and it was a very long book.