Have you ever read a book that you initially didn’t like–or even hated–and then you later realized your initial opinion was all wrong?
It happens to me fairly regularly. I think that’s because I’m a slow thinker. One of my wonderful colleagues once told me there are two kinds of thinkers: microwaves and crock-pots. She identifies as the latter; that is, someone who needs to simmer for a long period of time. It takes longer, but it’s so much richer. Microwaves can zap for thirty seconds and walk away with something fully cooked, but that food is never as good.
Here’s a list of four books that I initially didn’t like, until I put the crock-pot on simmer for a few years until my ideas were fully cooked.
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
I read this for the first time in college and thought it was boring. I later re-read it, just for fun, and realized I was totally wrong. My initial response was complete disdain for the wife, O-Lan, because I wanted her to stand up for herself. Only after simmering did I realize that O-Lan’s selflessness is the only power she has. As a younger reader, I often fell into the trap of judging characters by second-wave feminist values.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I read this in high school and it totally went over my head. I think that’s because, without even realizing it, I bought into the American Dream, that old canard that largely exists to serve the hegemony. I read it again in college and got closer to understanding. I read it yet again for a book club a few years ago and finally got something: This is the Great American Novel because it captures the essence of an empty culture that has built itself on false exceptionalism and gross consumption. And like most novels of its time, its attitude toward women and its toxic masculinity is on full display.
Everything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Johnson
Johnson’s argument is basically that TV (and other forms of entertainment that we’ve long considered mindless) is getting more and more challenging, both in terms of the critical thinking required and in terms of the narrative structure. I had trouble fully buying that argument until I taught a short class on pop culture where we used Johnson’s methods to analyze TV and video games from the 70s/80s and from recent years. Johnson is right: Pop culture as a whole is way smarter and far more rewarding. There’s still plenty of dumb stuff out there if you want it, but pop culture isn’t a wasteland.
Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor
I unfairly dismissed this as a romance novel. (Not that there’s anything wrong with romance novels. Just that I categorized it as one that didn’t have much substance.) I was wrong. This is a fantastic historical novel about Restoration England. I read it twice and then gave a copy to my grandmother who told me that she’d read it years ago, back when it was released in 1944. It was considered a “sexy” novel back then, but it’s as good of a history lesson about the time period as you’ll ever get. Now I want to read it again.