Being the Reader

I’ve been reading Keeper by Kathi Appelt the last few days and I keep thinking about when I read her first book, The Underneath, a couple of years ago.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of that book. And it had nothing to do with the book itself.

I had checked it out on CD at the library and was listening to it while I commuted. And for some reason, my CD player did NOT like these CDs. It couldn’t restart when I’d turn the car back on. It would struggle to progress to the next track. After several days of this, I was just beyond frustrated. Spending half your commute jiggling the rewind/fast forward key, taking the CD in and out, and listening to it spin, spin, spin is the kind of thing that makes me pretty insane.

And then, on a particularly cold day, I left work and second after starting the car, it just died. For no reason that I could tell. And then it started working again, but now I was plagued with paranoia. The whole way home, I couldn’t concentrate on the book because I was so focused on making it home safely (spoiler: I did).

When I think of The Underneath, I can’t help but associate all that frustration and irritation with it. I can’t think about the beautiful writing or the symbolism of the story; I can only think about driving along in the cold, fearful that I was going to get stranded. Of course it wasn’t my favorite book. And all for reasons that Kathi Appelt had zero control over when she wrote the book.

(Needless to say, I’m playing it safe with Keeper, reading a nice non-skipping hardcover on my couch, which is unlikely to stall).

I think about this a lot – which books might I have liked more if they’d been stand alone, or if I hadn’t been comparing them to other works by the author or if I hadn’t just read a story that was fairly similar. Which books did I love because a character had something small and inconsequential in common with me? Which books did I read on vacation, feeling happy and content? Which book was recommended to me by someone I love and want to please and which book has been badmouthed by someone who’s opinion I trust and respect?

As a reader, you bring so much to a book, that it’s hard to judge it completely objectively. I don’t have writerly ambition, but if I did, those sorts of things would make me even more afraid.

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  1. This isn't exactly the same but it reminds me of the time I read Gone with the Wind for the first time. I listened to a Fiona Apple album the whole time I was reading it and then I got sick of the album and put it away. And then a long time later I remembered the album and put it on again and as it was playing I kept thinking, "Oh, this song was playing when Scarlett was at the party at Ashley's house!" and so on. Such a weird combination, but even today, I associate the two.

  2. I remember reading The Underneath near the same time as you and being surprised by your review of it. Things make a lot more sense now. I agree. It is impossible to be completely objective.

  3. Shannon Hale talks a lot about this idea on her blog (do you read her blog? It's a fun insight into her life and author-ly thoughts). I agree that as readers we bring an awful lot to the table when we read a book–I think this is one of the key reasons I really love to reread books at different times and seasons in my life. The book becomes a commentary on how I think (or thought) and react.

    Shannon Hale's blog:

  4. I agree – there are so many factors with whether or not I enjoy a book. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the writing, but instead with my expectations, interests, things that were going on in my life while I was reading a book. Total objectivity is almost impossible.

  5. I've often wondered the same thing. I've read highly acclaimed books that friends have adored only to wonder why on earth other people liked the book. "Time Traveller's Wife" was one such book. I do have a goal to re-read it (I actually only read half way, if that) and see if it was a case of 'right book/wrong time'.

    In my experience there are many things that can influence whether or not I like a book. My mood/frame of mind, my experiences, my stress level etc.

  6. Maybe someday you can read The Underneath without the thinking of the bad day, especially now that you are back where it is warm.

    I'm so leery of audio books. Just the sound of a narrator's voice can ruin a book for me.

    Note to Laurie: I couldn't read Time Traveller's Wife, either.

  7. Interesting.
    I never really analyzed my frame of mind when selecting a book or thought much about why I might not have liked a book as much as someone else, but this is a good theory. For this reason alone, I am going to pledge to RE-read The Underneath. I got a third of the way through it, and just couldn't sit to read it. It was disappointing to my daughter, who begged me to enjoy it as much as she did. AND, I'm going to happily recommend her next book, since you are enjoying it. Doesn't mean I'll be able to sit and read it myself, though…

  8. I've been thinking about this a lot too! Lots of books I've read recently have just not been enjoyable to me and I'm wondering if it relates to my experiences right now and my mood. How sad not to like a book, simply because my mood wasn't right. Hopefully some of them I'll revisit someday 🙂

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