Bookish Topic Tuesday – Tough Books

Bookish Topic Tuesday

Tough Books

Last week an episode aired on ABC of Jennifer Byrne Presents (who usually hosts a monthly book club), it was titled “Bragging Rights”, and was a discussion of those books which are touted as “must reads” but are so notoriously difficult, that many fail to get past the first chapter. They may be monstrous in length or be piled with “micro-detail” as John Safran repeated often, but whatever it is, they make it a challenge to read.

You can catch the episode here: ABC’s Jennifer Byrne Presents: Bragging Rights it also contains a transcript in case you’re unable to watch the video (I have no idea about whether it works internationally or not – sorry).

Now I guess there are a number of these books, War and Peace, Underworld, Don Quixote, In Search of Lost Time, Atlas Shrugged, The Sound and The Fury, As I Lay Dying, Foucault’s Pendulum, Tree of Man, Ulysses, Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, and the list goes on. There’s just something challenging about these books, which makes reading them (entirely) an achievement. And I find this an interesting idea. That people can become proud that they’ve managed to slog through some of these challenging titles. I guess it’s the sense of satisfaction you get when you can say, “Yes I’ve read that”. Which seems a little weird, that for some people the only reason they persevere is because they can get some pride and almost smugness in reading a challenging book. Also slightly odd, is the idea that people actually feel some shame and embarrassment from not having read a book, and will actually lie to cover this up. It’s weird, but at the same time I sort of get it, you don’t want to feel out of the loop, and especially when it comes to these challenging books, you don’t want to seem un-educated/-sophisticated or whatever by not having read these books.

Another interesting idea that came up was that when you are reading these books and struggling you feel a little stupid. You feel like, how come I can’t get this book, it’s supposed to be the best so why don’t I like it? Again it’s a little silly, because everyone is different, and just cause you don’t like or don’t get a book, doesn’t mean anything, especially not about your intelligence or worth. But it is a point I get, like reading The Great Gatsby and even Life of Pi, there’s almost this expectation that ok, I should be liking this, and it should be almost life changing, so why isn’t it? So I think that part of the challenge of these books is the reputation that they have, it’s a mental thing, that you feel a little ‘bare’ in front of this book, which is so intimidating.

I really liked Safran’s point that when it comes to these books, context is everything, and it’s something I’ve come to appreciate more this year, especially with Pride and Prejudice and The Crucible. The context of why the author was writing the story, and what circumstances they were writing it under are very important. You really do have to remember that with many of these books the challenge comes with their age, because the writing styles are quite different, so it makes it a challenge to modern readers, we’re not used to such detail, and so little action. But for the authors, this was what they were ‘required’ to do, this was the way of the time, so therefore that’s how they wrote. It’s something quite important to keep in mind to help you persevere.

I haven’t really had much experience with these books, apart from the fact I have War and Peace sitting on my shelf, it has been for around a year and a half, and will continue to sit there for some time. I haven’t made any attempt on it, yet, I will at some point, but I have so many other books to read that I’m off-put by the knowledge of this behemoth’s difficulty, so I want to wait until I feel ‘ready’. And I’m sort of eager to take on some of these challenging books in the future, to see what all the fuss is about, and I guess, feel some pride in having accomplished it!

So what’s your feeling on these tough books? Have you read any, if so, did you finish it? Did it make you feel proud? How do you go about tackling these tough ones?


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