I've been reading Keeper by Kathi Appelt the last few days and I keep thinking about when I read her first book, The Underneath, a couple of years ago.
I wasn't the biggest fan of that book. And it had nothing to do with the book itself.
I had checked it out on CD at the library and was listening to it while I commuted. And for some reason, my CD player did NOT like these CDs. It couldn't restart when I'd turn the car back on. It would struggle to progress to the next track. After several days of this, I was just beyond frustrated. Spending half your commute jiggling the rewind/fast forward key, taking the CD in and out, and listening to it spin, spin, spin is the kind of thing that makes me pretty insane.
And then, on a particularly cold day, I left work and second after starting the car, it just died. For no reason that I could tell. And then it started working again, but now I was plagued with paranoia. The whole way home, I couldn't concentrate on the book because I was so focused on making it home safely (spoiler: I did).
When I think of The Underneath, I can't help but associate all that frustration and irritation with it. I can't think about the beautiful writing or the symbolism of the story; I can only think about driving along in the cold, fearful that I was going to get stranded. Of course it wasn't my favorite book. And all for reasons that Kathi Appelt had zero control over when she wrote the book.
(Needless to say, I'm playing it safe with Keeper, reading a nice non-skipping hardcover on my couch, which is unlikely to stall).
I think about this a lot - which books might I have liked more if they'd been stand alone, or if I hadn't been comparing them to other works by the author or if I hadn't just read a story that was fairly similar. Which books did I love because a character had something small and inconsequential in common with me? Which books did I read on vacation, feeling happy and content? Which book was recommended to me by someone I love and want to please and which book has been badmouthed by someone who's opinion I trust and respect?
As a reader, you bring so much to a book, that it's hard to judge it completely objectively. I don't have writerly ambition, but if I did, those sorts of things would make me even more afraid.