We have all read books that aren’t what we expected. My first experience with this oddity was reading Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. I had seen the movie first, so when I went into the book I was shocked to find a completely different story. Yes, there was the same witty humor and feel that the movie presented, but the story was much deeper and more engaging than the movie could ever be (needless to say the book is infinitely better).
These books that defy our expectations can cause countless responses, both good and bad. Often they are unexpectedly more delightful or deeper – as in the case of Ella Enchanted or Entwined by Heather Dixon (which was marketed as a “breathtaking romance” but actually was about more profound familial love and had a fantastically creepy villain who stole the show more than the romance). But these books can also be unexpectedly disappointing. This seems often the case with overly hyped books as well as the final book in a series.
It is a little rarer to go into a book not knowing what to expect and yet having some expectations and then finding that the book both fulfills and defies these expectations – in fact the author turns the expectations upside-down and suspends them from the ceiling like stars hanging in the night sky. The reader sees their expectations and recognizes them, but doesn’t quite know what to make of them anymore.
Such was the case when I was reading In the First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I approached this book with the expectation of an engaging, but slow-moving masterpiece of intrigue and subterfuge. Instead, I was confronted with an imprisonment, various philosophies on humanity, truth, and life, and the soul-crushing everyday life of various people living behind the iron curtain. Yes, a masterpiece still, but the first half of the book I spent confused staring up at the stars of my expectations.
Yes – there was intrigue, but the intrigue was turned inwardly on itself. A rat chasing its own tail as the government slowly began to eat its own people and itself. There was subterfuge, but it was less about making an atomic bomb (or preventing it) and more about the quiet subterfuge we use on ourselves and others in everyday interactions. It was engaging but not through presenting exciting material, instead it was engaging through boring me to the point where I finally slowed down enough and actually engaged with the lives of the prisoners. Then my mind was able to connect and engage in the devastating every days of prison life and the simple pleasures and entertainments that these prisoners eked out of their existence.
No, it is a not a book of our time. It is not a book that “I couldn’t put down” that “ I read in one sitting” that “Everyone needs to read now.” I do think everyone needs to read it, but I believe a lot of people won’t be able to get through it. I am not saying this from a place where I think I am better than others for finishing it. I am no better; I thought many times about skipping to the end or just giving up and I skimmed through many passages. I made it through much of the book by sheer willpower and the rest because I was able to suspend my expectations and slowly realize the truth of this masterpiece.
To finish this work it took patience and dedication; a removal from the instant fulfillment culture of today. Everything in it was the very antithesis of instant gratification, the writing, the subject, even the philosophy on life that was presented. This was the point in fact, and one as necessary in capitalist U.S.A. as in the U.S.S.R. Solzhenitsyn writes:
“Satiety depends not at all on how much we eat, but on how we eat. It’s the same with happiness, the very same…happiness doesn’t depend on how many external blessings we have snatched from life. It depends only on our attitude toward them. There’s a saying about it in the Taoist ethic: ‘Whoever is capable of contentment will always be satisfied.”
This was my expectations turned upside-down, this tiny, bright star that encompassed but surpassed what I had expected. This book was not about exaggerated consumption, stuffing yourself until you can’t eat anymore. It was a long book not to stuff the reader to bursting, but instead to draw them to a place where amount mattered little when compared to the quality of reading and writing. Once I got to this place I was able to engage with the book deeply and beyond enjoying my reading experience I learned from it and discovered profound truths in seemingly unimportant scenes.