Bookish Thoughts: Can My Anti-Wheelhouse Be My Wheelhouse?

It was the physicist Niels Bohr who famously wrote: “The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.” It’s an insight that has become a core belief of mine. (If you’re at all interested in this, you can check out my theology blog.) I was thinking about it again the other day in relation to my bookish life — specifically around the idea of my ‘wheelhouse.’

The literary wheelhouse is a common idea now about the things that really engage a specific reader: a certain genre, trope, or feature that immediately makes a reader says, “Yes! That!” These can be general, as in “I enjoy stories that subvert ‘the hero’s journey’,” or very specific — I know of one person who lists ‘talking bears’ in their wheelhouse. I always struggle to articulate my wheelhouse. There are a few couple why I think this is. The first is that I read widely and enjoy a lot of different types of book. Of the twenty-eight books that made my twobest reads’ lists for 2022, for example, there were an equal number of ‘big city’ books and ‘small town’ books, and genres ranged from historical fiction and award-winning literary fiction to contemporary romance and a middle grade Western. It’s actually a lot easier for me to identify what immediately turns me off of a book — what some readers call their ‘literary doghouse’ — than what turns me on to one. For example, books about cults, organized crime, car culture, the 1950s, suburbia, and real estate are a very tough sell for me. But another reason why I have a hard time pinning down my wheelhouse — and the reason for this post — is that most of my absolute favorite books actively involve things I am not interested in at all and that I wouldn’t pick up from a description.

This is true for many of my favorite authors’ entire oeuvres. Michael Chabon, for example, has written three of my all-time favourite books and none of them revolve around topics in which I’m interested: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay takes place in the comic book industry; The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a noir detective story involving a lot of chess and obscure branches of Judaism; and Summerland is an Odyssey-style road trip book involving characters from tall tales. Amor Towles’ two most recent releases similarly sound awful to me (A Gentleman in Moscow — a former aristocrat lives out his life under house arrest in a great hotel in Moscow; and The Lincoln Highway — a group of teenagers released from prison in the 1950s go on a road trip across the United States) and yet I loved both. And what is probably my favorite book of all time right now, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, mashes together climate anxiety, suicide, the fetishization of Japanese schoolgirls, and Buddhist philosophy. I mean, that just sounds awful. And yet, it’s among the most beautiful and hopeful things I’ve ever read.

So, I’ve been wondering: Could my ‘anti-wheelhouse’ actually be my wheelhouse? Could part of what makes me truly love a book be being surprised by an author writing a story so captivating that it makes me care about something about which I have no interest, even if just for a few hundred pages? I think there could be something to this. My general wheelhouse — say, “humourous books in which gay men navigate big city life, relationships, and life’s big questions” — might be a guaranteed 85-95 rating for me, but maybe you need to smash my wheelhouse and surprise me to surpass that.

Just my bookish thoughts for today. What do you think? Can you relate to this at all?


One response to “Bookish Thoughts: Can My Anti-Wheelhouse Be My Wheelhouse?”

  1. […] This is a difficult book to describe, and an even more difficult one to describe well. There is nothing about the premise of this book that would interest me. It isn’t really all that groundbreaking in its characterizations, plots, or messages. And yet, it’s been a long time since I’ve loved and felt so deeply impacted by a book. Suspend disbelief if you need to, but please do pick this up. It is an unexpected all-time, top-tier, Hall-of-Fame book for me. (Once again, my anti-wheelhouse strikes!) […]


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