Having learned an important lesson in 2003 when The Da Vinci Code was released, I rarely read books while they’re at the height of their popularity. Sometimes this is good, because they’re not time-sensitive and they’ll likely be satisfying whenever I get around to them (The Warmth of Other Suns). Admittedly, sometimes it’s contrarian (Game of Thrones, Harry Potter). Mostly, though, it’s a way of saving myself from reading books that are bad but aren’t recognized as such until the backlash arrives (The Da Vinci Code; Eat Pray Love). The books I’ve read in the last two months illustrate to me why I should remain intractable on this point.
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) hits all three of these points to varying degrees. The chatter around it oversold the book a bit for me. It wasn’t as good as that one episode of RadioLab promised, or as the five star reviews from friends would have me believe. It was longer than it needed to be, and Skloot’s personal interactions with the Lacks family weren’t as compelling to me as a reader as they clearly were to her as a writer. (Funny enough, in the intro, she mentions an editor who was “mysteriously injured” after asking her to take Henrietta’s family out of the book — the implication being that the spirit of Henrietta did it. I think that editor was onto something.)
Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential (2000) is another book that didn’t live up to the hype. It was heavy on the seediness Bourdain participated in and observed, and light on cooking. Unfortunately, he managed to make days-long coke benders sound boring. Kitchen Confidential is also an example of a book of the moment — there hadn’t really been anything like it, which was why readers were so impressed. I read it 11 years after it came out, and in the meantime, Bourdain has become a bad boy celebrity chef (ugh, stupid phrase, but) and hopefully a more interesting writer.
Tina Fey’s Bossypants (2011) was not good. Fey writes exactly how she delivers jokes, and that only works for so long before becoming a tired device. Clearly, the Da Vinci Code rule holds here. Bossypants is a book that I read only a month after it came out, and I wish I’d just read some comics instead.
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay (2008-2010) add up to a series I’m both sad I didn’t read until now (because it’s so good), and glad that I didn’t read until now (because I didn’t have to wait between books). I devoured them, reading all three in the span of a week. The trilogy isn’t great art by any means, but it is tightly paced and plotted, with plenty of satisfying foreshadowing. For the kind of story Collins is writing — YA novel about a teenage girl (sure, a teenage girl literally fighting for her life) — she really avoids treading old ground.
Despite enjoying The Hunger Games trilogy, it feels like I’m making bad choices. Perhaps I should go back to my old method of reading books: Anything as long as it was written more than 30 years ago. The only choice in that category I wish I could take back was the wretched Jude the Obscure, after the publication of which, Thomas Hardy correctly stopped writing novels.