To Read or Not to Read: Is It A Question

On the Reading of Difficult Tomes.


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.

R.T. has recently decided that reading Finnegans Wake is not worth his time or effort; however, to leap from that individual and even laudable decision to the conclusion that it is therefore a waste of time for anyone of sense is perhaps too wide a leap.  There is a great deal of room to determine that a given work is not really worth one's time.  I've decided that about most post-modern works in which footnotes play a heavier role that the text itself.  I'm not keen on experimental works that eschew story, or that imply that story is made by the reader and therefore random pages can be strewn together in whatever order appeals.  I don't think much of most modern works of scholarly criticism, and I can't be much bothered with some authors who have been widely acclaimed.  But I recognize that those delineate my shortcomings as a reader, not necessarily difficulties with the works themselves (although, even here there is room for some shared respnsibility.)

Thus, when it comes to the question of whether difficult tomes are worth the effort, my experience has been--absolutely--they are worth all the time and energy you put into them for one reason or another.  You may learn to appreciate a writer you've never cared for, as in the last few years I have done with Hawthorne and Henry James, or you may discover that as lauded as they are, some authors a simply not to your taste--as I'm beginning to suspect with Updike, Pynchon, and DeLillo--though I must say, there is always room to change one's mind if one remains open to the idea of reading difficult works.


  1. Steven - This meme of abandoning difficult books is swishing around book blogs at the moment. I agree with your position, being much more inclined to tackle those that have endured the test of time, rather than more fashionable works. I have been enjoying The Millions "introduction to difficult books," encouraging readers not to overlook potential wonders that may appear elusive.

  2. Dear Anthony,

    Thank you for your note. I went over to your site and found your cogent comments on the matter.

    I am all for someone deciding for whatever reason that a difficult book is not for them. Some books will never reach me or I them, no matter what effort is exerted to try to force the issue. But I agree--to derive from this as a general principle that therefore the work is not worth anyone's attention is faulty.

    The sense of accomplishment I had after completing _The Golden Bowl_ or _Absalom, Absalom!_ is extraordinary. And by tackling more accessible difficult books one prepares for the more distant. (Accessibility to a difficult book will depend on many different factors and probably varies by individual.)

    Thanks again.




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