It happens to every reader at least once . . . they pick up the hot new thing that everyone’s talking about, or the landmark classic that everyone says is a must-read, and as far as they’re concerned it might as well be a plate of spinach. And not the yummy kind that goes into spinach-egg-and-bacon salad, or Something Delicious Florentine, or white lasagna. No, it’s the limp and bitter kind that gets served up from cafeteria steam tables to defenseless schoolchildren who decide on the basis of the available evidence that spinach isn’t a vegetable, it’s a plot against humanity. Samuel Pepys hit the nail on the head, back in the 1600s:
And so to a booksellers in the Strand, and there bought Hudibras again, it being certainly some ill humour to be so against that which all the world cries up to be the example of wit; for which I am resolved once again to read him, and see whether I can find it or no.
I’m betting he probably didn’t.
It wasn’t Hudibras that did it, in my case, but I’ve certainly had the experience of just not getting the appeal of whatever it is that everybody of my acquaintance currently seems to like. I tried Dune three times – once in high school, once in college, and once in grad school – before deciding that whatever its attraction, I was constitutionally immune.
Middlemarch is another one that didn’t work for me. I got fifty pages into it, looked at the four hundred and fifty more pages of painfully small type waiting for me up ahead, and said to myself, “Life is too short for this. I will take my chances with the Cliff Notes.” But I know that it’s not the book, it’s me, because no book can be a match for every reader. I’ve got at least one good friend whose taste in many ways marches with mine, who loves Middlemarch with a passion; on the other hand, she can’t stand Moby-Dick, which I love.
(I try to remember this truth when somebody doesn’t like something I’ve written. Occasionally I even succeed.)