by Alison Flood)
This blog post, "On the Perils of Feeling Dumb While Reading", struck a shame-inducing chord with me this morning. The author, Swapna Krishna, talks about how "you pick up a book you've been looking forward to, a 'smart' book that everyone and their mother has loved, settle down with it, start reading, and … You hate it. Or maybe you don't hate it, but you certainly don't love it like everyone else seems to. And you can't help but ask yourself, 'Is it me? Am I just not smart enough for this book?'"
Krishna talks about books by Neil Gaiman and China Mieville as inducing this feeling; commenters on the article addGillian Flynn's Gone Girl, and George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.
Now, I didn't admit it when I was talking to her earlier this week, but the excellent Frances Stonor Saunders had already hit a similar nerve with me yesterday when we were discussing Doctor Zhivago. Yes, yes, it's an epic love story and the CIA used it to spread unrest in the Soviet Union and all that, but "many would argue it's actually a very boring novel - lots of people don't get to the end", she said.
Yep, I'm one of them. I gave Doctor Zhivago a good old try or two when I was in my brief-lived Russian phase, but couldn't keep track of the vast numbers of character names – couldn't ever find myself grabbed enough by the story to really try, to be honest. Not smart enough for Doctor Zhivago? I can tick that box.
Something else I'm somewhat ashamed of never having finished? The first ever text we were set at university, Philip Sidney's Astrophil and Stella. My god but it bored me, and I cast it aside, about three quarters of the way through, in favour of other activities. I was possibly a little too tickled to discover a reference to it recently in SJ Parris – aka Stephanie Merritt's – new novel Treachery, when her own Sidney starts declaimed the endless sonnet sequence to a woman, only to be interrupted by hero Bruno. "There are a hundred and eight sonnets in this sequence, my lady ... I can save you the trouble of hearing them: Stella rejects him and stays with her husband, Astrophel is sad, The End.'" I'm ticking the "too stupid for Philip Sidney box" too – but at least now I know how it finishes.
I've just had a browse of my bookshelves, and I'm reminded that while I love most of what Mieville's written - including Kraken, which Krishna didn't enjoy – I really didn't get on with the multiple award-winning The City and the City, and I had to put it aside. So – too dumb for Mieville. Ditto Dan Simmons' prize-winner >Hyperion - although I adored The Terror and rave about it to anyone who will listen.
As a thriller lover, I am bemused by my lack of interest in Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I'd say is the sort of book which falls into what John Lanchester describes in this London Review of Books essay as "the self-reinforcing phenomenon of the contemporary mega-seller; by which I mean not just the garden variety bestseller but the book or books which go to that mysterious other place in the popular consciousness, when it's as if reading them has somehow been made compulsory".
The worst thing about failing to love a book along with everyone else isn't the self-doubt or the fact that you wasted time struggling to get along with it. "It's the people that make you feel like you're an idiot, like you just didn't get it and don't have the wisdom or knowledge or mental capacity to appreciate it, and obviously that's why you didn't like it," writes Krishna, who ventured on to Twitter to wonder why Gaiman's American Gods just wasn't cutting it, to be told "Well, I've read quite a bit of mythology and so I was able to appreciate the allusions and metaphors."
Krishna concludes that it doesn't matter, because "not every book is going to click for everyone; that doesn't mean you're aren't smart enough for the book you're reading. It just means you're smart enough to come up with your own opinion, separate from the masses."
I still wish I understood why everyone raves about Pynchon, though, and why I just can't get along with Murakami.
I'm now older, and possibly wiser, than when I last tried Gravity's Rainbow - carried on many a holiday, often started, never finished - so perhaps I'll take a second stab at "getting" it. And how about you? Which are the books out there which you are not smart enough to read? Or perhaps there aren't any...