Are There Books that Make You Feel Dumb?

Public Service Rant

On the Perils of Feeling Dumb While Reading

This is one of those articles that makes me wonder why so many people feel insecure about their intelligence. Because of their fiction-reading! If you dislike or don’t understand a popular and well-regarded novel, there must be something wrong with you. Everyone will tell you so. The author homes in on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a book everyone raves about. She didn’t like it. And everyone who got into her discussion about it on Twitter told her, yes, you’re stupid, or you just don’t have the background.

Having read American Gods and disliked it, I chalked it up to personal taste, as any intelligent person would. At least that’s the position I took. I felt no guilt or inadequacy. It was a genre I’m not terribly crazy about, though I do enjoy a fantasy now and then. There are a lot of books that are highly regarded that I don’t like. Some of them I couldn’t even finish. But there is more than personal taste at stake here.

The truth is that a lot of books (and authors) are overhyped. But while they’re at the top of the best-seller list or being examined under a microscope in college courses that deal with “important literature,” there’s no point arguing. In the long run, many of these “You just have to read it!” books disappear and are never heard of again. Just browse through the fiction section of any well-stocked used book store. Read a few reviews that explain very clearly why a book isn’t as good as everyone seems to think. Read retrospective analyses that do the same.

Public acclaim isn’t a measure of intelligence, either the enthusiasts’ or yours. Fiction isn’t written to separate the sheep from the goats. Enjoy, or not, as you please, but don’t question your own judgment or your intelligence.

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12 thoughts on “Are There Books that Make You Feel Dumb?

  1. Actually, I liked American Gods very much, and a few weeks ago I put it on my stack of books to reread along with two other of Gaiman’s novels that I haven’t read yet. Maybe my favorable reaction was influenced by his description of sites in Wisconsin and Illinois that I am very familiar with. It will be interesting to find out if I feel the same way the second time around. But I’ve had negative reactions about other highly touted novels, more so, about much highly acclaimed poetry that I cannot relate to at all. Taste makes the difference.

  2. You can read the bad reviews for any highly acclaimed work and see that tastes are simply different. What one person likes most is the very thing another detests. That’s the beauty of fiction. There’s a story for everyone.

  3. Couldn’t agree with you more. Being a bestseller is no indicator of lasting literary merit. When I was young, a million years ago, I worked as a cataloguer in the historical section of the State Library of Queensland, Australia. I couldn’t help being stuck by the number of novelists who were bestsellers in their day and who were now completely forgotten.

      1. Ah yes, many years ago I read MAIN STREET. I hated every minute of it, but strangely enough, the characters in the book stayed with me long after I’d finished it. Perhaps that’s what great writing really does – it lingers. I had the same experience with Yukio Mishima..

        1. I haven’t read much of Mishima, but I found him bewildering. At least I was glad to learn that his writing was so culturally bound that most westeners wouldn’t be able to do more than skim the surface. For me, he was more interesting as a person, than a writer.

          1. Agree with you about Mishima, a fascinating guy. For an 1st class trip in Utter Bewilderment, though, I recommend Kurosawa, his mentor, who actually did win the Nobel Prize. I remember reading one novel of his that someone had strongly recommended to me. All I could figure out was that it seemed to be about a woman looking out a train window..

    1. Yeah, you and late evenings aren’t a good combination. Not for me, either. I knew it wasn’t the director, so I assumed there was another Kurosawa. It’s Kawabata, though. I checked Google to make sure because Kabawata didn’t sound right. So, double oops. LOL

  4. Books I don’t like don’t make me feel dumb – they’re just not what I like to read. For the record, though I finished it, skimming like crazy for the latter half of the book, I hated American Gods. What a mishmash! There wasn’t ONE character I could care about, my standard for ANY book: if I’m going to spend hours of my time, I want to be able to identify with at least one character (who doesn’t have to be the least bit like me – I have an imagination).

    Many books seems to think providing this is not necessary.

    I can’t read some of the classics, but have read such a huge number of ones I do like that I don’t worry about it.

    It’s just taste. Mine is formed by what I’ve read and what I like back in the omnivorous phase; now I’m more discriminating because I have less time, and I know what I like within a few pages.

    But I always find it entertaining when I find reviews that agree with me that a particular book was boring or badly-written or pretentious or …

    1. Good point about being able to tell within a few pages whether you want to read a book.

      Off-topic: I just did a bit of editing on this post, but resisted the urge to correct the whole thing. It has many of the quirks I’m now aware of and editing out of my fiction. Maybe my blog posts will also improve.

      1. Don’t spend any time on old posts unless you’re creating a book out of them. The standards are different – no one expects polished posts (beyond a reasonable grammar, etc., and many bloggers don’t even have that).

        It is a perfect format for getting ideas out and inspected, not necessarily dressed in their Sunday best.

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