Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On Reading Difficult Books

The Daily Telegraph recently published an article that listed the 25 books you "Really DON'T Have to Read Before You Die".  Of course all lists are reductionist, and this one is a particular hodge-podge, listing the Twilight Series with Ulysses and Cloudstreet, as if the readership for these books was likely to be the same.  I have serious doubts that the author, Kerry Parnell, has read all 25 books on this list. She admits to giving up on Midnight's Children, though it looks like she got through all of 50 Shades of Grey, which was listed just before Crime and Punishment.  Some of the books listed are actually very easy reading and no less wonderful for that.  Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey, Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, and Cloudstreet by Tim Winton are all easily read and utterly engrossing (these three regularly make my own reductionist list of the best books of all times).  That they're hugely original, and have such distinctive styles that the books have not been copied by other authors (unlike Twilight or 50 Shades) makes them no less wonderful or accessible.  But there are other books on the list that take a little more work.  Ulysses of course is the obvious example, and as a one time Joyce scholar, I've blogged on this book before.  I'm still reading it, some 30 years after I first opened the book, and though I've read it through to the final "Yes" of Molly Bloom's soliloquy several times, there's always something new that surprises and stimulates me, as both reader and writer.  So I guess I must be one of the 32 very clever people.  However, if you drop by Frank Delaney's Ulysses podcast ReJoyce you'll find yourself in the company of around 30,000.  That, I suspect, is a mere drop in the bucket of the many fans that Ulysses has.  No, it's not easy.  Yes, it helps to take it slowly and have a guide to point out the many references, some political and rooted in time and place, but by god, it's worth the effort to enter the places Joyce takes us in that book (which, I might add, is not at all unreadable - just very referential and rich).  I would say the same for some of the other harder books on this list (which, if you take out some of the more obvious anomalities of popular culture, could easily be a list of the 25 books you really DO have to read).  Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse for example.  To say that nothing happens is to completely mis-read the book.  This is, like many great novels, the story of an internal transition and those subtle emotional connections between us that we attempt to bridge as we make meaning out of our lives.  There are many other wonderful and sometimes difficult books on this list including The Slap, The Metamorphosis, On the Road, Catch-22 and Shantaram to name just a few.  None of these books are easy, but all of them are rewarding.  You've got to put a little effort in, but once you're engrossed, the power of the prose, the distinctive voices, the philosophical journey, and the depth of the narrative transition is all revealed.  Worth the trouble.  There's nothing I like better than being engrossed in the fictive dream, and I'm all for having that happen quickly and easily when I read, but I also know that there are specific rewards to be found with some books (and art in general - that includes poetry, music, painting and dance) that take a little more effort and a closer, deeper reading.  It's by making this effort that we grow, not only as readers, but as people.


  1. Another book worth effort is never mentioned. I regard it as a gift I give to only trusted friends worthy of it. But since this is the essence of this post I shall commit my darling to public exposure. It is Harry Mulisch's 'Discovery of Heaven' a philosophical palimsest of hidden references to everything of value, scientific ideas, cultural sensitivities, art, music, astronomy , and the horror of the holocaust, Europe combed for Europe's glories, but ( and as fiction more important) the richest cast of interesting people to spend time with And a plot that snakes through deeper things. To close the book is for me a kind of death. Anyway I give it to all your fans since this seems the site most worthy of knowing about it.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Philippa. I'll try to get hold of the book (which sounds pretty amazing).

  2. I agree that Catch-22 is a great book. But, I am not sure what you mean by difficult. Perhaps it's Heller's humor.