Make America Read Again, says the hats that are a take on The Hat Slogan. While a certain voter base looks to go back to a “happier” time, a certain reader base wants to go back in time for a different reason.
It’s not just readers, either. There are certain television shows, movies, music, and art that are problematic. (I almost put problematic in quotes, but they are problematic, so let’s stick with less nuance and more commitment.) I could list all of the literature and other art that we aren’t supposed to consume, but even in the list there is a distinct drawing of lines for some and not for others. You, as a reader, may read certain books that are considered problematic because you like the narrative, even if character depiction runs to nauseating; I love The Great Gatsby, but I hate what Daisy has to be for Fitzgerald to write it. I love some of Hemingway’s stuff and hate other stuff of his…sometimes within the same book. I have more than once relished white wine and oysters with a fond memory of A Moveable Feast, but I don’t think Hadley really sounded like that.
When I first started to commute to Oakland from San Francisco I went back to the habit of reading…and I was one of the first people to indulge in a Kindle. Seat mates on trains and buses would ask me about the Kindle, but they never asked what I was reading. As a I was transitioning from San Francisco to San Diego there used to be an account on Tumblr and Twitter that would show pictures of people and what they read on mass transit, and even now there is an account on Instagram called Hot Dudes Reading that shows dreamy men and their transit tomes. Now I get the feeling that those subjects would be ostracized; someone sees them on transit as well and gets in their face, asking the reader if they are aware of what that book means to someone in Northwest Ohio or to women or to anyone over 40 or etc., etc., etc.
“Don’t you know what that book means?”
What if I had an idea what it meant and read it anyway to learn how to improve on it?
I’m guilty of it, applying a sheen of my prejudices. Last month our book club pick was Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday. I wanted to like this book even before knowing much about the author; there are three main sections to the book, and I liked their narratives, but when I closed the book after reading the last page I was massively confused. The tease on the back cover stated that all three sections are tied together, and I completely missed how that was so. It must be good; I don’t get it, I could hear my mother say, so I blamed myself and decided to read some reviews: maybe they would tell me what I missed. The reviews told me more about academic writing than what I missed, and they also told me that Ms. Halliday used to date Philip Roth for a couple of years, and how the older gentleman in the first and last section were probably based on Roth, and how brilliant, and…
…Now it was worse because not only did I still not understand the connection between the three sections, but…
I’m not a big fan of Philip Roth.
That statement in itself would get me shot on Twitter, because when he died not that long ago all I could think of was “Well, he had a good life.” Roth had the luxury to retire, for heaven’s sake. He was fortunate. And, yes, I read one of his books: The Human Stain. I’m guessing that anyone who loves Roth would insist that I should have picked out something else, and maybe my bad luck in picking out The Human Stain means that I need to read something else of his, let me recommend, etc. But I have no desire to read anything else by Roth.
And I held that relationship with Roth against Halliday.
Everything was redeemed when I got to book club, though, as it always ends up. We learned that the middle section was the supposition of Alice’s absent fellow juror, and that the middle section holds one paragraph of feminine rhetorical thinking in the mind of a straight, cis male character, so there ARE connections, but every reader in the room resented having to re-read the beginning or read reviews–any extra reading outside of the book on a straight run–in order to understand the arc. I didn’t mention Roth; the room seemed full of Roth readers. I’m so glad that everyone picked up on something to explain the book, but I was annoyed that our collective mind had to solve it. I was annoyed that the book had to be solved.
Unlike the books of the prominently problematic (books like Hemingway’s or Fitzgerald’s), Halliday’s book was just published last year. The need we have to be revisionist of a book written in the 1920’s or 1930’s (or even the need to dispose of it) because our culture was different and overwhelmingly offensive in those days cannot apply to Halliday. I have no desire to sanitize any of them. Asymmetry is set nearly a century after the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but its shine too will fade and turn rough at the edges with time.
One can hope.
Meantime, I read them anyway, problematic or no, because I hope to read something like them but better someday. I hope we keep evolving. There’s a lot to hope…but you never know what the plot twist brings.