The books that speak to us, that we love, or feel a special connection to, are a reflection of the questions we’re wrestling with.
That’s my premise, now whether or not it’s true is another question entirely. I’d love to hear what you think. In one way I think that that statement feels very obvious, upon closer inspection though, I think it merits further investigation and shouldn’t just be accepted as truth. There may be elements of it that need to be further refined. Let’s do that.
The reason I thought of this statement was that I was reading one of my all time favorite books, and wondering (as I often do), what exactly it was about that book that made me love it so. I think you can approach this with anything that you love, or are particularly drawn to. Not everyone, but I’d say that the general population feels this need to explain or understand what it is that makes us love one thing over another. Why? My best guess is probably because we feel that if we can understand what makes us love one thing, we can find more things like it. You can apply that approach and philosophy to basically anything:
- TV Shows
- You get the picture…
Okay so let’s take books. If I want to understand why I love certain books, I need to be able to compare them to books I don’t love. Essentially there are 6 types of books ranked in order of the reaction they create (you’ll notice books that I loathe and love are at the end as they both elicit the strong reactions):
- Books I’ve never read
- Books I’m apathetic towards (and/or forgettable)
- Books I dislike
- Books I like
- Books I loathe
- Books I love
Books I’ve never read
The easiest category is books I’ve never read, either because they don’t evoke a strong enough interest, I’ve never heard of them, or I’ve just never gotten around to reading them. This is the largest category, an untapped mine of endless possibilities.
Books I’m apathetic towards (and/or are forgettable)
The next category is books I’m apathetic towards. These are books that left no lasting impression (that I can perceive). I read them, took them in, but I’ve never focused on them. Instead they collectively make up the backdrop against which I view books in the next four categories. These books are my frame of reference which help me judge what I like or dislike. That said, I don’t like or dislike them in themselves. These are the types of books that I take for granted. I read them and then forget about them as I soon as I move onto the next author. They could be extremely clever, well-written, profound books but for whatever reason, nothing in it stuck with me. There was no piece of the book that discomfited me, no piece of it that I wanted to tuck away into a piece of my soul and keep there.
Books I dislike (also books I don’t finish)
Usually I don’t finish books I dislike, because usually I dislike them because they are poorly written and/or don’t hold my interest. This doesn’t hold true for books I loathe, which I’ll often finish because they’re well written (more on that later). Also I often dislike books because I dislike the main character, so much so, that I don’t want to continue spending time with them. There’s lots of reason I don’t like a book. But again, I don’t hate it, just dislike it. This means that often I just stop reading entirely and never find out more. Every once in awhile there will be a book in this category that I started out liking initially, but because of the ending I’ll end up disliking it.
Books I like
This is probably the second largest category of books for me. Why? Well, I rarely finish or begin books I don’t think I’ll like. That of course isn’t true for everyone, but hey it is for me! My philosophy is that life is too short to spend reading books you don’t like, or don’t help you grow or change in any way. The books that I like are books that “spark joy” as the famous Marie Kondo would put it. Something about it is attractive, or tasteful. Maybe it’s that they make you laugh. Maybe it’s that they make you think more deeply about a subject. Perhaps it’s the pure delight of reading something incredibly well-written, letting the words flow across your mind. Maybe it’s the delight of immersing yourself in another world or mind. Perhaps it’s the grittiness, and how you see it reflect the truth of life as it is – accurate without fluff or pretense. Perhaps the book in a small way mirrors the tragedy and sorrow you feel so deeply and helps you make sense of it. The long and short of it, is there is something about the book that makes you like it and come back to it and remember it. You appreciate it deeply. However, there isn’t enough of that something to make you love it. It might ring true, it might be well written but it doesn’t capture you completely. It just holds a small piece of you.
Books I loathe
These are the books that grabbed me, and pulled me in despite myself. Maybe the ending was unsatisfying, maybe the story rubbed me the wrong way (or the characters, or the writing etc.). For whatever reason though, I kept reading and reacted negatively to it. There was something about it that disturbed me, made me want to throw it out, it was cheesy, it was distrubing, the main character was a pill. Who knows! The main point is, that despite all that, something about the book left a strong impression on me. It made me think, it made me actively hate it by conflicting with some value that I have, or some aspect of it that made me realize how utterly contradictory it is to what I do love.
Or perhaps we hate them because they reveal something about us that we rather they didn’t. These books show us truths that we would rather not acknowledge, or make us look at unpleasant aspects of the human race. Perhaps they show us how a character lies and deceives, and in that character we see a bit of ourselves. Perhaps they are cheesy and mundane, and that makes us hate how our own lives are mundane. I don’t know, but there is something in it that makes us recoil.
Another common type of book that falls in this category are books that I originally had high hopes for, but the ending ruined it for me. These types of books may be part of my favorite series, or the first part of the book is captivating, but then the author takes whatever part of the story I loved, and kills it by the end. This could be literal, in that they kill a character. Or it could be more symbolic, in that the book takes the story to an unnatural ending that doesn’t fit, or that is disturbing, or is too comforting or just anything that makes you hate it.
I think you can find as much about yourself by the things you hate as by the things you love. You can learn as much by hearing what is unsaid as what is said. You can learn as much about what you want, by what you want to avoid as by what you want to pursue. No one is neutral. Nothing is neutral. Life is full of contradictions though. You can love and hate something at the same time. You can both want something, and want to avoid it at the same time.
Why is that? I don’t have an answer for any of these questions I have raised. These are just my rambling thoughts.
Books I love
Then we come at last to books I love. These books are like a combination of books you like and books you loathe. They not only attract you or please you in some way, they also evoke a strong emotional response. Not just that, but every element of the book comes together to create a picture that we can’t help looking at again and again.
In essence these books reflect the questions we are wrestling with. There is a question, or some truth that we are trying to come to terms with and these books act as a sort of guide or map to our life. Not just that, but they do it in a way that delights us, entertains us, entrances us. There can be all sorts of books in this category. Tragedies, dramas, mysteries, comedies, biographies, textbooks, whatever it is. The book holds the answer to a deeply held question and gives us the truth we are looking for. It doesn’t just help us understand a personal sorrow or tragedy, but it does it so well or so profoundly, so beautifully as to keep us transfixed. It weaves into our thoughts and mindset and becomes a part of who we are. It helps us see the beauty in a particular hardship we’re facing, or understand how to solve a dilemma, or gives us permission to just enjoy things for what they are. No need for some deeper meaning or truth other than to appreciate a well told joke, a beautifully written sentence, an accurately described character or setting. Whatever it is, it reflects and brings to life something we value and crave.
I think in a roundabout way I kind of invalidated my statement above. There’s more to books we love than the fact that they answer a question. It could just be a book that is so relaxing and uneventful it helps you relax, no matter where you are or what you’re doing, or what chaos is happening in your life. That’s not necessarily a question it answers in that case, more of a need it fills.
All of these ramblings are rather pointless. I didn’t exactly find a precise answer, but with all things I think it’s easier to understand them if I can get it out, and write it down on paper. Then I can see exactly what I’m thinking and examine whether or not it’s true.