In Which I Have No Taste

03 December 2008 · 6 comments

There are things that everybody else loves but which, whether due to character flaw or discerning taste, I do not. I’m always baffled by this phenomenon.

Recently, for example, I decided that I’d waited long enough. After five years, I was ready to watch The Lord of the Rings films again. Surely they had improved with time and distance, right?

I was disappointed to find that they had not. The pacing was still glacial. The music was still omnipresent, as were the special effects. (“This is more cartoon than film,” I thought at one point.) I couldn’t even make it out of The Shire.

Then Kris decided that she wanted to watch the series over the Thanksgiving holiday. While I worked in my office, I could overhear the screeching Nazgul and thundering orcs and the omnipresent music. When she started the third film, The Return of the King, I sat down to watch with her. This had, after all, won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2003.

Ugh.

I hated it. I’m trying not say “The Return of the King is awful” because I know that implies that I am some sort of universal arbiter of taste. But it’s hard. I really want to say it. I do not like this movie — not one bit.

And so there are things that everybody loves but which I do not.

The books of Barbara Kingsolver are another example: brightly-painted straw men (and straw women) dancing across a broken stage. Every time somebody proclaims Barbara Kingsolver as her favorite author, I want to shake this person and shout, “What on earth is wrong with you?” (I also want to hand her Proust, which is probably further evidence of my pathology.)

Other examples: House, Friends, beach volleyball, cream cheese, and blog entries that are simply lists of dozens (or hundreds) of “tips”. And, finally, the book that made me start this tirade: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

For the past five years, friends and total strangers, when they learn that I’m a writer, are inclined to gush, “Have you read Bird by Bird? It’s wonderful!”

No, I haven’t. But I’ve tried many times. I usually make it to the end of the introduction. I want to read the book — so many people I know think it’s wonderful! — but I’m tripped time and time again by the author’s twee turns of phrase, by her constant attempts to be cute and funny. With me, a little of this goes a long way, but a lot of it goes nowhere.

Today at 43folders, Merlin Mann wrote that real advice hurts. This is a brilliant salvo against a type of blog entry that is currently very popular, but which offers nothing to the world: the afore-mentioned lists of dozens (or hundreds) of “tips”. Mann writes:

In more instances than we want to admit, tips not only won’t (and can’t) help us to improve; they will actively get in the way of fundamental improvement by obscuring the advice we need with the advice that we enjoy. And, the advice that’s easy to take is so rarely the advice that could really make a difference.

This is something I’ve been wrestling with at Get Rich Slowly. For a long time, I too, like Mann, was a purveyor of tips. And I still believe there’s a place for tips. A limited place. More and more, though, I think that tips address the symptoms and not the disease. They lead to a belief that there are easy answers. But you know what? There aren’t any easy answers — at least not often.

Anyhow, Mann leads his article by praising Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Once again I thought to myself that I should give the book a try. So, once again, I sat down and read the introduction. And, once again, I hated it. Sample:

I believed, before I sold my first book, that publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem.

This did not happen for me.

Imagine that passage repeated for 21 pages and you have some idea of what it’s like to read the “introduction” to Bird by Bird. If you like that sort of thing — and obviously, many people do — I recommend the book to you. I’ll even loan you my copy. But for me, this stuff is hard to swallow. I don’t find it cute or funny or informative. I just find it annoying.

Is this a character flaw? Is it discerning taste? I don’t know. I tell myself that I’ll just suck it up and read the damn thing, but I don’t know if I will. At least it’s not Barbara Kingsolver.

1 Paul J. December 3, 2008 at 17:05

I often walk away from large group discussions such as these with a sadness that others don’t like what I like or feel like I do but then I realize how boring the world would be if everyone thought the same way. We get in trouble when we think that our way of thinking is the right way and everyone else is wrong. I for one like Kingsolver and your opinion won’t change that fact, nor will my opinion of you change because you don’t care for her writing.

To each their own.

ps. Were there steroids in the bee sting medicine?

2 Dave December 3, 2008 at 17:55

And yet you will wax poetic about the Patrick O’Brian novels, read them in their entirety, obtain them on CD and MP3 and which, while entertaining for the first two books, lapse into a repetitious tedium thereafter. Ok, they’re tedious before that, but you put up with it in the hopes that it somehow gets less tedious. Which it is if you thoroughly enjoy the extensive descriptions of knots and sails (complete with sloth or perhaps without). I’ve admittedly never read Ms. Lamott’s book (and have no intention of doing so), but perhaps your flaw is in starting with the introduction rather starting with chapter 1 of the novel. You may find that the introduction is absolute rubbish but that the actual book has some merit. Perhaps you’re judging the book by it’s cover, or at least by it’s wrapper…

As for House, it’s a one trick pony. If you like the trick then I suppose you’ll like it better than if you don’t like the trick.

3 Kris B. December 3, 2008 at 20:40

You rock.

4 Denise December 4, 2008 at 06:21

I always skip the introduction until after I’ve read the book. I only read it if I really liked the book or completely hated it. For some reason, those two extremes are the only time I care what the author (or whoever) had to say about the book.

5 Blogeois December 5, 2008 at 19:02

Bird by Bird was the first how-to writing book I ever bought…which goes a long way toward explaining why I took a nine year break from trying to write. It’s not you. It’s an awful book.

6 Joel December 13, 2008 at 13:30

Regarding beach volleyball, what is wrong with you?! This is a sport wherein people routinely dive fully extended. A dive for the ball like this happens several times per match. Compare that to the number in dives in baseball: a few per game (and usually it’s the shortstop/3rd baseman diving from a standing position, not after running a few steps), football: maybe once per game (I’m not counting when a receiver belly flops futilely after a ball sails ten feet over his head), tennis: once per ten matches (but when it happens, it’s excellent, ’cause they’re all so damn perfect-looking and then suddenly wham! they’re disheveled). Only soccer compares favorably to beach volleyball in terms of dives.

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