Coup de Grace, or The Book That Killed a Friendship

April 27, 2010

After my recent rapid fire reviews a couple of people (Hi Jenny!  Hi Jodie!) commented they were sorry I hadn’t enoyed a book I’d heard about on their blog as much as they did.  I have been noticing “sorrys” in the comments section of a lot of other blogs.  My own attitude when this happens is along the lines of a cheerful, “That’s the breaks, toots!  Better luck next time!”

Which–unless it is by an author whose other work has raised my expectations–is pretty much what I tell myself when I don’t like a book.

I know the “sorry” is a conveys mild regret, and not a feels culpability.  It still makes me a little nervous.  Did you really want me to like that book?  If so, I’m sorry!  I didn’t know.  Maybe I should have tried harder?

It’s gratifying when someone likes the same books I do, but I don’t hope for it.  The reasons not to like a book are personal and myriad; the reasons to like it are more limited and categorical.  With a few peculiar books, the set of reasons one might have la Grande Passion for it is pretty small, so people who LOVE that book THE MOST will almost certainly have some things in common, but because that set is so small, the odds are against it–unless you are a hard-core Middle Earther.

Yes, I’d be disappointed if you read Fudoki because I’d reviewed it, then wrote a scathing, irritable review showing you’d ignored all the subtleties I’d pointed out, and hated it for reasons I felt were trumped-up and capricious.  But I wouldn’t feel regret on your behalf.  A seed of doubt would be planted as to whether I ought to trust your judgement on other books, as you are clearly such a different kind of reader from me, but I wouldn’t be sorry in any sense of the word.

Short of that, if you don’t like a book I reviewed, I’ll just be flattered my review was enough to get you to read it and interested to hear what you think.

Or, when you write a positive review, does it feel like a personal recommendation?

Personal recommendations are different.  I still wouldn’t call it regret, but there is a feeling of going out on a limb which, naturally, if that limb gets sawn off, could smart a bit.  I would say it is a good pain.  It’s an aspect of learning what other people see in books, or don’t, which is a back-door way of learning about people-who-read in general.  And . . . guess what?  You fascinate me.  (Hi everybody!  Half of you don’t know who you are, because I’ve never commented on your blogs!)

I can only think of one kind of pain associated with personal book recommendations that isn’t worthwhile.

When I was in college, there was a boy.  (Yes, yes.  Not that story.  It’s about a book.)  Actually, there were a lot of boys, but this boy was the first who seemed capable of the kind of intellectual/artistic friendship I’d expected to find laid out on a smorgasbord when I got to school.  (These friendships simply don’t exist outside Iris Murdoch novels, certainly not at Christian liberal arts colleges, even when said Christian liberal arts college is the kind that attracts Earnest Baby Intellectuals).  The boy was an acolyte of Wordsworth, the New England transcendentalists, and Dostoyevsky.  We had idea talks.  He interrupted me a lot.

Actually, he interrupted me constantly.  Once I got so frustrated I raised my voice at him to stop it.  Something I never do.  It didn’t help.

In the course of our talks, based on my growing understanding of his taste in ideas, I realized that a novel I had recently enjoyed would be the kind of thing he would really, really like–even more than I had liked it.  I suspected it would be La Grande Passion for him.  So I happily told him about it.

A month or two later when we talked again (it was the kind of friendship where you have three-hour talks, weeks apart), he started telling me about this really, really great book he’d read.  Yes, it was the same book I’d recommended, and I’d been absolutely right about how much he would love it, but he had completely forgotten I had recommended it to him.

At that point I could have stopped him and and said, “Hey, I’ve read that.  In fact, I’m the one who told YOU to read it!”–but I didn’t.  I was nineteen.  I smiled and listened to his rapturous (Self-absorbed?  Or is that hindsight?) description, and tried not to feel like dirt.  I had introduced him to the Book That Changed His Life, and now he was telling me to read it.  It wouldn’t have been such a stinging slap in the face if he had just liked it.  But he had love, love, loved it.

Let’s just step back for a minute.  If I had never read Jane Eyre, and you told me about it, and I read it; I would remember you years later, not just months.  I would remember you fondly when I could no longer remember what day of the week it was or my own birthday.  This is why, although I don’t post links (I would never get anything posted at all, if I tried to post comprehensive links), I do try to marshal my scribbly paper scraps and the contents of my fleece-stuffed brain-pan and mention the blog reviews that led me to a given book–and my sincere apologies when I fail in this.

As for the boy–let’s call him the Head-Messer–it was the beginning of the end.  I didn’t officially end the friendship until a year later, when a large amorphous betrayal was revealed on the heels of all the little amorphous betrayals, but the Book That Changed His Life was what first opened my eyes to him.  He was a people-collector; I was an unusual specimen.  Or, to be more charitable: he was complicated, he liked to have a lot of friends, and I just wasn’t the kind of friend that required his close attention.

You know how people tend to get crushes on heartless jerks who are just a little bit more physically attractive than they are?  The same is true of Murdochian friendships.  People seek them with confident intellectuals who are just a little bit smarter than everyone else.  The Head-Messer never had any trouble surrounding himself in a swarm.

I wasn’t the only bug to struggle free of the specimen box.  One day, when I was studying in the empty dining hall, a girl plunked herself down at my table, said, “You’re friends with X, aren’t you?” and proceeded to tell me my own story of the Head-Messer.  It was her story as well.  The only thing missing was the book.  I didn’t know this girl except as a friendly acquaintance–she was a year behind me–and until that day I had no idea she had been one of the Head-Messer’s friends.  A lot of us former specimens were like that, girls and boys both.  We weren’t quite sure what had happened.  None of us liked to talk about it.

At the time I was on my way out of the country for a year.  I was embarrassed enough by the girl’s confidences that I failed to recognize them as an overture of friendship.  I never really talked to her again.  I wish I had.  We probably would have liked a lot of the same books.  This is one of my regrets.


21 Responses to “Coup de Grace, or The Book That Killed a Friendship”

  1. Aarti said

    This is a FABULOUS post! It really made me think. I do often say sorry to express mild regret when someone dislikes a book (especially if it’s one I enjoyed), but I am really happy when someone loves a book that I love and I’d say I’m even RAPTUROUS when someone reads a book I loved *because* I said I loved it, and then they loved it, too.

    I think if I were to personally recommend a book to someone, then I would also want that person to recognize it was *me* who gave him the Life-Changing Book Recommendation. But sometimes, on blogs, it’s harder as there are so many to follow and it’s hard to track who recommends what.

    Why the tea party graphic?

    • trapunto said

      It looks like an abandoned conversation to me.

      I agree its hard to keep track. I really need to buy a notebook. There’s something about sitting at the computer that makes it SO HARD to pick up a pen and write stuff down, and so easy just to get into the online library catalog and put a hold on a book.

  2. zibilee said

    How horrible about the people-collector. I wonder if I would have been able to recognize it if it had happened to me. It sounds like it was a very uncomfortable position to be in.

    I am often a bit sad when people hate the books I love and feel somewhat guilty that I gave them a bad recommendation, but that being said, I just get all giddy when someone loves a book that I have recommended to them, or have read because I loved it. I don’t necessarily think about why I have these reactions, I just know I feel them at a gut level.

    Incredibly erudite post, I really enjoyed it!

    • trapunto said

      I suspect everyone who got collected figured it out after college if not during.

      Yes, very uncomfortable. For years I couldn’t even remember it without flinching. Though my official breaking-off of the friendship was very final and freeing–I rode a train the length of England in a state of near euphoria–it had changed me.

      I am sad when people don’t appreciate trees, or gleefully chop them down for no reason, so I understand how some reactions happen on a gut level. Do you always think it’s the fault of the recommendation, when it doesn’t hit the mark? They might have just had a case of indigestion when they read it!

  3. Jeanne said

    You say this so well.

    I’d like my online book-loving friends to act more like my real-life friends, who have much more of the “tough luck, toots!” attitude. We do have to be careful online, because we don’t know each other that well. But we don’t really get to know each other if we’re all careful and polite and afraid of offending all the time.

    I invite anyone who reads this to look for an opportunity to tell me I’m wrong…because if you don’t do it, who will?

    As Indiana Jones says in The Last Crusade, “only the penitent man shall pass.” Heh. My low culture offering there.

    • trapunto said

      “But we don’t really get to know each other if we’re all careful and polite and afraid of offending all the time.”

      Concise as usual, King Friday!

      (Now, whenever I read one of your comments I can’t help thinking, “composition and rhetoric.”)

  4. Jodie said

    Ok so I am not entirely sure why I say sorry when a book I really like and told someone about (but not in an I know you and you would like this book, personal rec kind of way) doesn’t work out for them. I just do. I feel like it has soemthing to do with the fact that like many book bloggers I don’t know a lot of avid readers in real life. In my experience if you give a book to someone who doesn’t read a lot (say because they asked for a book to borrow) and they hate it you are in for a world of guilt. You have stolen time that they could have used to go and do something more worthwhile. They are apparenty totally confirmed in their dislike of all books. I mean this is all implied by what they say and how they talk about books afterwards, rather than said outloud right to your face, but it is rather loudly implied if that makes sense.

    I think I haven’t quite made the mental leap yet to knowing people who will quite happily spend their time seeing whether a book is good or bad (will sometimes read a book because they very much expect it will be bad if the Twilight conversations are anything to go by) because that is their preferred form of leisure. So when a book blogger says they didn’t enjoy a book I praised I tend to feel a bit guilty for directing them to something that I think ahs wasted their time.

    As for your Headmesser guy he sounds like a right piece of work. Not exactly a listener, more na absorber, a sponge soaking up everything around him and then claiming it as his own. I bet his opinions can all be found written down somewhere by much cleverer people. Do you ever find that people forget more about you than you do about them?

    • trapunto said

      I know what you mean about giving books to people who are not big readers. I wonder if there is one perfect book for everyone, to unlock their inner reader? It *feels* like there *ought* to be.

      But if someone is confirmed in their dislike of all books by ONE book they didn’t like, they are just silly. Next time you should bean them on the head with the book, tie them to a chair while they are unconscious, and prop it on the table in front of them, to taunt them with when they come to. *Then* they can say they hate books.

      You can see my thoughts in the comment below, regarding time wastage.

      “Do you ever find that people forget more about you than you do about them?”

      Oh, I hope and pray so.

      Very astute, about the sponginess. Did you know a Head-Messer?

      • Jodie said

        Oh yes, but my relationship with him was all based on looks unlike yours – he was just a little (well ok a lot) better looking than me. There were some uncomfortable conversations with his flatmate at the time as we both came to realise that we had both had essentially the same relationship with him.

        There should be that one book and I think it’s out there, but many people don’t have the time (or say they don’t) to investigate it even if you magically find it and point it out. Just different priorities I guess, but I wish people wouldn’t frame not wanting to make the time to read as a dislike of books, or making better use of their time. Perhaps when they start in on that again I should make use of your suggestion (I’m thinking of using a really scary sounding book to complement the expereince of being tied to a chair);)

  5. Jenny said


    When someone reads a book because I wrote about it, and then they don’t like it, I start thinking of all the (better) books they could have been reading, and how if I’d just said This book is best read at age ten or eleven or so, they might have not wasted their time. I don’t mind that they didn’t like it, I just start thinking of all the caveats I should have hedged my positive review about with to have saved them the time and unenthralling reading experience. (About with to have – that’s a terrible sentence!)

    Also, I apologize for everything. I’m a guilt sinkhole. 😛

    • trapunto said

      Oh noooooo! So it *was* a “feels culpability”!

      Jodie also brings up wasted time. I see I am missing something big, here. Put it down to personal weirdness. When I read, I enter book-time. In book-time, there is no sense of real-time. It doesn’t subtract from the total span of my life. It is like going to Narnia: in Narnia you have no control over how time will flow in the real world while you’re gone, and you have no control over when you’ll get back, so there’s no point worrying about it.

      Also, although I prefer reading books I like a lot; I like reading books I like a little. Got that? A YA or children’s novel goes down in one gulp, so when one isn’t what I expected, it’s a bit like realizing I got a cherry cream instead of a chocolate caramel after I’ve just thrown the whole thing and in my mouth and bitten down. Maybe some people would be terribly disappointed (like, if they were on a diet), or even spit it out (I would spit out a coffee liquer), but I just eat it up and reach back into the chocolate box.

      Plus, I enjoy seeing how Susan Cooper plies her pen, and thinking about why she has such a following. So there was always that to interest me when I was less than totally wrapped up in the story.

      Chomp, chomp.

      I didn’t realize you had originally read King of Shadows when you were a kid.

      • Jenny said

        I wasn’t a kid kid – I think it was around eighth grade that I read it. By then I was starting to discover that suicide was, you know, an actual thing that happened in actual life, and people in real life thought about and attempted suicide, and that was something I would have to deal with. So I expect it resonated with me particularly at that time for that reason.

        It was only a small “feels culpability”; I know I didn’t tie you down and make you read it. I feel more culpability the more concerted and targeted an effort I make to get someone to read something. I lobbied for months and months to get this one friend of mine to read the Chronicles of Narnia, and I felt really guilty when she ended up hating them.

  6. Nymeth said

    I’ve been meaning to comment on this excellent, excellent post for ages – better late than never, right? I know I’ve said sorry before, but I won’t anymore. My “sorry” does express mild regret, mostly in the sense that I wanted to share the experience *I* had with the book with that person and lament that this wasn’t possible – but in a no-guilt-nor-blame sort of way. There’s also an element of “oh well, on to the next great book” in there, but of course this is much better expressed by words less loaded than “sorry”. So thank you for making me realise that.

    Also, how could anyone possibly hate Fudoki?! 😛

    • trapunto said

      Lament is a lovely word. I don’t hear it enough.

      About Fudoki. *I* don’t know. I was searching for a watertight example of an unhateable book. But people are always surprising me… I’ll take a guess: It happens in Japan. The protagonist was old. It didn’t make sense. It was boring. It was too long. It skipped around in time. There wasn’t enough magic. There was too much magic.

  7. I’m so sorry people say sorry you didn’t enjoy it. couldn’t resist!

    I think like Nymeth I’m bummed we can’t share the experience of the book. I certainly don’t take blame, but I generally prefer for people to like things than not to like them. I’ll try to be more creative in my expression in the future. (like, I’m bummed your taste isn’t as good as mine? or it sucks you obviously couldn’t appreciate this the way I did? JUST KIDDING!!!!)

    In any case this is a very interesting post!

    • trapunto said

      Thank you for stopping by my blog. Oh, I like “I’m bummed your taste isn’t as good as mine.” This concept needs an abbreviation.

      TBYTS (Too bad your taste sucks.)

      or how about, TPYAB (‘Tis pity you’re a boor.)

  8. Care said

    I love the reminder that there is ‘no wasted time’. We are all on a path that prior choices put us on – does that sound too new-agey? I love the analysis part of why I love or dislike a book, but I also don’t trust my feelings so I get very confused. How could I ever take credit or blame for anybody else’s feelings on a book!? GREAT POST. You are insightful and a terrific writing style.

    • trapunto said

      Aw shucks. I am embarrassed not to have replied to such a kind comment sooner.

      That doesn’t sound New Agey. Or rather, *everything* sounds New Agey now that the New Age has come and gone. I’ll bet people in the early 20th century fretted about whether they sounded Victorian or not, whenever they were trying to be sincere.

  9. Care said

    *have*… a terrific writing style.


  10. readersguide said

    Ha! the story of the Head-messer made me think of a book to recommend to you, which is the Secret History by Donna Tartt. I read it years ago, but I sort of remember it being about intense college friendships and head messing. I know that experience so well, and I am so glad not to be 19 anymore.

    • trapunto said

      Thanks for the recommendation. It was a good guess, because I started the Secret History about a month ago thinking it was just the sort of book I would like . . . and had to put it away after the first couple of chapters because I could tell it was going to torture me. I too was a West coaster who went Back East to a hothouse private college. I need to wait another ten years to enjoy this one, I’m afraid!

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