Books You Can’t Love: The More Popular than Jesus Syndrome

I suspect that Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will be, for me at least, this year’s equivalent to Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude (a title I still haven’t read, despite its recent paperback release). Last year, there were at least twenty-two moments in which I had the hardback for The Fortress of Solitude in my hand, but ended up putting it back before hitting the cashier. Some of the reasons were as follows:

  • “Oh shit! Magical realism!”
  • Motherless Brooklyn was good, but would you have purchased that in hardcover? Put it down, you fool!”
  • Quicksilver! More challenging!” (Little did I know.)
  • “I’ll get it in paperback.”
  • “I’ll borrow [insert name here]’s copy.”
  • “I should probably read all of Lethem’s back catalog before this one.”
  • “More pop cultural references subbing for plot? Come on, get real.”

And so on…

None of these reasons, of course, were fair. Most of these were irrational. And yet it happened again and again. Nothing against Lethem, but I found myself unwilling to commit myself to the man (and yet quite willing to take crazed chances on crummier titles).

And now I find myself in the same boat with Jonathan Strange, afraid that I’ll be terribly disappointed if I read it now. I came very close to picking the thick tome up the other day, but some stubborn impulse in me resisted. How could I join the crowd? How could I get excited about some book that everyone and their mother was declaring as more popular than Jesus?

This impulse, of course, is pure snobbery. It has something to do with the book reviewing climate and the endless din buzzing around readers and publishers alike. And yet almost every book afficionado is guilty of this. How many titles have eluded your immediate perusal because the kool kids kouldnt stop talking about it?

The way it works is this: To be an effective literary enthusiast, the unspoken goal is to wander off the beaten track and find the titles that no one else has read. And not just that. Ideally from some lofty parapet (preferably delusional), the literary enthusiast can let loose spitballs and catapault leftover caviar while simultaneously mocking the great unwashed for reading The Curious Incident of the Dog at the Night-Time or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay behind the curve. Alternatively, why not delve into something highly unfashionable? (And if that’s the unspoken rule, now might be the perfect op to read Lethem.)

Which is why I’m glad I read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas well before everyone else and why it was nice to read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition without the sound of a thousand Slashdot fanboys coming my way. Mark my words: if Cloud Atlas wins the Booker, it will be slammed as mercilessly as DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little. Just because. And that’s silly.

I’m tempted to read Jonathan Strange just to spite the bastards.

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  1. Only pay attention to the Kool Kids (or substitute group) whose taste you trust. I do not shy from word of mouth, I shy from the word of the gaping maw.

  2. I am 100% guilty of this and Ed, you rightly called out my Neal Stephenson aversion on that basis. I think my snobbery began as a reaction against my wife’s book club, which adhered faithfully to the Ya Ya Sisterhood Oprah-approved canon. When a few brave souls (like Mrs. Beck, natch) tried to steer the crowd toward, say, Naipaul, everyone “got sick” or just didn’t read the book. Those losers couldn’t even get through Atonement!

    Having said all that, when someone condescendingly says, “Oh, you HAVE to read this,” my reaction is usually “Uh, no, I don’t.” In the rare instance the recommender is familiar with my tastes, I might accede. But my time is a finite, non-renewable resource and I guard it jealously. I’ve got me a mini-Sarvas pile of books waiting to be read, not to mention a ball-busting FT job (yes, the one that I regularly abuse for blogging purposes), two little kids and a stillborn novel to write. Plus, it’s true, sometimes I like to watch TV. I will always be behind the curve in my reading and I will always be woefully out of touch with the Kool Kids, which is more than okay–there’s nothing more pathetic than a 40-year-old trying to be cool.

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