Why I Like a Book?

For the last 2 days I have been pondering why it is I like certain books and dislike others.  To be honest, I don’t know the answer.  What made me begin thinking was book club on Wednesday.  I was the only one who didn’t like the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.  I found it long, drab, predictable and depressing while the remaining club members found it inspiring, gripping and interesting.  The discussion was immensely entertaining  (I’m always up for a lively debate- especially about books) but it left me feeling a bit ‘soft’ or ‘old-fashioned’ in my reading preferences.  Am I a literary wimp?

Fortunately, as I asked myself this question, I recalled many books, which did not fit such a perky description. Not every book I love has a happy ending or a  benevolent hero.  For example, I love the Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which is so morose it is narrated by death- yes Death.  Like a Tree Grows in Brooklyn it is set in poverty, it is equally long (so I know length is not the problem), and it has a lead girl who is similar (she lives in poverty, faces death, loves to read, is a loner etc).  Why did the one book work for me and the other didn’t?  I don’t know.  Perhaps you, my internet world, can give me some answers?

Maybe it is a question of timing?  This is a possibility.  I had a very stressful month in January including an injury, and I was not in the mood to read a sad book.  Perhaps if I had read the Book Thief last month I would not have enjoyed it?  Haven’t you ever had a book that you once loved but upon rereading you think “Why did I like that book?” That’s happened to me many times- especially with books I liked during phases of my life such as the preteen years, high school, college, or when I hated my job etc.

On the other hand, there are books that no matter what mood I am in I enjoy reading- North and South, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, Cheaper by the Dozen, Mama’s Bank Account.  I have read North and South at least six times in the last two years.  I LOVE it!  It’s like a hug from an old friend.  Why do these books move me every time?  I don’t know. It would be easy to say I like them because I relate to them but that is a stretch- what in my life could possibly relate to Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennett?  I suppose I relate to their spunk- their willingness to defy convention for love, honor or friendship. All of these  books also have a full spectrum of emotions.  They are happy, sad, angry, remorseful and hopeful.

When I think about the Book Thief it also has a wonderful mixture of emotions.  While predominantly tragic there are several characters that give Liesel hope.  Her foster-father is a wonderful character who tenderly loves and encourages her to continue reading (this done while her foster-mother scolds and reprimands her at every turn).   There is also Max who is hiding in the basement and draws with chalk about the great life he will someday live.   In addition, we know the foster-mother has taken Liesel in at great risk (and Max) so she cannot be all bad?

The plot in the Book Thief was also a huge surprise.  It took a standard WWII story and turned it on its head.  Not only is Death the narrator, but I never knew what was going to happen  in the next chapter.  It’s hard to explain but its like no other book I’ve ever read.  With all the WWII books out there it is amazing Zusak could pull off a surprising plot but he does.

Anyway, for whatever reason I didn’t feel the plot in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn surprised me.  Nor did the characters attach themselves to my heart.

This brings me to one last topic. It is a reality that no human being  is perfect.  I get that fact, but it seems to me  many modern authors are so afraid to show a person anxiously striving to be good that they veer too far in the other direction- making every character full of mournful vices. I can think of 100 supposed ‘contemporary classics’ where not a single good person inhabits the pages.  Am I naive? I don’t think so.  I believe in even the worst of conditions the human spirit can triumph.  I also believe each person has the light of Christ within their souls prompting them to try and live a good life.   Obviously this depends a little bit on your definition of good; nevertheless, there are always  some people trying to follow a moral code and live life with integrity.

When I think of a book like Catch 22 (a supposed classic) that is full of nothing but crass, mean, selfish characters (and not a single woman who isn’t a prostitute or a nurse!) and a book some people find funny- I am mystified?  (Tree Grows in Brooklyn was a million times better than Catch 22). In my life such hateful characters are the exception to the rule. Modern books would make you think I am the exception.

Even while serving in some pretty poor, crime riddled areas on my mission I saw much good in people.  For example, Mary Turner, who lived on the worst street of Indianapolis in the worst section of town, sold cans to feed the missionaries and anyone else who was hungry on her street.  Many modern authors are afraid to put a character like Mary Turner in their books because it is not ‘realistic’ but she lives, I met her.  Its real! Why is gloom and doom in the extreme more realistic than happiness and good in the extreme? Why is a moral character a cliché but a jaded cynical one isn’t?

Even chick-lit books are falling into this trap (aren’t they supposed to be light and fluffy?).  For example,  Julie and Julia- a book I hated.  (The movie is slightly better because it includes the Julia Child sections  from Julia Child’s book My Life in France that I LOVED).  Julie Powell is a whining, cynical, self-absorbed, foul mouthed author who I felt absolutely no sympathy for.  Is life really so bad Julie? Maybe she should read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn- gain a little humility!  All she did in that book was complain even about the supposedly fulfilling act of cooking.

Of course, there are many modern books that aren’t afraid to include characters with integrity.  The Secret Life of Bees comes to mind- a book with many sad events but also a few people who love as unconditionally as they can.  To me it was a great balance. Maybe that’s the word I’m looking for- balance?  There needs to be balance in a book.

So, am I soft’ or an old fashioned reader?  Maybe I am? I’ll admit I’m a romantic at heart and a bit of an idealist.  I like books depicting the triumph of the human spirit, which in its own weird and twisted way the Book Thief does.  The only triumph for Catch 22 is cynicism, sin and despair. Not for me!

(I just want to add that in no way did the members of book club infer I was soft or old-fashioned.  I’m glad they liked the book.   That’s the great thing about reading and particularly book club. The best books touch our souls and produce visceral reactions either praise-worthy or to the contrary. I was not the least bit offended or bothered by our discussion.  In fact, it was quite fun. It merely made me wonder about my reading preferences.  I promise.  I don’t want anyone holding back at the next meeting!)

21 thoughts on “Why I Like a Book?

    1. Sad. Someday you’ll be out of that tiny apartment with your books! So what do you think about my post- do you think I’m soft? What do you think about the section on modern literature? As an author and my best friend/sister I am curious. Do you think I’m a book wimp?

    2. I can’t think of a ton of books I loved as a teenager. I think I was too busy in high school to do much reading. The pre-teen years were more impactful. That is when I read Cheaper by the Dozen, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women etc. They will always have a soft place in my heart.

  1. I do think you’re a little soft, Rachel (grin). But I’m soft too. And I totally believe in the good in people and I have a real problem with contemporary literature. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary chick lit because there doesn’t seem to be enough substance or real character development (by character I mean moral character, not the people of the story), though there are a few notable exceptions. But what really bothers me, for example, are the supposed works of amazing insight that end up on lists like Oprah’s book club. I hate the woman’s mid-life crisis books – like Sue Monk Kidd’s ‘The Mermaid Chair.’ After loving ‘Secret Life of Bees,’ I was so excited to read another of her novels only to find that this one is about a woman who up and decides to leave her life and husband and secludes herself on a small island and has an affair with a monk. Really? So I tend to steer away from most contemporary fiction others fawn over.
    The best books are the classics – the real chick lit like Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice that are romantic no doubt but also about developing strong moral character and finding – and nurturing – the good in the human soul. If that’s soft, I’m totally happy right there.

    1. I’ve heard bad things about the Mermaid’s chair. It is so obnoxious when contemporary movies/books makes it seem noble for women to leave their families. I blame The Awakening by Kate Chopin. She started it all! (I hate that book).
      I must admit to also steering away from contemporary fiction. Like I said in my post, it tends to focus to much on the negatives in life and who has time for negatives now days? Another book which is very sad but still worked for me is the Kite Runner. There was just enough humility and love between the 2 characters to get me through the brutal parts.

      1. I wouldn’t say your soft Raelene. Remember on your first pregnancy how you kept reading those depressing books like In Cold Blood and the Cherry Orchard? I can’t remember what else but it was funny.

    1. Thanks! I’m thrilled you read my blog! Dare I ask- what did you like about it? Do you think I’m a book wimp? What do you think of modern books?

  2. If you liked The Book Thief, The Kite Runner, and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, then you’re definitely not fluffy soft. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect some sort of uplifting feeling from a book. I do think that feeling *can* come from an otherwise melancholy book that explores hard emotions in a penetrating and meaningful way.

    I’m with you and Raelene on contemporary fiction, though. I just bought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (because I had an Amazon gift card for my Kindle, I’m a cheapskate and don’t want to pay $10 for a book, and that book was only $5 so I figured I’d give it a read). I have a feeling I might enjoy the ride but won’t feel much of what I look for when I read a book.

    I think a lot of people read just for entertainment and that’s fine. For me, if I just want entertainment, I’d rather sit down and watch a quick an episode of “Modern Family” (I know, I’m lazy.)When I read a book, I definitely need to be entertained, but I also need to be intellectually and emotionally fulfilled.

    So basically, I think you just require fulfillment from your books. I think your reaction to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” may definitely have something to do with the hard month you were having. But even if you would have hated it anyway, I don’t think it means you’re soft. It just didn’t satisfy you emotionally. Your reading history shows that “sad” books can still satisfy you, so…I think it was the book…or your life at the time…or the combination.

    1. Thanks Adrienne. As my book club friend (in a contemporary book club no less)it means a lot. I must admit I felt a little soft in that book club. We had a bit of a rocky track record- remember Catch 22, Invisible Man, Netherland…Oh my! I like what you said about books being more than entertainment. They should inspire in some small way or, to use your words, be fulfilling, add something to your life.
      Let me know what you think about the Dragon Tattoo. I’ve heard about it but not known anyone who has read it.

  3. Ok, I take it back. Especially since I realize now that the connotations of being soft are a lot more negative than I had anticipated. (sorry, Rachel)

    And I agree with Adrienne – entertainment is good for a book, but there should be more than that – if not necessarily in a single book, at least across the spectrum of books we choose to read.

    I read the Dragon Tattoo – all of them, actually (ebook is the way to go). And I really enjoyed them. But – I also enjoyed the Jungle and Something Wicked This Way Comes and other dark novels. I enjoyed the thrill of this one – and the brilliance and unexpectedness of the main character. I also found the journalistic voice very refreshing. Be forewarned though, the language is at times very coarse and the plot twists with serious, dark themes – I can’t recommend it to just anyone and if you might be offended, don’t hold it against me (please).

    1. I wasn’t offended at all. I definitely don’t think you are a soft reader- I admit to perhaps having those tendancies. We should start up our reading again? Well, maybe that would be too difficult with you having such a small baby but when things settle down let’s do it. I miss you!

      1. sigh. I’d love to, but you’re right – things are just a little too crazy right now. I want to read (and it’s even one of the monthly resolutions for the year to do so every day), but right now – yikes!

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