Terrible Flaws in My Critical Faculties

I do worry a bit about that title there, which more or less says, "Why are you reading this blog anyway?" Or maybe it says (to me) "Why are you writing this blog?" But then again, maybe this is why I'm writing this blog.

See, I just finished a book that a lot of people loved and I emphatically didn't (Teju Cole's Open City), which always gives me pause. It used to be, in my arrogant, careless youth, that when that happened it made me think either 1) nothing, or 2) I see through the hype.

But I think it may be more complicated than that. (Note to youth: everything seems to become "it may be more complicated than that" the older I get, sort of like when the dentist says "Don't worry, it's only a little cavity," and then 20 minutes of drilling later you get a grim-faced, "There's more decay under here than showed at first.")

So. Here are the flaws. Er, challenges.

1) I am dead inside. How else to explain why there are millions of books where someone tells me, "Oh my god, this made me cry. Did this make you cry? It made me cry." The truth is, while I often cry over the morning paper, I rarely cry over a book. And there are many, many books that other people find cry-worthy (we'll stick to kids' books here and I'll just say that I did not cry over either The Book Thief or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble) that…well, I loved or didn't, but I did not cry. I don't know why this is. In my defense, I always cry when I read either The Velveteen Rabbit and Where the Wild Things Are, but I don't think this changes the essential truth of the matter.

2) I am perilously addicted to story. I don't know why this is, but when I read I want a story. Related to that, I have very (very) little patience for language for its own sake. Or worse (a term that makes me put books back on the shelf in the bookstore) lapidary prose. When I read, I want things to happen, and to pull me along in a compelling narrative direction. Sure, you might be thinking, so do I! Well, given that this is turning into true confessions, here is the truth: I don't like Faulkner. Or DeLillo. And I have come to realize, the fault does not lie with them. I am missing something, I fear.

3) I am humorless. I don't mean that this is always true. In fact, sometimes I find humor where I shouldn't, but other times? I just…miss it. Like Prizzi's Honor. Which, admittedly: not a book. But I think this happens with books, too. I'll somehow miss the larger context, the initial signal that, you know, this is supposed to be funny. And it's like the film never catches on the sprockets for me: I end up never getting it. This happened for a ridiculously long time for me with Hyperbole and a Half—I couldn't enter into the language somehow. Until then I could, and thought it was funny. But I worry this happens a lot with books that I never quite get enough time to to adjust to. The Finkler Question, for instance. Or maybe that was just bad? Do you see the problem? I will never know.

4) I play favorites. There was a period in my youth when the place to go to get books was my mother's bedstand. Let's all blame this for my prodigious reading of the works of Belva Plain. And later I more or less came upon the works that Ms. Plain was inspired by: Dickens, Trollope, Singer. Essentially, she had a sort of cheesey 20th century aesthetic (sort of a Jewish un-porny Jackie Collins) of the family saga, the long, multi-character drama. And I am still a sucker for this. Not for Belva Plain (not that I would metaphorically kick it out of bed for eating crackers) but for this type of story. And this would be fine, except that I think it makes me less open to the bazillion other kinds of stories in the world. A more effective critical faculty would, I think, make me open to all stories, and would discriminate more on the basis of, say, quality. That's what a critical faculty is for, right? Alas.

So there you have it: the ways in which I am less trusting of my reading self than I once was. As living proof of this, I am reading (once again) the really excellent David Copperfield, which just goes to underline the vicious truth of every single one of these. But you know? It's really great. As always: problem not solved. But, at least, considered.

8 thoughts on “Terrible Flaws in My Critical Faculties

  1. I haven’t read “Open City” but I did read Kate Atkinson’s “Life after Life” that everyone else in the world seems to love.
    But I didn’t. And I am quite irritated with that book and the (somewhat) waste of time it represents.
    I think there are plenty of books out there to suit our individual tastes — and the challenge is to find them. And if some critically-acclaimed (and popular) book doesn’t appeal to us, we can still hold our heads high without judging or feeling judged.

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  2. This resonated with me, especially #2. I, apparently alone, hated The Goldfinch. WAY too long for the story it told, not to mention way too dark!

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  3. So I was an English major back in the day, and did pretty well, so I figured that I “get” literature/books. What I realized early on: I don’t LIKE a lot of books. Doesn’t matter if they are “objectively” good or bad- they just don’t talk to me. I am ok with that. Sometimes I can appreciate the artistry of some works (Dickens) even if I don’t particularly like them, but for others (yes, Faulkner) they leave me completely cold. So eh, life is short and there are so many books to read…..

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  4. There are many books and “great” writers that I nearly hate when the rest of the world is filled with love for them, but I just chalk it up to my innate contrariness. Ian McEwan, for one.
    Oh, and by the way, your 1) and 3) are contradictory.

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  5. I’m with you. I hated Atonement (high five, @Elizabeth Aquino!)…so much that I apparently blocked out the title of the book and had to IMDB Keira Knightley to remember it. And I too want STORY in my books. “Lapidary” or “luminous” prose, forget it. Give me plot, plot, plot. I think part of that is a function of having small children and being sleep deprived–I just don’t have the faculties to let words roll around my brain and savor them anymore.

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