This is not a thinkpiece about not needing to apologize, excessive apologizing, etc. There are lots of those. Google should have your back. This is about the stages of talking about what you love: here, specifically, literature. And, specifically, embracing what books you love, unapologetically.
I saw a tweet recently that said the person was so mad that Infinite Jest was trending, she couldn’t even think of something funny to say. I’m not sure of her specific complaint about the book, but, yes, it has plenty of flaws, and it’s one of the most polarizing novels I can think of. Is anyone lukewarm about that one?
My response: I love that a book can make someone have such a charged reaction. And I love that it’s trending! Not that I had anything to say about it in 140 characters.
The three stages of loving a book that I’ve come up with are: 1) Exuberant like/dislike, often forged with some sort of specific identity as a factor. 2) Increased awareness of what it’s “acceptable” to like/dislike, and mumbling over specifics when quizzed about things not en vogue. 3) Saying forget it and just liking what you like, no apologies.
Which isn’t to say be offensive: your favorite book will not and cannot be someone else’s favorite. You really can’t convert everyone to a book or author, and it can get very annoying if you try. There’s a difference between recommending something (if someone asked, if you know the person and think they’d like it) and beaning people on the head with a particular book.
It also doesn’t mean that you should insult other people’s taste in books (of course, if you know them well and do this facetiously, it can be a great deal of fun . . .). I had my second conversation with someone I don’t know at all (have only met in passing) who is working his way through all of Sherlock Holmes, which sounds dreadful to me. I don’t know this guy, but I can tell he’s extremely enthusiastic– extremely unapologetic.
However, I talked to someone Sunday (another stranger) who asked what I was reading (Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?— rereading, and if you have my original proof copy, I want it back). After some discussion, we arrived at the point that she would be interested in that one, and she took down the title and author. I was pleased, because I would certainly love to bean people with that book. (cough, cough, recommendation)
Back to apologizing and Infinite Jest. The book has to be something to have sprawled one of the most comprehensive sites on the internet. And a considerable number of venomous sites. Does the book have a considerable number of problems? Yes. Do I like it anyway? Yep.
I’m reading Artful right now and came across this passage written by Katherine Mansfield, inside Aaron’s Rod by D.H. Lawrence: “There are certain things in this book I do not like. But they are not important, or really part of it. They are trivial, encrusted, they cling to it as snails to the underside of a of a leaf– no more,– and perhaps they leave a little silvery trail, a smear, that one shrinks from as a kind of silliness. But apart from these things is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig. All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.” (p. 87)
There are certain things in IJ (or any book) I do not like. They may or may not be important/part of it (I’m suspicious of that particular claim, along with the triviality, frankly). I do love the idea that the book is the leaf, the tree, that nourishes the reader. That, for awhile, readers are able to suspend some qualms (in a moment) and be nourished, though I’d argue that engaging the problematic parts of a text is part of the nourishing process.
No text is conceived and born without faults. There is no Ur-Text with no flaws to critique. There is also the simple progression of time: time moves on, and texts very frequently don’t age well (or become encumbered with new critiques). Frequently, there is a manner of degree involved here, but save that for you and your friends to debate over coffee. That’s a separate post.
I only want to say that there is no such thing as a perfect text, something inherently polished and perfect. Some flaws are celebrated, some need to be discussed. This keeps book reviewers in business, and this makes literature interesting. It’s also why you can say “A really means a lot to me, because of XYZ,” and agree when someone shrieks (or tweets) in protest.
It also means that you can dislike something but have a civil (if superficial) conversation with a stranger. I’m venting now, after all. And things will balance when you have a somewhat deeper conversation with yet another stranger.
If books are a language we can share, don’t shout each other down in that language, and don’t just mumble apologies about what you love and drift into the corner. Keep talking, keep sharing.
These are the books that are lying on the sofa that really, really needs cleaning up, because it looks like a bookmobile exploded. Recommendations? Things to avoid? Up to you:
- Artful, Ali Smith
- The World Is on Fire, Joni Tevis [recommended to me]
- Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
- modern American poetry anthology, because my complete Wallace Stevens is AWOL
- Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh [recommended to me]