Have you ever read a book that a friend loved, but you just didn’t like it?
You’re not alone.
Fortunately, here’s nothing wrong with disliking a book—even if it’s a book that people consider “good literature.” I’ve met lots of people who think they aren’t good at reading classic books because they disliked the ones they’ve read.
But here’s the thing: disliking a book just means you have an opinion about it. And in literary circles, opinions are almost always welcome. J.K. Rowling once said that if you want to write literature, you should expect criticism—it’s inevitable. Opinions make the literary world go round.
The poet W.H. Auden once said that there are 5 possible responses an adult can have to a book. See if you can identify your response to books you’ve read in these opinions:
1. This is good, and I like it.
This is the reaction you have when you can tell a book is well-written, high-quality literature, and you enjoy it. I have this response to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. It’s an engaging story, but it also has a theme: which is better, being ruled by logic or by emotions?
What makes this book even better, in my opinion, is that the debate about logic vs. emotions was a REALLY BIG DEAL in this period of history. In the late eighteenth century, just before Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility, most educated people valued reason above all else. Reason was what separated man from beast, and through reason you could solve pretty much any problem.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, many poets were valuing emotions above reason and logic. What made us human, they argued, was our capacity to feel, and their writings centered on the emotional experiences of individual people.
In this novel, Jane Austen doesn’t just tell a story about two sisters: she taps into a deep philosophical debate that is still relevant in twenty-first century society. Relevance that stands the test of time is, in my and many others’ opinions, one of the signs of good literature.
Sense and Sensibility is, objectively, a good book. And I happen to enjoy reading it.
2. This is good, and although I don’t like it now, I believe with perseverance I shall come to like it.
To be perfectly frank with you, this is where a lot of classic books rank with me. They’re not fun to read. Most of them I wouldn’t read at all if they weren’t assigned for a class, or if I didn’t feel I *should* read them because they’re great books and I’m an English major and being familiar with great books is kind of my job.
Once I start analyzing them, though, and digging into what they mean and how they address issues that matter, I start to appreciate these books. Because I put some time into them, I grow to like them.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad, is a book I had this reaction to. When I first read it, it felt depressing and gloomy. I was glad when it was over and I could move on.
Then I wrote an essay about it. After putting some effort (and nearly 1500 words) into understanding this novella, I started to appreciate the way it critiques modern society. Now, I enjoy it because I know what’s going on and what it all means.
Heart of Darkness is a great book. And I like it because I spent some time learning how to appreciate it.
(Note: Just because you can grow to appreciate a book doesn’t mean you must. For example, when I read Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, I didn’t like it, but I could tell it was a good book, and I’m sure if I study it I will come to like it. Since it’s not a priority for me, though, I haven’t touched it since.)
3. This is good, but I don’t like it.
Let’s all breathe a huge sigh of relief. Now repeat after me: “Just because it’s good, doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Feel better? I sure do.
Sometimes, we feel that we *should* like a book because we recognize it’s a well-written, high-quality work of literature. But no matter how much time and effort we put into it, we still just don’t like it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I’m an English major. I read lots of classics, books that are generally acknowledged to be “good books.” And there are plenty of them that I don’t like.
The Call of the Wild is one of these books for me. It’s a classic. It gets assigned in middle schools, in high schools, and in universities. I’ve read it twice. I’ve studied it. I can tell it’s a good book–but I don’t like it. And that’s okay.
4. This is trash, but I like it.
Sometimes, you know a book isn’t high-quality literature. It might not even be particularly well-written. But you like it anyway—and that’s fine. You shouldn’t feel guilty for liking what you like, even if it’s not a “good” book.
Most of the books I like in this category are what I call “fluff.” Maybe they have overly simplistic plots. Maybe the characters are flat. Usually, there’s no theme to speak of. But I enjoy reading them anyway. They’re the kind of book you read when you just want to relax and enjoy a fun story without having to work too hard to get through it.
Recently, I read Geekerella, by Ashley Poston, a Cinderella retelling where Cinderella is a fangirl, Prince Charming is the star of a TV show, and the ball is a “con” event where all the characters show up in cosplay. (Links provided for those who aren’t up on their geeky fandom lingo.)
Geekerella is super predictable. The characters, while likable, aren’t super complex. It’s not great literature—it’s what I call “fluff”—but I like it anyway.
5. This is trash, and I don’t like it.
There are some books that are just bad. They’re not good books, and I don’t like reading them.
To be honest, I usually don’t finish this kind of book. Ever since I read this great post on why you don’t have to finish books you don’t like, I don’t even bother. Life is way too short to read bad books.
I feel uncomfortable with giving you a specific title under this category. Writing a book is hard work, and I don’t want to look down on any writer’s efforts. So here’s an excerpt from a review I wrote on Goodreads about one of these books that I actually finished:
“This entire book was cliché. I felt like I was reading the same worn-out storylines I had read in a million other “inspirational” romance novels. The cheesiness kept me from really empathizing with the characters, as most of their behavior just didn’t make sense.”
Here’s the great thing, though: just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean you can’t. Remember: literature likes opinions. And I encourage you to develop your own.
What’s your take on these 5 categories? Can you see them play out in your own experience? Let me know what you think in the comments!