Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Difficult books

I suspect most of us have them: the books we pretend we've read, or wish we'd read, or think we should've read, or tell ourselves we must read someday. They tend to be classics, or at least books that were highly recommended by many other people. They often appear on those "best books" lists.

A day of reckoning with such a book usually goes one of two ways: deciding to finally read the book now, or accepting that it's never going to happen. (I recently gave away two such books, realizing I had always felt I "should" read them but never really wanted to.) Mostly, we let such books sit where they are, waiting.

Andy Miller decided to read his. Fifty of them, in fact. He called the books in this category his "List of Betterment," and wrote a book about the year in which he read them: The Year of Reading Dangerously.

Although Miller writes enthusiastically about the experience, he struggled to get into many of the books, sometimes taking 50 or 100 or even 200 pages to get into them. He seemed to appreciate them more in retrospect, after having read them, than during the reading. And I wonder: how many readers nowadays would be willing to do likewise? Writers are taught now to grab the reader on the first page--with the first sentence, if possible--and with good reason. It is a rare reader who will slog through scores of uninspiring pages without being forced to.

There were books Miller enjoyed all the way through, but the ones I wonder about are the ones he had to push himself to get into. There are definitely still readers around who challenge themselves willingly, but I suspect their numbers may be dwindling. I'm of two minds about this myself: life's too short to read anything I have to force myself through; but challenges are how we grow. I suppose there can be a balance, a mix of difficulty levels, a testing of acquired tastes.

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