The Burden of Expectation

This week’s installment of the Blue Bookcase’s Literary Blog Hop asks:

Do you find yourself predisposed to like (or dislike) books that are generally accepted as great books and have been incorporated into the literary canon? Discuss the affect you believe a book’s “status” has on your opinion of it.

Heavy stuff.

Like a good reader, I try to approach any book with an unbiased, open mind.  I don’t like others telling me what I should or shouldn’t think about a book.  The reading experience is a fiercely individual one, one which requires a reader to form a relationship with a work completely independent from what others think.  That’s how it should work in theory, anyhow.

Any realistic person knows that humans are, in essence, pack animals.  We thrive on relationships with others and are influenced by what they say and do.  This applies to every aspect of our lives, reading included.  We look for the suggestions and opinions of others as well as offer our own – that’s probably the primary reason why I, and many reading this, maintain our virtual pulpits from which we can hold forth as well as solicit the ideas of others.

Classics, upon which mountains of praise and vitriol are heaped, loom large in readers’ imaginations.  It’s difficult, if not impossible, not to be influenced by this plethora of cultural and literary baggage.  Take a book like Moby Dick, for example.  It’s hailed as one of THE Great Amercican Novels at the same time as it’s called difficult and boring.  Ahab and the White Whale are ubiquitous in popular culture.  It’s impossible for a reader not to have some set of expectations and biases when approaching such a cultural behemoth.

The important thing, crucial really, is that readers don’t allow these expectations to dictate reading choices.  Just because Moby Dick is renowned as being boring and difficult, doesn’t mean that its so.  And, just because everyone says The Great Gatsby is the end-all-be-all, doesn’t mean that I won’t want to gouge out my eyeballs reading it.  Classics, like any books, have a unique personal significance which all readers need to discover for themselves.

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16 comments

  1. Not written mine yet, but opinion wise it chimes with you, I like to think of myself as a reasoned individual, with minimum herd instincts, but can find myself succumbing to suggestion on occasion.

    1. I think we all wind up being susceptible to suggestion, no matter how independent we are (or think we are!). And, I suppose, it’s not always such a terrible thing.

  2. I always wonder what it would be like to read certain classics without the baggage of knowing what the culture and literary world already says about a book. I feel like I’ll never know what my pure, direct reaction to a book will be if I already know all about it through whatever cultural channels (pop culture, academic classroom, etc). Ignoring these can be difficult but I think you’re right, it’s important to not let it affect your reading choices. Even if not letting it affect you is difficult

    1. It’s really interesting to think about how it might be to read a book without all the cultural detritus swirling around it. At the same time, I love coming away from a book with a totally different impression than I had when I started reading.

  3. I agree that we shouldn’t let others’ opinions dictate our own, though it’s impossible to not allow some influence to come in from our culture. But if a book has a heap of praise from critics through the years, there is probably something worthwhile in the book. It’s okay not to like a book that others respect, but I think it’s worth an effort to understand why others like it so much.

    1. I absolutely agree, that a book beloved by many probably has something worthwhile in it. Whether that means any given individual will find it worthwhile is another story. AS for your point about understanding why others love books, I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I almost think that’s as fascinating as actually reading the book itself. Thanks for coming by!

  4. This is a great post. Having read almost 40 of the Modern Library’s Top 100 books, I can tell ya there is a big difference between what is perceived as a classic by the masses and what is actually interesting to read. I have read some of the most painful books ever written on this list (Finnegans Wake, The Magus, The Ginger Man) and maybe it’s just my low-brow taste in literature, but these books sucked. I have no idea how they made a list of the 100 best anything. It’s so subjective.

    I have to agree with you a little bit on Gatsby…I loved it in my angst ridden high school years, but not so much as a grownup. The magic is definitely gone. 🙂

    1. Those lists are subjective and I wonder how they will have changed in 50 or 100 years time. I’m glad I found someone else who agrees about the Gatsby. I hated the characters and the fact that they didn’t do anything interesting just made the book unbearable.

  5. You’ve nailed it with pack animals. And when a pack gets big enough, only a few of them can even see what they’re chasing. So many times I’ve read high praise for a book that completely misses the most obvious points of the book itself; it’s like people know they have to love it but don’t know why, so they just pick anything.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to choose books based on others opinions, but it’s not ok to base your opinions on what others say. At the point where a reader turns to the first page, the reader need to decide for him or herself what the book means. Thanks for coming by!

  6. Great answer! I agree that the very fact that we swim in the cultural soup peppered with these titles makes it hard not to go into the reading without some prejudice, either positive or negative.

  7. Excellent points! It is so true that that not only are some books hailed as great classics, but popular opinion will also skew them as being difficult and boring which can cause great intimidation. It would be best if we could all go into books with an open mind and with no biases. I’m often intimidated by the classics, but I try to ignore this and still read them.

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