So not everything this summer has been my usual return to pulp. We've been part of a reading group and that has given me the opportunity to expand my reading beyond its normal confines. I love the old classics and, conversely, I have great difficulty with many of the "new classics." However, their newness and my lack of interest don't make them any less important. Indeed, as I now teach moderns, knowing them a bit better has become a necessity. Even if it wasn't, I still believe in reading broadly. So here's what I've been torturing myself with: "Hannah Coulter" by Wendel Berry, "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson, and "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh. N.B.- I have ranked them in the order of preference from least to greatest.
Now there is something odd I've discovered: I prefer the dead Brit to the living Americans. That could be because I have studied at Oxford (the setting of the first part of "Brideshead Revisited") and have only grown up next to farms. It could also be that I'm not a woman and I'm not a pastor or the son of a pastor but I do know a few things about college friendships (even if Waugh is writing about homoerotic ones and I've only experienced heterosexual ones) and maturing to the age of thirty. I also found "Hannah Coulter" ponderously slow and rather preachy, "Gilead" less slow (but still ponderous) and less preachy, and "Brideshead Revisited" neither slow, nor ponderous, nor (oddly as it's a Catholic apologetic) preachy. I found all of them technically excellent and all of them to have great depths to their themes and messages. All three were definitely books worth reading, but I'm still just a little stuck on my order of preference.
Now this brings me to a question I find interesting. How much does our liking for a work depend on our ability to identify with its world and protagonist(s)? Before you jump in, think about all the fantasy and science fiction you like. Have you ever been to the Moon, been promoted to general, been chased by a cyclops, lived for a thousand years, or made first contact with an alien species? So the connection must be at some sort of deeper level. Could it be gender? Have you ever really enjoyed a book with a protagonist of the opposite sex? Then what is it? A similar life journey or a similar view of the world? But I like "Dune" and I'm neither a materialist nor a world-traveling journalist. Nietzsche preaches a worldview that I find noxious and yet I love reading him. So my big question remains: why do we like the books we like?