A few years ago, a friend told me about a dinner party where he’d bonded with another guest over their mutual loathing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The woman — an English professor — described the time she spent reading the novel as "three months of my life I’ll never get back."
I was supposed to be amused by that. Instead, I was irritated — and not just with her lazy use of one of those prepackaged lines you see too often on social media.
My reaction had nothing to do with the merits of Infinite Jest, either, since I haven’t read it. As much as I love Wallace’s nonfiction, I’ve read enough about the book — including via D.T. Max’s excellent biography: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace — to believe the novel wouldn’t be my cup of tea.
No, my annoyance mostly stemmed from shock that someone whose job includes assigning reading to students would say something so stupid.
I’ve spent far more time thinking about that stranger’s remark than it seems to merit because, for me, it gets at something fundamental. Assuming no one forced her to read the book, why, if she didn’t find it worthwhile, did she persist? Did she keep going only to be able to use it as glib dinner-table conversation? Did it make her feel smart to take down someone viewed as a genius by others? Does some pathology render her incapable of setting aside, half-read, a book she’s not enjoying? Perhaps she just wanted to wallow in what William Hazlitt so delightfully identified as "the pleasure of hating."
Whatever her motive, it gets to a phenomenon I don’t understand. Each of us gets to choose how we spend our leisure time, and for many academics, reading is at the top of our activity list. There are so many good books. I believe there’s something to be gained from most of them, especially those other people have praised, even if they’re not to your taste.
The trick, I think, is to read greedy: Take what you like — and can use — from a book, and leave the rest. And if you’re not getting anything from it, then stop reading. This business of pooping all over the work of others and resenting the time you "lost" baffles me. Why not devote those precious minutes, instead, to watching panda videos on Facebook, stepping outside to vape, or doing whatever else you deem more worthwhile.
Anyone who’s taught at least one course knows students like to complain — often with relish — about reading. Even books most of the class loves will find a few haters. That’s as it should be. Of taste there can be no disputandum.
I’ve come to believe students tend to dislike work that challenges them. That was certainly the case for me when, in my first year of college, I was forced to read John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I embraced hate-reading before there was a term for it. I complained to my friends, my roommates, and the cafeteria lady, railing against the blind poet. At least I did until my teacher — a graduate student named Harriet Chessman — took the epic poem apart for us and showed me what I’d been missing. As soon as I heard William Blake thought Milton was of the devil’s party without knowing it, Satan became my hero.
Now, when students grumble about having to read (parts of) Paradise Lost for English-literature survey courses, I make them read Book I with me and show them how Satan gives the best down-at-the-half, locker-room pep talk in the history of the English language. Awake, arise, or be forever fallen, you lily-livered sniveling babies, says Coach S, rallying his troops to do battle with the big guy. Oh, the students say. I didn’t get it before.
Hate-reading can be fun. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Holy Crap provided me with a banquet of laugh-out-loud sentences. I didn’t begrudge a nanosecond of the time I spent reading — well, skimming — either of those books. And they prove useful in class when I want to talk to students about what bad writing looks like and how to avoid it.
But generally, I find it more pleasurable and valuable to be a sympathetic and interested reader.
Instead of assuming I know better than the authors of "bad" books, I’ll wonder about choices they made that seem clunky to me and I’ll try to figure out if I’m missing something. Academics seem to take a special pleasure in milking sacred cows for weaknesses. Brilliant, but flawed, we love to pronounce.
Widely praised books tend also to be routinely trounced, especially those that do well in the marketplace. If Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love had sold a few thousand copies, I doubt people would say such mean things about it — or about her. If something is popular, it can’t be good. If it hits a chord, you don’t want to be caught singing that tune.
Sometimes our response to an author’s personality — or at least how we perceive it — is so strong it colors our reception of their work. Jonathan Franzen won himself few admirers when he proclaimed in Harper’s in 1996 that the great American novel hadn’t yet been written and that he, by gum, was going to be the one to do it. Five years later, well, he did it. Then he made the mistake of dissing Oprah for picking The Corrections for her book club. If that wasn’t enough to get people against him, he’s seemed to have made a career of saying obnoxious and ridiculously provocative things.
Franzen’s public persona is hard to overlook. But I do, when I read his work. He’s is an exquisite writer and a good thinker, though he may be — and I don’t know this because I don’t know him — deeply unlikable. I wanted to hate The Corrections; I couldn’t. Many of his essays do fill me with rage — but the jealous kind where I wish I could write as well as he does, which, of course, is a happy feeling once you get over your own inadequate self.
If we judged works of art by the likability of their makers, our museums, concert halls, and libraries would echo.
As fun as it can be on occasion, hate-reading has a dark side. It’s all too tempting for people to brandish their own superiority simply by finding fault. That is endemic to graduate students, uncertain of their own merits and place in the world, and is an understandable impulse. But I wish they could learn to resist it. Likewise, take-down reviews can be amusing to read if they’re funny (and if your own work isn’t the target), but they always leave me feeling like I need a shower.
My general rule of thumb: If I don’t like something, I ignore it. Better to find an essay or a book I love and spend time talking and writing about that.
To be sure, I’ve written critical reviews, but mostly prepublication, where my comments, right or wrong, may help the author revise and rethink, or choose to stand — and better defend — the ground I’ve disputed. After a book is out in the world, I see little point in trashing it.
I read because I love to read. I love to be transported and to have my world made both bigger and smaller by entering the lives of people unlike me, in places I’ll never go. I love the sound of good sentences, and savor arresting images. I embrace being moved by the pain of fictional characters, and I love to learn things I had no idea I was interested in until an author, deft and engaging, teaches me about them. I love dark and funny personal stories, and I love mystery novels that go down like candy corn, and I love poems that make me feel gut-punched. And I love loving what I read and talking about it.
At this point I’m old enough that I’d rather risk being thought naïve and overly enthusiastic than waste my time trying to appear sophisticated and cool by trashing the work of others.