Like That Book

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March 23, 2017 – MCAT CARS Passage

Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.

I rarely spend much time wondering why others do not enjoy the books I like. Henry Green, an old favorite, almost a fetish, is never an easy read and never offers a plot that is immediate or direct. “There’s not much straight shootin,’” he admitted, in the one interview he gave. Elsa Morante is so lush and fantastical, so extravagantly rhetorical, she must seem way over the top to some. Thomas Bernhard offers one nightmare after another in cascades of challenging rhetoric; it’s natural to suspect he’s overdoing it. Christina Stead is so wayward, so gloriously tangled and disorganized, it’s inevitable that some readers will grow weary. And so on.

Perhaps it’s easy for me to understand why so many are not on board with these writers because I occasionally feel the same way myself. In fact it may be that the most seductive novelists are also the ones most willing to risk irritating you. Faulkner comes to mind, so often on the edge between brilliant and garrulous. Italy’s Carlo Emilio Gadda was another. Muriel Spark. Sometimes even Kafka. Resistance to these writers is never a surprise to me.

On the other hand, I do spend endless hours mulling over the mystery of what others like. Again and again the question arises: How can they?

I am not talking about genre fiction, where the pleasures are obvious enough. Reviewing duties over the last few years have had me reading Stieg Larsson, E.L. James, and a score of Georges Simenon’s Maigrets. Once you accept the premise that you are reading for entertainment, their plots and brightly-drawn dramatis personae quickly pull you in. However “adult” the material, one is reminded of the way one read as a child: to know what happens. You turn the pages quickly, even voraciously, and when something galls—the ugly exploitation of sexual violence in Larsson, the cartoon silliness of James, the monotonous presentation of Maigret as the dour, long-suffering winner—you simply skip and hurry on, because the story has you on its hook. You can see why people love these books, and above all love reading lots of them. They encourage addiction, the repetition of a comforting process: identification, anxiety/suspense, reassurance. Supposedly realistic, they actually take us far away from our own world and generally leave us feeling pleased that our lives are spared the sort of melodrama we love to read about.

But what are we to say of the likes of Haruki Murakami? Or Salman Rushdie? Or Jonathan Franzen? Or Jennifer Egan, or recent prize-winners like Andrés Neuman and Eleanor Catton, or, most monumentally, Karl Ove Knausgaard? They are all immensely successful writers. They are clearly very competent.  is the great new thing, I am told. I pick up Knausgaard. I read a hundred pages or so and put it down. I cannot understand the attraction. No, that’s not true, I do get a certain attraction, but cannot understand why one would commit to its extension over so many pages. It doesn’t seem attractive enough for what it is asking of me.

Take Elena Ferrante. Again and again I pick up her novels and again and again I give up around page fifty. My impression is of something wearisomely concocted, determinedly melodramatic, forever playing on Neapolitan stereotype. Here, in My Brilliant Friend, the narrator is remembering a quarrel between neighbours:

As their vindictiveness increased, the two women began to insult each other if they met on the street or the stairs: harsh, fierce sounds. It was then that they began to frighten me. One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood begins with the shouts of Melina and Lidia, with the insults they hurl from the windows and then on the stairs; it continues with my mother rushing to our door, opening it, and looking out, followed by us children; and ends with the image, for me still unbearable, of the two neighbors rolling down the stairs, entwined, and Melina’s head hitting the floor of the landing, a few inches from my shoes, like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.

What can one say? Making no effort of the imagination, Ferrante simply announces melodrama: “Harsh, fierce sounds”; “One of the many terrible scenes of my childhood”; insults are “hurled.” The memory is “for me still unbearable” though in the following pages the incident is entirely forgotten. Is “entwined” really the right word for two people locked in struggle on the stairs? As in a B movie, a head hits the floor a few inches from our hero’s shoes. Then comes, the half-hearted attempt to transform cartoon reportage into literature: “like a white melon that has slipped from your hand.”

I can’t recall dropping a melon myself, but if the aim of a metaphor is to bring intensity and clarity to an image, this one goes in quite a different direction. The dull slap of the soft white melon hitting the ground and rolling away from you would surely be a very different thing from the hard crack of a skull and the sight of a bloody face. I’m astonished that having tossed the metaphor in, out of mechanical habit one presumes, the author didn’t pull it right out again. And even more I’m astonished that other people are not irritated by this lazy writing.

It’s not only fiction that does this to me. I am told, for example, that Stephen Grosz’s book The Examined Life—a psychoanalyst giving us his most interesting case histories—is a work of genius and is selling like hotcakes. I buy a copy, and halfway through I toss it away, literally, at the wall, in intense irritation. How can people like these stories, with their over-easy packaging of what are no doubt extremely complex personal problems, their evident and decidedly unexamined complacency about the rightness of the analyst’s intervention?

There. I live under the constant impression that other people, other readers, are allowing themselves to be hoodwinked. They are falling for charms they shouldn’t fall for. Or imagining charms that aren’t there. They should be making it a little harder for their authors. Reading Neuman’s The Traveler of the Century, I appreciate that he is brilliant, that he effortlessly churns out page after page of complex prose, but I feel the whole thing is an ambition-driven exercise in literariness. Same with so many who flaunt their fancy prose. Even when I read an author I recognize as a very serious and accomplished artist—Alice Munro, Colm Tóibín— I begin to wonder how people can be so wholehearted in their enthusiasm. Both writers, it seems to me, equate fiction with the manufacture of a certain rather predictable pathos, an unspoken celebration of our capacity for compassion and the supposed redemption of suffering in the pleasure of fine prose and good storytelling. No doubt these things do have their worth; I acknowledge that; it is the growing impression that they are merely being rehearsed that is wearisome. Toni Morrison is another. The writer has learned how to concoct our sophisticated drug for us. How can readers feel at ease with that?

Adapted from nybooks.

Review

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This was an article on Literature.

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Jack Westin
MCAT CARS Instructor.
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30 Comments


  1. MIP: book=addicting+repetitive comforting process=/=enjoyable (AU)

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  2. Author expresses the feeling and some explanation on the fact he does not like the books others may like (mystery = rushed + addiction, fiction = concocted, Murakami. etc = not attractive enough…)

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  3. MIP: author =/= enjoy books that others like + irritated with writers

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  4. au doesn’t understand other readers’ interests + Ferrante brings back bad memories

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  5. Author /= surprised w/ resistance of writers + own irritation

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  6. MIP: Au = + writers understand =/= other readers interest = charm =/= understand (Au)

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  7. Au =/= other reader’s interest + thinks that they are charmed too easily.

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  8. The author likes book that are less direct while the author does not like other books that other people read and cannot understand why they like these type of books

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  9. MIP: Author =/= attracted to books most ppl are
    Tone: Neutral

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  10. The author =/=like the books that most people like to read.

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  11. Author doesn’t like popular books most people love with ineffective metaphors, no imaginations and obvious plots. He has higher expectations for writers and likes “irritating/unclear plots”

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  12. Very opinion driven passage: author does not like most books that others do: prose and good storytelling dupes readers into become addicted to a certain type of book.

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  13. MP: Author is discontent with the lack of effort/complexity in literature today. Readers are not critical enough of authors and don’t challenge them to produce their best works. The author loves literature for its brilliance and rigor and desires that other will do the same.

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  14. fiction + simple stories = irritating to read, not attractive. author likes difficult reading, not regurgitation

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  15. Just because a certain author enjoys mainstream popularity does not guarantee that their works are of a quality that is appreciated by everyone. Likewise, writers that do not happen to be widely liked still have an audience who recognizes their genius. “Pop authors” employ drawn out ideas and predictable motifs, which are effective in tricking the majority of readers into loving their work.

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  16. The author reviews reasons why some people might prefer various types of books.

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  17. MIP: can’t understand some authors; why ppl like =/= understandable

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  18. author = doesn’t like what others like to read
    +surprised that people don’t get irritated by what they read

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  19. MI: good authors risk irritating the reader
    MI2: author =/= other’s interests

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  20. The author likes action-packed/more riveting books rather than ones without complexity

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  21. author does not like/get other’s favourite writers. He has a negative view towards writers who simply human action/interactions!

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  22. MIP: ppl read = melodramatic, cartoonish, too simple… au. prefers complex reading; tone = negative towards common reading

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  23. Author is frustrated with other peoples interest of books because of its lazy writing

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  24. MIP: Reading should be for pleasure. Ambition-driven reading of fancy prose is not interesting.
    Tone: neutral

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  25. The author discusses why some books are likeable to others and not to her. It is clear that the author thinks that most of the compelling books are at risk of not being liked. The author assumes that most people like books that keep the reader intigued and make the characters and situations feel real even though the lives of the readers are far from that when compared to story characters.
    However, the author digs into why she probably does not like those books that others do. She thinks it might be a lack of complexity, weak metaphors, and poor imagery.
    Ultimately, the author is critical of a lot of literary works.

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  26. MIP: Auth resistant to books that oversimplify for their readers

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  27. the author seems to critique on the kind of books that addict readers, but are actually wearisome.

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