Judging a Book
I’ve read a lot in the past six months. When I have downtime between semesters or a curious attenuation in the difficulty of my classwork, I’ll unfurl the mile-long mental list of books I haven’t yet read in hopes of clearing some space. I read these books for various reasons. My motivation spanned everything from recommendation to personal interest to either augmenting ideas of my own or else banishing preconceived notions about books I assume already speak to what I want to write. It could be also that a school project required some extracurricular reading and so I chose some titles from my list that were in keeping with what was expected of me. Sometimes there was overlap. In each case, however, they turned out differently than what I expected—sometimes radically, disappointingly so. What is it that we read from when we choose what interests us? Does a finished book that didn’t speak to you turn out to be a waste of time? Don’t tell that to the author. Follow me here. Think about what you take from the books you read. Are you able to articulate why you like the book or books you do? I am learning more and more what it means to be, not just a good reader, but my own good reader.
I began last summer with Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles. His epic of Kvothe as a legend-in-his-own-time was well wrought. Upon first blush it seemed it’d be filled with tales of derring-do—which it is. And it contained more-than-enough fantastic world building to stand alone and we even have a sequel. It did not, however, live up to my first impression. I ended what we have of the series feeling a tad betrayed by the synopsis. Then again, the idea of bloviate reputation is woven into the warp and weft of the story. The third is scheduled for God-knows-when.
Crichton’s Prey was a likewise similar let-down. His 2002 novel of nanotechnology-gone-wrong sported well-rounded characters and menacing clouds of microscopic robots ready to copy whatever they needed in order to get their point across. Then why didn’t it live up to my expectations? I don’t know right now. Prey was on my mental list since it came out and while it sped along like a summer blockbuster, it did not have the robust prose and character development of, say, Jurassic Park or Lost World. I respect Crichton and his work though Prey felt like a short story compared to the other books of his I’ve read. Perhaps it had more to do with who I am at this point in my life.
Prior to Prey, I picked up Robinson’s Gilead. I work two part-time jobs and two different people recommended it to me, one at either place—in as many days. I can sift through the happendix, the minutiae of modern life, just fine. This, however! This was too serendipitous a happenstant to ignore. So I read it in a day and it…intrigued me. As well as being altogether, refreshingly different than what I thought it was, it helped re-form what a novel could be; it broadened my horizon. Reading Ames’ letters to his young son, discerning the plot as it wended its way through the dozens of paragraphic, epistolary entries breathed, not just a new life but a new kind of life into my expectation. Happening upon the “sequel” (Home; Robinson calls the three novels featuring these characters a “constellation”) in the little library box up the street was a subsequent revelation. I finished that one just after Christmas and brought only the experience of its predecessor as expectation. Home was more straightforward, a little overwrought in my opinion. But her prose and dialogue are things of beauty. Lila (third in the constellation) remains on my list, near the top.
Sometimes a book will appear different based on the time we read it. Take, for instance, Donna Tartt’s 1996 novel The Secret History. Had I not, since my first attempt 15 years ago, read Homer nor become more familiar with Attic classics, it would have gone over my head. Back then I couldn’t get into it—it wasn’t the right time. And while it was enjoyable on its own merits, it more-than-fulfilled the preconceived notions I brought. Despite not being a personal favorite, it holds a place among my read books as one straightforward and that delivers on its synopsized premise.
This idea though. This personal construct about judging a book by its first impression began to crystallize in November after reading Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. More metafictional than any novel I’ve read before or since, it tells the story of Charles Yu trying to find his dad amongst the universe, or, universes. With lip service paid to an established franchise, everything else beyond was a tour of the barest essence of what my imagination did when I read the synopsis. This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, however.
In keeping with the theme of Quantum Theory and the Multiverse, I read Crouch’s Dark Matter. His title, while somewhat thin plot-wise, hammers out the idea of a character existing in multiple dimensions. If anything, it’s a good indicator of a book meshing with the reader's expectations, much like Secret History. Speaking of summer blockbusters, the only letdown was the author’s acknowledgement of the individuals who are actively turning it into a screenplay. As if it were conceived as more than a book. I digress.
Tom Sweterlisch’s The Gone World, the next-to-last book I’ve read, hovers on the other side of Dark Matter as one that, while a line on my list for a relatively short period of time (it was released in mid-2018), was the book on this list that I enjoyed the least. This due to the disparity of first-impression resolution and its being shot through with sensationalism (to put it politely). Once again, my preconceived notion extrapolated out into a fully-formed idea for which there was no real payoff. Three-quarters of the way through the book, for instance, I realized that the spaceship in question was not really “lost” and that “deep time” did not mean millions of years (see the synopsis). My mistake. Gone World touches on Quantum Theory and the Multiverse in a unique way, admittedly. Darker, too, than Dark Matter, it just didn’t go where I thought it would.
Upon writing this, I have just finished a novel that has been on my list since having been published in 2015. Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Heart takes place in the late 19th century and features fictionalized versions of characters as disparate as then-librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Jack the Ripper, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Walter Camp, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Teddy Roosevelt, et al. It is fiction, though, and its main characters are the very real Henry James and, get this, Sherlock Holmes. Rounding out the supporting cast are some of the other figures from the Holmes canon, including Irene Adler.
What can I say about Fifth Heart? Genius writing. The prose is so smooth. If I had to guess (Holmes never guesses.), tomes of research went in to each chapter, each character. In other words, very little suspension of disbelief is required. As I got deeper into the book, I stopped looking up the characters as they appeared as they were all real, woven into the history of our nation. Reading, for instance, James banter with Clemens, was like watching a documentary reenactment. And I don’t know for a fact that Henry James never went to the Library of Congress. But had he actually gone, he would have been there during Spofford’s tenure. From what I can surmise, the crux of the story—and where it turns into fiction—is where Simmons “reopens” the very real incident of Clover Adams’ suicide instead as a murder investigation featuring Holmes. But by the end of chapter three, in keeping with the sharpest hook I’ve ever had the pleasure of biting, Sherlock Holmes declares he is a fictional character: the product of Dr. John Watson’s writing and Arthur Conan Doyle’s publishing. This is what made me want to read it when it came out four years ago and I must admit, I was a little concerned when Simmons drops this device so early on.
The story opens with Henry James walking along the Seine River. Disenchanted with his life—figuratively playing second fiddle, notoriously, to his big brother William—he has decided to end it. As he’s preparing to step off into the water, he notices a man who’s been lingering there since before he arrived. Despite the fact that this man is in disguise, James immediately recognizes him as none other than the famous consulting detective. Apparently they met at a party some years before. I cannot tell you what is going through your mind when you read what I’ve just written. Suffice it to say the two realities are coexisting in Simmons’ book (Furthering the existential intrigue, Holmes makes passing mention of another fictional character: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot). The author wastes no time in having Holmes declare the whole reason I checked the book out in the first place: “I am…a literary construct. Some ink-stained scribbler’s creation. A mere fictional character.” He says. But after this admission, the story unravels into a massive plot to assassinate President Grover Cleveland.
Furthering the magically-realistic, metafictional sheen the book presents to the interested reader, the narrator breaks the fourth wall in Chapter 9 and does so again in the Epilogue. And with the exception of a few brief discussions on the nature of existence and the incredible incredulity that is Holmes standing in the same room as James, for instance, the reader feels an intricate, longwinded bait-and-switch has been foisted upon them. At least this reader does—did. And if Holmes truly had a son by Irene Adler, would all of these very real law-enforcement agents have come together at the invitation and enlistment of his father? What are we all doing here? Simmons asks this question in a sidelong, circuitous manner and somehow parries and silences any objection at the same time. By the end of the book, I was asking myself the same question in relation to Simmons’ world. That he deftly weaves in a character from another of his historical titles has only provided another hook and I have put his novel Black Hills on my list.
The only Sherlock Holmes novel I’ve read is Mitch Cullen’s A Slight Trick of the Mind. Featuring the aging detective in his dotage, he’s losing his razor-sharp mind and memory to the ravages of Alzheimer’s. It was made into the exceptional film Mr. Holmes and it fills a place in the canon of Doyle’s literary creation, I think. And while reading Fifth Heart, I found myself wanting to read more of the source material. However, when I closed the back cover of Fifth Heart I settled back to my original state: ready again to unfurl my list and pick and choose. I see down towards the bottom John Lescroart’s Son of Holmes. I’ll pick it up at some future point with Lucan Adler (Holmes’ son in Fifth Heart) a benchmark in this category.
Simmons’ book was one of the strongest, most intensely desired entries in my mental list. In closing, I’ll say that my experience reading these books has engendered in me, not disappointment, but clarity. It has helped further articulate my own “horizon of expectations”. That phrase was coined by German literary theorist Hans Robert Jauss and it refers to the framework through which one interprets the texts in which they engage. I believe that any reader has theirs. We frequent a bookstore or library and wander into the sections we find most interesting. After spot-checking the bestsellers and new arrivals, we might gravitate to the Science Fiction or Fantasy (or even American History) section as this imagined labyrinth in which we’ll happen upon a key. Some combination of cover design, authorial halo effect, synopsis, endears this title to us and we check it out, literally, or else purchase it. Beverly Cleary says “If you don’t see the book you want on the shelf, write it.” For the most part, these books were not what I wanted nor what I expected. Were they what I needed? Perhaps. Do I consider having read them a waste of my time? Not really. If anything, I gained the ability, if privilege, to simply say I’ve read them. I can’t right now say the same about Moby Dick. All I can say is it’s on my list.