Feeling foolish, or the nagging feeling you read it wrong

Late last summer, I caught a podcast with Dave Iztkoff, the author of Mad as Hell: The Making of ‘Network’ and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. The book sounded awesome: well-researched, smart, dishy and right in my wheelhouse. Showing uncharacteristic discipline, I waited until it came out in paperback last month and ordered it immediately.


I finished it last night and, well, it was…good. It was well-researched. It was smart. And dishy. But it also was kind of just OK. Reflecting on it, I can’t really point to any reason why the book didn’t meet my expectations. In substance, it was exactly what I thought it would be, but in experience it was not the book I wanted. Were my expectations too high? Was I the book I was looking for not the book Iztkoff wrote? Did I read it wrong?

This led me to thinking about the other ways that I’ve left a book feeling let down or left out. I’d consider myself an above average reader; it’s rare that I don’t “get” what it seems an author is trying to do or say. But, I admit, I’ve finished (or, on rare occasions, quit) books feeling like I absolutely missed something.

In my experience, there are four indications that I possibly read a book incorrectly:

  1. “What’s the big deal?” – A common iteration of a fairly uncommon, to me, phenomenon. This is when something has been critically acclaimed and/or heavily buzzed about, but leaves me feeling indifferent. When I would classify a book as “fine” or “ok” when everyone else seems to love it, I’m happy to chalk it up to my possibly reading it wrong. Wrong mood, wrong time, wrong reader. Whatever.
  2. “What is going on?” – In my earlier reading days, I found this happening more often. And not for the reasons you’d likely assume. I once thought I’d really enjoy sci-fi or fantasy genre books. I loved Star Wars and comic books. My friends loved Tolkien and such. Many titles I picked up in these genres were impenetrable or operated on some internal logic that I couldn’t grasp. I’ve since improved my book selection process to largely avoid these genres and, as such, have largely improved my reading experiences. While I probably have gotten better as a reader, I’ve certainly gotten better at selecting books for my tastes. Not every good book is for every good reader.
  3. “I know I’m missing something…” – This is the most common way my feelings that I’ve read something wrong are manifested. It is not infrequent that I’ll read some dense or challenging literary fiction and just know I’m missing something, some vital allusions or call-backs to a classic work that would enrich my reading of the story, but which isn’t required for me to understand the text. This results in something like the following conversation

    THEM: “I loved how the main character’s journey mirrored the Odyssey”

    ME: “Uh. It did?”

I know I have a ton of classic literature blind spots. This kind of thing at one time would make me feel foolish (hence my giving up the ghost on ever being a book snob). Now, I just take the stance that there are JUST. SO. MANY. books I’ll never read. I do my best then move on to the next one.

  1. “This is not the book I thought I was going to get.” – This is what apparently happened with Mad as Hell. I went into reading it with a set of expectations for not only what would be contained within the book, but also for how those contents would make me feel. When expectations are high, this can be unfair to the book…actually, unfair to me. The book is the book. It’s up to me to read it for what it is. If I do, I’ll appreciate it for what it is.

Life’s too short and there are too many terrific books out there for me to worry too long about reading a book incorrectly. Challenging myself and being adventurous in my reading will lead me to picking up the wrong books for me from time to time. To limit myself to only those that I know I’ll get completely would cut off entire continents from the world of books. Why dream of doing that?

I’d be a fool.

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