One of my colleagues here at DGLM is obsessed with a list of the “1001 books you should read before you die.” (I won’t say who the colleague is but if you’ve been reading our blog posts, you’ll probably be able to guess.) This person forwarded the list to me and I started looking through it to see whether I could die happily knowing that I’d go to the part of heaven where the well-read people hang out debating relative greatness – Homer vs. Virgil; Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald; Flaubert vs. Turgenev; Mailer vs. Roth, et cetera ad nauseum. As it turns out, despite undergraduate and graduate degrees in literature and a lifetime of defining myself as a bookworm, I haven’t read all 1001 titles. I long ago made peace with the fact that I will not ever be able to read all the books I want to read and certainly not all the classics — it’s hard enough to keep up with the current bestsellers and award winners! What I found interesting about the list was how many of the books listed fell in the “liked-but-didn’t-love” or “outright-loathed” columns of my own personal ratings system, especially because other books by the same authors might be well established residents of my “love-love-love” column.
As the list-obsessed colleague and I were discussing why Heart of Darkness and The Old Man and the Sea are books to be admired rather than loved (as opposed to Lord Jim and The Sun Also Rises, for instance), I got a query from someone who said she hated a book I’d recommended on the “staff recommendations” section of our web site. None of this is surprising, of course. Literature is all about falling in love and there’s no accounting for taste. Despite all the experts, pundits and pedants trying to tell us what to like (and what not to like), the bottom line is that we all fall in love for different reasons, some as hard to explain as the mad crush we had on that odd-looking, nerdy kid back in seventh grade who wouldn’t give us the time of day (or maybe that’s just me). While I do believe that there are certain qualities that elevate the great from the so-so literature, part of the impact of a great book is how it affects us emotionally and intellectually when we’re reading it and how long it stays with us after. While unpacking a box of books from my basement the other day, I came across The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell and just holding the dog-eared copies of Justine and Clea made me smile remembering my pleasure at discovering these titles. I don’t usually have the same reaction when I see my uncreased copy of Finnegan’s Wake, I’m afraid.
We in the publishing business spend a lot of time trying to communicate to authors why their work doesn’t grab us – especially when the writing is solid and the idea strong. We fall back on “I simply did not fall in love,” and many a frustrated and irate author has come back to us with “is that the best you can do for an explanation?” In fact, it is. Because in order to put in the time and energy required to see a novel through from query letter to publication to the morass of the current marketplace, we have to fall in love with it, believe in it, defend it when it’s rejected, and stay with it even when the critics take their shots at it and the buying public walks right by it on its way to the latest James Patterson thriller. For us it’s personal, as personal as any list you might make of your favorite books.