In response to a reader’s question, one segment of a recent episode of the podcast Books on the Nightstand was devoted to discussing those occasions when you’ve found yourself in a minority of one where opinions about a particular book are concerned. Everyone else you know has absolutely loved it, but you – oh you have been left completely and utterly cold. Not only do you not like the book but neither can you see what on earth everyone else is getting excited about. It is, after all, possible to be aware that a book is good and might appeal to other readers without actually liking it yourself, but sometimes even a popular book’s merits evade you.
I’m sure the discussion would have rung a bell with most of us. Certainly, without much effort, I can think of two novels where I have simply failed to comprehend what everyone else has seen in them. Confessing to the one is, I know from past experience, likely to get me lynched. Try as I might – and I have tried, believe me – I can’t appreciate a single thing about Wuthering Heights. Yes, I know, this makes me a complete and utter philistine and I bow my head in shame. But please, however kindly you mean, don’t offer to send me a copy so that I can put matters right immediately. I have five already, each one donated by a Brontë fanatic determined to convince me of the error of my ways. No one’s managed it yet. Maybe I would have liked it more (can you like some thing more than not at all?) had Heathcliff ever appealed to me, but I can’t see him as anything other than an out and out bully. And how can anyone think living out on those wild moors is romantic? Have you ever spent a winter on Haworth Moor? I have, three of them in fact, and it isn’t an experience I would want to repeat in a hurry now let alone in the nineteenth century.
The other novel is Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. We read this is one of our reading groups and I was the only person who rather than loving it was completely outraged. My problem was nothing to do with the religious stance that he takes per se. Normally I love Pullman’s work and stand four square with him in respect of his religious beliefs or lack thereof. No, what I had difficulty with was that it seemed to me that he was condemning the Christian Church for rewriting the Jesus story to fit its own agenda when that was precisely what he was doing himself. Pot, kettle and black were the words that came to mind. Never has one of our Wednesday evening reading group meetings got so heated and while friendships weren’t exactly threatened I think we all met rather warily the following month.
A third novel that came very close to joining this list was Madame Bovary, which was only saved at the last moment when it became apparent that I had a a different translation from everyone else and it was that which was at fault rather than the original work. Let that be a lesson to us all; don’t judge a novel by the skills (or otherwise) of its translator.
The opposite of being unable to appreciate a novel which everyone else considers to be a masterpiece would be championing a novel that no other readers have thought to be of particular merit and as I’ve been writing this I’ve been trying to think whether or not I’ve ever been in that position. This is on my mind because the February parcel from Heywood Hill, Milka Bajic-Poderegin’s novel, The Dawning, was recommended to me by Lisa as a book she had loved but which she thought was woefully underestimated. Perhaps because I choose my books most often on the recommendation of other readers whose judgements I trust, I can’t think of any such novel that would fit the bill for me. Maybe, however, you can. Are there novels that you have thought were excellent but which the rest of the reading community failed to appreciate? And what are your own blind spots? Is there anyone else out there who is going to join me in my failure to appreciate Wuthering Heights? Or perhaps you have similar but different admissions to make that will shock the rest of us into shaking our heads in disbelief. The confessional is open. Feel free to tell all.