Living With Books

Editor Sarah Knight on Books that Enticed, then Disappointed

A wine-propelled conversation with a publishing industry friend recently dovetailed with a thread on Twitter to remind me that as much as talking about books I love, I’m always happy to talk about books I didn’t love. Books that enticed, then disappointed. Books that, like the movies Up in the Air, Anchorman, and Coraline, lured me in and then led me to declare, with the incredulity of Seth Meyers in the SNL skit of the same name, “Really?”

The Twitter chatter started with a bookseller’s post asking, “What books do you re-read?”

One of the most popular responses was The Great Gatsby. Now, maybe I should re-read The Great Gatsby (for reasons which will become apparent) but I probably won’t. This is because Gatsby was one of the more profoundly disappointing – and emotionally scarring – books I’ve ever read.

And I was a high school lit-nerd, a college English major, and am now gainfully employed as a book editor, so the playing field here is pretty well seeded with heavy hitters. I’ve loved Nabokov, Twain, and more than one Bronte. I’m not super-keen on Vonnegut and Hemingway, but I’ve enjoyed my fair share. I’ve read most of Austen, some of Waugh, and I loved Middlemarch so much that I actually sought out The Mill on the Floss.

But when I was assigned The Great Gatsby for a high school class I experienced a vexing bout of performance anxiety. I read, I mulled, I sat for hours with an open notebook, but nothing would come.

I. Could. Not. Write. The. Paper.

I didn’t like the book, and not only did I not like it, I couldn’t think of a damn thing to say about it. (These things, separately, were unfamiliar and surprising – that I would not like such a famously lauded book and that I would have nothing to say? Together they were hugely disconcerting.)

I fretted. I highlighted passages. I counted down the days until the paper was due and then . . . I asked for an extension. Unthinkable! If I was stymied, my teacher was equally unmoored. She was used to my straight-A, perfectionist ways and although she was a stickler for on-time assignments, she miraculously granted me a few more days to write the paper. I think, for her, this was no “the dog ate my inspiration” moment; this was a gifted and typically eager student coming to her with a philosophical crisis of Gatsbian proportions.

sarah-knightIt was my Lit major uncle who eventually gave me the way in, offhandedly quoting Gertrude Stein’s famous “there is no there there” line about her childhood home in Oakland, California. I wrote my ten pages about how for me in Gatsby, there was no there there – no talisman of what I knew I loved about characters and plot, setting and theme, that could connect me to Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

I got a B-. I’m still getting over it, as you can see.

Sarah Knight is a book editor in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @MCSnugz.

We want to hear your stories of books that enticed, then disappointed – or books you thought you’d never want to read and ended up loving. Leave a comment below!

  • Carla

    I already commented on facebook but thought I’d write here too.

    A book that I thought I’d never read and totally loved was Pillars of the Earth. I picked it up at Costco because someone else told me to. I got it home and I read the back. “A book about building a Cathedral” “OH, COME ON!!!!” Before I knew it my husband was asking me if I was going to come to bed….I did and read some more by flashlight.

  • Shyla

    My biggest disappointment lately has been A Discovery of Witches. I was SO looking forward to it after all the reviews I came across in my hunt for the new book/series that would haunt me while I read it and devastate me when I finished. It was not to be. Horrible, terrible, unreadable! Underdeveloped plotlines and characters, young adult writing style.. Just ugh.

  • Susan H.

    I still have not been able to finish The Catcher in the Rye. I wanted to like it–it was one of the few books that meant enough to my father that he kept his copy.

  • Marie Cordalis

    Yes, I know exactly what you’re saying. Many, many times I’ve read books that have been recommended to me as “the best book ever!”, and thought, really????!!!! I was also an English Lit major and read my share of the obligatory classics. Quite a few of them I loved (“Jane Eyre”, “War and Peace”, etc), but I HATED “The Great Gatsby”. I also was assigned a paper on it in college and it was sheer torture to write. Nothing about the book spoke to me or stayed with me. I still managed to get a good grade (A), but the whole experience gave me such a distaste for F. Scott Fitzgerald that I’ve never read anything else by that author. Maybe I should try again…..

  • Jonathan at TheScop.com

    High school English classes ruined a number of great authors for me. I *hated* A TALE OF TWO CITIES, which led me to believe I also hated Dickens. Same goes for Shakespeare (with ROMEO AND JULIET). It’s a pity that my introductions with those wonderful writers came through those weaker works.

  • Rebekah

    I totally agree. I’ve had my share of books that I read in college that I totally can’t stand. Gatsby being one of them. The others being : Catcher in the Rye, and anything Jane Austin. I’ve found that I really hate Jane Austin’s quaint style of English, it drags on forever and ends up being mush and then I knew people in school that absolutely loved her. I actually sat down and made myself read Jane Austin only because I knew I needed to at least try and read her. After I finished reading one book I declared never again.

  • Shirley

    As a retired high school English teacher, let me comment on the “I hate whatever classic my teacher made me read” syndrome. It’s human nature. You were a teenager. You hated most of the stuff adults suggested you should like. So get over it and read it again with fresh eyes and an adult perspective. If you still don’t care for it; so be it. Just don’t base your opinion on a sixteen-year-old’s reaction!