The Value in Reading Bad Books

When I was in high school, I took a literature to film elective taught by one of my favorite English teachers. The first film we watched in that class: From Justin to Kelly. Why? Because she wanted us to watch a bad movie so we had a comparison to the good movies we were about to watch. It taught me a really good lesson. If we don’t experience the bad, we can’t truly appreciate the good. How will we know what is good if we have nothing to compare?

That’s true of life in general (how do we know what happy is if we don’t have sad to compare it to?), but it’s a philosophy that can be applied to pretty much anything. Including books.

I used to be kind of annoyed when I read a book that ended up being one or two stars. And I’ve definitely read a few books that did make me angry because they were so bad. Because there are so many books in the world, and I don’t want to waste my time reading them. Granted, I’ve gotten a lot better at choosing books I’ll love. The vast majority of books I’ve read in the past few years have been three- four- or five-star reads. But I’ve learned to not be annoyed about the one- and two-star books. Reading them was not a wast of time, but an opportunity to appreciate the books I did enjoy even more.

I hated the Legend trilogy (yes, I angry-read all three books – also, don’t yell at me), but right after I finished, I picked up Red Rising. It was actually an Amazon recommendation when I ordered Legend (they’re both dystopian sci-fi). And it ended up being one of my all-time favorite books. And I think Legend might be a small part of why I loved it so much. Because I had just read a book I didn’t like, it was easier to see the contrast between what I hated about Legend and what I loved about Red Rising. I appreciated it more because of their differences.

I’ve had periods of time where I read a lot of four- and five-star books. And, after a while, I feel like I start taking them for granted and maybe not appreciating them as much as I should. I also sometimes start doubting whether or not they really are that good. More than a few times, I’ve looked back through my Goodreads “read” shelf” to compare a book to the last few four- or five-star reads on my list to see where it falls.

I’m not saying we should all go and seek out bad books to read. But I do think we should learn to see the value in them when the do come along. Sure, we might not enjoy them, but they might help us enjoy other books.

Bad books happen to good people. We’ve all read books we don’t like. But I think too many of us view the experience of reading a bad book as a waste of time. And I get it, really. I used to be one of them. Until I realized that reading books I didn’t enjoy made the experience of reading those books I did enjoy that much better. You don’t have to like every book you read, but I don’t think you should regret reading them.

What do you think? Do you see the hidden value in reading books you don’t like?

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12 thoughts on “The Value in Reading Bad Books

  1. I definitely think it’s good to read a book you don’t love ever now and then. Like you said, it helps us as readers see and appreciate the really good ones. I also think it helps a reader figure out what aspects of a book they love or don’t love. You also just don’t know if you’re going to like the book until you read it. 🙂

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  2. This is very thoughtful! I didn’t like Legend either, but I did stick it out through the first book. I ended up not finishing Red Rising though because I didn’t like it either. I actually disliked some of the same things about both books (generic male savior character and I also didn’t care for the writing styles). What made you like Red Rising better?

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    1. Thank you! I think the difference for me was the the hardships in Red Rising felt more real. I thought the characters in Legend were really immature. I’m not sure how far you got in Red Rising, but the story line ended up being different than I was expecting. The main character is realistically flawed, and I can’t resist an intelligent female character like Mustang (Brown said she was hard to write because she’s smarter than he is).

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  3. 100 % agree: reading bad books is very rarely a total waste of time, like listening to bad music or watching bad films. Apart from the fact that I think it’s fine to enjoy some guilty pleasures, that is reading something bad but that entertains you, one can almost always learn or take something away from a book. I’ve read some really bad books in my life, and while I didn’t even enjoy them, sometime I find myself referring to them, or thinking about them, comparing them to things and so on. And yeah, it’s also definitely a reading exercise.

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    1. Thanks! I do read a lot of books that are objectively bad, but also entertaining. (I’m guilty of not adding them on Goodreads, though.) I agree, we can almost always take something away from whatever we read. Even if it’s just learning what you don’t like.

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  4. I agree. I think it really helps to read bad books to help you find the better books or what you like to read. Bad books definitely make me appreciate the books that I enjoy so much more. And so really helped me discover what I like to read in a book and what I don’t.
    Sometimes though I’ll pick up a book thinking I’ll love it and don’t, then I’ll pick up a book I’m sure about and love. So sometimes it can be very hit or miss when it comes to reading.

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    1. Exactly. I don’t think we could avoid bad books if we tried, because it’s so hard to predict. I’ve had a history of hating quite a few books that everyone else seems to love.

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