A few weeks ago my husband sent me an article from the New York Times called “Why You Should Read Books You Hate.” Aside from having a great title, I was intrigued because I wanted to revisit the issue of writing what you don’t know, and thought reading books one hates would help – nay, force – a writer to learn something new.
As the author of the article, Pamela Paul, says, “Pick up a book you think you will hate, of a genre you’ve dismissed since high school, written by an author you’re inclined to avoid. Now read it to the last bitter page.”
When I read that, science fiction and Isaac Asimov immediately came to mind.
So did the New York Times, for that matter. (You can read my anti-NYT rant here.)
It sounds like such a boring waste of time, doesn’t it? As Paul herself says:
At a time when people are siloed into narrow sources of information according to their particular tinted worldview…it’s no surprise most of us also read books we’re inclined to favor. Reading is a pleasure and a time-consuming one. Why bother reading something you dislike?
I know that when I’ve finished a day’s work, I want nothing more than to snuggle up with some good historical fiction, a cup of tea, and a blanket.
(And probably also a piece of chocolate, but don’t tell anyone.) Why bother torturing myself with what merely seems to be another chore?
Why read books you normally wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole?
Paul gives several reasons for reading books of a different genre, outlook, style, and format – or books that you just plain hate. I think that each of her reasons segues into the next, so I’ve placed them in what I think is the logical order:
- It makes you a better reader.
- It forces you to immerse yourself in a completely different world, one you might be uncomfortable with.
- It helps you define your own outlook and values.
- It might give you an entirely new perspective or opinion on an old and closely held belief.
And here’s a fifth one, from me:
It enables you to write what you don’t know.
It makes you a better reader
If you’ve made a commitment to read something “boring” (read: it doesn’t interest you), you have two options: to turn off your brain and just skim it, or to consciously decide to stick it out, giving it your full attention.
Let’s pretend you’ve chosen the latter option.
It will be much harder for you to concentrate on the book, and therefore you will probably be forced to immerse yourself in it as a result. Because you are convinced that you will hate the book, you will be looking for reasons to hate it in order to confirm your hypothesis. No one wants to be wrong, right?
While you are hard at work hating the book, you will have to gather evidence: Does the author’s style bother you, and if so, why? Do the author’s opinions offend you, and do you have an intelligent rebuttal? Are you having trouble following because the book is written in stream-of-consciousness? Try to figure out why the author used specifically this format, and what the book would have lacked had it been written in any other format such as a diary or a straight novel.
These questions force you to read carefully and critically, which can only help your own writing. Knowing what’s “bad” or offensive, discerning what works and what doesn’t, will spill over into your prose, making it tighter and more precise.
It forces you to immerse yourself in a completely different world
This will get easier once you become a better reader.
Being out of one’s comfort zone is, well, uncomfortable. I, for instance, disliked books about animals when I was a child (I still do, but there aren’t many books about animals for the adult crowd). My sister, however, loved books about animals, and in fact read Black Beauty many times. When I finally read it, I saw that there was much more to the book than just a horse trotting around. After I got over my discomfort, I saw that the book was also about the people in Black Beauty’s world, and there were lessons to be learned. Ditto with Charlotte’s Web.
Immersing yourself in a subject that makes you uncomfortable can engender empathy. For instance, a book whose protagonist is transgender, a Syrian refugee, or of a different religion gives you insight into someone else’s world. You’re going to need that when you write about or from the perspective of a character who is not a spitting image of you, or even vaguely familiar.
Perhaps your next villain will be a drug lord. Or a manipulative gigolo. Or a megalomaniac. There is a lot of good material for these types of characters in, say, a fantasy or time-travel novel.
For example, J. K. Rowling gives you a perfect portrait of an evil manipulator in the character of Voldemort, especially in the last two volumes of the Harry Potter series. Even those who dislike the series will find a gold mine of brilliantly drawn characters, not just of Voldemort. And if I ever force myself to try Don Quixote again, I might find a healthy amount of material for a character I might want to create who is on an impossible quest and the laughingstock of all who know him.
It helps you define your own outlook and values
I once heard a father scream at his kid in an extremely (verbally) violent way, and when the torture was over I turned to my cousin, who was with me, and said, “Well, now we know how not to speak to our children.” The same is true for books you read that are 180 degrees opposite your perception of reality.
After you have delved into an unfamiliar world and uncovered its salient principles, you are ready to figure out where you stand. To this end, a hated book can be your own personal devil’s advocate.
Listening to NPR, besides giving me a stomachache, is a kick in the pants for me to stand up for who I am and craft an “elevator pitch” of my core beliefs. For people on the other side of the spectrum, reading The National Review might give them the willies – but might also be an instructive read for them, and a way to nail down rebuttals they can use in their own writing.
As writers – even fiction writers – we need to know what we stand for. Reading literature that is far from our own outlook will help us articulate what we want to communicate to our readers.
As an example, I just finished a three-book series (which I mentioned in my last blog) in which an engaged couple were more or less modest with each other until their wedding. I was impressed how the author was able to pull that off (no pun intended) without sounding like a goody-goody. Perhaps she’s read one too many novels where couples have acted like modern, red-blooded couples, and decided that her books would be different.
I also find that John Grisham never has gratuitous sex in his novels. There is nary a curse word in his Theodore Boone kids’ series, and he weaves values and good advice into them without shoving it down the reader’s throat. The relative “cleanliness” of Grisham’s books might be the result of a conscious decision informed by the dirt he has read and rejected.
It might give you an entirely new perspective or opinion on an old and closely held belief
But don’t dismiss books you hate as merely a means to figure out what you like or stand for. There might be some diamonds in the “rubbish” that will change your opinion on a particular matter. Constant defining and refining of our values is what real growth is all about.
Having a new perspective on things lends freshness to your writing. It also leads you into new genres, subjects, and characters to write about. Don’t pigeonhole your writing persona. Write about something you’ve never written about, from a different perspective. You might find yourself with a whole new readership as well.
For you freelancers, read something new and explore untried options for your work. Perhaps you can write for The Village Voice after all. Or do a little research into motorcycle gang culture. The possibilities are endless.
It enables you to write what you don’t know
Taking another look at books you dislike or that don’t interest you expands your knowledge and exercises your writing muscles. Force yourself to explore something new, and open up a whole new world for yourself. You will find a treasure trove of new ideas worth exploring and unusual things to write about.
And maybe you’ll surprise yourself by actually liking some of the books and ideas you thought you hated.
Being open to new ideas, authors, and genres will help you be more open to all sorts of new things. A “boring” book on gardening might inspire you to speak with that neighbor with the gorgeous wisterias down the street, which will lead not only to a new friendship but to a series of articles on gardening with a black thumb. Reading I Sing the Body Electric and Fahrenheit 451 will give you insight into the reading habits of the nerdy, Trekky teenage character you need to draw for your next novel.
Who wants to join me in reading a “terrible” book?
Anyone want to join the “Let’s hate a book” challenge? Let me know which book you choose, and why, in the Comments below. Let’s give ourselves two weeks, until the next Bulletproof Writing post. Then you can tell me how you did, and what you gained from the experience.
Good luck, and may the worst book win!
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