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Harder and Harder

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Some of you are on Facebook, and those of you who are know that I posted this link


about a week ago. 

The link is to a story in  Publisher’s Weekly about a list of the “10 Most Difficult Books.”

What is meant, of course, is that these are the ten most difficult to read.  By “difficult” here is meant “intellectually weighty,” rather than “so badly written that there’s  no way to figure out what the author is getting at.”

And with that in mind, I’d like to go down the list–and then get to what really should have been the point here, and was not.

1) The first book was Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, which is sitting on my TBR pile and has been there for a couple of years.

2) The next one is Jonathan Swift’s A Tale of a Tub, which I also haven’t read,  but for a different reason.  The few times I’ve picked it up and looked at it, it just didn’t attract me at all. 

Reading the little explanatory paragraph,  however, it seems that the reason for the difficulty is mostly that there are so many cultural references to a time and place that are not only not ours, but not something we’d pick up even by reading the Great Books.

And, on that level, I’m not sure why pick this particular book.  There are dozens of books that are difficult for this reason, and there will be more.  It’s inevitable, because literature deals with the particular rather than the general, and particulars come and go.

And since I don’t read for plot, digressions don’t bother me and they don’t usually derail me, so that doesn’t seem to be it. 

As for the promise that this book is “the ultimate expression of cultural alienation and despair”

I mean.  Well.

3) The next one is The Phenomenology of Spirit by Hegel, and that one I have read, courtesy of what would have been a minor in philosophy if Vassar had had minors when I was there.

This is, legitimately, a difficult book to read, and not because Hegel was trying to throw up a lot of intellectual sand so that you didn’t catch on to what he was really doing.

It’s also on my list on the web site, the one called The Western Canon According to Me. 

It is, I think, one of the most important books in the history of the world, because it is the basis for practically every post-Enlightenment political catastrophe. 

Hegel ditched God in any sense the West had ever known Him, and put in His place History, with a capital H and a near-personification.

Out of that comes both Marxism and Fascism, which are by and large just two words for the same thing. 

It’s interesting to see how we got from there to here, and it was worth my time.

But  it’s very abstract.

4) Then there’s Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.  This one I’ve read, too, but not in a class.  When I was an undergraduate, the favorite Woolf for general courses–“The 20th Century British Novel”–was Mrs. Dalloway. 

I was not, I will admit, all that interested in Mrs. Dalloway, but some time while I was in graduate school, Woolf became the iconic “feminist writer.”  Part of that was her essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” and part of it was the fact that there weren’t that many women writers available to pin feminist hopes of equality on.

My problem was that I could never see why Woolf was supposed to be so feminist.  Both Woolf herself, in life, and her characters on the page always came across to me as oppresively passive in everything they thought and said. 

And I don’t think this is adequately explained by her being a product of her time.  Kate Chopin was also a product of her time, and she was considerably more actively engaged in her world and its ideas.

To me, Woolf is difficult in the wrong sense, a writer whose ideas and imaginatively vision are so hopeless and inert that the atmosphere is suffocating.

And eventually, I want to come up for air.

5) The fifth is one of the earliest novels in English, Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady, by Samuel Richardson. 

And I’m here to tell  you, it’s a lot of fun.  It is, as the writer of this article notes,  really enormous–but I think “short on plot” is mistaken.  The plot is straightforward enough.  Clarissa, desperate to escape her abusive family, falls in love with the first adventurer she meets, who entices her to run away with him and then abandons her, ruining her life–at which point she does the only thing she can do, and commits suicide.

The one real difficulty, for modern readers, would probably be the form–it’s written as a series of letters from Clarissa to Lovelace (the adventurer) and others, and if you’re not used to fiction written that way it can be a bit difficult to get used to.

6) Now we come to Finnegan’s Wake, by James Joyce.

When I posted this list on FB, the comment I made was the I’d read 6 1/2 of the books listed, and the 1/2 was Finnegan’s Wake.

I listed it as 1/2 not because I’d only gotten half through it, but because I’d gotten all the way through it and found that it annoyed the hell out of me.

When I told my professor that, he said I couldn’t have understood it, or it wouldn’t have annoyed me.

Personally, I think he was wrong, but what the hell.  You ought to have the option of blowing me off when I tell you that I don’t think this one is worth the time.

It’s probably the most self-consciously “experimental” novel in existence in English.  It starts with the second  half of the sentence with which it ends, and most people need the little companion volume to figure out what it’s saying.  I did.

Joyce is supposed to have said that it took a lifetime for him to write it, and it should take a lifetime for you to read it.

I’m with another of my professors, whose response to this was:  well, if that’s the way you want to spend your life.

7) Being and Time by Martin Heidigger is a book that is very, very difficult to read, but it is difficult to read because Heidigger was deliberately attempting to disguise what it was he was actually saying.

If Hegel is the apostle of totalitarianism, Heidigger is its fulfillment.  If that wasn’t clear when he first wrote, it should be clear by now–and yet he is regularly championed as one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and not just by the kind of people you would expect to be his friends.

Hannah Arendt defended him until the day she died–and yet Arendt was Heidigger’s lover and student right up to the day when Heidigger took over control of the university and force Arendt and all the other Jews out.

There were a lot of evasions after the war, but Heidigger was not only a Nazi in sympathy.  He was a member of the Nazi Party.  And as long as the Nazis were in power and he wasn’t worried about being hauled into court as a war criminal, Heidigger was always quick to say that the Nazi program was the practical realization of his own ideas.

Heidigger’s “rehabilitation” after the war was breathtakingly swift, and it’s the reason that I’m disappointed another book isn’t here–Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.

There’s nothing particularly inventive in Sartre’s book.  It’s just Heidigger restated in even more obscurantist language.

But it was the book Sartre used to explain away the fact that Existential “authenticity” and “radical responsibility” mean always, always, hewing to the Communist Party line.

8) Spenser’s Faerie Queene puzzles me a little on a list of “difficult” books.  It is, of course, outside our time and place, and difficult for that reason.  Spenser was a contemporary of Shakespeare.  Unlike Shakespeare, he was also a court poet rather than a popular one.

But the language is beautiful, the plot is charming, the whole thing was written in honor of Elizabeth the First–and you can read it the first time through without paying too much attention to the allegory if you want to.

If you’re smart, you’ll read it the second time through for the allegory, and get a good guide to help you out.

Spenser was a very interesting man.

9) The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein is actually something I’ve read a lot more than once.  In fact, it goes on my top twenty and maybe even my top fifteen favorite books.

People complain a lot about the difficulty of Stein’s language and her experimental technique, but it’s more like an alien form of music that sounds like noise until you understand what it is you’re listening to.

If I was going to pick a writer to represent the “feminist” impulse in English literature, I wouldn’t have picked Woolf.  I’d have picked Stein.

I think she got short shrift in the Seventies not only because of that experimental style, but because she was physically unattractive and forthrightly lesbian at a time when it was not acceptable to be either.

Feminists in the Seventies were looking for women who had achieved thing, but were still attractive to men–a kind of riff on my father’s whole thing about career women and “compensating.”

 10) The last is something called Women and Men, by Joseph McElroy, and on that one I cannot comment at all.  I’ve not only not read it.  I’d never heard of it before this list. 

But of the other “postmodern meganovels” this writer also references, I have read Gravity’s Rainbow.   And I’ve read it more than once.

If that’s what a “postmodern meganovel” is supposed to be, I may look up a few more.

So that’s the list, and at the end of it I have only one question.

Why take “difficulty” as the standard for judging a book?

Written by janeh

August 8th, 2012 at 11:12 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Harder and Harder'

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  1. Wipeout. Nothing on the list I’ve read. Nothing on the list I wanted to read, or felt I ought to read.

    But is difficulty THE standard for judging a book, or A standard? THE standard would make no sense to me. I have no desire to seek out difficulty for its own sake, and no desire to read only the least challenging works. But difficulty as A standard seems only proper. Reading a book is an investment, and whether it’s entertainment, enlightenment or knowledge, one likes to see a return on one’s invested time and effort. The same is true of length, I think–surely not the only standard, but something which ought to be taken into account.

    I think I’d subdivide difficulty, though, sorting out vocabulary and sentence structure from convoluted plot or difficult argument. And then I’d subdivide each of them. Is the language necessarily difficult because of the subject or how the subject is approached, or has the author made it difficult for his own amusement? Is the plot or argument tricky to follow because someone is making a complicated argument–or for its own sake, in a mystery? Or is it complicated so we won’t notice that Chapter 4 invalidates Chapter 32? All four categories seem to be among the 10 titles: surely necessary difficulties should be treated differently than authorial malfeasance?

    My own suspicion is that when one finds a convoluted argument–as opposed to plot–in a book, it’s an indicator that the author is either being deceptive or has not really mastered his subject.

    But that could just be my excuse for avoiding certain difficult books.


    8 Aug 12 at 6:10 pm

  2. Should also have observed that I don’t equate “difficult” with “intellectually weighty.” Quite the contrary, for the most part.


    8 Aug 12 at 6:16 pm

  3. “Out of that comes both Marxism and Fascism, which are by and large just two words for the same thing.”

    Love it.


    8 Aug 12 at 11:53 pm

  4. Feminists authors – I suggest Dorothy Sayers and offer Harriet Vane in various stories and the faculty in “Gaudy Night” as evidence.


    9 Aug 12 at 12:35 am

  5. ‘Difficulty’ as a standard for judging a book ties in nicely with the idea that the more important something is, the fewer people can access/ use/ do it with any skill. So increased value is directly correlated with increased difficulty. And the whole idea makes an easy hook to hang an article on.

    The problem, of course, is that sometimes this is true. I would find, say, a textbook on modern physics difficult to read, not least because I don’t have the background knowledge, and that book probably contains extremely valuable information about the development of ideas in a core part of our civilization.

    Philosophy doesn’t seem to work like that, exactly. I haven’t read the two mentioned, but I attempted and failed to read and read about some of the post-modern types, and really, I was left with the impression that any difficulty was due to the use of obscure language to hide not very much. Other philosophers use technical language too, and some write nicely and clearly for the lay reader – but the ideas might still be difficult.

    As for fiction – yes, sure, reading something from a long-ago culture poses challenges and I don’t do it very often. That’s not to say that the ideas are difficult to comprehend – they might or might not be. But the problem is mostly in my lack of context.

    And the type of fiction that is deliberately difficult to read – Joyce etc – I’ve never understood what those authors are trying to do. They aren’t stupid people, and lots of other people find something in their works to admire. But I just don’t get it, and I’m not interested enough to put the time in to try to figure out how to get it. So these books may be difficult in a real sense, but they’re also irrelevant to me.


    9 Aug 12 at 6:57 am

  6. Every profession has its sacred texts and its own “language”. I’ve often thought that the literary profession, if it’s fair to call it that, has the most opaque jargon of all. To my poor simple mind, I find it hard to believe that there is any purpose in such obscurantism other than to preserve the intellectual authority and political territory of the anointed.

    They’re welcome to each other.


    9 Aug 12 at 8:31 pm

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