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.