The question was asked in a book club on Facebook – what is the worst book you’ve read? I quickly type “Atlas Shrugged” before scanning the list to see which books I should avoid reading.
However, the books that others hated made me pause. Alongside the somewhat predictable mention of Fifty Shades of Grey, there was The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon.
Zadie Smith’s extraodinary White Teeth and Room by Emma Donoghue were on the list, as well as the heart-warming Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.
These books could just as easily sit on a list of my favourite reads, but here they were, deemed other readers’ most hated books.
How can people experience books so differently?
It is not the first time that I have been surprised by other people’s book choices (and by implication, other people have been surprised by mine). This is particularly the case in literary awards, when books that I found impossible to finish have been deemed the best of the year’s literature.
Recently, I finished reading The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy, the author of one of my previous favourites, The God of Small Things. I was thrilled by the news that critics had applauded this book that had been 20 years in the writing. And so, the fact that I did not enjoy reading it came as a big disappointment.
While you could argue that critics and literary judging panels are looking for different attributes in a book to the casual reader, I’ve also diverged from some of my best friends on our responses to books.
While I loved Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, one of my closest friends, who shares so many of my interests and opinions, did not like it at all.
Edmund Wilson famously recognised the subjectiveness of reading when he said: “No two persons ever read the same book.”
However, there are some books that seem almost universally liked and admired. Recent examples include The Dry by Jane Harper and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
Interestingly, a Book Riot list of readers’ favourite books features Slaughterhouse-5, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Gone Girl and The Catcher in the Rye – two books which were on people’s most hated books on Facebook. The Great Gatsby was Book Riot readers’ fifth favourite book, but also their fourth most hated.
Even children’s books can attract just as divided opinions – I cry every time I read The Giving Tree to my children because of its poignancy and melancholy, yet others say there is not book that they dislike more. Even Dr Seuss’s The Lorax – much loved by my son – has opinions divided.
There are a range of reasons why we might experience books differently, from the stage of life in which they are read, our own biases, our previous experiences, and even the circumstances in which we are reading the book – almost any story will suffer long breaks between when the book is picked up, or being read in haste between bus stops.
Having read the Facebook list of people’s most hated reads, I think I might have to refrain from recommending books too enthusiastically in the future, in case they end up on that person’s most-hated list. After all, if someone can dislike White Teeth or Eleanor Oliphant, what hope is there of getting it right? All I can truly, unequivocally recommend is that you don’t read Atlas Shrugged. And don’t email me if you loved it.
What is your most-hated book?