Disappointment and Books

The other day it struck me that childhood disappointment in a much-anticipated book was--to use a rather Hegelian sounding phrase-- the actual birth of the spirit of criticism. In particular, I was remembering that Conan Doyle’s second Professor Challenger adventure, “The Poison Belt,” was, to my boyish self, nothing like as exciting as the first, “The Lost World.” It struck me then as too talky, even overly philosophical, and I disliked the ending, in which it turns out that the world’s population hasn’t been killed by a poison gas but has simply fallen into a deep slumber for 24 hours. By feeling annoyed by the novel, I was led to try to figure out why. By contrast, the books that simply swept me along didn’t provoke anything much except delight in the story.

Dear Reading Roomers, when you look back upon your own early reading lives, what do you recall as your first great literary disappointment? Can you remember how you felt and why? Do you feel, as I do, that that disappointment was the first sign of a growing critical discrimination?

Interestingly, I reread “The Poison Belt” a few months ago, and discovered that I liked it much, much more now than I did as a boy. The talk was good talk, and I could understand why Conan Doyle was so obsessed with the nature of life and death--he was, after all, on the cusp of announcing his conversion to Spiritualism. The book was also quite funny, in ways that I hadn’t appreciated when young. At one point, Challenger speaks to his butler:

“I’m expecting the end of the world today, Austin.”
“Yes, sir. What time, sir?”
“I can’t say, Austin. Before evening.”
“Very good, sir.”
The taciturn Austin saluted and withdrew.

Here, I was sure, was the birth of P.G. Wooster’s Jeeves.

Please share your thoughts.

- Michael Dirda

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