Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Book Snob

Anyone who knows me knows that I can be quite a snob when it comes to books and reading. Though I keep reminding myself that someone who loves chick lit as much as I do has no right to be judgemental about the reading choices of other people, I can't help but slot people as being of a "certain type" when they go on and on about books that have no literary or narrative merits at all.

The way I explain the dichotomy is by telling myself that books fall into two categories- the books that entertain and the ones that engage. Each has its uses, but to try and make a great deal about a book that has clearly been written to entertain is to do the book and the reader a great injustice.

In the last few months, the book that has most incurred by ire is Chetan Bhagat's "Two States". It is unlikely that even the author would pretend it is anything more than a book written with the sole purpose of entertaining the reader, but so many people reading the book on the local train have the irritating habit of looking down on you if you happen to be reading anything else.

"Listen buddy", I feel like telling them. "I read the book within days of its release, and I happen not to like it too much. I would appreciate it if you wipe that supercilious grin off your face, because that particular book doesn't exactly deserve it."
Of course I never get down to actually telling them that, but to pretend I have been indifferent to their condescending looks is to be not completely accurate.

But reading a good book has its uses. The other day, I was reading Kunal Basu's 'The Japanese Wife"on the local train when I happened to look up and found a lady staring hard at me. She gave me a broad grin the moment we made eye contact.

"Isn't that a fantastic book?" she trilled as I was in the process of scanning my memory banks to remember where I had met her."
"Yes", I agreed.
"And which of the stories do you like the most?', she asked.
"I have just started the book", I admitted. "Too early to pick out my favorite."

We spoke about the book a little longer, then compared notes on other books we had read and liked. By the time the train pulled into her station, we each had a list of books the other felt we had to read, and we were determined to pick up the books at the earliest opportunity.

Though we didn't exchange contact details, I made a friend that day. And all because of a book we both liked. I am not sure readers of popular books have an opportunity to bond the way we did.

And all because of a paperback! After that encounter, I can live with the people who throw superior looks in my direction.


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Books really do bring people together sometimes. And you got to make a friend on the train! :)

Mystery Writing is Murder

Jan Morrison said...

Book people can find each other in any crowd. How delightful!

Helen Ginger said...

Making a connection over books is wonderful. It made me smile to imagine the two of you chatting and comparing books. How great!

Straight From Hel

Leanne said...

"The way I explain the dichotomy is by telling myself that books fall into two categories- the books that entertain and the ones that engage. Each has its uses, but to try and make a great deal about a book that has clearly been written to entertain is to do the book and the reader a great injustice."

I said almost exactly this to one of my 7th graders last night when she was complaining about an English essay she had to write... It's good to have some balance, but trying to analyze the entertainment kind is likely to produce a pretty lame essay. ;-)

dipali said...

Lovely! The community of readers is as enriching as that of walkers/runners:) They often occupy both sets too.
I gave my father The Japanese Wife, among other books, on his birthday this December. Must get round to reading it.
Two States was fun time pass, a quick and easy read.

eve's lungs said...

I agree totally . And BTW if you are interested , both The Miniaturist and The Opium Clerk are both great reads .

Watery Tart said...

It's so true... the entertainment books I can enjoy and forget would never start the same kind of conversation as the books I've deeply loved, and SHARING those deeply loved books gives you some insight into people you have something in common with (like you and I). Which reminds me I need to get back to 'A Suitable Boy'--I loved what I read, but had library issues at the time and only got half way through...

Anonymous said...

I have to say, I have never bought the theory that writing to entertain somehow excuses crappy prose/plot--enough intelligent, engaging entertainers around to disprove that thesis. Some books are just bad,IMO, and classifying them as entertainers doesn't make them any less god-awful. Vive le snobbery!

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've never worried about what others thought of my reading material.
That is great the two of you connected because of that book!

Ann Elle Altman said...

Strangers on a train! How wonderful and that you both love the same book. Even better. I like when that happens.


Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

What a great way to make a new friend. I love to look around when I’m travelling to see what books people are reading. Sometimes I think it “matches” them; sometimes the reader and the book don’t seem go together at all.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ Elizabeth - books are a great binder, aren't they? Normally, I don't talk to strangers, but a fellow lover of words is definitely an exception

@ Jan - it is, isn't it? As wonderful as they finding people in other continents!

@ Helen - and that too on a suburban train network that carries 7 million people every day. It was amazing.

@ Leanne - unless the review is tongue in cheek, of course. But I am not sure that was what the kid was getting at

@ dipali - I guess if you do anything with passion, you will find others who share the passion. and yes, ' The Japanese Wife' is a pleasure to read - I love short stroies. 'Two states' was just the outline of a Bollywood script, but decent timepass

@ eve's lungs - welcome to the blog. I actually read 'The Miniaturist' first, and have now ordered The Opium Clerk

@ Tami - unless it is the books written by a certain Ms. Rowling, that is! Those were books written to entertain, but which had enough to engage you and draw you into intellectual debates. Random aside on The Suitable Boy- the protagonist is modelled on the writer's mother.

@ niranjana - you should hear people go on and on and on about Bhagat's book. Hearing them talk, you would think Two States is the best book ever written by an Indian in English. The book has its uses - it has expanded the category of readers (like Reliance did the number of mobile users), and they will hopefully graduate to something a little stimulating in time. But as a story and as a book it is not worth the paper it is printed on.
And you are right, a book has to meet certain minimum standards before it can be called 'good', and those standards should be met by books written purely to entertain too.

@ Diane - I do agree with you. Which is why I openly admit I am a chick lit fan.

@ Ann - it is wonderful, isn't it?

@ Jane - I do the same thing all the time too. And pretty often, you see this person who you feel "should" be reading a particular kind of book, and they are reading something quite different, and you think, "how on earth. Is that who (s)he really is?"

Donna B said...

Hi Rayna, I have always sought out books to entertain me or teach me. When I am learning, I am thinking and attempting to customize what I learn so I can apply it to my life.

Your post made me re-evaluate my book collection. I am in the process of "simplifying and de-cluttering my life". Since I hold on to the books that taught me something, am I hanging on to them because I think I will forget what I learned? I have a lot of reference type books too...and poetry. I LOVE poetry...

Your post has generated some interesting thoughts for me to evaluate...thank you!

Rayna M. Iyer said...

@ Donna - thank you. To get someone to think, if even for a moment, isn't that the best thing you can do to anyone. I am so glad I made you sit back for a moment, today.


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