On reading difficult books

I like challenging myself with difficult books now and then, but there are some books that leave me quaking in my boots. There are challenges, and then there are challenges, right? And then there’s a category of book that is quite possibly beyond me entirely. So, to get specific, a challenge of the first sort, the sort that is difficult but doesn’t leave me quaking, would be something like Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, a book that is rather difficult to piece together, but still something I can follow, more or less, that makes a kind of sense, and if I read it a time or two more, I’ll feel like I can understand. Proust was like this too.

The sort of book that makes me quake is something like Ulysses, which I had to read in a college course, although I’m not sure how much I really got out of it. I know I can read this book and get it for the most part, especially with some critical help, but it requires an awful lot of work. I’m not opposed to doing this kind of work, I just want to do it in a time I have tons of energy and enthusiasm for it. I’d put the longer novels of Pynchon in this category, and certain kinds of poetry qualifies here too, like if I were to undertake reading the collected poems of John Ashbery, someone known for being a bit obscure.

The books that are perhaps beyond me entirely? What comes to mind immediately is Finnegans Wake. In fact, this may be the only book in this category. I’m okay reading books I can’t fully make sense of, but a book I can’t make sense of at all? That’s different. Not that I’ve tried, I must say — perhaps the book isn’t as difficult as I’m imagining. But I have my doubts.

I’m thinking about this issue because I just read this article in the New York Review of Books on Gertrude Stein. It’s a review of Janet Malcolm’s new book Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. As I understand it, the book is about their lives, most interestingly about their lives during World War II, and also about Stein’s writing. Stein is a writer who makes me quake a little bit. I’ve read her book of poetry Tender Buttons, and I thought it was quite beautiful, even if it didn’t make any sort of logical sense. But it’s the kind of book you just let wash over you; you savor the language and give up trying to pull together a logical meaning.

But her other work scares me a bit, particularly the longer work, such as The Making of Americans, which the article describes as “gigantic and impenetrable.” Janet Malcolm calls it “a text of magisterial disorder.” And the article also says this:

Again, about The Making of Americans, Malcolm calls the book a laboratory for Stein, ponderous and unforgiving, a morass, a nervous breakdown of a novel, swerving between conventional narrative and gibberish, “a work that Stein evidently had to get out of her system—almost like a person having to vomit—before she could become Gertrude Stein as we know her.” But Malcolm admires its refusal to “impose a false order on disorderly complexity,” which might also be said of Cézanne’s art, in all its ambiguity and mystery.

I like that description, “a nervous breakdown of a novel,” but do I want to read it?

I don’t like the idea that any book is beyond me, though. I feel torn between not wanting to spend my time on impenetrable books that would frustrate me and not wanting to give up on any interesting-sounding book out there. I may never try to read The Making of Americans, but I don’t like the way it’s out there, taunting me with its difficulty.

12 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

12 responses to “On reading difficult books

  1. Speaking of difficult books…I wanted to tell you that it’s time for Waverley! I’ve read Rob Roy, and enjoyed it (once I found a way to deal with the dialects), but our professor warned us that we might find ourselves checking our watches repeatedly for the first 100 pages or so. Walter Scott, here I come! We’re reading it over a two week period, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

  2. hepzibah

    I know what you mean about difficult books, but you can do it, dorothy! I’ve realized that it is okay not to understand every little thing, but to just take it for what it is, and try to see the beauty in that.

  3. I am really not a good customer for difficult books. Somehow I feel that authors should do the work, until they managed to make simple something hard. I feel I am being extremely old-fashioned about this. I can assemble IKEA furniture, for which the joints and bolts are obvious, and which comes with a map, but that is as far as I’ll go. I do not want to read a book where I still need to do most of the wood-turning, graining and polishing work, and not even know in the end whether the result is anywhere near what the uthor intended (if there was an intention; otherwise, I find it almost criminal: “here, take this material, procure your own tools, and make what you want with it”).

  4. Now you know why I’ve never read Ulysses or the longer novels of Pynchon. And there’s a part of me that, like you, likes that description: “a nervous breakdown of a novel.” But after thinking about it, my question is: do I really want to witness someone else’s nervous breakdown? I couldn’t agree more with Mandarine in the not-wanting-to-do-the-wood-turning-graining-polishing-and-polishing work (especially since I don’t even know what wood turning is).

  5. I understand what you mean completely! Stein makes me nervous but I’m not really afraid of her. If it is any comfort, I have read pieces of Making of Americans and found it not altogether impossible.

    Maybe you could host a Challenging Book Challenge sometime, the object being that everyone picks a book that scares them. I’m not sure what mine would be. Ulysses maybe. Or Faulkneer’s Sound and Fury.

  6. I sometimes have a fear of moderately hard authors (not sure why as once I read them I find that I actually enjoy them), so I am not sure how I might handle something like Ulysses or worse Finnegan’s Wake. I do like a challenge now and then, but I also like to enjoy what I’m reading, and I am not sure I would if it was so completely impenetrable. It’s sort of curious that language can be so difficult sometimes–if we speak the same language, and the author writes in that language, how can be possibly not understand? I guess it is what authors do with language that can be beautiful or completely difficult that’s so amazing.

  7. I know, there are books I am afraid to tackle because I know they will suck up all my literary energy! Ulysses &/or Finnegan’s Wake, certainly. There’s a letter from D.H. Lawrence to the Huxleys about his view of Finnegan’s Wake with even a mention of Gertrude Stein, just posted over at The Postman’s Horn (my husband’s blog, shameless promotion I know, but it’s an entertaining letter)

  8. I really like what you said about how you don’t like the idea that any book is beyond you. As a bookworm I keep thinking that I can read any book but for me there are some that make me a bit apprehensive to say the least and some that just lose me. Oh well. It’s good to try a challenging book though because you never know, it may not prove to be such a challenge after all. One book that was clearly a huge challenge for me though was Night by Louis Ferdinand Celine. Good grief, I felt like I had no idea what was going on in that.

  9. I think it was Gertrude Stein’s publisher that told her she could be a great writer if she’d only allow her work to be edited. I’ve read Brewsie and Willie, which wasn’t too hard going, but haven’t been brave enough for anything longer. I will finish Ulysses one day but have always lost interest once it gets onto Leopold Bloom, which is a bit of a problem.

  10. Ian

    I kind of would like to witness someone’s nervous breakdown, if I’m far removed from it and it is literature and not “real”. But if it is impenetrable I don’t know. Ulysses would be a huge challenge but lately I’ve been tempted to try it. I guess there is a sort of pride in finally coming to an understanding about a very difficult book. I felt that way about The Sound and the Fury which I now think is brilliant, but it took patience to get there.

  11. Sarah — I AM looking forward to hearing what you think! That’s funny about your professor’s warning :)

    Hepzibah — you’re so right about not needing to get every little thing, and I think that’s a valuable lesson to learn. Maybe you’re right that I can read the difficult stuff — the question, then, is do I want to?!

    Mandarine — very interesting metaphor! But I’m not sure I buy it. I guess I don’t think language is anywhere near as concrete and obvious as a piece of furniture — we’re always participating in creating meaning (which you acknowledge in your IKEA example), but what we create isn’t necessarily going to be what the author intended, or even close, and I don’t see a problem with that. But I can certainly understand not wanting to do all that work — I feel that way too at times.

    Emily — it does take a certain kind of reader to want to witness the nervous breakdown, doesn’t it? Sometimes I can be that kind of reader, sometimes not.

    Stefanie — that’s an interesting challenge idea! Perhaps I’ll have to think about that one. How much of Making of Americans did you read? I’m glad to hear it wasn’t so bad. But I wonder if the length is what would get me.

    Danielle — the enjoyment issue is key for me — sometimes I enjoy a challenge but sometimes it’s so hard that I stop having fun. I wonder where that line is, exactly …

    Thank you for the link, Melanie; that IS an amusing letter!

    Iliana — you’re right that you just never know until you try it — I’ve experienced fear of books that I shouldn’t have, because when I finally picked them up, they weren’t nearly as hard as I thought.

    Eloise — I haven’t heard of Brewsie and Willie; actually there’s a lot of Stein I haven’t heard of. I should look into more of her work.

  12. Like you, I like the description “a nervous breakdown of a novel”. However, I also think we need to bear in mind that it is perfectly valid to reject a book on the basis of the lack of connection between you and the author. If I can’t grasp the author’s point through the words chosen to present it, the attempted communication between creator and reader has failed. I may have given it a fair shot, but the minds never met.

    I don’t understand all the humans I meet in person either; it’s not a character flaw. It’s a fact of existence.

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