Wednesday 17 June 2009

Power, responsiblity, fear, anxiety, weeping, wailing, thumb-sucking

Peter Parker's Uncle Ben (Uncle Ben? Really? You couldn't come up with something less cheap rice-y, Stan Lee?) was like SO right when he said that "With great power comes great responsibility." I feel this burden every day. Every day, my friends. Because unlike when I was teaching university English courses and approximately half my students read the assigned readings (and usually not all of said readings), people read what I tell them to now.

On my blog, I'm obviously not telling people directly what to read; however, several people have read or are now reading both The Immaculate Conception and Bel Canto just because I liked these books so much. This both pleases me and makes me extremely uncomfortable, although not because I feel a kind of pitying scorn for people who don't like the same books I do (which is the sort of reaction, at best, I got re: my dislike for McCarthy's The Road).

Rather, this sort of influence makes me uncomfortable because I fear wasting people's time with things they don't like. Also, I don't want them to think I'm crazy because I like books about setting things on fire (see Soucy).

(So far, things are split evenly down the middle on The Immaculate Conception and the jury's out on Bel Canto. But I fret and bite my nails. I mentally sit in a corner rocking back and forth and sucking my thumb while I wait for the damnation and resentment to descend.)

I try to remind myself that people choose to read my blog and have absolutely no reason to trust me and if they hate the books I like, it's one of those caveat emptor thingies. But it doesn't really work and I can't even pretend to have that kind of distance in the store. People ask me to choose books for them all the time here. They tell me they like books I haven't read and would never read myself and then I have to choose something for them. Or they tell me they like books I hate and then I have to choose something for them. I've had a lot of success and a few startling failures but even with the odds in my mind-reading favour, I still quail whenever someone asks me to determine the course of their immediate reading future.

And the reason is this: knowing what books people have enjoyed doesn't mean I understand why they enjoyed them, and in my experience, most people don't easily convey that information. For example: a woman came in last week and told me she loved Samuel Richardson's Pamela. I was floored and excited because I think I'm the only other person I've ever met who also loves this book. So, I recommended Fanny Burney's Evelina to her which she informed me yesterday when she returned, she also loved. Great success!

BUT it wasn't until yesterday, when we were having big chats, that I found out why she loved Pamela, and it made me sick up a little. Another customer overheard us and started skewering poor Pamela. Customer who loves Pamela says "Ah, but it's so cute and you never meet people that like morally strong anymore!" while I say at pretty much the same time "But it's so kinky and weird about gender and class imbalance, how can you not like it?"

She didn't seem bothered that we weren't even in the same universe re: reading Pamela but it frightened me not a little. How am I to recommend books to people without that debilitating lower brain stem kind of terror that arises from knowing that while all the words are the same in books we share, all their individual and collective significances appear entirely differently to us?

Obviously, I won't refuse either to make recommendations or to give my real opinions on my bloggy but what to do with this awful (in the more archaic and sublime sense of the word) fear accompanying these activities? Like Spiderman, I may be reduced to wearing stretchy pants and confusedly contemplating my unevenly sized hands. (I know, I know - that was a lame way of getting this photo into the blog, but I like this photo; it's pre-fatty, hot Spiderman and he looks kind of how I feel right now.)


Anonymous said...

With great power comes great responsibility, quoth the avuncular spider.

If your inner pyro needs a quick and glorious fix, give Love Medicine a gander.

I have spoken.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Yeah, Pamela ain't that cute. The way to find it cute is to ignore large parts of it.

I feel fortunate that I don't have this problem, since I just write about "great" books that people can feel virtuous about having read even if they secretly hate them.

I meant that as a joke. I think. Anyway, excellent thots.

Heidenkind said...

That's kind of the fun of it, though, isn't it? The fact that two people can read the same thing and experience it on two completely different levels of existence. Bizarre, but fun.

Moony said...

I have a bookish friend who has hated every book that I recommended to her which I had loved. It's difficult to recommend books. My best friend's preferred genre is fantasy, but outside of Tolkien, I hadn't really read a lot of it that I thought he would find appealing. Yes, it's difficult to recommend books to people for all the reasons that you have mentioned.

Yuri... said...

Our discussions about Bel Canto and the raging debate that your post on said novel engendered are great examples of this. It's the seed of exciting and interesting debate when people are willing are willing to make allowance for the reasons underpinning differing opinions/experiences.

If not, beware the flame fest!

I often run into a similar situation with movies, but at least in that case you are only toyign with ~2 horus of someone's life!

(And I loved the Soucy...)

Bookphilia said...

Yeah, it should be fun to find these differences in taste and experience but except for the enjoyable discussion surrounding Bel Canto, I tend to find it a rather upsetting experience.

Today, for example, my Russian boyfriend came into the store and asked for more book recommendations even though he really didn't enjoy the last thing I suggested to him. That was doubly stressful.

Kevin: I'm way ahead of you: I read Love Medicine back in 1997 or something!