What's in us that makes us respond positively or negatively to art? Trust me, it's not an issue that's going to be resolved by BookGirl anytime soon, but it continues to fascinate. I thought about this again last night following my Book Club meeting. Three of us, including me, loved the assigned book, James Meek's The People's Act of Love; two or three others were enthusiastic, while most either disliked the book or found it bewildering.
Here's the point in the story where I would usually say: "run, don't walk to buy this book!," but I'm trying to be more careful these days about keeping my audience in mind when recommending books. Of course, I've known for quite a while that my interests in art (particularly books and films) are not necessarily anyone else's (and, at certain times in my life, it's seemed like no one else's).
But there's more to it than that. For example, recently I realized I can't take for granted in this book club things I took for granted in my past book group in D.C. Those book pals didn't always agree about whether we liked the books we'd read, but we very rarely disagreed about which books to read. In this club, I'm less enthusiastic about the titles selected for reading (to be fair, from time to time, a book that I thought I'd dislike -- like The People's Act of Love -- turns out to be a wonder). One reason for the difference seems obvious: in the D.C. group, the members selected the books together; perhaps this group is too large to accommodate that process. And yet, if I'm honest, the democratic approach we espoused in my earlier club was more theory than practice: members put forward specific books and made a case for them, and the rest of us usually went along. Still, none of us felt that we were taking much risk, because, for some reason, we seemed to like reading the same types of books. Not always, but almost always. And, oddly enough, even those of us who didn't like a particular book were usually still glad we'd read it -- because, I surmise, we liked the type of book it was. Too, we read only fiction.
My analytical husband would say that the reason is pretty obvious: we were all either English majors or English-major "types," such as writers, or related wordsmiths, such as lawyers. I'd disagree with him on the sympathy between lawyers and English majors, but, that aside, he's probably correct that people with certain training or backgrounds are more likely to enjoy the same types of books. And since the group was started by friends, and grew by adding other friends, it's equally likely that we'd all have similar interests. My current book club, on the other hand, seems comprised of a wide range of readers, probably with a wide range of backgrounds.
But this can't be the whole story. Two very different people can love same book. Leaving aside issues of social psychology, which likely play a big role here, one possible explanation is that different people can love the same book for different reasons. In The People's Act of Love, for example, you can delight in the story alone. It's cinematic in narrative, has an intriguing and bizarre plot with a few mysteries thrown in, and has interesting characters. Someone else might fall for the language: Meek is an exceptionally evocative writer; there are sections of the book that are simply stunning, such as the pages that detail how the Czech battalion has been decimated over the five years since they left home. Another reader might prefer the tone: the black comedy style that Meek uses to indict just about everyone involved with the war. Yet another might be captivated by the artful way in which Meek weaves his themes through the novel: "love" is one of these themes, and it's defined in some strikingly contradictory ways by the main characters.
Still, this an argument that's hard for me to make. You can like a good book for the writing, OR for the story, OR for any one feature, but in a great book that you love, everything works together seamlessly to make the whole much greater than any one of its parts.
And since this is a book I love, I'll throw caution to the wind. Run, don't walk, to buy The People's Act of Love. It's a real treat.