I loved to read for fun in high school, but I hated English class.
My teachers seemed to have a knack for picing out books that bored me, and spending hours at a time analyzing their hidden metaphors never seemed to help matters much.
Out of all the books I slogged through during those four years, there was one that always stood out to me above the rest as the worst of them all: Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
The book is a collection of 14 essays — primarily narrative non-fiction, with a heavy emphasis on travel and nature.
I read the entire thing and despised every minute of the experience.
I hated it so much that when it came time to discuss it in English class, I wouldn’t shut up about it. “This is the most pretentious crap I’ve ever read!”
(As an angsty teenager, I loved to call things “pretentious.” I was never quite self-aware enough to see how well my favorite insult would have applied to myself.)
Teaching a Stone to Talk seemed to be a book about nothing, overwritten and bland.
For years after reading it, I continued to remember it as the worst book I’d ever read. It came to exemplify everything that I considered “bad” in writing.
A Second Chance
Years later — well after graduating not only high school but also college — I was visiting my parents and saw a copy of Teaching a Stone to Talk sitting on one of their bookshelves.
On closer inspection, I realized it was the very same copy that I had read back in high school!
I would have guessed that I had gotten rid of it right away, but instead, it had somehow found its way into my parents’ collection of books.
On seeing my old copy, I remembered immediately how much I had hated the book. Strangely though, I couldn’t remember why I hated it so much.
My curiosity got to me, and I decided to read an essay or two. After all, what could have been so bad about this book that I’d continue to hate it long after I’d forgotten its contents?
Maybe you’ve already guessed where this is going — I immediately loved that book!
I was enthralled from the first page and finished the entire thing that same day.
The book that I had hated so much in high school was now one of the best things I had ever read.
The prose that I found so “pretentious” was clever and gorgeous, and actually notably unpretentious.
Annie Dillard has a way of capturing the most complex feelings in a single sentence.
She can send our minds spinning into orbit with descriptions of the universe’s grandeur, then pull us right back to earth with a well-timed sarcastic quip.
By the time I had finished Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard had become my favorite author. Within a few more years, I had read everything of hers I could find.
A Humbling Experience
Revisiting Teaching a Stone to Talk was a humbling experience for me.
It was the first time that I had ever so radically changed my opinion about any piece of media.
It went from being the book that I hated the most in the world to one of my favorites of all-time.
And why had I hated it so much the first time around?
Simply because I didn’t understand it. I was too young, too ignorant, or just too inexperienced.
Because of that, I missed the beauty of the language, the humor went over my head, and I wrote off brilliance as pretentiousness.
The experience has really changed the way I read. Instead of looking for reasons to be critical, I always start off assuming that a new book has something truly worthwhile in it.