What’s a Book You Misunderstood?

What’s a Book You Misunderstood?For Novel Gazing, send us your literary revelations

When she was young, but not that young, my friend Linnea thought all kittens had the same birthday.

As a kid, she’d had one of those books about the seasons on a farm: making hay in autumn, growing crops in summer, and so forth. In the spring on a farm, according to this book, the baby animals are born. Linnea generalized that to “all animals are born in the spring,” and then, apparently, to “all animals are born on the same day in the spring.” And then she left that assumption unquestioned for well over a decade.

When she was 21, she got a new kitten, and her girlfriend asked her how old it was. “I don’t know,” she said, “the same age as the rest of them?” The girlfriend was confused, so she tried to explain: “It was born when the other cats were born. I don’t know when that was this year.” The girlfriend continued to be confused, and possibly slightly horrified. This was the first time it occurred to Linnea that maybe she’d misinterpreted the book.

If you’re a reader, you learn so much about the world from books, especially about aspects of life (like, say, animal husbandry) you might never encounter off the page. This means it’s perilously easy for one inaccuracy, overgeneralization, or misapprehension to upset not only your understanding of the book, but your understanding of the world.

It’s finally, finally spring here in New York, so let’s celebrate the kittens’ birthday by talking about similar youthful (or not-so-youthful) literary misunderstandings. Tell us about a book (or film, or other storytelling medium) you thought you understood, or something you thought you learned from a book—and what happened when you discovered you’d been wrong all along. Maybe you modeled yourself on a hero who you didn’t realize was actually the villain. Maybe you didn’t realize your upbringing was weird until you found out that the realistic family saga you loved was supposed to be a gothic horror. Or maybe you just internalized a “fact” that you never thought to question until it was too late.

You may want to read some earlier Novel Gazing essays to get a feel for the series. Some recent favorites include essays about falling in love with language through the work of Francesca Lia Block, about reading the Song of the Lioness series as a closeted young gay man, and about losing faith in Mormonism while reading a Jon Krakauer book.

Essays should not be longer than 4,000 words or shorter than 800, and payment is $60 per piece. Submissions will remain open through June 1.

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