Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Girl Who Read Stieg Larsson

Back in 2004, when pretty much everyone on the planet was reading Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, I made a conscious decision to not read the book. I didn't care that I would be left out of countless conversations surrounding the book, and I didn't mind that I was not a part of a universe-wide literary experience. I had no doubt in my mind: the novel couldn't possible be worth reading. My conviction was based on a very random selection of personal prejudice, pride and book-snobbery. I have made similar decisions regarding the Harry Potter series, as well as anything written by Paulo Coelho. If I hadn't already read Milan Kundera, I would have added him to the list as well. I know that these authors don't have all that much in common - some are critical as well as popular success stories, others not. To me, they are all suspicious because they have a cult following.

With The Da Vinci Code, I received confirmation regarding my doubts. My then-neighbour, a professor of Russian literature (whose opinion I would blindly trust any day), told me that he had had similar reservations, but he had read the book anyway. It was horrible, he said, and we went on to discuss the sad state of popular literature. Ever since, I have wondered what makes certain books popular, and if popularity can be a bad thing. Clearly, in my head at least, it is.

A week ago I got to talking about Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy with Chris's sister and her husband. I had read a couple of articles about Larsson, and of course, I knew that his books occupied number-one-spots in the Bestseller lists everywhere. I had also read positive reviews, but because of the intense, universal fan base, I had almost already decided not to read anything he had written. It hit me, in the midst of the conversation, that I hadn't had a chance to talk about a shared literary experience with anyone for a while. I realised that my dedication to reading obscure authors, graphic novels and Russian classics was hindering me from staying on the bandwagon of what other people read, and what they have to say about the world of literature today. Who was I to question the positive opinions of others? Why on earth would I let my prejudice run wild when people all over the world were falling in love with authors I, in my persistant snobbery, would avoid like the plague? All of a sudden, reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seemed like a great idea, and I was going to love it. I grabbed a copy on Wednesday, and finished reading the book last night. Now more than ever, I am left wondering what makes a book popular. I haven't got an answer.

Reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo reminded me of drinking a cup of tea at a gas station: luke-warm water and a Lipton tea bag served in a coffee cup. I read the book quickly, partly because it is an easy book to read, partly because I wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. Everything in the book seemed awfully hollow. I didn't feel anything, apart from disgust toward the crimes that the plot dealt with. I left the book with very little interest toward the main characters and what might happen to them in the future. I have no idea why the book has been such a success. I can't help but wonder if I am the only one who just doesn't get it. The years I have spent considering myself a bit of a book snob never left me feeling quite as alienated as I feel now. I almost feel I would have been better off not reading the book.

I don't really have a conclusion for this post. I feel bad because I really wanted to like the book and prove my instincts wrong. Can 27 million sold copies of the Millennium Trilogy mean that I have just got this all wrong? Did I miss something? Could my lack of experience with crime fiction be an issue here? Or maybe I hadn't managed to get rid of my prejudice after all. Am I just a pretentious ass? And haven't I heard somewhere that the sequels are better than the first book, anyway?

Tank top: H&M (I've had it for probably five years)
Skirt: second hand, bought at UFF this summer
Shoes: Fly London, bought at Aleksi 13 two summers ago
Necklaces: JBL
Tulip pendant: present from Chris
Earrings: present from Tuuli
Belt: Salvation Army, bought this spring


roller coaster teacher said...

Greetings! I've been following your blog (that I enjoy very much!) - just had to chime in this book post. I teach English language arts to 12 to 14 year olds in western New York State, am a bandwagon reader SOMEtimes - devoured Harry Potter, Twilight, and many other excellent young adult series (Percy Jackson, Catching Fire, just to name a few).

Certainly, I know exactly how you feel about refusing to bandwagon - I refused Harry Potter initially, but my book club buddy "forced" me and I thank her eternally. I still refuse to read Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham due to bandwagon aversion, but others like James Patterson just don't appeal due to nature of the books.

I usually think for a while about these "bestseller" hits, carefully read reviews, before plunging in. And I did read Girl Who Played with FIre after such consideration, and the crime elements were way beyond my tolerance, but I still recommend it to people who might like it.

We all have such unique personal tastes, styles, interests - not all books suit everyone - hopefully we can find kindred reader spirit often. I think that's why I try certain books, to participate in the discussion, regardless of whether I'll agree with everyone else. So don't give up on your UNIQUE reading interests - I hope you like-minded readers!

Rad_in_Broolyn said...

This skirt is really beautiful and the whole outfit is cheerful and lovely.
I usually hold contempt for most uber popular things, but I have a weakness for left wing authors and feminist protagonists. I think I became interested in Larsson because my Swedish friends told me it was quite good for airport reading. But this was just before the hype really heated up in the US. Do you think maybe it's hard to enjoy something when there is so much buzz?
I refuse to read "Eat, Pray, Love" because it seems to have nothing to do with my experiences.

Cynthia said...

Hmm, I'm sorry you didn't like the book. I found the first two books in the series very compelling. They are very dark, and Larsson really wants to examine bad things that happens to women who are marginalized by society, and the motivations behind them. The original Swedish title actually means "Men who hate women", and that's much more appropriate for the book, but it would never sell in the US. I like that the stronger of the two main characters is a morally ambiguous woman, and that rather than giving in to victimization she fights back with increasing effectiveness.

The book is also written as a pure whodunit thriller, and I suppose that in some ways it's lightweight. But I respect the writing. That's my standard for reading. I picked up the Da Vinci code, Twilight, some other recent popular novels but didn't bother to read more than a couple of pages because I wasn't impressed by the writer's abilities. Stieg Larsson, however? I wish I could be that talented.

roller coaster teacher said...

Sorry - I meant I read Girl with Dragon Tattoo, NOT sequels!

Eline said...

Your refusal to read 'books with a cult following' seems incredibly arbitrary. Firstly, if 'books with a cult following' means Stieg Larsson then you simply mean 'popular books', but if you mean Milan Kundera then 'cult following' seems more apt because it speaks to a more literary crowd (although I think it was massively popular in the 80s? yet still, it belong to a differnt category in my eyes). In that sense there are so many books like that. To me, there seem two kinds of popular books : crime novels alike The Da Vinci Code and novels that are inexplicably popular with either a lit crowd or also a very general and large crowd. I don't think you should ignore the latter category because some immensely amazing authors belong in that category. For instance you now have the amazing popularity of Haruki Marukami, but his books are really great. I think they speak to people of all ages, cultures etc. because he has a talent for aptly describing people and also often nicely puts a feeling of alienation in his novels (which I suspect everyone understands and feels drawn to because how can you not feel alienated in this world and how lonely does it feel that no one is talking about that? etc.). The popularity of the last kind of books also is a matter of a certain zeeitgeist. Just like the Western canon continually changes, the opinions of people (and what they are drawn too) will continually change. What was the attraction of Milan Kundera in the 80s? Could it be the cynicism? etc. etc.

That said, I kind of loathe crime novels. They are almost continually shallow and poorly written. A good one though is The Secret History by Donna Tartt. But I read it when I was 13 or so, so my opinion might have changed though I actually doubt it in this case.

Alson tha is a gorgeous skirt!

Franca said...

hmmm. I also read it only recently, and I quite liked it. I had no expectations other than it was meant to be a good crime book, and it was that, I think. And I liked the characters more than I usually do in crime novels. They may not be that fully formed yet, but there's places for them to go.

From what I have heard, people mainly like this book because it's a good quick read. There's not that much there to get, it's just the way popular things happen. At some point stuff gains it's own momentum, and it goes completely massive, regardless of quality. Think of really popular songs, or films. About 90% of them are pretty guff.

The only 'intellectual' explanation for why people like the millenium books is the image of social democracy under threat. It might be different for you, but in the UK in particular Sweden is often talked about as this social utopia, and it's interesting to see the other side - though I'm sure the whole conspiracy theory picture he paints is just as wrong/incomplete!

Sorry, hugely long comment!

Rebecca said...

I liked the first book well enough, headed on to the second, which was marginally better, but the third book is a torture. I have to finish just to have closure, but it is so poorly written that I find myself craving sweet, slow prose, some book that uncovers layers of emotion, paints pictures.

Charlotte said...

I firmly believe that reading tastes get educated by what you read, quite in the same manner that your palate gets educated by what you eat. Not trying authors JUST because they are popular might, yes, be a little snobby, but it makes sense too -- to go back to the food analogy, I don't feel compelled to go try out every new MacDonald's burger just because it's going to be the most eaten food in America for a month or two! And likewise, I'm not going to read the big crime successes, because I'm not likely to enjoy them, no matter what. Or Coelho, who I have tried and know I don't like.

On the other hand if something popular sounds like I might enjoy it, I will definitely read it (Kundera, Harry Potter in your examples). I do enjoy being connected to other people, and will seek out occasions to -- but only as far as that respects my own individuality and tastes.

Also, your own culture might have something to do with your differences! In my case, being French, I do seem to have different expectations than many of my American friends, but on the other hand I find myself more connected for certain things than I was when living in France (love 19th century English lit, which people are way more likely to have read here). Can you imagine what it would change to your experience if you lived in Russia instead of Virginia?

Mari said...

Hei, taalla blogisi lukija joka ei ole aiemmin postannut.

Olen itse samaa mielta mutta en ole osannut pukea sanoiksi ajatuksiani yhta hienosti. Joka kerran kun juttuporukoissa olen yrittanyt selittaa miksi esim. juuri Millenium sarjan eka osa ei kolahtanut, kuulostan kauhealta kirjasnobilta. Toisaalta juuri nama Da Vincit ja Millenium sarjat ovat varmasti saaneet monet sellaisetkin ihmiset lukemaan kirjoja, jotka eivat muuten lue. Eli ehka jotain hyvaakin.

Mielestani Millenium sarjan eka osa (jonka luin koska halusin saada selville what the fuss is about) oli laiskasti kirjoitettu taysin keskiverto trilleri.

Olisi muuten mielenkiintoista kuulla mitka ovat lempikirjojasi?

mirattes said...

You look gorgeous! Shoes are amazing.
Books are my weakness. I'm reding almost everything what stops in my why :)

Charlotte said...

OK, first of all, you are not a pretentious ass. Let's get that off the table right away.
Most popular fiction is geared toward mass consumption. Thus, it's like most restaurant food--bland, somewhat palatable, not very nourishing. Your analogy of the gas-station hot tea is perfect. Many readers want fiction that allows them to "escape," and by that they don't mean escape into the tortured soul of a well-drawn character. They want fantasy--voyeuristic life, not too challenging.
The only book I've resisted & then found myself in love with was "Cold Mountain" by Charles Frazier. I didn't read it for years, just for the reasons you mention not reading "DaVinci" (which I've also not read, nor have I read any of the Larssons). When I finally did read it, I admired it greatly. I also admire Frazier's second novel, "13 Moons," which got relatively little attention (except to say that it "wasn't 'Cold Mountain.'" But most "blockbuster" fiction is schlock.

marginalijos said...

Such a nice text in a fashion blog! Well, I know, this blog is not about fashion, but from the first view it looks a little bit like that (perhaps because of the outfit photos). It was a pleasure to read this post - your language is beautiful. And I was so happy to hear that someone doesn't understand Dan Brown :)
I've never read Dan Brown (and not going to), but I've read Kundera at school and never found why he is called such a great writer. Once I tried Coelho and again left in doubt - why Coelho, why Baricco, why Murakami?? These books are like nothing, you read them and nothing is left within you sole... Now I feel very suspicious and read modern literature with a great caution. A month or two ago I read Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars. It was so good. And then I read his Second Body. It was terrible. I fell so bad. Well, perhaps it's a comment without a conclusion. My English limits me.

wardrobeexperience said...

love the pattern on your skirt... amazing colours.

Frankie said...

I am of the same thought as you regarding Dan Brown, twilight series etc - although I have read all of the Harry Potter books. There are so many more well written, thought provoking books available that I feel are much more worthy of my time. I am lucky to have a cousin, a mother and mother-in-law and a grandmother who are enjoy reading similar novels and books as much as I do to discuss them with.
Try reading the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde if you haven't already. It is very cleverly written and easy to read. I also enjoyed Philip Pullman's Dark Materials Trilogy when I was a teenager. The movie that was made from the first book does not do it any justice.

Anonymous said...

Dear Waves,
if hatred towards popular literature makes you suspect you're a pretentious ass, well, let me join the club. As one of the commenters above, I used to teach literature to youngsters and it was during Harry Potter craze and then during the Twilight craze. I have read them (well, to be honest, the whole HP series and just the first part of Twilight) and I just keep wondering what the hell is wrong with popliterature nowadays; it just seems to be getting worse and worse. Whereas Harry Potter could be thought as an entertaining and imaginative piece of writing, Twilight is something that made me bang my head against the wall. Just like you reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I simply wanted to get through it as soon as possible (I finished in about 3 hours, bleh)... it's so reassuring to know that I'm not alone in my resentment towards such literature.
But still, there's something worse than bad literature - bad literature made into a commercial bestselling package of book, film, video game and all sorts of gadgets, designed only to suck money out of teenagers who'll swallow just about everything if you tell them it's cool...
Anyway, thanks for another great post!

tarynkay said...

I have read Harry Potter, Twilight AND Dan Brown. I read all of these due to family pressure. My mother-in-law made me read Dan Brown, my then 14 year old sister-in-law made me read Twilight.

Dan Brown was horrible, like reading a made-for-tv movie. I love my mother-in-law and I said only nice things. This was difficult, without resorting to comments on the typeface. Twilight was even worse. Not only was the writing awful, it was also incredibly disturbing anti-feminist propaganda. It was good I read it though. My little sister and I had a LOT to talk about- like why the "perfect man" is not a stalker who barely refrains from eating you alive.

I ended up loving Harry Potter, and the best part of it is that the writing grows more complex as the characters grow older. But I love many children's books, so I don't think it's for everyone.

There are popular books that are really wonderful- think of how many copies Tolsty has sold by now! Some popular things are popular with good reason- like chocolate and pretty dresses and kittens. Others I do not understand- like McDonalds hamburgers which taste like masking tape.

NB said...

Hello erm... well not having a name to call you "Waves" will do.

Today, randomly in a flickr search i got one of your outfit images. I really became mesmerized by your style. I quick looked your Flickr, became passionated by almost your wardobre mixs (but i confess didn't like much some few of them). I really loved your haircuts that enhance your natural beauty. Discovered and devoured too your blog that give me some context to your cloths selections and verified your lovely tastes and toughts. You really have a interesting personalty!

Your fairytale lovestory with Chris is awesome (hey C. take good care of her in that crazy land!) and i wish you both the best of luck.

No need to say that from now i will be a faithful reader! :)

Vasiliisa said...

People get different things out of different books. For some it's pure passing entertainment, others want books to give them something to think about. A lot of people also want a bit of both. Also, it's worth noting that even seemingly ill-written and shallow books CAN be thought-provoking if they manage to hit close to home. There's research showing that people use stories in Harlequin novels to process their own thoughts about love and life.

I did like the Millennium trilogy, but I know plenty of people who didn't and they're not snobs, they just didn't get anything out of it. IMO, one should worry only if their literary tastes make them think they're somehow more intelligent and sophisticated than others.

Anonymous said...

You might be a book snob but you're right about that book. I read it as well to find out about the hype and I had the same conclusions. Boring, not particularly a good writer, etc. I didn't dislike it but I have other ways I'd rather spend my time.

Eyeliah said...

I see now (after reading the next post too) that this issue has been long resolved but I completely think that you need to read what you like. Who really gives a crap what other people think…..