Subjectivity and Books

For over a year now, I’ve been slowly making my way through a Twilight saga reread at the pace of one chapter per day, on days I feel up to it. The purpose of the reread is to note how my reading tastes and critiquing abilities have changed in the last 10 years. By this point, I realize that I’m also reading so that I can box these books away– the Twilight saga was important to me once, but I don’t think I will ever be reading it again. For a shameless hoarder, I’m surprised by how happy I am to be saying goodbye to an entire series.

I’ve always thought there are (arguably) two reasons to read a book– for merit, or for enjoyment. Sure, sometimes the two overlap, and sometimes a reader is disappointed to stumble upon a dud that fits into neither of those categories. And of course, reading is highly subjective. One person will find art in a book that another will not, a plot arc will be enjoyable to one reader and boring to another. And yet, I picked up Eclipse this year without expecting to find merit in the story or have much fun with it– I expected to learn about myself. I can’t say that I’ve ever read with that intent before outside of assigned biology textbooks and the like, but here we are.

eclipseI suppose the first time my twelve year-old self read Twilight she thought there was merit in that book. I believe it was the first book about vampires I had read, the first book with an “awkward” narrator, the first book that was almost entirely about the romance. And it was also a major phenomenon at the time that all of my friends bought into, which was hard to resist.

I’ve always been loyal reader. I forget characters and plot and details easily, but I remember forever how I felt about a book. For a long time, I’ve remained loyal to my first bookish impressions, and am finally submitting to the possibility that while first impressions are important, they don’t need to dictate a my entire future with a book. Just because I loved Twilight in my embarrassing tween years does not mean I need to love it forever. But nor do I need to bury that experience so deeply that I can pretend that past naïve version of myself did not exist. I can grow from this.

Even when I was eventually convinced that the Twilight saga’s merit stemmed from its ability to generate a wide YA audience and start a sort of revolution for better teenage books, I still found enjoyment in the series. As I mentioned, I’m a loyal reader. Even last year when I began rereading Twilight, I found some enjoyment in the nostalgia for a long-gone era of my life and the magic that I thought I saw in this series when reading it for the first time. But now, three books in, I’m resigned to changing my mind. Eclipse was my favorite book in the Twilight saga in all of the years that I could say I still remotely liked these books. This time, Eclipse has been my least favorite read of the series so far. I find Jacob’s behavior in this volume abhorrent, Edward and all of his controlling issues boring, Bella at once overdramatic and spineless. The love triangle feels forced, the villains are hardly present in the story, and the romance no longer makes sense to me.

It’s hard to admit I may have been wrong about a book or series. It’s hard because if I was wrong once, if I need to change my mind about this one thing, how can I rely on all of my previous opinions about all of the other books I’ve read? Should I reread everything? But what if in another ten years I’ve grown enough mentally that my opinion will no longer match what it is even now? Would I have more accurate results if I simply reread the same book over and over and over until I die, noting every nuance of every opinion on every reread and trying to form one solid opinion from that massive log of data? How can I trust anyone else’s reviews when I can’t even trust my own?

The time when you read a book for the first time matters. Everything matters– your personal background, your present circumstances, the list of every book you’ve ever read before, including the ones you can’t exactly remember. Everything influences your reading of a book, to the extent that even if you reread a book immediately after finishing it the first time, you will no longer be the same person with the same opinion about that same book that you were a week ago. A review, a rating, a private impression of a book– these are snapshots that reveal as much about the reader as the text. And that is why, despite the fact that it seems an older version of myself cannot “trust” my earlier reviews, I will continue to rate and review and add to my mental store of impressions about the books I read. They’re a documentation of my reading life, and of my self.

Admitting that I no longer find any merit or enjoyment in Eclipse is a change for me (though admittedly, I’ve been completely avoiding the subject ever since I began to suspect this might be the case). Allowing myself to accept that I simply no longer feel the same about a book as I once did is a bigger change, an alteration that shows how my experience with books has changed even in the year since my post about rereading Twilight (you can also check out my thoughts on rereading New Moon this past spring). These are good changes, I think, and I’m glad that such a dismal reread inspired such a level of introspection. Perhaps there is merit in reading a book that has no merit in itself.

I do intend to continue this series reread with The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner (a between-the-books novella) and Breaking Dawn, at the same rate of one chapter per day on days that I’m interested. And I hope that those rereads will be just as fruitfully self-reflective, before they free up some much-needed space on my shelves.

Do you have a hard time rereading books that you think you’d feel differently about after time has passed? Is it easier to accept a positive opinion change, or a negative one?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

11 thoughts on “Subjectivity and Books”

    1. That’s a great idea- I’ve only read four of Austen’s novels so far but I can already tell I’m going to miss them when I finish the other two. I hadn’t really thought about applying the one-chapter method to other rereads, but I definitely should! I hope you enjoy your return to Austen. 🙂

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  1. This is an interesting discussion! I have a couple of books (like The Book Thief) that I loved back in the day but I have a nagging feeling I wouldn’t like now, and it’s kind of tricky to talk about books like this. Because I don’t just want to assume that I won’t like it, but it’s also hard to muster the energy to re-read a book you once had fond feelings for that you’re sure you’re going to dislike. I’m definitely more likely to re-read a book I once disliked that I have a feeling I’d like now – like Frankenstein!

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    1. Thanks! The Book Thief would be an interesting reread- I’m also afraid that I wouldn’t enjoy it now as much as I did. Reading one chapter per day definitely made this reread more manageable, but there were moments I still had to ask why I was doing this to myself. I was afraid rereading this would just be the most pointless experience, but it did make me think quite a bit about what I expect to take from a reading. It seems like it would be hard to resign oneself to reading any book that’s expected to disappoint, whether it’s a reread or not, but there does seem to be a specific sort of awfulness to tearing down something you’ve had a positive opinion of in the past. I wish there were more books I disliked earlier on that I could reread for a better opinion change- I’m so glad you had a better experience with Frankenstein the second time! It’s SO GOOD- but I honestly can’t think of a single adult book from my younger years that would be worth revisiting. I wish I had noticed that trend at the time and branched into more adult fiction instead of sticking to popular YA that all seems a bit ridiculous now. Maybe I would get more out of Wuthering Heights now than I did in high school, though. I would like to give that a try.

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      1. Reading a chapter a day does seem like a great idea! That way it probably evens out to such a small time commitment that it doesn’t seem as pointless of an exercise as it otherwise might. I definitely think there’s a lot of value in reassessing your own feelings on formerly beloved books though – it’s interesting to see how what we value in a book has changed over time. Like, I used to be the kind of reader who needs to feel personally invested in the characters to the point where I have to be able to relate to them and project myself onto them, and now I find that I don’t mind poorly developed characters as long as a book’s themes are interested enough to compensate for it. I’m not sure when that change happened exactly but I find it interesting to think about. I only read Wuthering Heights for the first time a year ago and I already think I need to give that book another try, lol, I think I was unfairly harsh toward it based solely on how much I disliked Emily’s prose. But I think there’s more to it than I gave it credit for and I do want to try it again in a couple of years.

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      2. I was just talking to another friend who also needs to feel like she can relate to the characters. I think that’s a fairly common phenomenon, which always surprises me when it comes up because I don’t remember ever really feeling that way. I do prefer that they’re well-developed, but I don’t mind characters seeming completely alien to me as long as their motives still make sense. It’s interesting that you changed your mind about needing to relate to characters without really noticing the shift, as it seems like so many readers are firmly on one side of that line or the other.

        I don’t remember much about Emily Bronte’s prose, which I suppose means it didn’t bother me at the time. I think I am more aware of how a story is being presented rather than just the story itself now though, so that will probably be more of a factor for me in a reread. Disliking the writing seems like one of the hardest problems to overcome with a book- I know I can forgive a lot if I love the writing, but I have difficulty forgiving the writing no matter what else I love about a book. But I hope you have better luck the second time around!

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  2. An interesting insight into changing book taste. Like you, I hated the Twilight series on this year’s re-read when I’d previously loved it in my teens.

    Then again, I think I knew even then on some level that Twilight was rubbish. I just told myself it was good because everyone else loved it and,if I hated it, I thought I must be wrong. It was only later that I found the self-confidence to admit that I hate something everyone loves.

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    1. It’s so interesting how much a reread can reveal about your own reading tastes and habits, past and present! I did genuinely enjoy Twilight when I first read it at 12 years old, but there was just so much about reading and writing that I didn’t understand/couldn’t see yet at that time. I think even later in my teens I began to suspect it wasn’t as great as I thought at first, which was why I put it aside for so long. But it’s great to be able to own up to a change of opinion at last!

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