It is easy for a reader to deliver a damning verdict on a book. Whether it is a debut novel or the masterpiece of a genius, the dismissal can be equally swift and brutal. Perhaps Moby Dick was boring; that Harry Potter was overrated. Or there were too many characters in The Way We Live Now or too few in The Rosie Project.
However, before sitting back too smugly, consider that it is not only the author that influences a story. As writer Samuel Johnson said, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”
The role a reader plays in their experience of a book was highlighted for me when I was talking to my mother about books that had influenced her. She immediately thought of Gone with the Wind, which she read as a teenager. However it wasn’t just the grandeur of the setting or the love story that moved her – her circumstances, reading it at a time when her father was ill in hospital, soon to pass away – may also have been influential in making the book so memorable for her. The book’s narrative, so remote from her own experience with its themes of war and slavery, removed her from her own sad story at the time, introducing her to another world.
Writer and literary critic Edmund Wilson said, “No two persons ever read the same book.” And it is true. Every reader brings their own biases, circumstances, moods and habits, which colour a book so it may be almost unrecognisable to that, with the same title and author, experienced by another reader. I am often surprised that my best friends or close family feel quite differently to me about books we have both read. And even the one person might read the book differently at different times in their lives.
The age which at books are read also effects how they are read. I distinctly remember reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being and wallowing in the angst of the human condition when I was in university. I loved the sense of the inner lives portrayed in the book, at a time when I knew much less than I thought I did about self and consciousness.
And many classic novels have been ruined for readers by the way they are dissected in school English classes – a sad fate for extraordinary texts. Even though I loved English classes, I remember complaining to my teacher in Year 11 about having been “forced” to read Anna Karenina. Years later, when I revisited the tome, I was ashamed about my laziness had made me unable to see the beauty and tragedy behind the length of the book. Yet, I can understand how easy it was to be put off as I ploughed through the pages, adding my own notes in the margin, which were impossible to find when I needed them. Reading it later, I was enthralled.
It is not just reading books in too much detail that can be off-putting – books can also suffer from not being read in enough depth. It is a mistake that I often make, in the anxiety that I feel in finishing a book, which causes me to hastily start a new one as soon as I have read the final page. As a result, I never really give the book a chance to settle; to think about what has happened and to give it the time and respect it deserves.
I also have to admit that, too often, I have simply picked up and put down a book so much, with such long gaps in between, that it has been difficult for anything but the most robust story to survive. And it is an even worse habit to chop and change between reading several books – perhaps one book is on the bedside table, the other in my handbag. As a result, characters and stories merge in such a way that they lose almost all meaning. Important words or underlying themes are forgotten and only a shallow interpretation is possible.
French philosopher, mathematician and scientist Rene Descartes said: “The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the greatest minds of past centuries.” However, if this is the case, I have to apologise to all great writers whose books I have read too blithely, and cast aside too quickly. These writers have surely endured some stunted conversations when I have failed to offer their books the attention they deserved.
Yes, there are many ways a book may suffer from many vagaries of the careless reader. So, writers, I’m sorry. There are so many books that I have cast aside, having struggled to identify with characters who never really had a chance. I have blithely switched between two books, giving neither a chance to shine, and have scorned a book whose author had dared to write at length, however exquisitely. In the future, I will try to give books the respect they deserve. And if not, I will be slow to judge the book or the writer, for blame might lie more squarely on my own shoulders.