Why do we say we like the books we don’t like?

Inside the inner sanctum of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Do you see the images of great art?
Inside the inner sanctum of the Rothko Chapel in Houston. Do you see the images of great art?

I KNOW WHY we read books.

But how do we judge books?

What causes us to like books even if we don’t like them?

Is it the author?

Is it the writing?

Or are we the victims of our own prejudices, the one we don’t know we have.

I fear that we often like certain books for the same reason we like certain pieces of art.

Critics have decreed them to be great, and we think we are supposed to like them.

In Houston, we walked past Barnett Newman’s famed steel sculpture, Broken Obelisk, and into the  inner sanctum of a chapel as stark, as mysterious, as intriguing as the complex mind of artist Mark Rothko.

It is a tranquil and meditative environment inspired by the abstruse mural canvases of the Russian-born Rothko, an abstract impressionist who believed that his art could free the unconscious energies previously liberated by mythological images, symbols, and rituals.

He considered himself a mythmaker and proclaimed: “The exhilarated tragic experience is, for me, the only source of art.”

The Chapel is overwhelming in its starkness and emptiness.

The paintings are there, dark and foreboding. It is as though our eyes were having difficulty trying to find substance and a sense of meaning in.

They were, as some said, “impenetrable fortresses of color.”

I looked hard. I didn’t see anything at all.

Mark Rothko devoted the last six years of his life to the ultimate creation of the Chapel.

He insisted that the building feature a central cupola like the one in his New York Studio.

He wanted others to view his great murals with the same light he had seen while producing his massive and imposing visions of darkness.

In 1966, Rothko wrote the de Menils: “The magnitude, on every level of experience and meaning, of the task in which you have involved me, exceeds all my preconceptions. And it is teaching me to extend myself beyond what I thought was possible for me. For this, I thank you.”

Four years later, on a cold February day, Mark Rothko sat down in the studio where he had completed his last work and slashed his wrists.

No one knows why.

He died with his market value climbing and 798 paintings in his studio.

Dominique de Menil said of Rothko’s work: “It seems that the paintings he did during the last ten years were a sort of preparation for the chapel. As he worked on the Chapel, which was the greatest adventure of his life, his colors became darker and darker, as if he were bringing us on the threshold of transcendence: the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition The silence of God, the unbearable silence of God.”

I turned to the lady beside me, a patron of the arts. “Are you sure this is art?” I asked.

“It’s magnificent,” she said.

“I only see walls painted black,” I said.

“Look harder,” she said.

I did.

“Now what do you see?” she asked.

“Walls painted black,” I said.

She sighed. Patrons of the art sigh a lot.

“The paintings are filled with figures,” she said.

They must be hidden behind the shadows.

“And faces,” she said.

I guess their eyes were shut. I felt as though mine were.

“See the crosses?” she said.

“No, ma ‘am.”

“Look over at that one,” she said.

I did.

“The doves are flying.”

The doves must have been flying at night.

I was confused.

She was enthralled.

“What makes these paintings so great?” I asked.

“Mark Rothko painted them.”

“And that’s all?”

“Mark Rothko was brilliant,” she said.

“Who says?”

“Everyone.”

Everyone can’t be wrong. The chapel is always filled with patrons of the arts.

I didn’t get it at all.

I believe that some books sell and some authors keep selling because we are led to believe these select few writers are great storytellers and their books deserve to be bestsellers.

It’s heresy to believe otherwise.

I don’t like all of the books.

I don’t like all of the authors.

So why do I feel guilty? So why would any of us feel guilty?

Personally, I believe a good story well told should stand on its own merit no matter who wrote it.

Just because a critic or a reviewer didn’t like doesn’t mean I won’t.

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    Just because some critic likes a book doesn’t mean it’s good. Your opinion is as good anyone else’s.

    • Darlene Jones

      Same for wine.

      • Caleb Pirtle

        After the first couple of sips, Darlene, I can no longer tell whether a wine is good or bad, expensive or cheap. I either like it or I don’t.

  • jack43

    There are three stories that I learned in my childhood that seem to provide warnings covering most conundrums that I’ve encountered in my life. The first is the story of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby (Don’t fight battles you can’t win). The second is The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf (Don’t succumb to the repeated warnings of alarmists or Presidents with agendas). Last and by far the one that I see application for almost every day is The Emperor’s New Suit of Clothes. Your reaction to this “art” comes close to replacing my reaction to Starbucks as the archetype of the little boys “Ah Ha” moment…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Jack, Br’er Rabbit and The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf may have been our greatest teaches. But the world is full of emperors these days and none of them wear clothes and they no longer care.

      • And they go to school for ages to be able to tell you there is something in the nothingness – in the right words.

        There is nothing wrong with a meditative room – except that those benches should be padded, and if you’re in a wheelchair or walker you’re made to feel as if you don’t belong there – there is no place for you.

        But making it ‘art’ from your own imagination? You can do that better at home. It’s called dreaming.

        • Caleb Pirtle

          At least when I daydream, Alicia, I see images.

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