The Case for “Hate Reading”

In April, Pamela Paul, editor of the New York Times Book Review, wrote an opinion piece for that publication, an essay titled, “Why You Should Read Books You Hate.” We encourage you to read the entire thing, but its crux is this: “This is not about reading a book you know is bad, a pleasure in its own right, like an exceptionally dashing villain. It’s about finding a book that affronts you, and staring it down to the last word.”

Paul goes on to argue that, in this day and age of seemingly endless choices for where to gather information—cable news channels, Twitter, left- or right-leaning newspapers, internet blogs, etc.—it’s all too easy to pick and choose reading material that subscribes to our personal tastes and opinions. The “pro” argument for hate reading in the political realm is obvious: “To actively grapple with your assumptions and defend your conclusions gives you a sense of purpose. You come to know where you stand, even if that means standing apart.” And, Paul adds, “sometimes you figure out your position only in opposition.”

At Bas Bleu, we deal in books, not politics. Even so, we believe there is value in occasionally reading books you think you won’t like. (If you want to read more about “hate reading” as political psychology, check out this piece from New York Magazine.) We agree that life is too short—and “to be read” piles too tall!—to read bad books. But an author whose style you may not like may still have something to teach you about plot or character. Or a plot or setting that sounds unappealing may be presented in magical prose that elevates your appreciation for language.

To take it one step further, reading about people doing or believing objectionable things is a good way to study humans and their motivations before we encounter them in real life. (If we encounter them; we wouldn’t wish Nurse Ratched on anyone!) It’s impossible to anticipate all of the twists and turns life has in store for us, but the more we read perhaps the more we will at least think about how we might react to events and people who aren’t what we reckoned for. And as studies have shown, reading fiction can increase human empathy, placing us into the lives and minds of people we otherwise may struggle to understand. As Paul writes, “It can be interesting, and instructive, when a book provokes animosity. It may tell you more about a subject or about yourself, as a reader, than you think you know. It might even, on occasion, challenge you to change your mind.”

In a recent essay for The Millions, writer Marcy Campbell recounts how the members of her book club have become less willing over time to challenge themselves:

One of my annual jobs is to compile a list of recommendations for the coming year… I’m in the heads of these ladies, imagining the silent demerits they will offer to words like “heartbreaking,” (too sad), “epic” (too long), “thought-provoking” (meh, could go either way). Any book that features the loss of a child is out, no debate. Spousal abuse, cruelty to animals, anything hinting at a conservative world-view (unless it’s written by someone who abandoned that world-view), nope, nope, and nope.

Campbell goes on to question why that particular group of readers went from being ambitious readers anxious for intellectual stimulation to readers whose busy lives and demanding families left them wary of anything too emotionally challenging. No one can blame an expectant mother for not wanting to read about pediatric cancer, or a mourning spouse for not wanting to read a memoir of grief. But are we cheating ourselves if we always read within our comfort zone?

This is one major appeal of a good book club, forcing us to read books we wouldn’t normally gravitate to, and sometimes to have conversations we wouldn’t otherwise have. About five years ago, editor KG’s book club read Jojo Moyes’s novel Me Before You. “I hated it,” KG recalls. “I couldn’t wait for the last page. Everyone else raved about how romantic and heartbreaking it was. I don’t think I shed a single tear, too annoyed by the writing and the characters. That said, it spurred one of our best discussions yet, about euthanasia, chronic illness, bodily autonomy, familial responsibility, and more. The story forced me to think about situations I hoped I’d never have to face myself. Years later, I still find myself thinking about it.”

At Bas Bleu, we will never suggest you stop reading the books you love. We won’t recommend a boycott of beach reads or romance novels or police procedurals. We love comedic novels and happy endings and whodunits where all the plot points are tied up neatly in the end. Each of our editors has genres and styles she is drawn to, as well as those she avoids: KG dislikes novels about tormented love triangles, AG doesn’t like reading about kids or animals in peril, SM gets fed up with “terrible people being terrible to each other,” and CH has short patience for books about Americans trading their unhappy lives for impossibly fabulous ones in Europe. And sometimes, the realities of life are so hard that we need books to help us escape, if only for a few hours, and to allow our hearts and minds a respite from sadness or stress.

But encouraging ourselves to read outside of our comfort zones from time to time can reap extraordinary benefits, from discovering an author or genre we never knew we’d love to getting inside the minds of people vastly different from us to teaching us something new and wonderful about language, history, or the world around us. Avid readers know: Books helped make us who we are today; why stop now?

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11 thoughts on “The Case for “Hate Reading”

  1. Back in my college days (way back), throughout the various literature classes I enjoined in, I was assigned to read books that bored me endlessly, books that made me cringe at the authors’ ideas about mistreatment of women, of blacks, of immigrants and children or novels about horrendous crime or terror. I would seethe with anger at some professors who insisted that to take any book personally instead of using it as a tool to further educate ourselves were unworthy of a B.A. in English or perhaps not educated enough to be in their class at all. I believe when we get inside the covers of a book, we immediately become personal with that book, call it human nature. We do not all speak the same way, think the same thoughts or feel things the same; we are not robots. As the years have passed I have stopped challenging myself the way I once did. This is not to say I don’t read the occasional controversial book, but if given a choice, I will always choose the book I think will be more interesting or enjoyable to ME. The best part of reading is the heart of a book that stays with us long after we’ve finshed the book. Our thoughtd are provoked, we imagine the character extended beyond the covers of the closed book and our creativity is ever enhanced by the words and the style in which they were written.

  2. sorry–color me unchallenged, but i will NOT reread ULYSSES or MIDDLEMARCH or norman mailer’s THE PRISONER OF SEX . . .

  3. This is great. As an undergraduate, I developed an extreme dislike for Don Quixote a fact which I cheerfully shared with my world literature professor. A very wise lady, she convinced me that I should read the entire work anyway citing several of the points made in this post. It will never be my favorite work of literature, but I’ve never forgotten her or her good advice. Reading is not about staying in our enjoyment or or comfort zone.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Barbara. We’d be lying if we said our teachers hadn’t pushed us in a similar fashion over the years…for which we thank them!

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