That One Particular Hardback

Taste is a peculiar thing. Let me just say this and then launch into my anecdote:

When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I grabbed a book in one of those sales tables. I bought this book, although I instantly disliked it. It was a proper book, bound in a fabric-y cover and all of that, which was probably the only reason I had for disliking it the moment I bought it (I’m devoted to paperbacks, you should know). Other reasons surfaced later: The reader’s guilt it gave me by just sitting on my shelf was one and also the fact that it was a translation. Translations themselves don’t bother me much, although of course it is never the same as reading the original and blah blah, but this one had a really clumsily translated title. I can’t remember the title as such, but I remember looking at the original title on one of the first pages on the left, you know – where they have the copyrights and first published and all that -, thinking ‘Oh dear’. Clearly, both the English-language author and publisher had thought to market the book as classy literature – a cryptic title, existential themes; somehow, German publishers did not. You know when you can tell by title’s font what kind of readers they want to attract? Well, these people clearly wanted leisurely readers without high expectations or knowledge of literature as an art form or academic pursuit.

After about half a year, I read this book. It was a short book and I finished it quickly – this was still at the time when I finished every book I started, out of principle (a habit that is incredibly hard to overcome, my struggles continue). There’s not much I can say to you about this book, except that there must have been a rather solitary male character at the centre of the narrative, and the only other thing I can remember is the description of a residential road in minute detail. Of course, it has been years. But nonetheless, still today I can feel the impression that I had just read a truly bad book like a bitter taste in my mouth (this analogy or whatever they call it did not work out, soz for that).

Now, (I’ll finally get on to my point, sorry again for the delay) imagine my astonishment when I turned the page (onto the ‘About the author’ section) to find out that this guy had won the Nobel Prize for Literature! I have no yet decided whether I will tell you the name of this writer, I feel it might be better not to.

Right in that moment, part of me decided that one should not trust in prizes ever again. It was a natural reaction, a reflex almost. I had just aged about three years in that one quick moment. Books where my life then, my sole purpose. Not as a writer, but as a reader. But I was young. I knew nothing and I knew that. ‘Great literature’ was something I respected, looked up to, and I trusted in time and prizes (Nobel, Pulitzer, Man Booker) to reveal what would be good literature, and what would be trivia. This judgement did not impact my choice of books, I read them both regardless, but I read them differently.

But there was also that other part of me that did not come to this conclusion. Instead of losing total trust in those literary institutions, I lost a little bit of trust in my own judgement. Clearly, this was great literature and there was something wrong with me that I could not appreciate it.

Maybe I should add some context: Although I might have been young, I knew what a good book was. I also knew what a bad book was. I had many examples for both. By this point, I had even read War & Peace from cover to cover (I had enjoyed it, although I did not pronounce it my favourite book of all times – I found the war bits to be too lengthy but interesting; and the peace bits entertaining but too dull). Books had made me cry and laugh and despair at times. I had developed an acquired taste, I knew what I wanted in a book: I wanted it to make me think, at least, and feel something (really, anything!), at best. By this time I had accepted that some of the books I enjoyed most were not necessarily enjoyable to read, although I still did not find faults in books that were enjoyable.

If you now ask me the more significant of those two reactions to this one particular book moment, I would definitely argue it is the second one. We lose faith in institutions and external beliefs all the time, whether it is the concept of Santa being real or the effectiveness of our government or whether we finally realise we will never need most of what we learned in school. This is normal. It is healthy, even. It prompts change, improvement. The other sentiment is less beneficial. Losing confidence in yourself is no small matter, and its consequences can be catastrophic.

So please, please have faith in your taste. You can only ever like the things you like. And regardless of what you yourself and others might tell you (including me!!): Your taste is just as valuable as anyone else’s. NO ONE HAS ‘SUPERIOR TASTE’. And if you think about it, concepts like ‘good taste’ and ‘bad taste’ are cultural constructs and don’t even exist. There’s only ‘your taste’ and ‘his taste’ and ‘her taste’ (and, of course, ‘my taste’, which is the best of them all!) – even an ‘our taste’ and ‘their taste’ cannot truly describe anything real.

B x

P.S. You might have noticed I have decided not to reveal the author’s name, cheeky me.

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