Am I My Own Worst Reading Enemy?

Reading Enemy

Thinking critically about what we read is important, but can we do ourselves (and our enjoyment) a disservice by thinking too much? It’s a question that picks at me quite often, particularly this year. I thought getting it on paper would point me toward answers, but all I seem to have are more questions. Maybe we can wade through them together.

Last week I finished reading Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss and, while I loved the novel at the start, my focus on a particular aspect of the book started to shift my opinion about halfway through. One of the main characters has synesthesia, which allows a person to experience multiple senses in connection with one another (sounds as colors, hearing words as tastes, etc). I’m by no means an expert on synesthesia, but I am familiar and was frustrated by the seemingly unrealistic way it was used to move the novel’s plot. My reaction is somewhat irrational, since synesthesia is a phenomenon and can vary in ways that researchers still haven’t identified, but I’ve never heard of the condition simply disappearing and reappearing the way it does in the book, even when I looked for examples. As much as I still enjoyed the writing, it was very hard for me to feel engaged with the novel from that point on.

I want to question what I read and make sure I’m not taking everything at face value, but I also want to enjoy (at least some of) what I’m reading. Where’s the balance? As a reader, is it my responsibility to give my brain some chill and learn to move on after going into critical thinking mode? Or should I expect books to be good enough that these distractions are just bumps in the road? I know I’ve had reading experiences where bits and pieces made me stop and reassess, but I was riveted enough to keep reading and enjoying. I just wish I knew if it was my own mindset or the book itself that pushed me along.


  • I think it’s a highly individualized issue. I was swept away by Tuesday Nights and did not question anything about the validity of the synesthesia aspects of the plot. In the same way, there are those who did not like A Little Life because they felt the abuse plot line was such that there was no way Jude could not only function in society he could be a highly successful lawyer. Maybe it’s the quality of the writing for you and Tuesday Nights didn’t reach it?

    Whatever tiny portion of the brain it is, we each have something that we’ll forgive in our reading. Plus, for me, there is a big difference between reading for pleasure and reading for review.

    • Oh, I definitely agree that people will react to books differently based on our own experiences, background, etc. I think I’m just hung up on how much I should let my reactions distract me/if I should try not to let little things like that throw me off.

      I was thinking about A Little Life, actually. There was something about that book that let me roll right along with things, even though I knew so much of what I was reading was unbelievable. I guess that’s a case of the book itself doing the work as it should.

  • I think I’m likelier to be more critical if I’m not enjoying a book that much in the first place. For one thing. And for another — I like to know that the author put thought and effort into creating the book, and that they didn’t handwave important stuff in service of what they wanted to have happen. Does that make sense? Like if I am going to be deliberate about choosing what to read (and I am), then I want the authors of the books I’m reading to have been deliberate about making them.

    With something like this, I think it would bug me a lot and pull me out of the story. I would think, you didn’t have to give your character synesthesia, author, but since you chose to do so, you now should live with that choice and work it into the fabric of the story. Not just when it’s convenient but always.

    I am also a noted curmudgeon, though, so. What do I know.

    • “and that they didn’t handwave important stuff in service of what they wanted to have happen.” Yes, this exactly! I think it really does tend to bother me most when the plot centers on unnecessary tweaking.

  • Oh man…I can see how this frustrated you. I don’t know anything about synesthesia and I’m venturing many people don’t, so wouldn’t be bothered by the inaccuracies/unrealistic pieces in the book. But, this has happened to me before and, like you, it kind of colored the entire book for me. it was The Vacationers by Emma Straub and she mentioned some number of laps of a pool equaling a mile and her number was outrageously wrong. I couldn’t get over my annoyance. But, most readers wouldn’t notice something like that….it just happened I was a swimmer.

    And – I do think I’ve become way more critical in my reading since I started blogging. I think I used to notice way less than I do now…or maybe just let way more wash over me than I do now :)

    • I think you’re probably right that blogging is a contributor, too. I don’t think it’s because I’m reviewing, necessarily, but that I’m just reading so much more and seem to expect more from what I read.

  • I’m not familiar with synesthesia, but I can certainly identify with your frustration. I realized a while ago that my “criticism” has changed and become more focused and intense over the years; I think that partly comes from blogging and partly because I’ve read some exceptional books in the past that were very well researched. With that, I really don’t feel that I truly “enjoy” books like I used to, but I think part of that comes from wanting that bit of realism in my fiction. I want to believe that whatever it is can really happen. When it comes to something, such as synesthesia, that is real, I want the author to research thoroughly and give the best that he or she can give. I, too, want to take what they offer at more than just face value.

    • I really do think reading SO many great books is a factor – it definitely ups the game and makes you expect more!

  • Word-tasting synesthete here! I’ve never noticed it going away, per se, but I do think my experience of it can shift depending on how much I’m thinking about the fact that I’m experiencing taste sensations when I say, hear or think of certain words. Anyway, just some fun anecdata for ya.

    I am SO with you on trying to balance critical thought and enjoyment of my reading. I feel like this tends to be easy with nonfiction, because there are concrete ways we can confirm or dispute the information we’re taking in, but it’s a whole ‘nother ballgame with fiction, especially when you’re getting into genres like sci-fi/spec-fic and historical fiction that tend to borrow from but also bend reality. I don’t have a satisfying answer for you in terms of how to combat it, but I just wanted to let you know I’m right there with you.

    • So, in this book his synesthesia disappeared after a traumatic event and then reappeared when around a specific person which just seemed…way too convenient. I’m sure it’s not impossible, but it just nagged at me because urghhh, I’m crazy.

  • Oh man, I can so relate to this, the whole latching on to something not terribly realistic and then letting it color my view of the book as a whole. I drive myself crazy with it sometimes! (Umm okay, a lot of the time!)

  • Oh, gosh, this is such a tough situation; as a history major, there are books and movies that I just CAN NOT read/watch because I already know that the story is so far from the truth – ugh. In addition, now that I’m a clinical professional in a hospital, there are stories that include medical information, like this one, that is tough to take when it’s inaccurately portrayed. I try not to get too caught up in it but it can be a challenge for me, as well.

    • Sometimes it’s a pain to have background information! It would make enjoying reading a little easier to be clueless ;)

  • Jennine G.

    I know what you mean. I think it depends. Like, I have a hard time with magical realism, especially when it’s not worked well into the story. My mind finds all these hard to swallow elements and rejects the story. However, if the story supports the element of magical realism well from the start, then I’m okay because my brain gets the mindset “this is how it is.”

    When misuse of some information is so obvious, that bugs me too, but again, I think it varies from reader to reader based on what they know. I found out after reading The Da Vinci Code that many of the “facts” of the real life setting were manipulated to make the symbolism and such in the story work. Only bothered me a little after I found out, but I also figured it’s just a page turner type story, so I could live with it.

    • I think you’re right that it really depends on what the reader knows AND what type of book it is. There are some books where I’m more forgiving and others where I expect better.

  • I totally think this happens to all of us with certain books. I used to feel this way about many books I read, and I have begun “self-coaching” if you will, prior to reading most books. I close my eyes and tell myself I am here for the ride the author meant me to have and it is my responsibility to figure that out and then decide if it is enjoyable to me or not. IDK, that probably sounds crazy, but I believe it helps me to simply sink into the book and enjoy the journey more often than I might do otherwise…

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  • Elena

    I can be enjoying a novel, and then comes the very common misogynist comment or idea and that’s killed the novel for me. I always joke that feminism has taken away the joy of reading and watching TV and movies for me, it has also made me over-critical of some aspects of life… But I’d like to think all these changes and over-thinking are for the better, and they make us better people. However, I do need my escape every once in a while, and I have even watched stupid shows like ‘Candidly Nicole’ and the like to unplug and just… be.

    Do you have any way in which you let out steam?

  • I agree with Catherine that it’s an issue issue. There are things that render me unable to take off my critical hat. And it’s funny how one small item can change your mindset that way. For me, it can be an issue in the plot or a stylistic point. I read one book where the author talked about how everything smelled. Every. Damn. Thing. I ended up hate reading to the only only to count the odor references. In the current book I’m reading, the author describes a characters hair as ombre every single f’ing time it’s mentioned. WHY? Do you mention someone’s blonde or brown hair every time? It drove me nuts. But I’ll tell you what’s really becoming my worst enemy – my reviewer’s hat. It is really starting to take all the enjoyment out of reading and I think I’m going to put that hat on a rack soon. This is a great topics and has so many branches I think we could talk about it all day.

  • I love this post so much. The other commenters have pretty much covered off on anything more substantive than that, but thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this.