“I got this book at the tip. It won some award. I didn’t like it, but you probably will.” – My mother.
I’ve got to hand it to my old mum: she knows my taste in books. If there’s a book she doesn’t like, there’s a solid chance I’ll love it. I like to rebel against the matriarchy when it comes to matters of taste. As a general rule, she doesn’t like literary award winners, while I enjoy books that will make me look good if I die in the middle of it and it’s the last thing I can be judged on. In return, I’ve been known to tell her, “I hated this book. You’d loathe it.” Occasionally we fall in love with the same book and remember we are related after all, but these moments are few and far between.
The interesting thing, however, is that the books she doesn’t like that I love are often rather pretentious, while the ones I hate and she’d loathe are the most pretentious of the lot. There’s a line somewhere in the world of literary fiction where our tastes run parallel, and I usually know when I’m about to pass it and fall into a slightly verbose pit down which she would be reluctant to follow me. Some of my favourite books have a distinct air of wank about them: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino, and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, to name a few. I’ve even been told that loving Winnie the Pooh as much as I do is a fine illustration of my high-brow taste because it contains subtexts. However, with the exception of Pooh, I wouldn’t go recommending these books to just anyone and am aware they are not to everyone’s taste. In the case of The God of Small Things, I think it’s right on the cusp of well-written and pretentiously over-written. While I adore it, I can see why one mightn’t like it at all and find it boring. I certainly wouldn’t force it on my mum.
If a book has won a significant award, it’s just about a guarantee she won’t like it. That being said, it’s no sure thing that I’ll love it. As a professional bookworm, I like to have an educated and considered personal opinion on the books that are doing the rounds, and was looking forward to finding time to read last year’s Booker Prize winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. I took it away on holidays with me, and thank goodness I brought another book along for the ride, as I spent the first hundred or so pages feeling like the esteemed philosopher Philomena Cunk:
“I found it boring, because I wasn’t sure whether it was boring because it was boring, or boring because it was good. Like how the theatre is good but totally boring.”
It seemed like a book I would enjoy. It’s a fictionalised retelling of the assassination attempt on Bob Marley and its aftermath, reaching as far as gang warfare in New York and the social implications on Jamaica in decades to come. Modern historical fiction meets social commentary meets true crime meets music. What’s not to like? Disappointingly for me, the kindest thing I have to say is, “I can see why it won the award.” It’s written from the perspectives of a huge array of characters, each with their own unique voice, history and style. I can’t fault James on his talent there. But it’s 900 odd pages with no story, and if I hadn’t had so much time on my hands, only one other book with me and the drive to give such an acclaimed book a fair go, I would’ve shut it forever and given it to my mother as an hilarious prank. It did teach me a valuable lesson though, which is that if I find myself relating to Philomena Cunk, the book is probably not for me.
It’s always tricky when a customer asks for a particular “good” book I quietly hate. I do my best to fight the natural urge to show off and say, “I’ve read that!” and when I fail, pray I’m not asked what I thought. An honest opinion is often appreciated though, and the other day I sent a high school student and her mother away with three classics I’m sure she’ll enjoy, and saved them from buying Jane Eyre, which the mum nearly bought because it seems like the kind of classic a teenage girl should read. I told her how I battled through every single page and struggled to stay awake, then hastily tried to backtrack and explain that obviously a lot of people would disagree with me; it’s a classic after all. Had she come in asking for a smart-people book named for the central female character, I could have easily and honestly extolled the virtues of Anna Karenina, but then that’s another one I suspect plenty of people snooze through.
A customer did buy The Unbearable Lightness of Being on my recommendation a week or two ago, after I told her, “It’s the sort of book that will make you feel smart and kind of dumb at the same time. You’ll feel as though you’re absorbing all this great writing, then worry that you wandered off for a second and missed something crucially brilliant and you just don’t get it. You’ll want to go back for more though.” She told me that was a great way to describe a book and she couldn’t wait to read it. I’m super good at my job when I pitch a book to the right audience, and get a lot of strange looks the rest of the time. But I think the above perfectly describes the kind of pretentious book I’ll love. Nobody wants to spend several hundred pages feeling like a dunce, but there’s nothing quite like rereading one of your favourites and coming away with something new.
I’ve scheduled in time for this year’s Booker Prize International winner, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, and really hope I’ll like it. I could be setting myself up for another round of Cunk-esque moments of wonder, but at least this one is about a quarter of the length of last year’s victor. I think it’s worth pitting my professional curiosity and desire to seem well-informed against a few hundred pages of potential pretension, and if I hold my silence at the other end, you’ll know I missed something. Maybe this year everyone will be harping on about a genuinely good book, and not one we all want to think is good, but when it comes down to it is so good it’s bad.