The Book Hate Read Is a Labor of Love

When was the last time you finished a book you hated, really, truly hated, despising it with a passion deep in your soul all the way through, to the end of the very last page?

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When was the last time you finished a book you hated, really, truly hated, despising it with a passion deep in your soul all the way through, to the end of the very last page? It doesn't count if you just skimmed it looking for the terrible parts and then got angry when you found them and threw the book away. It doesn't count if it's a book you had to read for a class, or for work. It has to be a book you chose to read, hated, and then kept reading—despite or more likely because of your hate. It doesn't count if it's not a book.

I bring this up because novelist Lev Grossman has a piece in Time today in which he admits, right off the bat, "I cannot stand this book I’m reading right now." (This is a great way to start a book piece, by the way: a blind item! What awful/terrible/wonderfully abhorrent book is he talking about? Any guesses?)

The hate read was a term coined by those shocked to find that they were reading blog posts or following people on Twitter for the sole purpose of not liking them. I suspect book hate reads are rare, though, because a full-fledged book hate read requires a not insignificant time commitment: hours, maybe days. Compare that to the minute-to-minute ease of staying on top of those 140-character dispatches from that person you follow on Twitter, missives that bring you equal measures of joy and pain because they are your Internet hate read. Or a blog post, however long, that you insist on scrolling down to the bottom of so that you can call the author a useless hack, with pleasure! So stupid are these idiots, how dare they attempt to write, whether for Real Media Organizations or their own blogs or just on Twitter or Facebook!

A book hate read is fundamentally different than an Internet hate read because a book hate read is long. It asks more of you, resources or time you may not have or be willing to give. Plus, the community aspect of a good Internet hate read is lacking. You can't just tweet out the book itself with a comment remarking on its terribleness to your many followers, or share it on Facebook with a request for a "dislike" button. You can do that with the book's title, yes, but it's hardly the same. And to get the full joy of a hate read of any sort, you have to actually encourage someone else to read it and agree with you. With a book that's difficult, much like asking someone to taste the milk in the fridge which you're pretty sure has gone off, or to smell your feet to see if they really do stink. People generally aren't into that sort of thing. Again, it's a commitment.

So, for me, in the land of book hate reads, there are very few, and they are all a certain type of book. I didn't hate War and Peace; I just didn't finish it, because it's not only long, it's also heavy to lug around. I also didn't finish the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, but not because it was a hate read—it wasn't good enough for that. My hate reads are snob hate reads, because they're books I actually enjoy reading but consider not intellectual or "good" enough to admit to really loving (shame on me). Stuff like The Nanny Diaries or The Devil Wears Prada or Sweet Valley Confidential, or any array of mass-market mystery novels, frothy concoctions or easy thrillers that are loved popularly and I am ashamed of myself for being entertained by. Those are my "hate reads," if I have any.

Of Grossman's particular hate read, the one that inspired his piece, he writes,

It’s a novel. It’s by a writer who is generally described as Great, but who I’ve always personally felt is Pretty Good When He’s Really On His Game, Which Was Like For One Book, But Generally Speaking He’s Really Not That Good At All. Like For Example Right Now.

In normal, non-work circumstances, he says, he'd toss the book aside, but he has to read it professionally. Technically, this would disqualify this book as a hate read. But it works out well for us, because we get his musings on book hate reads.

Grossman says he hates books all the time, including those other people appear to like (John Steinbecks' In Dubious Battle, for example). He admits that others might hate the books he's written, even though he loves them, mostly. The beautiful thing is that there's some book for everyone, or so the aphorism sewn on the pillow would go. One man's hate read is another person's treasure. And Grossman says, sometimes it's just luck, or lack thereof: the reader's mood, the type of book he or she feels like reading, if the reader is drunk or sober. He hates the book he's currently reading because he thinks he's supposed to like it; it sounds like the equivalent of the good-on-paper date—in real life it's not funny, has "no verbal energy," and is terribly earnest. More clues:

Is the author that convinced that his deadpan catalogue of the minutiae of daily life is that fascinating, just as it is? No need to give the words even a flick of the wrist, a smack on the ass, before he sends them on their way? No? No.

All this brings up further questions about book hate reads. Can you hate an author because you hate his book, or like an author whose book you hate? There are all sorts of permutations and variations. But the greatest takeaway of all in this piece is that a book hate read seems like it might actually be a kind of depressing sort of enterprise. A book hate read might not pay. Grossman writes,

The worst part about hating a book, for me, is the despair that follows rapidly upon the hatred. I look at this book, which is expensively bound and covered and art-directed, and which in a few months’ time will be printed in vast numbers on thick creamy paper with tastefully ragged edges, and I think, God damn, a lot of people are going to buy this book... 

But there’s no point. It’s too late. The machinery grinds on while other, better books are passed over. It’s enough to make you despair. In fact I do despair sometimes, at what a totally broken culture we live in.

At the end Grossman salvages a few last vestiges of hope and reminds himself, and us, that maybe he's wrong, maybe the book he hates is just dandy. But then, to take the joy out of everything, he postscripts us out of any actual clues about his mystery hate read by telling us that the book to which he refers might be a composite, not even necessarily of this time, and maybe not by a "he" at all.

Lesson: Stick to the Internet hate reads. They're so much simpler.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.