Tasteless

I think I’ve started to lose my taste. For years, I’ve prided myself on having good taste in books. I have carved my reading material up into different categories and congratulated myself on the breadth and diversity of my appetite as the kind of reader who enjoys serious writers, but still relishes the cheap thrills of crime fiction I buy at the grocery store, the authors and titles calling out to me in their raised metallic fonts. Most of the time, I even manage to eschew academic guilt, notwithstanding occasional backsliding into insecurity and pretension, like the other night, when I was mortified to hear myself telling some poor woman at my book club about how I stumbled across Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo at the grocery store, almost a year before it became the companion of commuters and flyers all over the world, as though that extra year made my devouring of the Millennium Trilogy any smarter or hipper than the rest of the herd.

I’ve marked my life out in books, keeping track of my childhood with memories of reading Little Women, the naughty thrill of finding Henry Miller in my local library when I was 15 and, later in life, my awe over the sheer beauty of Toni Morrison’s prose. An anxious and serious child, I kept to a strict diet of the classics, spent my teens with dead white males who wrote “great novels” and made my way through my 20s by reading in every niche Postmodernism has to offer.

However, as time goes on, my taste has becoming increasingly idiosyncratic, almost curmudgeonly, probably the sad result of rejecting objective truth or getting older. (There should be t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “Teenagers! Enjoy your J.D. Salinger and Sylvia Plath now, while you still know everything.”) Admittedly, this is ridiculous for a woman in her early 30s with so many classics sitting on her shelf with accusing eyes (yes, yes — I haven’t forgotten you’re there Middlemarch and War and Peace). Books are no longer being divided into good or bad and serious or fun. Instead they are now enjoyed and quickly forgotten, a category which includes many worthy well-written books that really should have stuck with me longer, and books that, while not always enjoyable, have stuck with me. When someone asks me how I liked The Kite Runner, a beautiful book that I thoroughly enjoyed while I was reading it, my eyes glaze over. But, if you want to talk about Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna or A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, the lengthy, difficult and, at times, uneven tomes I spent the last month with, I could talk all day long. The Lacuna was an assignment for my book club and I found myself in the uncomfortable position of having to account for why I persevered through all 600-plus pages when most of them had given up somewhere in the first third of the book. (Finishing the book is, surprisingly, not always an asset with book clubs.)

“It’s amazing! How do you find the time,” they ask me, a hint of disapproval lingering in their eyes as they lean back to take a defiant sip of wine.

They always want to know how I can devote so much of my life to books that are, frankly, difficult and frustrating or boring or mediocre. These questions aren’t about smarts; my fellow book club members are insightful, clever readers who can read Booker Prize winners with the best of them and tackled the difficult issues in The Kite Runner with grace and sensitivity.

No, this is about my loss of “good” taste. I finished Kingsolver, despite the remote protagonist and lengthy passages that were uncomfortable to read because the language is so beautiful and she was giving me something I had never seen before. I soldiered through Byatt because I admired the scope of her ambition, the huge cast of characters and broad view of history she tried, and sometimes failed, to convey. I’m becoming hopelessly lost in details, bowled over by a beautiful phrase, a perfectly realized conversation or a writer’s amazing audacity to try something new. As I work my way through this minutiae, I think I might have lost the forest for the leaves on the trees. I’ve certainly lost the ability to talk easily about whether I liked a book or thought it was good. Nowadays, my highest praise is that a book has gotten under my skin.

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