Monday, December 31, 2012

No Such Thing as a Good Book

I just finished reading Henry James' "Turn of the Screw."

Re-reading, actually, because I first encountered the story during my college years.

And I'm now reading "The Three Musketeers," by Alexandre Dumas.

These two stories--and people's reactions to them--have reminded me of an important truth: There's no such thing as a good book.

Pick any book you loved. I mean loved. And go to Amazon or Goodreads and check the reviews. You'll be shocked to find messages there from people living on a different planet. People who hated this very same book you loved...or at least felt indifferent to its charms.

How can this be? Why can't they see what you see?

Because books are (like any art work) nothing more than Projective Tests. More recently known as Free-Response Measures, Projective tests in psychology are ambiguous stimuli that tell us far more about the person than they do about the object.

Is there something wrong with people who don't appreciate science fiction or fantasy? Or Romance? Or Westerns?


But certain types of people will respond to those stimuli differently.

We get tied in knots discussing the relative "merits" of certain kinds of fiction...or of certain specific works...and miss the point entirely.

We debate and discuss and sometimes argue over stories, as if the story itself held an intrinsic quality of "goodness" or "badness."

When in fact, encountering a story is like encountering another person.  You will "click" with some people, and not with others. And if you're paying attention, this degree of "fit" tells you most of all about yourself.  

What are some of the things about you that determine whether or not you'll appreciate a particular story?

1) Age.  Ever read a book twice, at different ages?  Chances are, it means something different to you.  "Turn of the Screw" created a different (more intense) reaction in me at age 48 than it did when I was twenty-something.

2) Intellect. I've written on this before, and it's a can-of-worms topic. But (Reader's Digest version): Intellect is essentially the capacity to deal with complexity.  Complex words, complex sentences, complex plots can either be a playground of the imagination...or a frustrating block. 

3) Aspects of Personality.  This could be a book-length discourse; but for now, I'll mention just one element: People tend to lean (at least a little) towards either of two poles... 




And these "bents" determine some of our preferences in stories.

Analytics (Thinkers, introspectors, imaginatives) tend to have a greater appreciation for the fantastical...for sci fi and fantasy and bizarre worlds and "out there" possibilities.  They are explorers of the mind...and they enjoy speculating on "what could be." They like to chew over their stories, and break them down and savor the richness of inner worlds.

Socials (Relationship-focused, extroverts) are less likely to be attracted to what they perceive as "weird" stuff. They want to vicariously feel the surge and pull of emotions that come with the territory of human relationships.

Neither of these tendencies are two discrete sides of a coin. Most personalities are a blend of these two, and fall somewhere along a continuum. But individuals do tend to favor one side above the other in the overall coloration of their personalities.

When you tell me about a book you loved (or hated)...I'm learning more about you than I am about the book.