15 May 2007

Snap Judgments

I am one of those readers who is, perhaps, a glutton for punishment. When a new book comes out, and it has received high acclaim, I'm likely to go pick it up and read it. Generally, I'm picky about who I trust about these widespread recommendations, but when a book wins a major award I'm predisposed to believe that there has to be some redeeming value to the novel. Perhaps it's the academic in me (we love awards and critiques. It's what we do...).

This does not, however, always work out. For instance, I absolutely ~hate~ Lord of the Flies. Yes, I'm aware that it is taught in high schools all over the country. Yes, I'm aware of the supposed value of teaching (and reading) that book. But even in 10th grade I refused, after only two chapters--okay, one and a half--to read the rest, insisting that it was horribly written and vapid. I was fortunate to have a teacher who appreciated my refusal to finish the book, and who handed me more Shakespeare to read instead. Of all of the books I've read, that is the only one I've never finished and the only one I never plan to finish. While the English Patient won accolades across the board, I hated every minute of reading it but forced myself to finish because, hey... it had to get better, right? Wrong. I do the same thing with really bad films. I'll know within the first 15 minutes if I will hate the film, but I feel compelled to see my endeavour through to the end just so I can say I hated every minute of it with some kind of validity.

My most recent trip to Barnes and Noble presented me with another LotF moment. I was vacillating between about five different books (believe it or not, neither The Alchemist, nor The Historian were in stock--both reasons I went there to begin with), finally choosing to only go with the third book I trekked to the store for (yet another copy of American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I allowed a student to borrow my copy for an active reading exercise and he instantly became enamoured with the text and asked to borrow it. I agreed, pulling from him a promise to return it because I hadn't finished it yet. He dropped out the next day, and he took my book with him. So. Very. Bitter.). At the check out counter, there, in all its glory hovering on a shelf just beyond the service rep, was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Considering the buzz I've heard about the book, and that it shocked most of the industry when Oprah chose it for her book club, along with impulse buying placement, I added the book to my order.

Now, I teach effective reading techniques along with the other things on my academic laundry list, and one of those techniques is called a Book Preview. You do a book preview by reading the covers, all of the front matter, and everything before chapter one. By doing this, you have a good feel for the reviews (obviously biased, but if you know who to trust it can be effective), the subject matter, possibly the author's rationale, and of course, how the author writes. On that fateful day in Barnes and Noble, I did not do said Book Preview. I merely said, "why don't you add that to my order." So yes, I am aware that this is my own fault.

When I got home, I grabbed The Road first to check out chapters 1-2, only to find that the first page was painful to read! Immediately I figured it was because I was tired, and tried yet again the following day. Oprah wouldn't lead millions of readers wrong, would she? Surely not, no. Well, if this is representative of the kinds of books in Oprah's book club, then I may have to rethink the value I place on cultural capital. So what to do? Of course I am going to finish it. I must. It's all everyone has been talking about. Will I like it? I don't quite know.

Maybe it's because I have a thing against the over use of fragments. Maybe I like my literature coherent. I don't know. What I do know is that I started searching for other reviews hoping that I had misread the general consensus. What I found was the following buried in the New York Times review written by Janet Maslin:

"“The Road” is not concerned with explaining what caused this cataclysm. It is more abstract than that. Instead it becomes a relentless cautionary tale with “Lord of the Flies”-style symbolic impact, marked by a dark fascination with the primal laws of survival."

Aside from the irritating way that novel titles are placed in quotation marks, I find Ms. Maslin's assessment critical. If this book is anything like Lord of the Flies, then it's likely doomed for me. It does, however, make absolute sense to me why I was turned off by page one.

But I will finish The Road purely because I refuse to believe that the vast majority of book reviewers out there just jump on the bandwagon. I have a scratching fear in the back of my head that this is one of those rare occasions where readers aren't sure what to make of the strangeness of a book, and so because they don't "get it" fully, then it must be a work of pure genius. I pray that is not the case. At the same time, there are thousands of books published every year precisely because not every book is for every person. This one might just not be for me. And in terms of finding a reviewer you trust, it's important to know where they stand on some of the books you have read and liked. It helps to know the taste of a person before believing their judgment.

Who knows, I might finish The Road and come back and give it a rave review. I'm making every effort to suspend my judgment until I have read the last sentence of the book. So be on the look out for my review.

Now go grab a book and sit under a tree somewhere. The weather is too beautiful to be cooped up in the house!

~D. M. Papuga