I think we can all agree that people like what they like. We’ll give a lot of leeway to movies or music or books that are in a category or by a specific person that we already know we enjoy. For the sake of this post, though, I’m going to narrow the rest of the discussion down to books specifically.
Once we decide we love a book, we tend to sprout an interesting secondary mindset that comes into play when we encounter someone who dislikes that same book. I’m talking about the “You must not get it” defense.
I have a multitude of problems with this idea: it assumes the other person is dumb; it assumes the book in question is brilliant (as if sometimes we don’t like things that aren’t brilliant but are fun, or funny, etc.); it assumes that everyone has the same tastes and should like the same things.
If everyone likes what they like, everyone also dislikes what they dislike.
Personally, I do try and analyze a book after I finish it to figure out WHY I felt the way I did. Sometimes the reasons aren’t obvious. Sometimes after I sit and think about it I still can’t pinpoint the appealing or unappealing aspects. But this kind of analysis is not a requirement: someone is allowed to finish a book, close it, and declare “I didn’t like this” without further explanation. Their dislike isn’t a judgement of people who DID enjoy the book, which seems to be part of the problem: when someone dislikes something that you like, it can be hard not to take that to heart.
But saying that they didn’t get it is really an insult. Plenty of people read a book and fully understand everything the author was going for and still don’t enjoy it. Those two ideas are separate from one another. They might share some correlation (maybe the more you don’t understand something the more likely you are to dislike it), but one does not necessarily cause the other.
In fact, sometimes even when I’ve given a thorough review and explanation of why I disliked something, I’ll still have people try and tell me it’s because I didn’t really get it. It’s infuriating to be on the receiving end of this type of remark not only because of the assumptions I stated above, but also because it closes the door for any discussion about the book’s strengths and weaknesses. When people decide they enjoyed a book, they tend to ignore any legitimate critique because they don’t want to think that something they like still has flaws. But honestly, I have yet to run across a truly perfect book. And I find I’m much happier discussing books I love when I can admit to myself that they aren’t perfect. Those imperfections can even lead me to love the book more, or to get more out of a story than I would if I tried to pretend it was flawless.
On the flip side, I also think it’s possible to not understand a book, or even completely misinterpret it, and still love it. This is almost always true of every book I loved as a kid. When I go back and read them now, I realize that I really didn’t understand everything going on, or I flat-out got it entirely wrong, and yet I loved the book dearly. Often I find I love them even more when I re-read them as an adult and can understand them better.
The reasons that certain stories resonate with us while others don’t are nebulous, and most of the time we are unaware of and/or can’t explain them completely. But actual understanding of the themes and plots and symbols in the end amounts to only a small, variable piece of the larger equation of enjoyment, so we should stop trying to give it more significance than it deserves.
I think it’s also worth noting that how you interpret a story and its symbols and themes, as well as how thoroughly you understand it all, depends heavily on your own life and experiences and what you’re dealing with at the time you read the book. You may have interpreted a favorite book much differently if you had read it five years earlier, or you will see it differently if you re-read it in ten years. And that may affect how much you enjoy the book, even if you always understand it, because you’ll be understanding it in different ways.
And that, of course, is one of the best parts of reading: that if you shift your perspective slightly, either consciously or just by virtue of living life, a story can be different every time you read it.