How Do You Know if You Like a Book?

One of the awesome things about being a grownup is that I am not so bothered my own predilections. I may be wrong in disliking Don DeLillo's work—in fact, I know I am—but at the same time I am happy to accept that it's true, so I can go my merry way and find books I do like and not be bothered by my aesthetic failures.

Or so I thought.

My basic way of deciding whether something is a good book takes a lot from Emily Dickinson's pronouncement on poetry (doesn't that make me sound classy? I am counteracting the weight of the DeLillo admission).

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” 

It's mainly a physical thing. I know that if I read something I really love—something great—I will feel it. There will be excitement, the desire to get back to the book every single second, a sensation of heat rising in me.

Or so I thought. And then I read this book:

77866(Image courtesy GoodReads)

See, first I had read this book:

72148(Image courtesy GoodReads)

And it was pretty awesome. It had shown up on someone's stoop, and I expected it to be one thing. But it was another entirely. It was resoundingly un-American in its overall attitude, and it had this stubborn refused to verify the meaningfulness of what its characters did, which was both frustrating and gratifying—bracing, really. So when I saw Any Human Heart I thought, sure.

And then I wasn't crazy about it. It's long, and I read, and read, and read, all the time distracted by this or that. And I see that susceptibility to distraction as a sign that a book isn't grabbing me.

And then I finished it. And I can't stop thinking about it. All the time. It's grabbed me after the fact, somehow.

What is this? I think I really liked it. But I didn't know I really liked it. I am confounded.

And does this go for kids reading too?

7 thoughts on “How Do You Know if You Like a Book?

  1. Can’t say I like deLillo’s books either, if that’s any comfort!
    I had what might be the same experience with “The Children’s Book”, by A.S. Byatt. There were so many things I disliked about it. But I still thought, and think, about it a lot. I suppose I must have liked something about it, or at least was fascinated by aspects of it, more than the things I disliked. What parts of the book was it that grabbed you?
    I suppose there are many ways to like a book, but this is an unusual way to discover that one likes it. Rather a pleasant surprise, I think.


  2. I think I felt that way about the Hunger Games. I know I didn’t love it. I thought it was an awful premise…and yes I am prissy. But I couldn’t put it down. I read all three, and was kind of let down by the end too. I hear people say they loved it and I think really? Yuck. Yet, I read them all and I still think about it. Weird.


  3. Just last night I finally finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I started reading it ages ago, and when I wasn’t reading something else, I would read a few more pages, or a chapter here and there. I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to bother with it. In the middle of that, I read The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. I took both on vacation with me, and first I finished The Red Tent, which I loved. Then I got back into American Gods, and suddenly I was finding all these coincidences between these two seemingly unrelated books, and also coincidences related to my vacation which was in San Francisco. I couldn’t stop reading. I now realize that I loved that book. I think I will re-read the beginning of it and see if it grabs me on the second reading.


  4. I know the kind of feeling that you and Megsie describe more than the opposite kind you posted about. The post-loathed book pulls you in with cheap drama and plotting that promises more than it delivers, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It’s like bad TV, histrionic pseudo-friends, or reading wanky comment threads on the internet. Or maybe an unfortunate romantic relationship.
    I can’t think of any books growing on me as you describe, although I must have experienced sometime. I do know I’ve read books that, objectively, I understood were good, but just did not do it for me in any way. I feel like that about both Delillo and Byatt.


  5. I spend a lot of time with my college students trying to move them away from the concept of whether they liked a show or a movie and on to what they saw and how it affected them. We can like something without being affected by it and we can be strongly affected by something that we didn’t like.
    And actually, I think that there is an important transition that happens when you’re a kid and you read a book and discover that while you didn’t necessarily enjoy the process of reading it – you are really glad that you had the experience of having read it.
    Of course, the best books, the ones that are deep in our souls are most often both. We don’t want the experience of reading them to end and they live with us long afterwards.


  6. I think Anne nailed it: “We can like something without being affected by it and we can be strongly affected by something that we didn’t like”; and “the best books…are most often both.”
    I also think about it in terms of content versus style. Sometimes I find the storyline or topic provocative even when I don’t like the writing style, and there are other times when I appreciate the writing style and turns of phrase but am not at all moved or affected by the plot.
    I’m imagining a plot with 4-quadrants: The x-axis is a continuum from “not affected” on the negative side to “affected,” and the y-axis is a continuum from “disliked (style or content or both)” on the negative side to “liked (style or content or both.” The best books are in the upper right. The totla duds are in the lower left. And the other 2 quadrants are the ones where we are often not sure how to feel (especially the lower right–affected despite not really liking)(upper left being the place where you might include “fluff”).
    Thanks for posting this–it helped me solidify some of my thinking about “liking” a book. (And thanks to Anne as well!)


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