Books That Make Readers Feel Stupid
Reading should be a pleasurable experience. Most of us work really hard throughout the day, looking forward to that spare moment when we can relax and lose ourselves in a good book. Honestly, I’m proud to be an avid reader. Book readers tend to be of above-average intelligence. And reading is supposed to make us smarter. But some books have made me feel the opposite of intelligent. There are some books that I haven’t understood. There are some books that I didn’t “get.” And then there are some books that just made me feel stupid.
Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
First of all, I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I believe the United States actually put astronauts on the moon. I don’t think FDR knew about Pearl Harbor ahead of time. But I believe Finnegan’s Wake is a cruel literary joke. Personally, I believe James Joyce intentionally wrote a bunch of gibberish just to see who would pretend to understand it. Anybody who claims to understand Finnegan’s Wake would then unintentionally expose himself/herself as a literary fraud. I have to believe in that because otherwise, I have to admit that I’m not that smart. I mean, I’d like to be intelligent enough to at least understand a little bit of Finnegan’s Wake, but I couldn’t get past the first sentence.
Therefore, it has to be a conspiracy. And James Joyce laughs (or laughed) himself silly every time somebody pretended to understand Finnegan’s Wake. It has to be that kind of conspiracy because otherwise, I would have to feel really stupid.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
This one makes me feel stupid because I think I don’t “get it.” I don’t like it when I don’t “get it,” especially when other people whom I know aren’t much smarter than me claim to “get it.” It reminds me of high school, when a bunch of guys claimed to “get it” all the time. Most of them were probably lying, but it still ticked me off. Yeah, the “get it” was something different, but it still ticked me off.
At least I understood what was going on in The Sound and the Fury. But I didn’t see anything special in it. I didn’t think it was especially insightful. The writing was okay but nothing that I remembered afterward. I was actually bored. To tell the truth, I didn’t finish it, I was so bored. I was downright ambivalent about the book.
As a writer, I don’t want readers to be ambivalent. I’d rather they hate something I write than be bored by it. But I was bored. Maybe it’s a reflection of me as a reader rather than of Faulkner as a writer. I’d say it was a little of both, but that’s a cop-out, and I don’t like cop-outs. I’d rather be wrong than take a cop-out position. But I felt like I should have finished The Sound and the Fury because it was short and was so supposed to be so great. It makes me wonder what I was missing. And that makes me feel really stupid.
The Corrections– by Jonathan Franzen
A lot of people hate The Corrections. I understand why. A lot of people love The Corrections. I understand that too. I wanted to hate The Corrections when it came out in 2001. I had just given up on writing after ten years of several projects, one coming kind of close to getting published (“kind of close to” probably meant “never had a chance of,” but I was at least told I was “kind of close”) and I was bitter that some guy who wasn’t much older than me was getting published, getting publicized, and then almost winning a Pulitzer, while I had nothing to show for my own efforts. I read The Corrections just so that I could be justified in hating it.
I also remember thinking that Jonathan Franzen looked like a prick in his publicity photos. Again, that was my bitterness. Even though I’m usually hard on myself for my faults, I don’t blame me for my attitude back then. Every unsuccessful writer should be allowed to go through a bitter stage, and 2001-2003 was mine. But I’ve gotten over it. Blogging helps. And if I ever got nominated for a Pulitzer, I’d probably look like a prick in my publicity photos too. I don’t think that Jonathan Franzen looks like a prick anymore (and if I did, I wouldn’t admit it).
I’m still glad that The Corrections didn’t win the Pulitzer. I’d never before cared about whether or not a book won a prize or not, but I was filled with joy when I learned that The Corrections didn’t get a Pulitzer. I know I shouldn’t get emotionally connected to situations that are out of my control like that, but I couldn’t help it. Maybe The Corrections made me feel worthless, but the author didn’t win a Pulitzer. Yeah, Franzen got nominated, but he still lost. What a loser. Ha!
Okay, that was really stupid of me.
What do you think? What books have made you feel stupid? Or are you such a good reader that no books make you feel stupid? Have you ever gone through a bitter phase as a writer? What do you do when you don’t “get” books that other readers claim to “get”?
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