Frederic Leighton, Study at a Reading Desk, 1877
I am a rereader by nature. Like most rereaders, I have a few beloved favorites—Sisters By a River, or We Think the World of You, or A Girl in Winter—that bring me comfort as well as pleasure. Then there are a few books that I know just as well as these, and revisit just as often, but which I loathe. The writing is not bad; that would make the reading a chore instead of a sick pleasure. Usually I despise the narrator in some way—for being out of touch or oblivious or solipsistic. I particularly hate certain culinary memoirs and novels with leaden dialogue. The irritated satisfaction these books give me is akin to the irresistible pain of worrying a sore tooth.
I never hate-read work by someone I actually know. A few times I have gone on to learn too much about the writer of one of these books, and the pleasure went away. The wealth of available information may feed some kinds of animus; mine depend on the hermetic isolation of my own obscure prejudices. They must not be humanized.
Why do I do this? You don’t revisit a bad restaurant to revel in the terrible food, or relisten to an awful album to reassure yourself that it was as bad as you remembered. I do understand wanting to share something so jaw-droppingly appalling that you suddenly feel everyone needs to know about it. Can you believe this! you want to say, about some weird travelogue or implausible novel. But you aren’t, generally, inclined to repeat the experience.
What makes hate-reading strange is that it is solitary, and it is time-consuming. You are voluntarily closeting yourself with the hate-object. It simply can’t be healthy. Or can it? As Hazlitt has it, “without something to hate, we should lose the very spring of thought and action.” Or at least a relatively harmless outlet.
Last / Next Article