Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Book Delusion

This isn't the Dawkins post that I intended to write today, but it seemed to good to pass up. The NY Times has a book section interview with Richard Dawkins. Most of it, frankly, is pretty pedestrian and underscores that Dawkins is a fairly predictable reader and thinker. One part that struck me (and apparently the editors too as they included it in the sub-headline) is his response to the question: "Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?"

Dawkins' response is:
“Pride and Prejudice.” It must be my prejudice, and I am not proud of it, but I can’t get excited about who is going to marry whom, and how rich they are.
His reaction to Austen's classic seems to fit well with his other answers, in that he seems a fairly literal reader and the fiction he likes he likes for sociological reasons. For instance, he waxes eloquent about a historical novel set in Africa, Red Strangers, which he describes as interesting because it gives the reader an in depth understanding of what it was like to be a Kikuyu.

This got me wondering how I would respond to the same question. At first I was stumped, as I tend to be pretty good at not reading book that I don't expect to like. However, after consultation with memory and Goodreads I came up with the following:

Swans Way by Marcel Proust -- I expected to at least find the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past interesting because novels dealing with the theme of memory often attract me, and I'd heard Anthony Powell's Dance to the Music of Time novels compared to Proust's better known works. However, I found myself consistently annoyed by most of Proust's characters, and it deals with memory in terms of association rather than recollection. I ended up finding it rather hard to get through.

The Cunning Man by Robertson Davies -- Davies is an author that I generally like a great deal, indeed I've at times rated some of his books among my favorites, but this last novel of his rubbed me very strongly the wrong way. I found the characters repulsive and in the end found myself wondering why I'd read it.

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James -- Throughout the book, people keep saying there's something exceptional about Isabel Archer. Personally, she simply drove me up the wall. Which made it rather hard to care about the rest.

Which books did you feel you were supposed to like but didn't


Brandon said...

Stendhal's The Red and the Black; I think I expected a very different kind of book than it turned out to be.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Portrait of a Lady is on my list too.

Tristram Shandy. A favorite of my British Novel professor. I never finished it.

The Pickwick Papers. Louisa May Alcott had me convinced I was going to love it. I got bored and never finished.

MrsDarwin said...

Remembrance of Things Past was one that I struggled with and finally abandoned, mainly because it felt like it had ceased to be about anything.

I don't like either 1984 or Animal Farm, though I've enjoyed other of George Orwell's writings.

I couldn't finish either Brave New World or Catcher in the Rye for sheer boredom.

Perhaps the ultimate heresy: A Wrinkle In Time left me flat.

I don't care how much my professor raved that it was second in stature to the Summa Theologica, I simply couldn't get into Moby-Dick.

Rebekka said...

I always feel like the villagers are going to come after me with pitchforks and torches, but: Lord of the Rings. I guess this makes me a bad person. I read it all the way through, but it was a slog (and I've read War and Peace twice). I should probably give it another try, that helps sometimes.

(I second the flatness of A Wrinkle in Time.)

Sarah said...

I loved A Wrinkle in Time! But as I recall Simcha Fisher didn't like it either, so you're in good company. I was disappointed in A Tale of Two Cities, Peter Pan, Stuart Little, and most recently, Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty. I'm trying because I usually love her stories and books, but it's a far cry from The Ponder Heart. (If your only knowledge of Welty is that story The Worn Path they always assign in school, read the short story Why I Live at the P.O. She's hysterical).

Jenny said...

Catcher in the Rye
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

The essence of these two books seems to be "woe is me, my life is hard."

Yeah, mine too, bub. I have a low tolerance for whine in print.

John Farrell said...

Anything by Mark twain. ;) But more recently, I was surprised by how much I did not care for Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. I found the banter between most of the characters sit-com level annoying, to the point it really seemed like work to get to the end.

I've always felt Proust was something I need to get around to one of these days. But now, not so much. :)

Enbrethiliel said...


Off the top of my head: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Only years later did I figure out what the big twist was supposed to be. (This was the first of many experiences in which I tried to get to know someone and felt repeatedly frustrated by his odd and erratic behaviour, only to have someone else discreetly tell me about a year into the relationship that my frustrating friend was mentally ill.)

You have no idea how desperately I wish I could say that it was A Wrinkle in Time. =P It was okay when I read it as a child--though even then, I suspect, it was carried for me by its sequels, particularly A Swiftly Tilting Planet--but I reread it recently and couldn't believe how bad I found it. Yes, it's supposed to be the big success story that all aspiring writers remember when they get another rejection, but I really don't blame any of the publishers which said no.

Anyway, Darwin, your comment that Dawkins likes novels for sociological reasons reminds me of something I heard recently at a business seminar. According to the speaker, a columnist who occasionally interviews tycoons likes to ask them about their reading; after years of compiling their answers, he said that the difference between successful entrepreneurs and the rest of us is that the former read primarily for information, while everyone else reads primarily for entertainment.

Now, I think most readers will point out that these categories aren't mutually exclusive or the only two choices. But if your idea of a good book is something which can help you to get ahead, then you probably wouldn't like Pride and Prejudice, either.

Josiah Neeley said...

The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy.

Silence by Shusaku Endo.

Bob the Ape said...

Melmoth the Wanderer. It's supposed to be one of the great works of Gothic fiction. Maybe it is. It's also tedious, labyrinthine - at least half the book, in my recollection, consists of nested stories 4 or 5 deep - and soaked in anti-Catholic bigotry. The title character pops up briefly here and there, accomplishing nothing, and is taken by the Devil at the very end of the book; unfortunately the Devil proves to be a fiend with standards and refuses to take any of the other characters.

Donald R. McClarey said...

Piers the Plowman-Never have been able to make my way through that boring field.

Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories-I attempted to read them when young but got stuck in A Study in Scarlet. The odd thing is that I love Holmes as a character in film and in books written by other new authors.

Stranger in a Strange Land-I have read everything Heinlein wrote and I was saddened to read the story that began his "dirty old pervert" phase.

Douglas Southall Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants-I made it through all three volumes on the third attempt. Freeman's erudition is vast and his scholarship impeccable, but he managed a near impossible feat: he managed to make the Civil War seem dull to me.

Utopia-Perhaps it reads better in the Latin.

Kipling novels-I adore Kipling the poet. Kipling the novelist leaves me colder than a dead mackerel.

Paul Johnson's America-I loved Johnson the British historian. I found this volume pedestrian and error filled. It is always a mistake to read a favorite historian when he writes a volume on a subject where your knowledge is superior.

Burke's essays and monographs-I love Burke's speeches and quote them frequently. I can never make my way through his other writings with the splendid exception of his immortal Reflections on the Revolution in France.