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Hard Reads

James Joyce | uggboy / Flickr

Now this is the kind of game I like to play.

Hard books I enjoyed? Well, what makes a book hard? There are a variety of dimensions across which a book may be difficult.

It may be lucidly written, but treating ideas that you are not entirely equipped to absorb. I felt that way about Roger Penrose’s book, The Emperor’s New Mind, which I read a long time ago and greatly enjoyed but was never sure I understood — not because it was ever unclear, but because I just wasn’t sure I had enough background in the science to really know what he meant. But in these cases, it’s probably not correct to say that the book is difficult, as opposed to the subject. (On the other hand, I had no trouble making my way through Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, which takes the other side of some of the same questions, and no trouble identifying where I thought I saw holes in Dennett’s argument. So Dennett’s argument struck me as clear but unconvincing, while Penrose’s argument struck me as more convincing, but I wasn’t entirely sure I understood it. I wonder what that says about me — probably more than it says about Dennett and Penrose.)

Then there are the books that are written in a kind of technical language. I greatly enjoyed a series of essays by Northrop Frye, On Shakespeare, which is written in a breezy, even chatty style – it’s a marvelous book. Having enjoyed that book so much, I set out and bought The Great Code and Anatomy of Criticism. Not quite the same breezy, chatty style. Not quite. I got through the first of these, but I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Then — these are interesting ones — there are the books that you think you understand completely — until you try to recall them or, worse, explain them to somebody. I had the misfortune in college to read Hegel for a class — I read Philosophy of Right, loved it, and in a fit of madness went out and bought — and tried to read – Phenomenology of Spirit all on my lonesome. Well, I thought I was having a grand old time reading that – it seemed like I could feel my mind physically expanding. Lord knows what I thought it meant.

I had a similar experience reading William Empson’s 7 Types of Ambiguity, which I was also foolish enough to read on my own (and much more recently — we grow older, but we don’t grow any wiser; we still think we can read anything). I was enraptured while reading it — I kept thinking “oh, now I understand such-and-such” or “oh, that finally makes sense to me of so-and-so” — but I have no recollection, now, what such-and-such or so-and-so might be, and if you asked me what Empson’s book was about, I’d say, “well, it’s about, well, he distinguishes between seven different types of ambiguity in literature — well, not precisely seven; he’s a bit ambiguous on that point as well, and it’s not always clear how those types are distinguished, but … well, it’s a great read, I can tell you that.”

Fiction presents different challenges. Some books are written in language that deliberately interfere with our ability to follow a narrative, or even to understand what is being described. I’ve never tacked Finnegan’s Wake, but Ulysses has that quality in parts, and it’s one of my favorite books. The thing about Ulysses, though, is that buried under the various experiments in prose style is a good old-fashioned relationship story, and the story is told through characters that are eminently approachable. And so if you just relax, and don’t sweat stuff you don’t understand, let the music of this chapter or that roll over you when you can’t figure out what’s going on — and a lot of that music is just plain hilarious, so you’ve always got that to fall back on — you’ll catch the thread again in the subsequent chapter, and you’ll be fine. It took me three tries to get through the book, but it was unquestionably worth it — truly, a heart-breaking work of staggering genius.

Another book that presented this kind of problem but that I greatly loved was John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy — though here the experimental sections are shorter, and break up portions of the book that are written in a much more accessible narrative style, and the tricky thing is that the structure of the larger narrative doesn’t follow that of a traditional drama, with rising action leading to a climax and resolution. (Then again, neither does War and Peace, which I’m in the middle of now.) Dos Passos himself compared the book to a mural, a great panoramic view of the world, and if you think of America itself as the protagonist then suddenly the book does have a kind of traditional tragic arc, but you don’t necessarily feel that while you’re reading it. In any event, the book is a masterpiece.

And if we’re talking about tough books I liked, Donald Barthelme’s collection, Sixty Stories has to be on the list. There’s a dated quality to some of the games he plays, but really, how can you not love a book that sounds like:

Jane! I heard via an International Distress Coupon that you were beaten up by a dwarf in a bar on Tenerife. That doesn’t sound like you, Jane. Mostly you kick the dwarf in his little dwarf groin before he can get his teeth into your tasty and nice-looking leg, don’t you, Jane?

I mean, really.

But there’s another category of novel that presents different difficulties. In these, its not that the language is deliberately obscure. Rather, these books are hard because they are long and relatively static. Oh, one thing or another may happen — sometimes lots of things happen — but in terms of narrative, the unfolding of character through action, not so much. But that isn’t the point of these books. The point, rather, is to submerge you in a particular world, a particular consciousness (these books tend to get you very close to a particular consciousness) and see what it does to you to live so close to that mind for so long. Ulysses does this as well, of course, but Ulysses does just about everything, and it’s playing so many games with language and style that I put it in the other category.

Examples of the kind of thing I mean include: The Magic MountainThe UnconsoledMoby DickInfinite Jest. Some of these books have something resembling a conventional plot, while others do not. But the plot isn’t really the point of these books. And neither is “character” in the sense we usually mean that term. These books are hard because they are long, but not primarily for that reason (A Suitable Boy is longer than any pair of them, and it’s a breeze to read, because it’s a traditional narrative). Nor are they hard because the language is difficult, because you literally don’t know, from reading a page, what you are reading about. That never happens in Infinite Jest, or Moby Dick – you always know what is literally being described. They are hard because they deny the reader the traditional pleasures of narrative, because they trap you in their strange worlds and won’t let you see the path out.

That’s a dangerous thing for a novelist to do, to trap the reader like that, because the reader always has one way out: close the book. But every now and again, somebody writes a book so compelling, you want to stay trapped, even though these worlds tend to be awful. All four of the examples I mentioned led me into worlds where I was happy to stay trapped, until the last page.

Back to you, Rod.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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