How Could You Like That Book? by Tim Parks | The New York Review of Books

I rarely spend much time wondering why others do not enjoy the books I like.

The corollary of that is, of course, the fact that one doesn’t like the books everyone else does.

I live under the constant impression that other people, other readers, are allowing themselves to be hoodwinked. They are falling for charms they shouldn’t fall for. Or imagining charms that aren’t there.

Tim Parks discusses the books that everyone raves about, but that he just doesn’t like. I’ve been having that problem lately. I read a lot; a lot. I have lots of books, and have always read a lot. But lately, I’ve been very disappointed by a number of Big Novels. The latest books by Jonathan Franzen, the most recent Salman Rushdie, the much-touted City of Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg, and the self-referential Book of Numbers, by Joshua Cohen. All of these books got rave reviews in the press, by the Reviews that Count, but I was unable to finish any of them.

I had been wondering if my attention span had been whittled away by the internet, like a tree trunk gnawed by a dripping beaver. But I’m reassured that a writer like Parks expresses the same feelings.

I should return to Proust, Balzac, Robert B. Parker, T. S. Eliot, Philip K. Dick, Emerson, and Thoreau. At least I won’t be disappointed by them.

Source: How Could You Like That Book? by Tim Parks | The New York Review of Books

18 thoughts on “How Could You Like That Book? by Tim Parks | The New York Review of Books

  1. But surely you have also had the experience of reading a classic, broadly loved by almost all critics for a century or more, only to find it tedious, or worse. I certainly have. Throughout the majority of my literature classes, there were one or more classics assigned that I thought were abysmal. In a few cases, I later learned to appreciate the work, but usually not.

    • Of course, but this has been happening a lot more in recent years with novels considered to be Great Works of Fiction. I’m a strange person. I’ve read Finnegans Wake, I’ve read Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu three times, and all of Beckett, in both French and English. And I love mysteries, sci-fi, and 19th century novels. There’s a lot I don’t like, but in recent years, many of the novels that have been critically acclaimed have left me cold.

      Who knows; maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s my age (I think Tim Parks is about my age).

  2. But surely you have also had the experience of reading a classic, broadly loved by almost all critics for a century or more, only to find it tedious, or worse. I certainly have. Throughout the majority of my literature classes, there were one or more classics assigned that I thought were abysmal. In a few cases, I later learned to appreciate the work, but usually not.

    • Of course, but this has been happening a lot more in recent years with novels considered to be Great Works of Fiction. I’m a strange person. I’ve read Finnegans Wake, I’ve read Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu three times, and all of Beckett, in both French and English. And I love mysteries, sci-fi, and 19th century novels. There’s a lot I don’t like, but in recent years, many of the novels that have been critically acclaimed have left me cold.

      Who knows; maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s my age (I think Tim Parks is about my age).

  3. “The latest books by Jonathan Franzen, the most recent Salman Rushdie, the much-touted City of Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg … All of these books got rave reviews in the press, by the Reviews that Count”

    Huh. I highly suggest you find more trusted sources of info. That’s my trick.

    I read reviews of all three of those books by Sources I Trust, and all those reviews clearly steered me far, far away from those three books.

    Reviews that Count shouldn’t guide you. Prestige is a fake pathway, only good for cocktail parties. Reviews by folks you trust are the lodestar. And finding those lodestars is the trick. But it’s a trick well worth mastering. I’ve found great reads, both new and old, that way. Same deal for films. Rotten Tomatoes is a waste of time. But I’ve got film reviewers I trust, and they rarely let me down.

    (The other lodestar is the auteur theory. I just finished reading two new poorly reviewed books by authors I’d previously enjoyed, and found them both terrific. And when I find a new book I enjoy, I’ll dive deep into that author’s back catalog.)

    • I honestly don’t know enough people with as varied tastes in literature as I have, so I generally don’t have many sources other than critics, some of whom I’ve grown to trust over the years. And all of those books got very good reviews from reviewers who I often agree with.

  4. “The latest books by Jonathan Franzen, the most recent Salman Rushdie, the much-touted City of Fire, by Garth Risk Hallberg … All of these books got rave reviews in the press, by the Reviews that Count”

    Huh. I highly suggest you find more trusted sources of info. That’s my trick.

    I read reviews of all three of those books by Sources I Trust, and all those reviews clearly steered me far, far away from those three books.

    Reviews that Count shouldn’t guide you. Prestige is a fake pathway, only good for cocktail parties. Reviews by folks you trust are the lodestar. And finding those lodestars is the trick. But it’s a trick well worth mastering. I’ve found great reads, both new and old, that way. Same deal for films. Rotten Tomatoes is a waste of time. But I’ve got film reviewers I trust, and they rarely let me down.

    (The other lodestar is the auteur theory. I just finished reading two new poorly reviewed books by authors I’d previously enjoyed, and found them both terrific. And when I find a new book I enjoy, I’ll dive deep into that author’s back catalog.)

    • I honestly don’t know enough people with as varied tastes in literature as I have, so I generally don’t have many sources other than critics, some of whom I’ve grown to trust over the years. And all of those books got very good reviews from reviewers who I often agree with.

  5. Well, for example, I tend to trust Menand, and this review steered me far, far away from City on Fire:

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/12/the-time-of-broken-windows

    (It’s not just that he didn’t really like it. That wouldn’t be enough. But I could read enough between the lines to figure out *why* he didn’t really like it, and pick up from that that it sure wasn’t for me.)

    Kakutani loved it, but I don’t trust her. Always worth reading her, but again, not trustworthy.

    I also follow a few folks on the twits whose taste I trust who were pretty negative or meh on it.

    If a new book gets a big enough advance, like this one did, it’s simply gonna get more than its fair share of rapturous reviews. But, again, that’s just the cocktail parties talking.

    Find those lodestars!

    • Ah, if my New Yorker pile weren’t so high, I would have read the Menand article… Yes, I still get it in print.

  6. Well, for example, I tend to trust Menand, and this review steered me far, far away from City on Fire:

    http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/12/the-time-of-broken-windows

    (It’s not just that he didn’t really like it. That wouldn’t be enough. But I could read enough between the lines to figure out *why* he didn’t really like it, and pick up from that that it sure wasn’t for me.)

    Kakutani loved it, but I don’t trust her. Always worth reading her, but again, not trustworthy.

    I also follow a few folks on the twits whose taste I trust who were pretty negative or meh on it.

    If a new book gets a big enough advance, like this one did, it’s simply gonna get more than its fair share of rapturous reviews. But, again, that’s just the cocktail parties talking.

    Find those lodestars!

    • Ah, if my New Yorker pile weren’t so high, I would have read the Menand article… Yes, I still get it in print.

  7. I feel this way about movies. I have zero, and I mean, zero interest in the craze for comic book movies now.

    I read Ebert’s reviews religiously. I didn’t always agree with him, but from the review I could almost certainly tell whether I would like the movie or not.

    His reviews at times rose above being “just” a review. They were like short works of non-fiction. I really miss reading his reviews.

    • Yes, I hate superhero movies too. And most movies in the theaters don’t interest me. In fact, the movie-going experience doesn’t interest me very much any more. The picture quality isn’t as good as celluloid, the sound is too loud, and there are about a half-hour of commercials and trailers here before a film. My living room is a much better place to watch movies.

  8. I feel this way about movies. I have zero, and I mean, zero interest in the craze for comic book movies now.

    I read Ebert’s reviews religiously. I didn’t always agree with him, but from the review I could almost certainly tell whether I would like the movie or not.

    His reviews at times rose above being “just” a review. They were like short works of non-fiction. I really miss reading his reviews.

    • Yes, I hate superhero movies too. And most movies in the theaters don’t interest me. In fact, the movie-going experience doesn’t interest me very much any more. The picture quality isn’t as good as celluloid, the sound is too loud, and there are about a half-hour of commercials and trailers here before a film. My living room is a much better place to watch movies.

  9. “I read Ebert’s reviews religiously. I didn’t always agree with him, but from the review I could almost certainly tell whether I would like the movie or not.”

    Yup. Ebert, (quite consciously), would include signals in his reviews to subgroups who he thought would like a movie he disliked, and vice versa. It was part of what made him such a great critic.

    (FWIW, there are still excellent film critics out there. Just no one with the mass standing of Ebert. So you’ve gotta work harder to find your lodestars these days.)

    And, of course, the economic middle of filmmaking has mostly disappeared, so we’re left with the big comic book-ish movies, and much smaller films. So there genuinely are fewer worthwhile ‘adult’ films than there were 15 years ago. Something similar has happened in the book industry too, to a lesser degree, with mid-list authors getting forced out of the market halfway through their careers if their sales are gradually, but only gently, declining.

  10. “I read Ebert’s reviews religiously. I didn’t always agree with him, but from the review I could almost certainly tell whether I would like the movie or not.”

    Yup. Ebert, (quite consciously), would include signals in his reviews to subgroups who he thought would like a movie he disliked, and vice versa. It was part of what made him such a great critic.

    (FWIW, there are still excellent film critics out there. Just no one with the mass standing of Ebert. So you’ve gotta work harder to find your lodestars these days.)

    And, of course, the economic middle of filmmaking has mostly disappeared, so we’re left with the big comic book-ish movies, and much smaller films. So there genuinely are fewer worthwhile ‘adult’ films than there were 15 years ago. Something similar has happened in the book industry too, to a lesser degree, with mid-list authors getting forced out of the market halfway through their careers if their sales are gradually, but only gently, declining.

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