By Sammy Bina
Remember in high school when you were forced to read books you didn’t like? (HEART OF DARKNESS was a thorn in my side, from 11th grade to my super-senior year of college.) For a while you could get away with using Sparknotes or No Fear Shakespeare, but eventually you’d get stuck in that one class where the teacher was smart enough to quiz you on bizarrely random facts that you only would’ve picked up on if you’d actually sat down and read the book cover to cover (and sometimes, not even then!).
No matter what, at some point in your life, you’ve had to read something you really didn’t want to. It was painful. You’d rather listen to someone drag their nails across a chalkboard than read that book again. I’ve had a few of those pass through my hands over the past 23 years (not that I came out of the womb with a book in my hands, but you know what I mean), and no matter what, it doesn’t get easier. I’ve been required to read HEART OF DARKNESS six times since 11th grade, and you know what? By the last time, I couldn’t even force myself to get past the first page.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of reading — some of it’s been amazing, some of it’s been okay, and some of it has been downright terrible. But there’s something to be said about books you don’t like, and that is the fact that they’re a great learning tool.
Now, hear me out. I’m not telling you to go reread your least favorite book a million times. I am, however, asking you to reconsider it. I was never a huge fan of FRANKENSTEIN, so we’ll go with that one for this demonstration. I had to read it for a Romanticism literature class in college, and I was beyond thrilled. I’d always wanted to read it, and loved the old black and white movie. As it turned out, however, I wasn’t a huge fan of the book. I’ve never been one for epistolary novels (novels told in letter format), so that was the first strike against it. I also didn’t appreciate the framing aspect of the novel, in that it was essentially a story within a story within a story.
But you know what? As much as I disliked that book, I read the entire thing. And I was glad that I did. First, I’d added another classic to my repertoire (which is still sorely lacking, I’ll admit). Second, I’d gained some insight into gothic culture (not always relevant, but at least interesting). Third, it made me a better reader. It made me a better thinker. I really had to sit down and think about the reasons I didn’t like the story, and what I thought could have been done to improve it. Obviously those changes will never be made, since Shelley is dead, I didn’t write it, and the book is a classic, but still. It forced me to consider other alternatives than the ones presented to me. It also made me appreciate other classics that I liked a lot better. As a writer, it helped me understand what kinds of things work in storytelling, and what would be better left untouched.
Sometimes, when we read, we have to paste a smile on our face. Maybe you’re reading something terrible for class, or a friend’s manuscript that isn’t your cup of tea. Maybe it’s a magazine article you disagree with, or an advice column giving out bad advice. Whatever it is, it’s best to go into it with an open mind. And even once you know you don’t like it, keep going. There is bound to be at least one thing you can take away from whatever it is that you’re reading, and you can always apply that to your own writing. With FRANKENSTEIN, I may not have liked the framing, but I could see why it worked. Though I would have preferred an actual novel, rather than letters, I think I now understand (or at least appreciate) why Shelley chose to present the narrative that way. No, I’ll never do those things in my own writing, but I’ve learned to accept — maybe even like, in rare cases — epistolary novels. So while I am still finding myself reading things I don’t always like, I’ve grown as a reader, as well as a writer. And I think that, in the end, is a worthwhile lesson to be had.
Sammy Bina is the literary assistant at N.S. Bienstock in New York City. In her free time she’s busy overhauling her adult dystopian novel, THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, for the YA market. She tweets a bunch and has a new blog, which you can visit here.