Several weeks ago, The New York Times Book Review “Bookends” section, which poses a weekly question to two authors, asked if they had ever had a relationship break up over reading tastes. I don’t recall the responses by the authors in question, other than that they seemed like short memoirs of early romances. The question itself intrigued me for a few reasons, and it has been rattling around in my head as a possible topic for this blog.
My first reaction was “How silly.” I’m not much of a fighter over differences of opinion, whether the subject is sports, religion, fashion, reading preferences, or anything else. I confess to being a little less tolerant in the area of politics, which I have learned to avoid except with those who are on the same page. My philosophy is that when it comes to strongly held convictions, no arguing is going to change another person’s mind. If looking at the whole person I see someone I want as a friend, his or her views on one topic are not going to put me off. If the person’s values and judgments are consistently incompatible with mine, it is not likely that there is any common ground for a relationship. And certainly, as a bookseller, I have learned to appreciate a wide variety of reading tastes, if only on a superficial level.
The question posed in The Book Review seemed directed at romantic relationships. This avid reader has been married for 28 years to someone who does not read, at least not fiction. The only real stress this situation has put on the relationship is occurring now. I love to give books as gifts. How does one choose a book for a non-reader? I have tried nonfiction related to his many interests, but the truth is that getting comfortable for a long stint with a book does not give my husband the pleasure it gives me. He’s an engineer at heart, and I just have to find a new toy for him to tinker with. Obviously, there are more important shared activities and values between us than reading. He does enjoy my summaries of mystery book plots while we are driving, and says it saves him the reading. When I finished an oral synopsis of Gone Girl (while I still remembered all the twists and reversals of the plot), his comment was, “Wow. I wouldn’t want to be married to her.” I said, “You mean Amy?” He said, “No, the author who could imagine something like that.” So I guess Gillian Flynn is no threat to my marriage. And there go my hopes of writing a similar best seller.
Whether it’s romantic relationships or friendships, people don’t need to agree on every issue, or enjoy all of the same things. In fact, life would be pretty dull if the only people we were close to were exactly like us. Many of my friends are avid readers, and several of them are in the reading groups that meet at my shop. Within this reading community there is a wonderful variety of tastes. As a result, I have read books I would never have picked up on my own. Some choices I am grateful for. Some I finish feeling that the hours could have been better spent. But I always learn from the discussion what attracted the person who proposed the book, and thus learn something more about her. (We have a few sporadic male attendees, but in general reading groups seem to be a girl thing. Topic for another post!)
An incident this week made me realize that I do have a sensitive spot when it comes to books and others’ opinions. Our groups have holiday lunch or dinner outings in December, since we all are too busy for much reading but enjoy each other’s company. As we lunched and reviewed what we had read this year, a particular book came up. It was one that the members, evenly split, either loved or hated. We were talking about how good that meeting was; the disagreement actually led to wonderful expressions of the bases of our opinions. I fell into the “hate” camp; the writing was beautiful, but 500 pages of lovely description where very little happens (she was born, she lived, she died) was boring to me. A member of the group (and friend) who was in the “love” contingent commented that it was more appealing to those with an academic bent. My mouth engaged before my brain, as happens all too frequently, and I shot back that just because good mysteries have a plot that keeps the reader’s attention, doesn’t mean they are mere entertainment and more and more frequently they contain writing that is just as lovely and characterization that is just as profound as so-called “literary” fiction.
After a brief pause, the conversation moved on to other books. My friend and I have cleared the air; no offense was intended by either of us, and small slips of the tongue when our real passion is the books are easily remedied. The incident revealed to me a sensitive spot in myself that is more easily provoked that I realized (or admit). One argument I will engage in is the defense of genre fiction as every bit as worthy as any “literary” work anointed by those who do the anointing. As a bookseller, I can’t get into heated debate with those customers who will go nowhere near the science fiction/fantasy, romance or mystery sections. But I have made suggestions to those with more willingness to try something different, and have gotten feedback that new horizons have been opened. I should mention here that the friend with whom the heated moment occurred reads voraciously in all genres, and appreciates good writing wherever it appears.
So, Vive la difference! Dissimilar reading taste is not a deal breaker for me; it’s the person who counts. What about you?
Housekeeping Note: Cathy Genna will begin sharing this slot with me in January. We both agree that a bookseller’s life at this time of year is both invigorating and exhausting, and can only be understood by another bookseller. Taking on something new is better with the New Year, and I know she will bring fresh insights to the Saturday posts.