Reading Books We Don’t Like?

True confessions time. I get some of my blogging ideas from the good folks over at Bookriot who host some of the most interesting conversations about reading for the general reading public. Today they posted an article on “The Benefits of Reading a Book You Don’t Like.”

The article talked about exploring what it is that makes us uncomfortable and what we find that is not working for us in books we don’t like rather than simply dismissing them with “I don’t like that.” And it strikes me that such an exploration may reveal qualities both in the work and in ourselves and that these can enrich and enlarge our worlds even when this is uncomfortable.

Fate of AfricaI can’t say, for example, that I liked reading The Fate of Africa recently. It was a thoroughly depressing account of corrupt leadership in country after country, the devastation of AIDS and genocides, with occasional glimmers of hope. Yet I think we are woefully ignorant of the importance of this huge continent, the richness of its peoples and cultures, and how we cannot divorce the “fate” of Africa from our own.

SolitudeI did not enjoy Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of SolitudeFundamentally, the story is the chronicle of a truly dysfunctional family that would be rich material for a Dr. Phil show. I also have to say I’m not a fan of magical realism and both of these facts probably reveal something about me. But discussing this book on and offline revealed why others like it, the implicit critique of colonialism that runs through it, as well as the fact that families and sexuality can sometimes be just about as bizarre as they are portrayed here.

Jim CrowReading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was just plain uncomfortable as a white man in a middle class suburb. Whether I agree with all of her analysis or not, I have to ask what is wrong with a culture that incarcerates a substantially greater portion of people from one minority ethnicity, even while the incidence of drug use may be as prevalent in my own suburb if only more cleverly hidden. And it was chilling to read about the erosion of our Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures that are integral to policing strategies in some communities.

The last kind of book I think of are books by those who do not agree with me. Reading books by writers like Daniel Dennett or E.O. Wilson, who are often quite critical of Christians help me understand the source of their animus, some of which might be justified even while i believe some is built on misconceptions of Christian belief. Likewise, reading authors from different theological persuasions and parts of the church is important, and even those of other faiths. It keeps me from caricaturing their beliefs and helps me understand why they might think differently.

Admittedly, a number of the books I read are those I think I’ll like. But sometimes it is the ones I don’t like that have left the most lasting impressions and force me to re-examine my own conceptions of the world. Reading the Bible actually falls in this category for me, which may be a surprise, but this is true because the Bible doesn’t sanitize human ugliness, it doesn’t portray a tame and domesticated God, and it makes uncomfortable ethical demands upon my life. It is a collection of books out of other times and cultures that sometimes can be difficult to understand and sometimes uncomfortable because I do understand it, which has been to my profound benefit.

I would be curious, how have you benefited from books you didn’t like, and what were these books?

Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude

One Hundred Years of Solitude
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have friends who truly think this is an amazing book. You have to help me. Just not sure I get it. No, it isn’t the magical realism thing. I get that and got used to crazy things like insomnia plagues, gypsies with flying carpets, children being carried away with the laundry. Garcia Marquez definitely has a creative imagination!

The story in brief centers around the mythical town of Macondo, somewhere in Latin America, settled by people escaping Western colonialists. They were led by Jose Arcadio Buendia and his cousin-wife Ursula. Much of the plot focuses around the decadence of this inbred, incestuous family who keep breeding sons named Jose Arcadio or Aureliano. At one point there are even 17 Aurelianos who are all systematically hunted down and killed as the government tries to snuff out the revolutionary movement led by Colonel Aureliano Buendia. From a glorious beginning, the village and the family spiral down into insanity and decadence, abetted by the banana planters, the government executioners, and a several year monsoon that rotted everything and was followed with termites and ants who literally ate the village.

Yes, we see a chronicle of human nature, almost a second creation and fall story. We see a story of family tragedy. We see the inevitability of decline and fall in this miniature, fantastic civilization. But we also have a tawdry tale of incest, child abuse, and sexual obsession. It occurred to me that this would be a great family for Dr Phil to do an intervention with.

Yes, this is a book beautifully and imaginatively written. Yes, it exposes the dark underside of our human nature and our inability to escape our own inner demons, of ourselves. While I don’t expect serious fiction to have “they all lived happily ever after” endings and it doesn’t surprise me to see the tawdry elements of life, there is nothing elevating or ennobling about this book. It seems we are either nothing more than the sum of our physical desires, or deluded if we think there is anything more to it. There is no redemption. Religious figures are simply buffoons, other than the magician Melquiades, who, if anything simply captivates the men of this family in delusion and a fatalism that leads to their destruction.

I know this is supposed to be one of the great books of this past century. At this point, I have to admit that I am scratching my head wondering why? Maybe those of you who really loved it can illuminate me.

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