Zoe Zolbrod’s 2016 book The Telling is the very last book on my shelf by virtue of the alphabet, but it comes near the top in my reckoning of interesting memoirs. The emotions and consequences attached to her story are present enough, but the intellectual experience of this story is potentially of more importance to Zolbrod. Such an approach renders The Telling almost unique among memoirs.
Since Zolbrod is obviously a deep thinker, I knew she would have considered carefully before deeming a book hateable. What she had to say, unsurprisingly, made me think.
Tell me about books you hate.
The only type of books I know I hate are child-rearing advice books. There might be other categories that I’m capable of hating but have naturally stayed away from for lack of interest, so I can’t tell for sure. I wasn’t able to block out child-advice books. When I had my first baby in 2001, I did what came naturally to me and acquired a bunch of them—reading, research, that’s what I do—which I proceeded to read in snatches of time between nursing my baby and holding him while he screamed and cried. I read enough of them during that period and at other difficult parenting junctures to come to despise them as a group.
In particular, I can’t stand On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep, by Robert Bucknam and Gary Ezzo, and The Baby Book, by William and Martha Sears. They give advice from opposite ends of the spectrum, but they both struck me as equally over-emphatic, condescending, and mechanistic. They’re more interested in elevating themselves above the opposing opinion than in helping a real-life parent with the real-life complexity of child-rearing, and they both seem to implicitly blame parents for any ill temper a baby might display.
Kind of amazing that three of the four authors of those two baby advice books are men. Not that men have nothing to do with raising children, but sheesh.
Exactly! I could write an essay about my antipathy towards child-rearing books. Actually, I started one in my early parenting days that I never finished. Parts of it made its way into The Telling, written ten years later. This topic has gotten deep under my skin.
In researching for the essay, I came across a good book: Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, by Ann Hulbert. She gave me a historical perspective on the issue, demonstrating that emphatic male experts divided into conflicting authoritarian and child-centered camps had been dishing advice to mothers and snark towards each other for over a century, and that their philosophies are more demonstrably influenced by their relationships to their own upbringings than to any scientific fact. So quit trying to ram your ideas down my throat, dudes!
Early parenthood was such an intense, vulnerable, difficult time for me, as it is for many women. My identity was put under pressure, and I felt like these guys were trying to undermine it further by discounting my intellect, my intuition, and my individuality, as well as that of my son.
That is unbelievable. It’s awful when experts allow personal conflicts to influence work that shapes decades of thought about a topic. I think we’re in a knowledge era when the existence and persistence of bias – that it’s literally everywhere, and impossible to erase – is being uncovered.
I’m really interested in this. It applies to political discourse too. There’s got to be a way to acknowledge bias and also acknowledge that there’s value in a mind that’s attempting to be open.
Other than parenting books, is there anything else on your personal chopping block?
For argument’s sake, I’m trying to think what other whole genres of books I might hate given enough exposure, but I’m having a hard time. Sports biographies, since I’m not into sports? But, I actually purchased and enjoyed a hardcover copy of Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, so I know I wouldn’t categorically hate that genre. Books with a heavy Christian inspirational message? But, Joni: An Unforgettable Story, with a forward by Billy Graham, was a favorite of mine in my youth, so that shows it’s possible for me to like books that would be sold in a evangelical seminary bookstore.
There’s also Brazil, by John Updike. I picked it up in Honduras in the early 1990s. I’d run out of my own reading material in a little town, and I found a waterlogged copy of it in one of those two-shelf lending libraries that appear in out-of-the-way guest houses. I haven’t looked at it since, but I was astounded by what seemed to me at the time blunderheaded racial and gender politics. I read on out of sheer disbelief, plus a lack of other material.
I am capable of enjoying writing I deem sexist, especially if I find it sexy. Philip Roth has had his way with me at times. But Brazil struck me as just SO BAD in so many ways. How did it make its way to the world, festooned with those positive blurbs (as I recall)? Well, of course I know how it did. It’s Updike.
The experience increased my cynicism, made me doubt the literary gatekeepers. And maybe, on some level, it made me doubt myself? I read this so long ago, but I was already trying to write across race, and I had identified my own tendency to objectify and exoticize certain “others.” Was I going to be as blinded to my own idiocy as this guy? Wasn’t he at least supposed to be smart?
Gayle and I touched on Updike, too. What bothers me about writers like him is how they transform mysteriously into the elder statesmen of the literary world when so many people dislike their work. I can’t think of a single female novelist as mediocre as Updike who bore so much significance by the end of her life.
I can’t think of an equivalent female novelist either. Joyce Carol Oates? Not in terms of quality, but in terms of being granted honorary status regardless of it.
Have these experiences altered anything about your reading habits? Or your writing?
Even after reading Brazil, I was not dissuaded from writing my novel Currency, which has a handsome male Thai protagonist written from the first-person point of view. But I did try to be as self-aware as possible, and a hard self-critic.
I’ve tried and tried again with child-rearing books. This past year, it was That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week, by Ana Homayoun. Read the whole thing dutifully. Hated it. I should know better, but here’s the thing about parenting: it’s so easy to second-guess yourself when things aren’t going well, and if someone urges a book on you as a path to a solution, it’s hard to refuse.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
Yes, I threw a bound literary journal across the room late at night around 1994. I was reading an article about Russian translation—was that it?—and was too drunk to understand it. I’d been out at a show and had had a heavy flirtation with someone there, and the truth is, reading academic material not what I wanted to be doing. As it happened, the person called me a few minutes later.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
Drop City by T.C. Boyle was recommended to me by several people recently when I put out a query for books about communes and off-the-gridders. I loved it and pressed it on my husband, who’s had his nose in it since.
I also recently read a good nonfiction book along those lines: The Unsettlers, by Mark Sundeen. I want all my friends to read it so we can talk about it. Most people I know are concerned about equity, about the environment, about how to live a good life, and The Unsettlers raises fascinating questions about what that might mean. How far are any of us really willing to go?
Do you keep books or give them away?
Both. I can’t comfortably fit many more books into my house, but I still want to buy them. I have to cull on a regular basis to get room for more. I usually give them away.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. At moments I love it. The writing! The imagination on display! But I am not as swept away as I was when I read it for the first time around when it came out in 1989. I find myself thinking of it more analytically, wondering if she could have trimmed more, whether that would have weakened or strengthened the book.