Dispatches | August 18, 2011

A long tradition of reviewing gives readers plenty of venues for rating books or authors. But here’s what I’ve wondered lately: ratethereader.com?

The context: last weekend I was visiting Springfield, Missouri, with my family to see a Civil War reenactment of the historic Battle of Wilson’s Creek. My parents live in Springfield. The reenactment took place a few miles from the nearby town of Republic, and at some point during the weekend my parents mentioned that the Republic school board had just voted to remove two books from the high school curriculum and library; one was Kurt Vonnegut’s antiwar classic, Slaughterhouse Five. You probably read this story, but I was on an inner-city mission and out of media reach the last week in July, when the story broke.

I’m religious, so I’m sorry to say the story featured one of those extremists of the kind that for a while now have been concerned with problems such as whether the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft. The initial objection was raised by a Republic resident who complained that three books in the high school library that were also used in high-school classes taught ideas which opposed biblical principles. These objections were reviewed by the school board, and two of the books were removed from the curriculum and the library (not for religious reasons but on the grounds that they weren’t “age appropriate”). One was retained.

Ironically, my husband and I had recently been talking about Slaughterhouse Five, and I’d recommended it to my thirteen-year-old son, who has already read The Catcher in the Rye. (I guess as parents we don’t have a good handle on “age-appropriateness.”) But what bothered me most about this news was the reality it illuminated, of readers so incompetent they miss the significance of a book entirely and can only see sex or profanity and respond reflexively. That is, if they read a book at all: not all the board members may have read the offending books; one story reported that only one of four voting school board members had read the books in question.

I was already thinking along these lines, when someone forwarded me a link to Juliet Lapidos’s Culturebox feature “Overrated” in Slate.com from August 11, about works of literature that readers love to complain about. Notable authors, editors and critics were invited to weigh in about classics that didn’t live up to their reputations. Thomas Hardy took criticism for his morose worldview. Don Quixote was judged to be tedious, after a lively start. The House of the Seven Gables, The Faerie Queene, The Sound and the Fury, Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses, Of Human Bondage all had their detractors, as did others. Lapidos’s feature was pleasant entertainment, not a serious bashing of good literature. Readers jumped in to add their favorite “hated” works to the list, all in fun. But I bring it up because while reading the comments of some of the people Lapidos surveyed, and of the readers who commented on the article, I again found myself musing about readerly capability. Many of the opinions were informed, sensitive and astute; a number of others, not so much.

I’m personally not a fan of D.H. Lawrence, but years ago, when I was reading Women in Love for my PhD comprehensive exam and not liking it at all, I found myself simultaneously not liking and appreciating Lawrence. And realizing something else: that I didn’t have to like it to appreciate it, and that the point was not simple reading pleasure anymore; it was command of a field of knowledge. The profession of literature demanded that I give up pre-formed opinions and tastes and embark on a mission to understand each work and take it on its own terms. Later, I learned that editors have to do this even better than scholars.

The gap yawns wide between the five-star readers and some one-star readers—not just in Republic, Missouri, but all over. It’s useful to remember that the gap exists. It’s even more important to think about how to narrow it because great literature can’t survive without great readers.