My love/hate relationship with studying books

30 Day Book Challenge – Day 9

Book that makes you sick

I have thought long and hard about this one.  There are books that make me angry, sad, bad-tempered, even jealous, but sick? No, unless my memory fails me, I cannot recall a book that has ever made me sick.

There is one book, however, that stirs up in me such a range of emotions – envy, awe, happiness, sadness, extreme rage – that usually results in a feeling of mild to moderate nausea.  It used to be a favourite of mine, but unfortunately I decided to use it as one of the primary texts I studied for my Honours thesis.  Two years, several crappy supervisors, and 20,000 words later, I was ready to chuck any book by Umberto Eco, particularly the Name of the Rose, into a bonfire whilst chanting voodoo curses at it and participating in an eerie ceremonial dance to ensure it never arose from the ashes.  I expected my finished thesis to meet a similar fate.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

It’s a mighty shame, this loathing for a book once loved.  Umberto Eco is quite the prodigy, hence why I wanted to write my thesis on him.  Described as an Italian medievalist, semiotician, philosopher, literary critic, and novelist, his masterful writing matched with his remarkable intellect is worthy of the highest praise.  He was my college brain crush, party because he is Italian (and boy do I love me some Italians), but mostly due to his creativity, his intelligence and his love for books and the written word.  He has written a number of books on writing, and has some excellent things to say about the future of books in the world of ebooks (which you can read more about in my earlier post about traditional vs new forms of publishing).

But I digress.  What I find a shame, is how often the forced (and even voluntary) intensive study of a favourite text, can often lead to a subsequent hostility towards it.  It happened time and time again in High School, with all the classics that we analysed, scanned, scrutinised and all but tore apart to arrive at the ‘true message’ within the text.  Back then, I couldn’t stand even looking at an Austen.  In bookstores I would see the orange spine of the Penguin classics section and quickly back away in fear.  The name ‘Shakespeare’ sent shivers down my spine.  But why?  Aren’t they classics for a reason?  Aren’t their messages still relevant today?  Isn’t their writing an example of great skill?

Yes.  But back then all I saw when I looked at these books was a collage of the following words:

Theme, essay, motif, essay, overview, essay, citations, essay, plot, essay, symbols, essay.  Oh, did I mention essay?

I loved English class, and to be honest I didn’t really mind writing essays, but it is just a little bit sad that we were given all these amazing books to read and never actually got to just enjoy reading them.  I understand why of course, and I learnt a lot about the aspects behind writing that I need to apply myself now that I’m writing my own book.  But writing my thesis proved to me anew how much damage over analysis can do to the simple pleasure of reading.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I love to pick apart a book as much as the next person, but those days at school, and the time I spent on my thesis, well, let’s just say there is a fine line between discussing various interpretations of a book, and butchering it into tiny tiny pieces and putting it back together again to form a new argument; a fine line that those study days used to fearlessly toe.

Thankfully, those High School memories have long since faded into the abyss that is my atrocious memory, leaving tortured recollections of essay writing and plot summaries behind, making room to enjoy those texts for the masterpieces that they are.  I now love Austen (see yesterday’s post), get excited when the Penguin classics are on sale and Shakespeare…well okay, I’m still a little shady about him.  Unfortunately the memory of my thesis is still too fresh to allow for such carefree reminiscing of the Eco books I once loved *she sobs in despair*.  I am confident, however, that one day that dissertation will torment me no more, and I will once again embrace the Name of the Rose and all of Eco’s texts as if I were setting my eyes upon them for the very first time.

N.B.  Although I foresee an emotional and happy reunion with the works of Eco, I can safely say that my thesis will remain banished in the furthest pits of hell, where I am sure it wickedly awaits to further torment me on my arrival.

~storytelling nomad~

18 comments on “My love/hate relationship with studying books

  1. “What I find a shame, is how often the forced (and even voluntary) intensive study of a favourite text, can often lead to a subsequent hostility towards it.”

    I think this may be the only situation in which a book can actually make you sick. I had a teacher in high school who specialized in Moby Dick. She hammered it into us for what seemed like months, and her Moby Dick test was legendary (almost nobody got over 60% on it). One question I always remember was that you had to list the nine gams of the Pequod, in order, and describing the significance (her interpretation of the significance, of course) for each one.

    I always avoided Moby Dick after that. Then I realized I was writing a scene of people traveling and I wanted them to encounter a series of other groups of people, similar to the gams of the Pequod, and I had to get a copy of Moby Dick to see how Melville had handled this. It was an effort to open the book, I can tell you.

    Fortunately, we had other teachers who really brought out the wonderful qualities of books. One, a young substitute, always managed to get us interested in the books he was teaching. He was a great teacher, and it gave me a lot of pleasure when Mr. McCourt had tremendous success later in life, as the author of Angela’s Ashes.

    • That’s amazing that you had Frank McCourt as a substitute teacher! How very cool! Actually, it has to be said that the teacher can make all the difference to the learning experience. I was quite lucky with most of my English teachers. There was one tormentor…but there’s always one isn’t there?

      It was an effort to open Moby Dick, but did you enjoy it more when you were reading it for your own benefit (rather than at the hands of what sounds like a terrifying teacher!)?

  2. I feel the same way about a lot of classics. Although, I had a great teacher for Shakespeare and I ended up loving Hamlet. I did get tired of the movie versions because every week we’d go to my prof’s place to watch a different one. (Though I must say, Shakespeare in Russian is awesome.)

    • Shakespeare in Russian eh? Intriguing! As much as I loved my English teacher while we were studying Shakespeare, I just found myself getting bored when we had to stop and start at every line to interpret its meaning, and sadly I think it’s put me off ever since. I do love the stories though, and will happily watch the movie versions ha ;)

  3. My favourite book! Its such a shame when we grow tired of such amazing works. I often that I experience the opposite feelings, the more I get know a work, the more I appreciate it. Some of the texts I studied for my HSC have become my favourites, I had the fortune of studying great texts for the most part to begin with though. Out of curiosity, what was your honours thesis? I can’t help but be intrigued by anything to do with The Name of the Rose.

    • You’re really going to make me go back there aren’t you?! ;)
      It was entitled “A Love Affair with Eco: Seduction and Narrative Desire in Il nome della rosa, Il pendolo di Foucault & L’isola del giorno prima” (I read the books in Italian because I did my Honours through the Italian department), and basically it explored how the themes of Seduction and Narrative Desire contribute to the success of his books, in particular the Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before. From what I remember (I repressed a great deal of it) I talked a lot about the unconventionality of his texts and how he expanded on the traditional notion of the novel whilst still managing to maintain his audience.
      Basically I wrote about why his books were so awesome!

  4. I can’t honestly say that I have ever had the same reaction to a novel as you are describing here, but then again, I also can’t say I have ever truly studied a novel to that extent. I would however just like to remark that you are one of the few people I can say I have ever heard express a love of Umberto Eco, which I must say is very refreshing. I personally love “The Name of the Rose” as well as “Foucault’s Pendulum” and “The Island of the Day Before” and I too think him a master of the craft.

    • It really is an amazing book…as are the other two you mention, which coincidentally were the other two texts I used within my dissertation. I still recognise them to be brilliant pieces of fiction, I’m just sad that I can’t bring myself to read them again…just yet anyhow. Spend two years scrutinising, researching and picking apart a novel, then write 20,000 words on it where you must back up each and every marginally creative or original thought you might have about it, and the result is not pretty. Sigh.

  5. The one book that I was absolutely sick of reading and couldn’t wait to get to the last page was Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. This was assigned high school reading. It was the worst grade I ever received on a test for a book. I eeked by with a high C grade and was never happier to just pass a test.

    None of the details of the book stuck with me except for the overall plot. Nothing about that book was interesting. Years later I wonder if I’d have a different appreciation for the book, but flashbacks of the torturous week I spent arduously moving page by page towards the end come rushing back and I can’t bring myself to revisit it.

    • I’ve never had the pleasure of reading that one…thankfully?! It really is tough getting past the associating memory in order to revisit these books isn’t it?

      • I have read a grand total of none of his works. I feel like I should be embarrassed by this? Maybe I shouldn’t have said that out loud…

      • You didn’t say it out loud, you said it on your blog. :-)

        Seriously, if you want to dip a toe in, my recommendation is to start with a short story or two. He was a better short story writer than a novelist anyway, and his best short stories are as good as any I’ve ever read. “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” there are a lot of good ones. (Some lousy ones, too, but what can you do?)

      • Thank you kindly for the recommendations…I wouldn’t have known where to begin otherwise! Am adding them to my TBR list as we speak…

  6. Honestly, I never read anything else by Hemingway because of “The Old Man and the Sea”. Anthony, I love reading short stories so I will definitely check out one of the titles you mentioned in the near future.

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