Do you avoid difficult reads, or seek them out? Which tomes are worth the pain, and which are best left on the shelf?
On my last trip to the library I took an unexpected turn and, facing a series of alarmingly engorged spines, realised I’d strayed into the “Literary Novels” section. Primly distinct from “General Fiction”, these consisted of books from many distinguished pens with one thing in common: they were all difficult reads. Nary a one without a complex and duplicitous prose style, baffling haemorrhage of a plot or an approach to dialogue that was, as Obi Wan said, presumably in reference to Finnegans Wake, “as if millions of voices cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced”.
What was the purpose of this strange act of bookish apartheid? Perhaps to keep the other shelves safe for easily frightened readers. Or, perhaps, a siren’s call and challenge? “You, bold reader, step forth and read the Chosen Tomes – pluck them from the shelf and you shall inherit the Kingdom of Books.”
Whatever the intention, I was struck by my lack of inclination to pounce on these indisputably great works of literature. I was happier with the modest bundle of slenderer fare already in my bookbag. How lazy I’d become! There was a time when I would have seen it as morally imperative to devote my reading time to the difficult and challenging. I remember an awfully unselfaware conversation in the terminally unselfaware years of teenagedom, during which I asked a similarly earnest friend why “people ever bother to write bad books?” He didn’t know. More in pity than in anger, we shook our heads and re-opened our novels, returning, slightly mystified, to the frustrated longing of Russian peasants. We read books that were clearly quite brilliant, if only we could understand them. They might, as we never admitted to each other, baffle us now, but hopefully we’d come out the other side stronger, better people for the experience. Maybe one day we’d even impress some girls.
Nowadays I wonder how I could have read so many books that were such heavy going and which I so clearly disliked. It only shows what a cowardly, deferential youth I was. Rather than find my own tastes, my own pleasures, I tortured myself by slavishly emulating someone else’s idea of a good time. Now I know that while I find Don Quixote hilarious, other readers may think of it as an overlong Monty Python sketch. To my wife, Jane Eyre is a tear-jerking source of perennial inspiration – to me, it’s a 19th-century Dawson’s Creek. But that’s all OK. We don’t have to upset our mental digestions, devouring books we find unpalatable just because other people love them. It’s no skin off anyone’s nose, least of all the dead authors’ – they don’t have skin any more. The only people who’ll be upset are a dwindling number of old-school Eng Lit academics who still think there’s a straight line of good reading from Boccaccio onwards. And we don’t even have to tell them, either.
But still people seem to feel obliged to toil up the mountain, not for pleasure but in the dry pursuit of worth. There’s a number of online guides explaining how one goes about reading difficult books. Largely humourless, they provide tips as to how mortal readers can prepare themselves for the challenge of entering the minds of the truly great. One guide offers a list of what you’ll need that includes time, patience, a dictionary and a highlighter. Another explains that a single read will not be enough: prepare yourself for many laps through the tome if your puny brain is to have a hope of understanding it. It’s enough to make you long for illiteracy.
But perhaps I’m just making up reasons to excuse my own laziness, using an anti-canonical argument to justify not bothering to read anything mind-widening. Am I ignoring the challenging books that I know would bore me, or just ignoring anything that challenges? Anything truly innovative requires an adjustment of taste from its audience. If I hadn’t been a wide-eyed, hideously pretentious teenager then I’d have never realised the music of Xenakis wasn’t just noise. I’d have never taken the time to adjust my head to Middle English and been able to enjoy Chaucer.
There’s a line somewhere between the peaceful harbour of enjoying your own individual taste, and wallowing, too conservatively satisfied, in an increasingly stagnant pool of the same old same old. But where is it to be drawn? I don’t know, but there must be some books that challenged you but which you found more than worthwhile. Or that you still spit in disgust at having wasted so much of your life on. Please, get me experimenting – recommend and warn away!