Brussel sprouts. I hated them as a kid. I mean all-out detested. Truly gag-worthy at times. We had a certain number of them that we were required to eat. One was too many. Pretty sure I tried the Seinfeld trick of hiding one or two in napkins on different occasions. It is probably the only food that I have such a psychological revulsion to that for the many years since, I have never even considered the possibility that I might not feel the same way about them. Until recently. The thing is, I really like vegetables, and I suspect that if cooked right, I might actually like brussel sprouts now, too.
Moby Dick, Love in the Time of Cholera, Wicked. These are the only books that I can think of that I have ever willingly, purposefully stopped reading in my adult lifetime (I think there’s another, but I can’t pull it out of my brain right now). Possibly my entire lifetime, but I don’t remember that kind of stuff normally. It is extremely rare for me to choose to quit reading a book. Once I start, I feel compelled to finish. Some of you might consider this a sickness. I will choose to call it perseverance. Determination. Optimism that a book will turn itself around, that I will find something redeeming in it after all. Fortunately for me, I can find something in almost everything I read… which makes the decision to put something down deliberately even more distinctive.
Brussel sprouts, books I chose not to finish. A clear connection, of course. Bless your heart if you are going with the idea of “I hate brussel sprouts” and “I hate these 3 books” even if that really wasn’t where I was going with that. I was thinking more along the lines of “these are 2 things that demonstrate growth and change” in that even though I used to hate brussel sprouts, I might like them now, and even though not every book is a winner, sometimes I can learn to like them in spite of myself – or in spite of themselves. And the brussel sprout is what I landed on. Just go with me on this for a bit. (If it helps at all, it isn’t like I agonized over this analogy at all. Meaning, I didn’t sit down and think, “Hm, I want to talk about books and need a metaphor. Maybe I’ll brainstorm a bit to come up with the best one.” Nope, that is so totally not how I roll with blog posts. Clearly.)
Closer to my point, is that I will sometimes read books that afterwards I might think, “meh”. But then I’ll talk about it with others, and I will find myself liking it better.. or at least thinking it is a better book than I originally thought. This most recently happened when my book club took on Jennifer Egan’s (Pulitzer Prize winning) A Visit From the Goon Squad. I read the book and in the end, felt I could take it or leave it. Sometimes I feel like I need to adjust my opinion of award-winning books, but when I look over the list of past winners of the Pulitzer, I get over that (and also realize that I will probably never ever win a Pulitzer, not that this is even one of my goals – I’ll settle for being on the NY Times bestseller list for 60 weeks).
At any rate, we were discussing the book during book club, and at one point I remember saying that maybe I’d consider a re-read because I felt I understood some of the parts so much better- or at least liked their take on the whole thing and started thinking, maybe this book was better than I thought. After all, the rest of them (all 4 of them) loved it. (By the way, when you do a book club gathering online, you end up talking – really talking – about the book for a lot longer than say, at a restaurant or someone’s house that is full of yummy snacks and possibly wine, if you are wine-drinker. That isn’t to say that my online colleagues were not drinking any wine, but whatever, I think you catch my point.) After our conversation, I feel like if someone were to ask me about the book that I might give a different response. I might say that on a first read, I was not aware of the many layers and that I enjoy the complexity. (A totally different conversation that I might tackle at some point in the future is author intention… did Egan mean for her story to be complex? Was it deliberate? Did we as readers attribute more to it than it deserved?)
This isn’t the first time I’ve done this with books – meaning, it’s not the first time I’ve determined that a book is probably better than I thought after discussing it. And I wonder, how does this play on the quality of a book in general? Is it fair to rate a book higher after interacting with others about it, or should it stand on it’s own?
Two of the books on my “chose not to finish” list were for a book club. If I had followed through with fully participating in the related book club discussions, would I have decided to complete them? Would I have enjoyed them after all?
There are books that I might compare to onions. I never really liked onions when I was younger, but now I love them. When I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, I was not sold on it at all. I re-read it again a few years ago, and I really liked it. Wasn’t a big fan of The Chronicles of Narnia, but re-read them later and enjoyed them a great deal.
But brussel sprouts? That’s a bigger leap. But maybe all I need is someone giving me some great recipes. Maybe I just need to hear others tell me about what they enjoyed about these books to get me to pick them back up again.
A Visit From the Goon Squad was not like eating brussel sprouts, but the idea of higher quality after time and community-sharing still floats around in my brain.
(I have heard that that Wicked, the musical, is far better than the novel, so I’ll give you a Tony Award presentation of “Defying Gravity” from that.)