"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Mar 9, 2010

Readers' advisory for a "bad" book?

(I have been suffering from pretty severe writer's block (blogger's block?) recently -- my apologies for my absence.)

Opening a new book by an unfamiliar author is always exciting to me. Usually by the time I begin a book I know a little about the story it will tell, but how that story will be told is still a mystery. I love getting to know a new author and learning how he or she speaks to me -- his/her style, vocabulary, and all the little idiosyncratic quirks that make an author's works truly individual and that will make me feel as though I'm coming back to a wonderful, familiar place should I ever read another work by the same person. Unfortunately, sometimes the experience is not as enjoyable as could be hoped.

The book selected for an upcoming ALA Student Chapter Book Club is Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. I'm organizing the book club, so I need to come up with some good questions. I'm also trying to think about it from the perspective of a readers' advisor, seeing if I can think of elements of the book that might appeal to some readers. (I try to do this with most books that I read these days; I think I could use the practice.)

The problem is that I found this book to be... let's say extremely disappointing (I hesitate to ever call a book "bad," since I consider evaluations of a book's "goodness" to be situational and individual). I don't know whether it's more unfair to say I really didn't enjoy it and not explain why, or to go into a long discussion of all the things I didn't like, so I'll try to hit middle ground with a brief summary of my major comments:

1) Show, don't tell is violated over, and over, and over again. Sometimes authors do this because it's truly difficult to show what they want us to know. But almost everything we're told in this novel could easily have been shown.

2) Character development occurs largely either a) out of our view, in the long gaps (years!) between chapters -- all of a sudden we come back into these people's lives and are told (not shown) that they've changed -- or b) in sudden, revelatory moments where a character dramatically changes in a paragraph, with no buildup or background that helps us understand what about this moment has sparked the change or why.

3) Largely as a result of the two points above, I just couldn't bring myself to care about the characters. This was a shame because the story itself could have been interesting -- but the story's impact really rested on the reader's ability to empathize with and care about the characters, particularly the two sisters at the center of the novel.

The problem I now face is: How do I lead this book discussion, and how do I attempt readers' advisory, for this book which I really did not enjoy?

The first part of this question is actually not as much of an issue. I got plenty of experience leading (academic) book discussions in the course of obtaining my degrees in English literature. I know how to put aside my feelings for a book long enough to ask a question that isn't blatantly leading in one direction or another. (I'm more concerned about whether I'll be able to restrain my own urges to dissect the book enough to avoid overwhelming the discussion, but I had a similar worry last time and I did fine.)

However, the second part of the question is presenting a real dilemma for me. I have tried to be a good readers' advisor and think of things that people might like about this book. But my own negative feelings about it keep getting in the way. I honestly do not see how anyone could like this novel, though I know there must be people out there who do. I have come up with exactly two reasons why people might like it (for the dramatic events of the plot, for the historical setting) and even one of those is strongly tempered (the plot is one dramatic thing after another; it feels like a soap opera -- though I suppose there are people who would not have a problem with that). I'm hoping that at least one person who comes to the book discussion will have enjoyed the novel, and that I can pick their brain a little about why they did.

As a readers' advisor I believe, with Ranganathan, in "every book its reader." I believe that I should help readers find and select this book, if they would really like it. I find it strange that I am so happy to help people find books they want to read that might be considered "trash"* by those who like to consider themselves the intellectual and/or literary elite, but that I simply cannot imagine bringing myself to recommend this novel to anyone.

How does one, as a readers' advisor, recommend books that one profoundly dislikes to people who might enjoy them? Do you just not recommend those books at all? Do you consult colleagues for their input? Do you candidly admit "This wasn't really my thing, but it sounds like the kind of book that you might love"?



* Please note "might be considered 'trash'". I love a good "trashy" book and don't believe that genre or other nonliterary writing is inferior -- just different (often in a good way!).

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