Saturday, July 10, 2010

Difficult Books

The Millions has an interesting feature in which some of their staff writers introduce and kind of promote some "Difficult Books": The Anatomy of Melancholy, Paradise Lost, A Tale of a Tub, Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, Moby-Dick, The Cantos, To the Lighthouse, Ted Berrigan's Sonnets, The Dream Songs, Ada or Ardor, and Dhalgren so far. According to the introductory post, the series is "devoted to identifying and describing these most difficult books: ones we’ve read/wrangled with ourselves, ones we’ve known students to struggle with time and again, ones that, more simply, 'everyone knows' are hard to read—those works whose mere titles glisten with an aura of rarefied impenetrability."

I think the writers at The Millions and I tend to have different ideas about how to approach literature, no doubt largely because we sit at different positions within the literary ecosystem. I've made known my differences with some of their orientations and values before, so the less said about that, probably the better. And I certainly should say that I respect what they're trying to do and what they have accomplished as a site and as a community.

But what interests me about the project and about many of the responses it has generated in the comments is the very strong emphasis on readerly perseverance, on reading challenging books mostly, it seems, to prove to oneself that one can "get through" them. Many of the phrases used across these posts make reading sound more like arm-wrestling or mountain-climbing or endurance-running than anything else.

Enjoyment is emphasized as well, but usually as a surprise or a bonus: "perhaps, now that we think on it again, having finished, could it be that it was worth the struggle? Could it be that in the pain of it was a tinge of pleasure, of value (not to mention pride)?"

Perhaps pride should not be tucked into a parenthetical here, because it seems like the principal motivating force, both positively and negatively. Closing the book on the final page is both carrot—the self-confidence boost one will receive upon being able to say to oneself and others that "I've read Moby-Dick"—and stick—feeling beaten by the book, guilty about one's lack of self-discipline and intellectual endurance.

Honestly, I feel that there is no reason why most people should feel guilty about Berryman's Dream Songs or even Milton's Paradise Lost if they haven't read them all the way through, and not a lot of reason why they should feel great about themselves if they have. Reading some of both would be a great idea and I would be very pleased if every teenager were given some of Milton's sonnets and at least a few of the Dream Songs in high school (this one would be ideal), but very few people really need to be concerned or dismayed if they don't "finish" it or don't get very far. The amount of time someone might spend reading those works after they've stopped enjoying it is time I, frankly, would much rather see being devoted to reading a less intimidating novel, perhaps, or re-reading the parts of The Dream Songs or Paradise Lost that they did enjoy.

I certainly am not advocating a sort of general strike of readers refusing to finish difficult books or to skip anything that doesn't seem immediately pleasurable. What I chafe at is this sense that difficult books are most meaningful as an experience when you've bested them, outlasted them, pinned them to the ground by enduring them to the bitter end. This emphasis on readerly perseverance ("finished at last!"), on not letting the book beat you, is something I find very bizarre, and pretty counter-productive for encouraging people to try challenging work.

Rather than glorifying the difficulty of getting all the way through "difficult books," it would be nice if critics (myself included) went about removing the obstacles to getting some enjoyment out of them—highlighting really vivid passages, advising them on what parts are particularly tedious, where specific obscurities are or what crucial facts or revelations might be missed, etc. Infinite Summer did a very good job with these kind of tips, and The Millions writers do a little of it, and in places have done it quite well, but I feel like their idea is generally to encourage people to power through to the end, rather than to encourage them to find some bits that they will really like and work their way around the book from there. The latter goal is something I should try to do better myself, especially with forthcoming posts on John Dos Passos's U.S.A.


Tom Elrod said...

There's also different kinds of difficulty they're approaching. They say they're going to be tackling Hegel and Kant, but Phenomenology of Spirit is a wholly different kind of difficult text than, say, Ulysses.

the Ape said...

I tend to agree with you that articulating the value of difficult as something to be conquered or vanquished seems misguided, but I think I have a sense of why it's appealing. Is it not unrelated to running a marathon, or climbing a mountain, or things of that nature? I think we use these things as self-tests, to determine the limits of our fortitude.

So while I think that's part of it, it does replace getting something out of a work with simply getting through it. I don't have to think about, understand, wrestle with, or object to this book because just finishing it is work enough.

Andrew Seal said...

Very good point; even The Cantos and Paradise Lost are difficult for very different reasons. It would be nice to have a more extensive definition of "difficulty" under which to discuss these books.

I agree with you--there is something appealing about self-tests, but there's a certain ostentation to them that grates. When one reads something because "'everyone knows' [it's] hard to read—those works whose mere titles glisten with an aura of rarefied impenetrability" as The Millions feature seems to be advocating, then I think they're doing it wrong. It's the 'everyone knows' bit that gets me--I find the idea that the best reason one may have for reading something is that everyone will know you've read a difficult book (once you've told them) to be really inadequate.

schultzie said...

On the other hand, sometimes that test of fortitude reveals an immense sense of enjoyment which could only be had from reading the entire work. In particular, I struggled in parts of Proust's In Search of Lost Time, primarily parts of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the reward at the end of Time Regained in seeing it all tied up together in a conclusion that only made sense as an end to that whole made it all worthwhile. Similarly, the first hundred pages of Tolstoy's War and Peace were hard work but it then hit its stride, making the struggle of those first hundred worthwhile a hundred times over. At the same time, these difficult parts are integral to those works and could not be dispensed with.

Hence, I think a line needs to be drawn between those 'difficult' books that 'reward' and those that are just plain difficult. An intermediate group are those like James Joyce's Ulysses which have parts of sublime brilliance and other parts that are just literary masturbation - a hard call at times, though in Ulysses case I'd say it was worth it to read once and once only (unlike Proust's work which I'd like to read again).

The whole notion of 'difficult' also needs clarification. Having learnt German recently I have read some of the German books that I had previously read in translation, such as Mann's Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain). It has been suggested to me that this is a 'difficult' book, but apart from length I didn't think it was any more difficult than, say, Ian McEwan's Atonement. What exactly do we mean by 'difficult'?

schultzie said...

Oops, I should have read the Millions article first for their definition of difficult:
books that are hard to read for their length, or their syntax and style, or their structural and generic strangeness, or their odd experimental techniques, or their abstraction.

Andrew Seal said...

You make an excellent point, and obviously this kind of thing is going to be very subjective. But it wasn't my intent to advocate against soldiering through longueurs or rough patches--far from!. My objection is that the reason one does so seems to be, in this Millions project, often because one wants to say one has "finished"/beaten a "difficult book," or because one doesn't want to remember it as a book that one couldn't finish.

Matt in LR said...

I enjoy The Millions Difficult Books series if for no other reason than they showcase (generally) many of the books I love to read, and those books dont have a great deal of discussion amongst the litblog crowd out there. I enjoy seeing others perspectives on these books to compare with my own and see if I, or they, missed something crucial to the text. And I do believe readers of Andrew's blog, and even The Millions for that matter, need an outlet to discuss books like these because there simply arent many places to do so. For that reason I do support the series. Though my clamoring for them to cover William H Gass' The Tunnel seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

schultzie said...

Agreed, Andrew.

Perhaps the Millions article also implies that we also need a series of articles on those 'unfinished' books - the books we couldn't complete with thoughts on why...(in my case: D'skys Crime and Punishment - I absolutely loved it and found it very absorbing: too much so, I thought I was going mad about 2/3s through and stopped because it was becoming too much...)

Grace Johnson said...

I heard about the millions and been seeing a lot of feed backs about it. I personally promised that I will find some time in reading it, I even write it down to my custom pocket folder but up until now, I haven't read it yet. Well, I'm really promising that on weekends I'll read it then post something about it.

Peter James Jr said...

I found this book from my sister’s direct office furniture cabinet and i wanted to borrow it after she finished it. I heard many positive feedback about this and i can’t wait to read that book.

Louisse Campbell said...

I had the chance to read “The millions” book last weekend, I borrowed it from my officemate in our new office space in legaspi village. I find it good and I’m thinking of reading on its other related books.