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The Stockholm Syndrome Theory of Long Novels
May 18, 2011 9:05 PM   Subscribe

"Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing." Mark O'Connell writes about how he overcame his fear of reading very long novels.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear (83 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.

Amen, and amen. Gravity's Rainbow changed me irrevocably. I love long-form fiction, and read quite a bit of it, but that book... was somehow a rite of passage and a transformative furnace and an inspirational siren all wrapped up into a giant confusing humorous gin marshmallow. I've never feared a book since, and I count my life much richer for having its Midas finger touch my life.
posted by hippybear at 9:13 PM on May 18, 2011 [8 favorites]


Dogsbody, a piece from The Believer about the group experience of forcing oneself through Ulysses.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:17 PM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


Does this count if it took me two years to read Cryptonomicon? Knowing how much Pynchon has influenced Neal Stephenson, I'm pretty afraid to crack open Gravity's Rainbow.

I never got past page 60 of Ulysses, nor page 10 of Pale Fire (and that one isn't even long, for goodness sake!). But I have read 1,000+ page fantasy novels several times. I consider myself fairly well read but can't seem to tackle some of the "greats"... so is there something wrong with me?
posted by jnrussell at 9:31 PM on May 18, 2011


Long novels are the only ones I finish these days.
posted by silby at 9:31 PM on May 18, 2011


This mentality, of viewing reading as a challenge in itself, goes against the kind of immersion that reading is all about. Chris Roberts nailed it when he commented,

"Mark OConnell makes use of the condition, Stockholm Syndrome, too lightly. His meandering from work to work does little to shore up his postulation. Page counts do not make a disease. Trying to prove it, or rather make it fit, does speak certainly to an ill-conceived, sophomoric paper in dire need of direction and facts."

Books shouldn't be approached as big wooden blocks to be measured by dimensions. They are words strung together, each carefully built on the last. Length hardly makes a difference, since the author has carefully built a tunnel for you to crawl through. If the author is having a hard time focusing on long difficult texts, it makes me wonder how deeply he is reading the short difficult texts.
posted by neil pierce at 9:41 PM on May 18, 2011 [6 favorites]


jnrussell: pick up Gravity's Rainbow. Read it. You can use the Pynchon Wiki if you get stuck. But I slogged through it without such an aid, reading it mostly during a 45-minute-each-way bus commute to and from work for a while. There are sections which had me laughing out loud, and a big segment of reading it which had me paranoid beyond belief. But all that is diffused by the end, and the overall effect is one of sheer reader's bliss.
posted by hippybear at 9:42 PM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


*"the author" in the last sentence being Mark O'Connell
posted by neil pierce at 9:43 PM on May 18, 2011


Will comment after overcoming my fear of long blog posts.
posted by rouftop at 9:45 PM on May 18, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think style is far more of a challenge than length. jnrussel mentioned Pale Fire, which is not a very long novel at all--about 200 pages?--but is far more challenging to read than, say, Stephen King's It, which clocks in at over 1,000 pages.

Before reading something like Pale Fire I would definitely take a big mental breath and focus all the more, whereas reading It is something you can do with one brain tied behind your back. And you can probably finish that faster.

(If you can think of better examples than Pale Fire and It, feel free to let me know.)
posted by zardoz at 9:57 PM on May 18, 2011 [4 favorites]


Other than reading that is necessary or required (for a university course, say) I don't actually understand why anyone would keep on slogging through a book which brings them no pleasure. I read for the joy of it; if whatever I'm reading doesn't ring bells for me, I put it aside with not the slightest hint of guilt. I'm not afraid of long books: I've read War and Peace, and both Anna Karenina and Middlemarch multiple times, but only because I enjoyed them. Life's too short to read books that you don't like just because you think you "should".
posted by jokeefe at 10:16 PM on May 18, 2011 [16 favorites]


A few years ago, Adam Gopnik had an interesting essay in the New Yorker (unfortunately you need a subscription to read the entire thing) about shortening (e.g., abridging novels) and lengthening (e.g., director’s cuts and DVD commentaries) works of art. He concludes, “The real lesson . . . [is] that masterpieces are inherently a little loony. They run on the engine of their own accumulated habits and weirdnesses and self-indulgent excesses. They have to, since originality is, necessarily, something still strange to us, rather than something that we already know about and approve. What makes writing matter is not a story, cleanly told, but a voice, however odd or ordinary, and a point of view, however strange or sentimental.”
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 10:17 PM on May 18, 2011 [7 favorites]


I love long books, but not that one. I was like a boxer, strutting into the ring full of confidence, and then bam, 45-page swimming through feces scene and down I go in the second round.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:18 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I like to read web sites that have succinct spoilers to very long books. Does that count?
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:30 PM on May 18, 2011


I was always intimidated by novels in general and I don't think I would have read long novels had I not taken many Russian lit classes. Having a guide and friends to converse with kept me going, along with some deadlines (and wonderful stories!). I feared reading outside of such a support network, but I learned that really good novels are easy to read, regardless how long they are.

I think I had (and still do at times) a fear of large books. Instead of enjoying them for the stories they tell, I believed them to be a measurement of intelligence, endurance, or even humanity, which is a horrible way to approach any book, and quickly lead to my failure.

That said, now that I have a kindle (my god I know this is a bit shameless) I no longer care what page I'm on because I have no clue what page I'm on. Size no longer matters; that has been quite liberating (yes, I totally just said that).

Still, a good book will turn its own pages, regardless if thick or thin.
posted by mapinduzi at 10:35 PM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm bad with classics.

Seriously, it's almost a phobia with me. I grew up cultured and educated, and I love art in all its forms, but if I'm presented with any media which exists in actual time (meaning music, theatre, film, etc.) which was created before I was born, well... it's not that I don't think I'll like it, but that I have an aversion to sitting through it. Like, it wasn't until college that I was willing to listen to a Led Zeppelin album, because the thought of doing so felt like homework, and I fucking love Zeppelin now.

Hell, I love Gilbert & Sullivan these days, but it took a lot to get me to that point. And yet it didn't with Shakespeare.

The truth is that in dealing with "great works" not experienced at the time of their release, they achieve a status requiring veneration, and likely deserving of it, but also usually among a cult demographic. A sort of "you have to be this well-read to enter the conversation" sort of sign. And the older a work is, the more I feel like I need to be constantly researching things to understand what the author was going for and meant rather than just enjoying the journey.

Now, I've gotten over this fear a good many times. A Tale of Two Cities will probably always be my favorite book. But long, hard-to-get novels can easily become the attractive girl at the bar who you feel is way out of your league. Basically, "yeah, that looks awesome, but I know myself and that time would be better spent elsewhere."

Though it's even worse with film and tv, because by this point most bad movies and tv shows would win oscars if taken back far enough, because standards of acting, shooting, and editing have gotten so much better over the decades. Even with things as brilliant as Citizen Kane and Casablanca you have to make the point to suspend disbelief, taking yourself to a place where people talked like that (which they clearly never did) and looking past editing which would elicit groan from any modern picture.

The point is that I want to experience genius, but I need to get lost in my media. And the older it is, the harder that is. I'm not proud of it, and I try to fix it, but that's the way it is.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:48 PM on May 18, 2011 [2 favorites]


TL;DR


;-P
posted by theartandsound at 11:27 PM on May 18, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would think that long novels hold no special terror for the modern reader, but I'm constantly proven wrong. Hell, even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows clocks in at 759 pages in the US edition. I could read that in a week, but Ulysses, which is of comparable length, defeated me about halfway. One of the few books I've given up on.

I read War and Peace last year, after finding the new Norwegian translation for cheap at a book sale. It came in four rather slim volumes. It's always touted as a massive undertaking to read. The length, scope and number of characters are feared among my book-reading peers. But most fantasy triologies are longer and has more characters, and people don't blanch at starting them.
posted by Harald74 at 11:46 PM on May 18, 2011


I'm currently reading The Dogs Of Winter by Kem Nunn -- probably about three-quarters of the way through its 300+ pages. It's not nearly long enough.
posted by philip-random at 11:53 PM on May 18, 2011


Other than reading that is necessary or required (for a university course, say) I don't actually understand why anyone would keep on slogging through a book which brings them no pleasure. I read for the joy of it; if whatever I'm reading doesn't ring bells for me, I put it aside with not the slightest hint of guilt.

Exactly. Life is too short to read books you don't like. Essays like this bother me because they focus more on the work of reading, rather than the joy. It would be great if people read Ulysses because it is funny, sad, dirty, tragic, joyful, and heartbreaking and not because they think it gives them culture points.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:40 AM on May 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through.

He's reading for the wrong reasons. GR took me a long time to finish, about two months, or about an order of magnitude more than most other fiction.

But I enjoyed almost all of it. It's an amazingly funny book.

If you're only reading "to prove that you can see it through", read a dictionary, it'll do more for you.
posted by orthogonality at 1:32 AM on May 19, 2011


I really enjoyed Pale Fire once I stopped struggling to understand it.

That's part of the allure of the book; I can return to it over and over again and as I age and I gain (and lose) knowledge the book changes. I have deliberately avoided reading books about Pale Fire, because I'd prefer to bask in my ignorance and have it remain a cipher.

Surmounting Everest requires a team, and logistics, and piles of cash, and all sorts of unpleasantness. And maybe some novels are best tackled like Big Projects, where you roll up your sleeves and chart a plan of attack.

But I hate thinking of reading a novel as a chore or a challenge. It runs counter to the whole idea of using words to, you know, communicate with other people.

If a novel requires a stack of ancillary material in order for the reader to comprehend it, then, damn, that author is either just showing off or else deliberately fucking with you.

That may be a resolutely middlebrow approach to Great Fiction, but it sure does help me continue to enjoy Pale Fire without a team of Sherpas.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:41 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


You know what I hate? When mountain climbers take a helicopter to the summit of Everest first, then climb the damn mountain. Doesn't that ruin the trip?
posted by Splunge at 3:19 AM on May 19, 2011


It would be great if people read Ulysses because it is funny, sad, dirty, tragic, joyful, and heartbreaking and not because they think it gives them culture points.

"It is not at all natural to want to listen to classical music. Learning to appreciate it is like Pascal’s wager: you pretend to be religious, and suddenly you have faith. You pretend to love Beethoven—or Stravinsky—because you think that will make you appear educated and cultured and intelligent, because that kind of thing music is prestigious in professional circles, and suddenly you really love it, you have become a fanatic, you go to concerts and buy records and experience true ecstasy when you hear a good performance.... The musical canon is not decided by majority opinion but by enthusiasm and passion. A work that ten people love passionately is more important than one that ten thousand do not mind hearing." —Charles Rosen
posted by twirlip at 3:33 AM on May 19, 2011 [9 favorites]


I've tried reading Gravity's Rainbow three times and quit...not because it's bad, but because the experience is very much like reading Neal Stephenson while being the kind of drunk where the room is spinning and you aren't feeling sick yet, but it's just right around the corner.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:04 AM on May 19, 2011


I've tried reading Gravity's Rainbow three times and quit...

Just one failed try for me. I've read through all of Stephenson's except the most recent but his stuff is an easy glide to read, just long. Gravity's Rainbow isn't just long it's impenetrable. I did make it all the way through V but I have no idea what it was about, what happened or what the point was; I may just not be cut out for Pynchon's longer stuff (loved Crying of Lot 49 though).
posted by octothorpe at 4:53 AM on May 19, 2011


I was gonna say what twirlip/Rosen did. I have a lot of sympathy for the "life's too shor" point of view, and I, too, have authors whose work I will probably never read much of even though I "should" (hello, Shiga Naoya!) But if you believe, as I and a lot of people do, that reading can have benefits and bring joys beyond sheer phantasmagoric pleasure, then saying that one should never read if it isn't fun is like saying that you should never deny yourself snacks and exercise if you'd rather laze on the couch eating Snickers bars all day. Sometimes "slogging through" things that aren't immediate fun can enrich your life in ways that you can't even imagine before you experience them -- whether that's better fitness, or appreciating Haydn, or understanding chess, or thinking with a brain that's read "War and Peace."

(Which I haven't read. Heh.)

Also, saying "People shouldn't read X because they feel forced to, they should read it because reading it is fun" isn't really an improvement on "Read X or you're a barbarian." If anything, it's worse: it turns a failure of discipline (I won't make time to read X) into a failure of character/smarts (I am constitutionally unable to enjoy X as I should).
posted by No-sword at 4:57 AM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


If you can't be arsed to read it, why not just learn to blag?
posted by veedubya at 5:14 AM on May 19, 2011


He's reading for the wrong reasons.

Amen.

Also, saying "People shouldn't read X because they feel forced to, they should read it because reading it is fun" isn't really an improvement on "Read X or you're a barbarian." If anything, it's worse: it turns a failure of discipline (I won't make time to read X) into a failure of character/smarts (I am constitutionally unable to enjoy X as I should).

Nah, it just means people's tastes are different and punishing yourself by doing something you clearly dislike is pretty silly. If you're not getting something out of a particular experience, why the hell would you keep doing it?

When it comes to making judgements, I get an implication from the article of "Maybe the people who claim to really enjoy books like Gravity's Rainbow and The Recognitions are fakers, because I find reading them horrible and comparable to being kidnapped and held hostage."
posted by aught at 5:33 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've read Lot 49 but never tackled anything of his longer... just reading the first page or so of V or Rainbow was a bit intimidating.

I've read all of Voice Of The Fire... I think getting past the long long opening chapter of ug-language was my well, it's not Everest as it don't have the height but it was highly technical as climbers say... but I'm actively looking forward to the half-a-million word whopper Jerusalem gawd help me
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:38 AM on May 19, 2011


Even with things as brilliant as Citizen Kane and Casablanca you have to make the point to suspend disbelief, taking yourself to a place where people talked like that (which they clearly never did) and looking past editing which would elicit groan from any modern picture.

Wait - what? I'm flabbergasted by this comment.
posted by aught at 5:39 AM on May 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


This mentality, of viewing reading as a challenge in itself, goes against the kind of immersion that reading is all about.

Pre-cisely. As soon as I read that this guy's approach to long novels seems to be along the lines of seeing them as some sort of special challenge or ordeal to be endured and overcome, I just thought, "We're completely different in our approach to reading." I like reading good writing, period. If it's a good short poem, I'm enjoying myself. If it's a good short story, I'm happy. If it's a good novella, I'm content. If it's a good mammoth 1000-page-plus doorstop, great. The key point is, it has to be good.

I might concede that these days I'm inclined to be a little less patient with long novels simply because they do involve more of a commitment of time, and if I feel the novel is not worth that larger investment I will put it aside and seek something that is - which may well be another long novel, of course. But for me the only challenge involved with really good long novels is getting over that sorrow you feel at finishing a great, sweeping experience.

Many of my favourite novels are long. None of them is "Gravity's Rainbow", though. I've made three attempts now, and while it contains enough interesting stuff to keep me trying, it's just too much work for too little reward. And don't even get me started on "Infinite Jest" or I'll need to start drinking, and it's not even 9 AM.
posted by Decani at 5:43 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you're not getting something out of a particular experience, why the hell would you keep doing it?

Because you might start getting something out of it if you keep doing it? Because you might be getting something out of it without realizing it, and having done it will make your life better?

I'm not saying that everyone needs to start at Gilgamesh and read their way through The Canon. Like I said, my list of Books I Should Have Read But Haven't would no doubt mark me for an oaf and a knave in a university in 1910. But I also think that the "if it feels bad, don't do it" approach can be taken too far. Sometimes, things that require concentration and effort and don't seem to pay off at all can end up paying off in unexpected ways.

So if you don't wanna read Gravity's Rainbow or Proust, I'm not gonna judge you and I don't think anyone else should either. But if you start reading one of them and it's tougher than you thought and you're not sure if you like it or not, I would say that you should give it more of a chance than you would a new sitcom. Maybe you, too, are one of the many people for whom those works are enriching and enjoyable, and just don't know it yet.

Even with things as brilliant as Citizen Kane and Casablanca you have to make the point to suspend disbelief, taking yourself to a place where people talked like that (which they clearly never did) and looking past editing which would elicit groan from any modern picture.

Wait - what? I'm flabbergasted by this comment.

Well, it's the same thing, dude. It takes effort to appreciate things done in a completely different idiom from what we're used to. The difference between appreciating a black and white image and appreciating a color one, that difference alone is enormous. And here, too, I would say that it's worth putting in the time to see if you really do enjoy those old movies or not, rather than assuming that you don't enjoy them when in fact you just don't know how to enjoy them yet.
posted by No-sword at 5:46 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think there are multiple kind of pleasure possible in the phrase “reading for pleasure.” There are books I read for pure enjoyment, where I shut off my critical faculties and revel in pure plot (much science fiction and mystery). There are books I read for pure enjoyment of language, where the plot can actually get in the way of how fun the book is because it gets too tedious (Address: Blandings Castle). There are books that I read slowly to savor some ineffable quality (Absalom, Absalom). There are books that take an intellectual effort, but bring a complex joy, which is partly the satisfaction of accomplishment (Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow). There are books I read where the pleasure comes almost completely from adding to my understanding of some period of literary history or culture (The Recognitions). There are books that I’ve read multiple times because something about them is so compelling that they draw me back again and again (A Month in the Country <1>In Search of Lost Time ~2500 pages). None of these different types of pleasure is predicated on length, and none is “wrong”.

I find the notion that somehow we should not read things that are a slog, for whatever reason, to be as constraining as the notion that we should only read “classics.” People read for a million different reasons, and most ardent readers I know read for many different reasons at once. There is a different quality to reading different types of books, and length is one of the characteristics that determines type. Sometimes all I want to read are short novels, under 200 pages, but usually around 150. They go down so easy. Other times I want the scope and rhythm of a long work to pull me along. (I’m reading Joyce Cary’s first trilogy right now, and it’s fabulous.)
posted by OmieWise at 6:25 AM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


This article makes me really, really sad, and I vehemently agree with these posts.

Other than reading that is necessary or required (for a university course, say) I don't actually understand why anyone would keep on slogging through a book which brings them no pleasure. I read for the joy of it; if whatever I'm reading doesn't ring bells for me, I put it aside with not the slightest hint of guilt.

Exactly. Life is too short to read books you don't like. Essays like this bother me because they focus more on the work of reading, rather than the joy. It would be great if people read Ulysses because it is funny, sad, dirty, tragic, joyful, and heartbreaking and not because they think it gives them culture points.


My favorite kind of novels are long ones I can get lost in. I actually have a hard time when a friend recommends a short story. I know there are great short stories (I've read a lot of them), but my knee-jerk response is, "Nah! I don't want an appetizer. I want a full meal. I want to gorge myself!"

To me, reading is like eating or fucking. It's mostly a sensual experience. Anyone should, of course, be allowed to enjoy (or -- shudder -- slog through) books any way they want, but it's hard to read someone talking about something that's a great pleasure for you as if it's a duty.

And I blame school. I hated school and didn't take it seriously, which allowed me to escape a lot of its effects. Which is why fiction, for me, is never about "I should." School teaches people that there are IMPORTANT BOOKS and you're a bad person if you don't read them. And also that you're a bad person if you don't enjoy them: "you vil read zis book und you vil enjoy it!"

This post made me even sadder than the article:

"I consider myself fairly well read but can't seem to tackle some of the "greats"... so is there something wrong with me?"

I am devastated that anyone would feel that way. People aren't born feeling that way. School does it to them. School takes something that should be a pleasure and makes it a task. As soon as a novel feels like homework, as-far-as I'm concerned it's ruined.

I am SO glad school doesn't teach eating or sex. Because if it did, we'd get articles about how "I really didn't want to eat that lemon pie. I don't like lemons. And, to be honest, I gagged a lot while I was eating it, but I'm glad I finished it. At least I accomplished something.

And, worse, "I was so scared of making love to that guy I wasn't at all attracted to. But I knew I should. So I took the plunge. A lot of it was really gross and painful, but every once in a while I got a little turned on. So I'm glad I did it."
posted by grumblebee at 6:26 AM on May 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


I've read Gravity's Rainbow a few times. I mean, how could you get it all in one read-through. That shit is dense with meaning. I suppose I'm good at it because it's like reading an acid trip. Having been through a bunch of those, good and bad, GR is easy. Hell, it's like coming home.

Time to re-read it as soon as I finish Anathema. Which I like too.
posted by Splunge at 6:36 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I started reading the entire Churchill biography at 16, and some 20,000 pages later, I wished that I could start over again.

For some reason, it never bothered me. I stormed through LBJ by Robert Caro books 1,2,3 with ease.

But when I read Magic Mountain, I slogged, sighed, guffawed, and willed myself to keep going. At the end, I put the book down and said, "WTF?"
posted by Senator at 6:58 AM on May 19, 2011


Glad to see Clarissa mentioned in the article's comments. I read it, unabridged, 2400 pages I think it was (the abridged version is 800), a million words, they say. Wrote a paper on it, even.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:16 AM on May 19, 2011


The mountain climbing analogy reminds me that mountain climbers do use equipment to help them in their climb and do a lot of planning. For reading long, difficult books, I think it’s often helpful to have a plan and use some additional equipment. I’m sure some will shudder at some of the tips in this list for reading difficult books:


1. Try reading the last chapter first. Don’t obsess over the sequential.

2. Read through the first time, following each voice or character, skipping passages as you need to. Then reread the book as a whole in order. This works especially well for Faulkner.

3. Try reading the first fifty pages three times in a row before proceeding.

4. Don’t be afraid to skip over material and return to it later. This is necessary for the first fifty pages of Nostromo.

5. Read through without stopping, and then try the book again, but with some idea of where things are headed.

6. Read some of the secondary literature first. I don’t like CliffNotes, but in general don’t be afraid to go low when looking for help.

7. Read the book out loud to yourself or to others.


I would also add that audiobooks are a great help when reading “foreign” literature filled with hard-to-pronounce names. Knowing how a person’s name or place name is pronounced, I find, really helps make a novel more readable.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 7:35 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


1. Try reading the last chapter first. Don’t obsess over the sequential.

I'm trying to understand why you'd do this. I know there are some people who don't care about plot twists and surprises. And I know there are people who actually hate being surprised. But I don't understand why this would be a good general relationship, for most readers, with a story. A lot of readers hate spoilers.

Again, I guess this is because I'm coming at reading as something "just" for pleasure. I'm not coming at it as a duty or as a painful-but-meaningful-experience-worth-struggling-through. So maybe I just don't get it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:41 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I started and finished GR over the course of a summer and fall, in sporadic bursts. I remember the first moment I had that feeling of mental fishtailing - "Hold on, it appears my narrative vehicle is not terribly concerned with sticking to the road I had mapped out, and my brain just fell in a ditch." This resulted in me having to back up and re-read the prior three pages... I think the first time that happened was around page 3.

I steadfastly refused to use any reader's guides or the GR wiki; I would tell myself "I'll use those next time, to see what I missed the first time through." I was determined to make it un-assisted - not to see if I could 'defeat' the book single handedly, but to see for myself if *I* was worthy of the book. I love the concept of difficult entertainment - why just have a picture, when you can have a puzzle? The reward is not just in the final reveal, but in the understanding of the process, both through authorial intent and personal reflection.

And GR had some spectacular reveals - not just turns in the plot, but moments of reader revelation about the nature of the story itself. The moment I first properly visualized the parabolic course of the characters, and how the very moments of force and weightlessness were demonstrated in their actions, was like clicking open the locks on Marcellus Wallace's briefcase. I couldn't fully explain what I saw, but I understood it implicitly, and was amazed.
posted by FatherDagon at 7:44 AM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


One reason to read challenging books is that they can serve as keys, unlocking later books. Part of the joy of reading is deciphering that conversation that happens between books as younger authors take them in and respond. Pynchon, Nabokov, David Foster Wallace... authors like these are big influences on the generation of writers behind them, who integrated what they read into what they're writing now. So if you want to really enjoy contemporary authors, it can be useful to have some knowledge of the touchstones that shaped their approach.

Infinite Jest, for example. I read this as a teenager and I suppose at the time it was more of a challenge than anything else, a badge of honor among my nerdy friends. However, though the first few hundred pages were definitely a slog, by the last half of the book I was completely absorbed and entranced in the story. I read the second half in a matter of a day or two. (Of course, the ending was a disappointment.) But having read that book and knowing the effect it had on me, and the way parts of it still linger with me to this day, and the dual kind of frustration and fascination with the footnotes, and the mixed amusement and boredom of all those tedious asides... I have a much deeper understanding of why it was a touchstone, why a sort of sub-genre of postmodern literary metafiction sprung up in its wake (some of it good, some of it bad). I understand those authors better, and their books, and why they might have been inspired to make the choices they did.

(The Dave Eggers memoir "A heartbreaking work of staggering genius," for example, makes much more sense in that literary context.)

Perhaps this is part of my love for science fiction; the conversation of influence tends to be a much more literal and visible one.
posted by crackingdes at 7:50 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sometimes "slogging through" things that aren't immediate fun can enrich your life in ways that you can't even imagine before you experience them

Absolutely, but I think you can indeed reconcile that with "Life is too short to read books you don't like."

Especially if we clarify that ok, you don't have to go "wow" immediately, but you do need enough interest and curiosity to keep going even if it's difficult, you need to feel or at least anticipate a reward in the act of reading itself, a pleasure in what you are reading that very moment, rather than the "feat" of getting to the end, like it was mount Everest.

(Besides, uhm, the parallel with Everest climbing is so wrong on every level - no mountaineer embarks on such a challenge with the idea that "oh I just want to get on top and say I've done it, woo hoo!", and no one becomes a mountaineer at the level that can even qualify to go on an Everest expedition if they don't feel sheer joy in the action of climbing itself no matter how much pain and risk and discomfort they have to face.)

So you're both right at the core, really. Of course there are things you learn to appreciate, but that appreciation needs an initial spark, so to speak. Otherwise really... what's the point?

Look, I had to read (parts of!) Joyce's Ulyssess in school, taught by one of the leading Joyce scholars, who was a fantastic professor, lively and full of enthusiasm and passion. I have never managed to go through all of it, YET, but the parts I read I enjoyed immensely, and I have always wanted to take it up again and read it in its entirety, for myself, for my own enjoyment only, when I have enough time… Retirement, maybe….

It is a huge challenge, and requires very slow reading, especially with an annotated version to 'catch' all the references - which is totally worth it - but as you go through, even from the first pages, there are such wonderful bits of perfect poetry, and so vivid, and so like photographic almost in parts, and wonderful bits of dialogue and passing commentary and jokes and the language is so alive, it doesn't even matter at first reading if you don't understand every reference - and then it becomes more rewarding when you do make that extra effort.

For me it it is exactly the kind of text that shows how effort and pleasure can be combined. But you have to be interested in going through that effort in the first place. I was lucky enough to get an infectiously enthusiastic introduction to it, and I got my own personal attraction to it too. I used to live in Dublin, so it's an extra joy for me to recognise the places, and all the other bits of Irishness in it, on top of everything that's timeless and universal and "funny, sad, dirty, tragic, joyful, and heartbreaking".

One day I hope to manage to read it all, and just for myself, not for school. But I am just as happy to have the time to read books where the balance between challenge and enjoyment is a lot less demanding!

And there are indeed many different kinds of pleasure from reading, different levels of reading involvement, there's room for all kinds of different approaches.

But if we're talking about reading particularly challenging texts, just don't see the point of doing it without some degree of initial pleasure, even when you factor in a cetain amount of effort. Else it's not worth it! What can you learn from a book you hated? How can it enrich you? Everest is a shaky analogy already, because no one even dreams of doing it if they don't enjoy climbing mountains, but "Stockholm syndrome" is just plain horrible. It's an awful attitude towards the role of the reader, and it's just as insulting towards authors.
posted by bitteschoen at 7:58 AM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I read The Tale of Genji in college for a tutorial - weeks of immersion in the extremely alien world of the Heian court. I would surface from reading the novel and my actual life would seem like a dream.

It's difficult to read long novels because of the immersion - I don't want to pull myself out of 19th century Russia or future dystopian America to deal with my regular life, and all I can think of is the world of the novel so sometimes that's all I want to talk about. And it's sad when it ends. I have a tendency to skip the last couple of chapters of a long novel if I've really liked it because I don't want to feel any closure - I didn't read the last chapters of Lord of the Rings until I was in my twenties, although I read the books in junior high.
posted by Frowner at 8:02 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've always felt guilty about having never done Pynchon, and I would like to at some point if only to immerse myself in the words and see what sense my brain would make of them.

Really enjoying this conversation about the "challenge" of reading difficult texts and the enjoyment of parsing out their meaning. This Brian Evenson essay that I just posted seems to get at this same issue. This passage seems especially relevant:
Indeed, the Ulysses guidebooks seem set on keeping us from having a genuine reading experience, intending to give us information in advance that will help us keep our footing at the very moments when Joyce's text would have us lose it and swim to keep our heads above water. Joyce's mastery is something that is built by taking the techniques and ideas of the nineteenth-century novel and stripping away most of what such novels try to accomplish. However, the experience of reading Joyce unmediated is one that very few readers actually have. Most of us have already strapped on the jetpack of interpretation before the reading itself begins, and we blast past the experience of the subtractive instability at the heart of Joyce's work to go straight to mastery.

Joyce himself seems, perversely enough, to have encouraged this. Subtraction is an important part of Joyce's work, but, unlike in someone like Beckett, it's obscured beneath the noise of the gestures that move in the other direction: his maximalism, his encyclopedism, his love of a good puzzle, his sense of the book having a key, his insistence on intense specific detail, names, accuracy, etc.

When asked by Max Eastman why Finnegans Wake was so difficult, Joyce suggested it was "To keep the critics busy for three hundred years." The question I think we need to ask as writers and readers is whether this is a productive busyness or mere busy work. What, if anything, does keeping the critics busy have to do with a reader's apprehension of a text itself?

Critical apprehension is something that comes from the reading experience, but always comes after. To begin with it is to short-circuit the reading experience in a way that gelds it. The notion of the book as something that contains meanings or as a puzzle to be solved makes a book easy (and fun) to talk about in critical terms, but provides a) a very limited view of what the possibilities of innovative literature are and b) an inaccurate sense of what goes into generating the initial reading experience. To the degree that critics (and Joyce himself) foster this view, they discourage us from seeing any work clearly at all.
posted by jng at 8:12 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't say I prefer long form novels of this length. I usually stick to books of 500 pages or less. Opposing this, I also don't like short stories. Suffice to say, I at least know what I like to read.

I can see the mountain climbing analogy to some degree, my example would have to be Cryptonomicon, likely one of the longer novels I have read. But to be quite honest, passing the 400 page mark and realizing I was not more than a third of the way through the book was disturbing.

Really, after that point, it was much harder to find something to enjoy about the novel. I still feel it would be good if only ~500 or 600 pages were cut out. But when it was finally finished, it was finished, and I did feel some accomplishment. Greater than that though was my general feeling of not liking Neal Stephenson's endings. Satisfying yes, likable no.

Anyways, few enough people read as it is. I can't say I see any point to slogging through a book you dislike just for some vague sense of accomplishment at the end. Finding a book enjoyable from start to finish has more worth to me.
posted by graxe at 8:17 AM on May 19, 2011


I can't say I see any point to slogging through a book you dislike just for some vague sense of accomplishment at the end.

I feel strangely compelled to do this, and sometimes I struggle to understand exactly why. I think it boils down to wanting to have an informed opinion on something--that is, if I read the first third of a book, shrugged, and put it down, there's always the chance that the last third of the book would completely validate the experience and make all of the effort worthwhile. And if I get through the whole thing and that never happens, at least I can trash the book, secure in the knowledge that I probably didn't miss anything.

The downside to this compulsion is that it makes me very reluctant to start enormous books, since I know that, even if I hate them, I won't be able to put them down.
posted by IjonTichy at 8:36 AM on May 19, 2011


I think maybe one of the keys to getting through a "big book" is to not necessarily reverence every bit of it - to allow it to be flawed. When I read Ulysses in college the prof openly told us to skim over two chapters ("Oxen of the Sun" and "Sirens") which he regarded as "good attempts, but failures." I disagree with him now about the "Sirens" chapter, and regarding "Oxen of the Sun" I think it's not so much that Joyce failed in what he was trying to do, as that what he was doing involves so much reference to obscure historic English lit that people of our time don't know well enough to get the joke.

Similarly, Proust. I read almost all of it, but on advice from some others I skipped most of the Albertine stuff in "The Captive." At that point really, he was just repeating himself about the nature of love and jealousy, anyway, something he'd driven home to the point of boredom three volumes earlier.

But otherwise I found both of those books totally amazing and loved them both.

Gravity's Rainbow on the other hand..... I finished it, but I can't say I liked it or understood it at all. I kept waiting for something to happen that would make the whole thing somehow "gel" for me but it never did.

Currently I'm nearly finished with War And Peace. I think it seems to have a weird reputation - people seem to equate it's length with difficulty, but frankly I've rarely read anything more lucid and straightforward. There's no filigree of symbols and metaphors to get through - just a ripping good yarn about life and love amid a sweep of big historical events.

(Not sure what my next Big Book will be - possibly Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain.)
posted by dnash at 8:39 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I didn't find Cryptonomicon very hard to get through... Not like the System of the World series. THOSE books were my Everest.

I'm currently reading Game of Thrones, and while it's LONG, I'm not finding it nearly as challenging as Stephenson's System of the World books were.
posted by antifuse at 8:41 AM on May 19, 2011


Gravity's Rainbow isn't just long it's impenetrable.

Exactly. If length was the issue, I wouldn't have read Lord of the Rings five times. I've tried both V and Gravity and found myself utterly lost after mere pages; not just confused (I'm an expert at confusion) but lacking any kind of connectedness to the text at all (the characters, the themes, the mysteries). This, to me, is failure (one that the writer and I must share together). Successful communication was not happening. I moved on ...

But I also think that the "if it feels bad, don't do it" approach can be taken too far. Sometimes, things that require concentration and effort and don't seem to pay off at all can end up paying off in unexpected ways.

This is true as well. If I hadn't been warned up front that the first 100 pages of Dune would be a trial, I would never have completed what for me is one of the five or ten great reads of my life. But, of course, Dune is never impenetrable -- just dense with "set-up". V and Gravity, on the other hand, had that Ulysses/Finnegan's Wake level of profound "What!? I have NO idea of whether this thing is supposed to be a station wagon or an albatross -- and I'm not dumb. I've got transcripts to prove it." The flip of it this is that I have no particular problem getting into William Burroughs stuff, because it's just so extreme in its hilarity and obscenity and eviscerating transgression. I mean, I may not know what I'm chewing on, but at least it feels like meat.
posted by philip-random at 9:08 AM on May 19, 2011


As some posters have pointed out, long does not necessarily mean hard and difficult. One of my favorite books of all time is The Mists of Avalon, an 876-page humdinger of a fantasy novel that zips by because it does a fantastic job of plunging you into a vivid world with fully drawn characters.
At the other extreme, Conrad's Heart of Darkness is maybe 150 pages long, yet I find it one of the more difficult works I've ever had to tackle partially BECAUSE it is so short. Every word means more, and it is a real challenge to try to figure out what Conrad ISN'T saying. It's a challenge I personally happen to relish, but not everyone does. Different authors and different styles will appeal to different people, regardless of "classic" reputation. I love Joyce, but I don't like Proust as much, and, on an average day, I usually am reading Phillippa Gregory's historical fiction (Tudor-era bodice ripping!). This is okay. I don't think it makes me some kind of philistine. People should love what they read and read what they love.
posted by bookgirl18 at 9:08 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


I mean, I may not know what I'm chewing on, but at least it feels like meat.

And yes, even through my vegan periods, reading fiction has always been an explicitly carnivorous affair.
posted by philip-random at 9:09 AM on May 19, 2011


These comments are making me want to read Gravity's Rainbow, despite my experience reading Mason & Dixon and finding myself trailing away disinterested about five chapters from the end - not because I didn't want it to ever end, but because I realized I didn't care how it ended. (And on the other hand I had a damn good time reading Lot 49 and Inherent Vice.)

But whyyyyyy can't I buy it as an e-text arrgh I don't want more Things to haul around
posted by egypturnash at 9:13 AM on May 19, 2011


Even with things as brilliant as Citizen Kane and Casablanca you have to make the point to suspend disbelief, taking yourself to a place where people talked like that (which they clearly never did) and looking past editing which would elicit groan from any modern picture.

I disagree. The pleasure of watching an "old movie" (God, do I hate that term) is that it transports you to another time and place, another dimension, and when a movie does that, you don't have to suspend disbelief -- you're there, you're part of the movie, you're committed.

All of the fancy editing and cinematography in the world doesn't mask the fact that a given movie is crap. Some of the most primitive-seeming film techniques have produced some of the most stunning masterpieces that you will ever know, the pity being that there are almost no theaters anymore that show a masterpiece by Fritz Lang or Orson Welles. Some of the best movies in the world are ones in which you have to work to understand the dialogue, the film technique, the storyline, because they are so at variance with what you are used to seeing. These movies are meant to be seen on the big screen, but even when they're on the small screen or on your laptop, you get a sense of the majesty and beauty. There are no technological parlor tricks that can take the place of the gifts of a classic movie.
posted by blucevalo at 9:53 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


These comments are making me want to read Gravity's Rainbow, despite my experience reading Mason & Dixon

I think most everyone would agree that Gravity's Rainbow is the peak of Pynchon's writing. I also found Mason & Dixon a slog that I never finished (I think I ran out of steam at about page 150). Gravity's Rainbow is in my top five all-time novels list.
posted by rtimmel at 10:03 AM on May 19, 2011


Also, I have to second some of Grumblebee's thoughts about school sometimes ruining "great books" for people. I can't tell you how many folks I know who have complexes about an author like Shakespeare, because they had bad teachers, or never had the chance to crack the language, or have some kind of weird association with it as REAL HARD HIGHFALUTIN THAT'S NOT FOR REGLAR OLD ME. Shakespeare's plays are about the fundamentals of being a human being who is alive on this planet. They're about love (requited or un), ambition, greed, war, aging, sex, death. Putting aside the wondrous use of language, they're often bloody, raunchy, and just fricking good stories.
Reading them (or even better, seeing them performed!) should be a joyous, sensual, FUN experience.
Now, again, every reader is not going to love every author. There's no point in suffering through a terrible (voluntary) reading experience. But it makes me sad when people (albeit quite understandably sometimes) write him off because they had him shoved down their throats at school and they think of him as an obligation or a chore without having had a fair chance to discover otherwise.
posted by bookgirl18 at 10:12 AM on May 19, 2011


Since some have equated old movies to the long book classics, I was telling my wife I have a theory on why I like the "old movies" and "long classics". It might not make sense to anyone but I have figured myself out on the subject.

I watched the original Wolfman last night on TV, with Lon Chaney Jr. Claude Rains, and Ralph Bellamy. It was not particularly good, but when I watched it, all those people seemed still alive and all the people I loved and are now gone are still alive, because those people on the screen are alive. When I read a classic, I feel the same way, I don't know why. All that happened after had not yet happened. There was still time for everything, for all of them and all of us.

This is not a overwhelming feeling, but more of something I feel at a fundamental level, and even though I not it is flawed and unrealistic, it gives me a feeling of great comfort. And so I watch an old movie or read War and Peace.
posted by Senator at 10:30 AM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


So if you don't wanna read Gravity's Rainbow or Proust, I'm not gonna judge you and I don't think anyone else should either. But if you start reading one of them and it's tougher than you thought and you're not sure if you like it or not, I would say that you should give it more of a chance than you would a new sitcom. Maybe you, too, are one of the many people for whom those works are enriching and enjoyable, and just don't know it yet.

Hmm.

To re-visit the "climbing Everest" metaphor, maybe it's okay to stop after all, because you realize halfway up that you haven't trained/don't have quite enough experience yet to be able to finish the trip, and you'd probably be better off stopping at the base camp and resting, then going back down, and trying another day. That's the conclusion I came to when I tried reading Proust in college (yeah, I know), and that's the conclusion I came to the first three times I tried reading Ulysses. I finally got through Ulysses on my fourth attempt, after a great conversation with a man whom I now think must have been Stephen Joyce at the Joyce Center in Dublin (I sheepishly admitted that I hadn't gotten through it yet after three attempts, and he just laughed and said, "Darlin', it took me twelve tries").

Also, I have to second some of Grumblebee's thoughts about school sometimes ruining "great books" for people. I can't tell you how many folks I know who have complexes about an author like Shakespeare, because they had bad teachers, or never had the chance to crack the language, or have some kind of weird association with it as REAL HARD HIGHFALUTIN THAT'S NOT FOR REGLAR OLD ME.

Yeah, that can be a problem too; not totally insurmountable, though. I'm actually on a life quest to read as many of those "1001 books you must read before you die" books as I can, and early on one of the deals I made with myself was: I gave myself permission to not like a book. Even though it was on this "Canon" list and that meant I was "supposed" to like it, I took the view that in each of these authors' day, they weren't trying to necessarily wrtie "for the Canon", they were just trying to write shit for people to read, like Dan Brown is doing today. And not everyone likes Dan Brown -- so by extension, that means not everyone likes Edith Wharton, either. And everyone has a few misses. So if I didn't like an individual book, it was okay.

That's proven to be strangely freeing, to the point that I even stay longer with some books than I would have otherwise. I've really only abandoned one so far (this incredibly boring book from the Middle Ages that talked of nothing except for how virtuous this princess was), but everything else redeemed itself. It also let me find my way to a Kafka book I actually liked (I never got what the big deal was with the stuff in read in high school, but Amerika was a blast).

But this whole notion of reading for bragging rights? Meh. I mean, yeah, I'll tell people about the goal itself now and then, but some of the "books" on that list are only essays.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:32 AM on May 19, 2011


Reading 'Gravity's Rainbow' many years ago was possibly the last time in my life that I ever forced myself to finish reading something that I didn't really care that much about. Never again.

On the other hand, I think that 'The Crying of Lot 49' deserves a Nobel prize or something like that.
posted by ovvl at 10:33 AM on May 19, 2011


To those saying that you shouldn't read something that you don't enjoy, at what point do you know that you will not enjoy a given novel? 50 pages in? 100 pages? 300 pages? Some books do not reveal their treasures immediately but rely on a gradual accretion of mood and style. Or there may be a turning point that throws all that came before it into relief and what you thought was crap, you now realise was essential and, in some way, it becomes retroactively fun.

Personally, I have a curiosity to see if a book - particularly one that is widely hailed a classic - is going to come good at any stage. So I struggle and toil with it and sometimes it's all in vain but other times the book blossoms into something that I'm very glad to have persevered with.

For what it's worth, Gravity's Rainbow did not work out as a net benefit for me. There were some wonderful set pieces (the horrible sweet selection, the drinking game) and some moments of revelation (oh, so that seemingly obscure principle applies to this character, and the overall plot, and the... everything!!!) but it didn't really come together for me.
posted by MUD at 10:41 AM on May 19, 2011


To those saying that you shouldn't read something that you don't enjoy, at what point do you know that you will not enjoy a given novel? 50 pages in? 100 pages? 300 pages?

At whatever point the work/fun balance tips towards "work". That depends highly on the book itself; I hated the SHIT out of "Turn of the Screw", "The Princess of Cleves", and "Jude the Obscure" for similar reasons; seriously mealy-mouthed characters who couldn't just cut to the chase and have a straight fucking conversation with each other. But at least with "Turn of the Screw" you also had ghosts and creepy children and such that you wanted to hang in there for the plot, and with "Jude" you also had moments where Jude talked to someone other than his beloved and it went much better, so I hung in there for that.

But with "Princess of Cleves" all you had was a description about how lovely she was and how much in love with her this other guy was, except she was also virtuous so nothing would happen and that made him love her all the more, and then they ran into each other somewhere and you got ten more paragraphs about how lovely and virtuous she was and how tortured he was, and then they ran into each other somewhere else and there were ten more paragraphs about how lovely she was and how tortured he was, and I swear to god that is all that ever happened and I threw the book against the wall somewhere during chapter two.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:55 AM on May 19, 2011


Also, I have to second some of Grumblebee's thoughts about school sometimes ruining "great books" for people

Lots of people -- not all, but lots -- agree that at least sometimes, school ruins what, ideally, should be fun experiences for people. But discussions bog down when someone rightly points out that certain pleasures can't be had without adequate preparation. No one can just pick up a Shakespeare play, and, having never studied the context or the differences between Elizabethan English and modern English, just instantly enjoy it. You must prep yourself first, and there's no guarantee that prep will be fun for any given person.

The first thing I wish we got clear on, as a culture, was how much we want to force this sort of pleasure on people -- the kind you need to prepare yourself for. There's no real consensus about this, so each person must decide for himself. (The second thing we should get clear is whether there's any point of forcing this "pleasure" on people. Whether forcing generally leads to pleasure. I have certainly met people who say "I never would have learned to like X if I hadn't been forced to read it," but for every one of those, I meet ten people who HATE X because they were forced to read it. So it's not that I think forcing never works. I think it's just generally a bad strategy. It fails more often than it succeeds.)

It comes down to this: as adults, we know there are things we probably would enjoy if we did some work to prepare ourselves for them. We know that work might not be fun. We also know that the joy we'd feel after having done that work would probably be great. I get massive, massive amounts of joy from Shakespeare, and we've all experienced the thrill of enjoying something that's only enjoyable after some mastery.

One of my problems with the essay is that the author makes it sound like the main thrill of reading big books is, basically, that feeling of having completed a homework assignment. I agree that it can feel good to have completed a hard task, just because you can pat yourself on the back and say, "Hey, it was hard but I did it!" I'm not belittling that, but it would be a little sad if that was the main experience people had from, say, "Hamlet." "It wasn't fun, but -- hey! -- I got through it!" That turns "Hamlet" into a root-canal.

Enjoying "Hamlet" that way is a little like spending hours cooking a huge meal and then walking away from the table. What about EATING the meal?

Though I actually did enjoy some of the work I had to do to prep myself for Shakespeare (while some of it I didn't enjoy), the main thrill, for me, isn't a sense of pride in having finished the prep work. It's being able to really enjoy the plays WITHOUT having to do all that work (because I've already done it). For me, the joy of "Hamlet" is being scared of the ghost, feeling sorry for Ophelia and laughing at the gravedigger.

I came to Shakespeare that way as an adult. As a kid, I experienced Shakespeare, in school, as something you had to slog through. I didn't even really get -- no one told me -- that you could mentally divide things up into prep and the later fruits of that prep.

But -- getting back to the first issue I raised -- what if someone says, "Okay, I get that I'll enjoy Shakespeare if I do all this work, but, you know what? Life is short. I just don't choose to do it? I'd rather hang out with my friends and, when I read, read one of the thousands of accessible books that don't require leg-work for a payoff."

To that, I say, "Fair enough!" Because life IS short. There is absolutely no reason why you need to make the same choices I made ABOUT HOW TO SPEND LEISURE TIME. And what makes me feel terrible is how often we don't say "fair enough" -- even to ourselves. I'm really sickened by the idea of people walking around feeling guilty because they're not reading (or reading but not enjoying) Shakespeare. That, to me, is pathological.

It is true -- I can't deny it -- that I think enjoying Shakespeare is a "higher" sort of pleasure than, say, enjoying Stephen King books. But though this feels profound to me, really what it means is that *I* enjoy Shakespeare more than I enjoy Stephen King books. And that's because I've put in all that work. And maybe if you put in all that work, you would enjoy Shakespeare more, too. But there's a tradeoff. If you DON'T put in all the work, you'll have more time for other stuff.

This is a cost-benefit analysis that everyone should feel comfortable making for himself -- without guilt.

What I wish school would do is make this clear. I think we could have an educational system that gave people the tools they'll need to delve deeply into topics THEY want to delve deeply into. And it could help people understand the payoff for that delving. Without all the guilt and snobbery.

But we don't have that.
posted by grumblebee at 11:00 AM on May 19, 2011


50 pages in? 100 pages? 300 pages?

A classic writer will challenge you into accepting the labour involved in addressing the "work", but should also provide at least some incentive to keep going.
posted by ovvl at 11:04 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


To those saying that you shouldn't read something that you don't enjoy, at what point do you know that you will not enjoy a given novel? 50 pages in? 100 pages? 300 pages?

This is a great question, but I think the first part of answering is to 100%, completely ascend into adulthood. There's no homework for adults. (Kids, I'm sorry you have to do it. That sucks for you. I wish I could change the world so you didn't have to. The good news is that one day you will be an adult.)

The ONLY question should be: "Though I'm not enjoying this now, is it likely I'll enjoy it if I stick with it for a while?"

You're not going to even GET to this question if there's part of you that feels like you're wrong or bad or shameful if you don't finish the book -- or if you feel that "better" people than you do finish it. It's not a homework assignment. THERE ARE NO HOMEWORK ASSIGNMENTS. It's not a requirement of life. And people who have read the book are not better than people who haven't. So do whatever you feel like doing!

You know that you're not required to do painful, boring stuff (when it's not your job).

You know that, in some cases, doing painful, boring stuff can have a pleasurable payoff.


Make those two facts -- and those two ALONE -- the basis of your decision.

At that point, for me, it becomes a risk assessment. There's no way of knowing, for sure, if the book will have a payoff for me before I've finished reading it. This is where reviews and opinions of friends help. I try to find reviewers and friends who share my tastes. If my friend John says, "This book starts slow but keep on reading after the first hundred pages," I'll probably take his advice, because it's paid off for me in the past. Similarly, if the consensus of a hundred reader-reviews on Amazon is that the book, while slow going at first, becomes amazing if you stick with it, I'll probably take the risk.

But at ANY POINT if I feel "You know what, I'm just not having any fun at all," I know I'm totally free to walk away. Which is so freeing! I think I stick with a lot of books just BECAUSE I feel free to walk away. There's no ghost of a teacher standing over my shoulder.
posted by grumblebee at 11:12 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think most everyone would agree that Gravity's Rainbow is the peak of Pynchon's writing.

Some might say that it starts off at ground level, reaches supersonic speeds, goes ballistic as it passes through its culmination point, and then falls and lands and explodes before you even hear it coming.
posted by hippybear at 11:14 AM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


I had the same experience with Mason & Dixon. Half way through I just gave up. I wanted to like it. I love Pynchon. Except for M&D. I felt like I was betraying somebody when I finally put it away. But life is too short etc.
posted by Splunge at 11:15 AM on May 19, 2011


To those saying that you shouldn't read something that you don't enjoy, at what point do you know that you will not enjoy a given novel?

For me the very first thing is, I have to like how it's written, before I even get to like what it's telling me.

You could lend me a book without telling me anything about it, with the cover and everything hidden, no idea who the author is, and I'd know within the first few pages if I want to go on reading it or not. Before I even get to care about the 'story', I have to be captivated by the language, the style, the voice, the "form" if you want to call it like that (if it's even possible to separate it from "content", I don't think I can!). It doesn't have to be necessarily 'wow' but I have to feel something. Interest, curiosity, anything.

I want to feel the writer wants me to read this book, that they're not just writing for their own solipsistic pleasure. It doesn't have to be an easy read, the story doesn't have to be thrilling and enticing from the start, but I have to feel they cared enough to put some effort first of all in the language and form they wrote it in. If they want me to put the effort into reading it, I think that's a fair deal, no?

Be it easy or difficult, long winded or concise, short story or massive novel - I want to read authors that clearly show they loved what they were doing, and that they loved to be read, and that they loved the medium they are using. (And yes, for all the obscurity and difficulty and myriad cross references, Joyce does do that).

The story IS the way you tell it. What else captivates you from the start in a book really?
posted by bitteschoen at 11:40 AM on May 19, 2011


I agree bitteschoen, and the negative version iis that I'll sometimes quit reading a book if I read a single clunky sentence -- or a single glaring plot problem, or a single glaring piece of bad psychology. It's not that I'm trying to be nit-picky. It's just that I know I won't be able to relax back into the book, knowing that more jarring sentences like that might be coming (it's rare for there to be just one instance). If I lose trust in a writer, it's hard to enjoy even the good bits, because I'm fearing more bad bits will come.

I might be wrong. Maybe if I stick with it, what follows will more than make up for the gaff. With limited information, I just make the best risk-assessment I can.
posted by grumblebee at 11:47 AM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


You could lend me a book without telling me anything about it, with the cover and everything hidden, no idea who the author is, and I'd know within the first few pages if I want to go on reading it or not.

You know, that's interesting... Because there is (for me) a list of artists who in my mind have the benefit of the doubt. That is, even when they confront me with something which is not immediately appealing, I am willing to struggle through and try to digest whatever it is they are offering based on the reputation they have for me. I mean, I trust these people, for whatever reason (usually prior experience with their work), and if they put something forward which they claim is worth offering for digestion, then even if it doesn't make me to *ping* on first exposure, I will grant them my own effort to overcome my initial frustration to try to understand the work.

Now, this isn't a trust or a benefit which is extended for all time. There are more than a few authors or filmmakers or musicians who, after repeated periods of grace from me, have proven that their artistic vision or output has stopped rhyming with my interests, and so they end up losing my custom.

But there are more than a few examples in my life of where I gave artists this kind of a chance, based on the reputation they carry for me personally, and discover that my efforts are hugely rewarded and my life is not only richer but my world is bigger and had new colors than it had before.

(I also have this attitude toward works recommended to me by friends whom I trust. If it doesn't grab me at first, I do try to give whatever they've shared with me a fair chance and not toss it aside because it doesn't mesh with "what I want" or "what I find comfortable" or whatever at first. Often the payoff is there, and my trust is rewarded.

So... there are definitely things I've taken in which I would have given up on had I not known the source, but because I did know the source and was willing to invest the effort to overcome my initial reaction, I find I'm glad to have experienced. I'm sure that's not a standard approach, but it's worked well for me over the years, and my life is better for it.
posted by hippybear at 11:54 AM on May 19, 2011


I still haven't finished Ulysses despite three tries. I think I may have one more in me, but not for another couple of years: I gotta psych myself up, you know?

In high school, my friend Lori handed me a book and said, "Here, read this. I hated it but I couldn't not finish it. You'll hate it too." It was Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, the a Vinci Code of twenty years ago. She was, of course, correct.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:00 PM on May 19, 2011


Incidentally, I loved Mason & Dixon even though I didn't care about the story or the setting before plunging in.
posted by ersatz at 12:00 PM on May 19, 2011


I was assigned the unabridged Clarissa in college, but it was tooo boring. I read it standing up next to my dorm bunk bed so that when I fell asleep I would hit my face on the steel frame. I got well and truly stomped by that book before I learned the English Major's Secret: skimming.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:07 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


You could lend me a book without telling me anything about it, with the cover and everything hidden, no idea who the author is, and I'd know within the first few pages if I want to go on reading it or not. Before I even get to care about the 'story', I have to be captivated by the language, the style, the voice, the "form" if you want to call it like that (if it's even possible to separate it from "content", I don't think I can!). It doesn't have to be necessarily 'wow' but I have to feel something. Interest, curiosity, anything.

Yeah, at this point-- I've been reading voraciously since I was first able to untangle those marks on the page, and continue to read a few hours every day like a cow munching its way through a field-- I trust my instincts. There's a lot of information transmitted in the first pages or paragraphs of a book (even the first line!) and if it doesn't sing, if the writer's voice doesn't captivate, I'll make note of that. I might continue to read, but I'll need more to go on (obviously this doesn't apply to translations). The multiply complex pleasures of good writing are so important to me that I seek them out; reading the jawdropping conclusion (not in terms of plot, but in terms of technique, imagery, emotion, power, control: everything that makes fine writing fine) to Mavis Gallant's novella The Moslem Wife is worth a dozen-- a hundred-- hours of reading something that doesn't engage me. A short story can be just as intense an experience, though of a different sort, than the thousand page opus. The pleasures of Ulysses are of a different order than the pleasures of the Gormenghast trilogy, though they shouldn't be confused with sheer fun, such as early Delany up to Triton (leaving out Dhalgren; it's quite possible that the experience of reading Dhalgren was the one that put me off ever forcing myself to finish another book I didn't like just for the sake of finishing it or on the theory that there was a payoff somewhere) but they are all legitimate forms of the joy of reading. In this case work and pleasure are synonymous.

And Shakespeare's meant to be heard, not read, which I know ruins it for some... teaching Shakespeare often mars the work beyond redemption, and I'm sorry for that.
posted by jokeefe at 12:27 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I got well and truly stomped by that book before I learned the English Major's Secret: skimming.

Truth, that. It's a skill that has served me very well (until I started reading Derrida, etc., because you have to approach that stuff like reading poetry: slowly and deliberately, and skimming it means that you'll just get confounded).
posted by jokeefe at 12:31 PM on May 19, 2011


And Shakespeare's meant to be heard, not read, which I know ruins it for some... teaching Shakespeare often mars the work beyond redemption, and I'm sorry for that.

Shakespeare's not "meant" to be anything.

Maybe you mean that Shakespeare originally wrote his works as scripts for performances. But I don't care why he wrote them. Readers and playgoers forge their own personal relationship with works, regardless of the intent of the writer. Even people in Shakespeare's times realized that his plays worked well on paper, as -- shortly after his death -- they published his works in book form.

If your claim is that Shakespeare's plays don't give pleasure on the page -- that they have to be seen to be enjoyed -- then I strongly disagree. Though I understand this is a lot of people's experience. Of course it is! When you see a performance, body language and inflection gets you past a lot of the tricky bits that are hard to understand if you just read them.

What is true is this --

When INTRODUCING someone to Shakespeare, it's generally better to take them to a good production than to hand them a script.

And...

For people who haven't studied certain subjects (e.g. blank-verse mechanics, Elizabethan vocabulary), the playgoing experience is likely to be more pleasurable than the reading experience.

But for those of us who DO have the background, both reading and watching/listening are AMAZING! They are aslo unique experiences -- one can't stand in for the other. I love watching a great production of "King Lear," for all the things that actors, directors and designers can bring to the table. I also love pulling the script down off my shelf and enjoying all the pleasures that go by too fast on stage to be savored or even noticed.
posted by grumblebee at 12:42 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]


not just confused (I'm an expert at confusion) but lacking any kind of connectedness to the text at all (the characters, the themes, the mysteries). This, to me, is failure (one that the writer and I must share together). Successful communication was not happening. I moved on ...

Is it a failure on the speaker's part if you don't know their language, and haven't extended the effort to learn?

It was Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, the Da Vinci Code of twenty years ago.


Focault's Pendulum.... remotely comparable to Da Vinci Code? ::ragestroke::
posted by FatherDagon at 1:26 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is it a failure on the speaker's part if you don't know their language, and haven't extended the effort to learn?

The language was English, I'm pretty sure. And, as I suggested elsewhere in that comment, I believe that my transcripts would testify to the fact that I'd expended great effort master English, and received top marks for that effort.

Now, at least two decades since I last made the effort to crack Gravity's Rainbow, I imagine I may yet have one try left in me, based mainly on how much positive passion there still is for it (as evidenced in this thread among other places). But seriously, the cult that seems to have grown around this guy puzzles me, particularly in the wake of stuff like VINELAND, which I got maybe halfway through before throwing down in disgust (Tom Robbins level whimsy, and I outgrew that stuff around the same time I outgrew sweet alcoholic beverages).

My guess is that Pynchon once had something very special (as evidenced with Lot 49), which he took the extreme edge of his (and all of our) abilities with V and Gravity's Rainbow ... and he's been more or less mailing it in ever since, trading on his mystery and elusiveness.
posted by philip-random at 2:14 PM on May 19, 2011


hippybear: oh it's like that for me too, I was just going to add that of course, I have my list of potential interests, and I go by author a lot too - writers I've read already, and writers connected to writers I've read, and sometimes the interest in the personality even comes first. But then I still have to go "hmmm yes" when I read the first pages.

The example of not having any idea what the book was about and who the author is was an extreme example to make that point - I don't think it's ever actually happened to me yet, to pick up a book not having any idea whatsoever what it is. I'd love that though!
posted by bitteschoen at 2:41 PM on May 19, 2011


I don't get the issue with long books. I get the issue with boring books: they're boring. But just long? No one said you had to read it all in a night. You're not in a race. So what if it takes you a month to get through it?

However, I have an intense disdain for long movies, because movies you are supposed to watch in a night. If you see them in a theater, you don't have any choice...but even if you watch them at home, it feels wrong somehow to stop a movie in the middle and come back to it the next day. So when I see that a movie is even a minute over two hours, I immediately start asking myself whether I really want to see it. I ask myself this because it seems almost inevitable that the filmmaker who is exceeding the two-hour finish line is self-indulgent and making me sit through things I don't need to see -- a long montage that's there because it's set to a totally rad David Bowie song that was the director's very favoritest in the eleventh grade, a dull conversation that explicates Theme and stops the story stone cold fucking dead, an action sequence sustained to the point of inducing fatigue -- and I don't want to see your sloppy, halfassed movie. Take it back and call me when it's ready.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:13 PM on May 19, 2011


And Shakespeare's meant to be heard, not read, which I know ruins it for some... teaching Shakespeare often mars the work beyond redemption, and I'm sorry for that.

Shakespeare's not "meant" to be anything.

Maybe you mean that Shakespeare originally wrote his works as scripts for performances. But I don't care why he wrote them. Readers and playgoers forge their own personal relationship with works, regardless of the intent of the writer. Even people in Shakespeare's times realized that his plays worked well on paper, as -- shortly after his death -- they published his works in book form.


Whoah, grumblebee-- I didn't say that the plays don't work on paper. One of the main reasons why Shakespeare's genius has stayed alive over the last four centuries is the fact that the plays work both as theatrical productions and as literary reading. But the history of theatre is not the same as the history of literature, and the fact remains that during Shakespeare's lifetime, when his plays were enormously popular and accessible entertainments (and combined with high rates of illiteracy) the sort of natural habitat of Shakespeare was that of being declaimed and heard, not (silently) read. During the period, you would refer to visiting the theatre as "going to hear a play", rather than the contemporary "going to see one", and there's a reason for that.

If your claim is that Shakespeare's plays don't give pleasure on the page -- that they have to be seen to be enjoyed -- then I strongly disagree.

I would never say this and I don't believe it. But I have seen young relatives of mine, whose knowledge of culture was pretty much focused entirely on America's Next Top Model and mainstream rap acts, move from initial skepticism to complete engagement while watching Shakespeare being performed. That's a kind of magic which speaks entirely to skill and profundity and characters and clever plotting all that good stuff. Of course it works on the page; it just works astonishingly well when you see it unfold in front of you, too, as those who have only been introduced to Shakespeare in written form, and been somehow put off, might be happily surprised to find.
posted by jokeefe at 4:50 PM on May 19, 2011


jokeefe, it seems we're in agreement, so I'm sorry if I misunderstood or misrepresented you.

I have heard "Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read" so many hundreds of times, and I disagree, at least when I take the statement literally.

People are, alas, continually put off when introduced to Shakespeare in the written form. This is at least partly because the way they're "introduced" is by their teacher saying "Your assignment is to read 'Romeo and Juliet.' There will be questions about it on the test."

One thing that STUNS me is how rare it is to find a high school teacher who bothers to explain the rules of blank verse, and the cool experiments Shakespeare did with the form (and, perhaps, have their students try their hand and iambic pentameter.)

It's actually very easy to teach. It's well within the grasp of highschoolers, and it can be taught in one lesson. And understanding it makes the plays on paper more fun.

But almost no one bothers. Or is it that the people teaching the subject don't understand it? I'm pretty sure that was the case with my 9th grade teacher.
posted by grumblebee at 5:33 PM on May 19, 2011


To those saying that you shouldn't read something that you don't enjoy, at what point do you know that you will not enjoy a given novel? 50 pages in? 100 pages?

A page or two. Since I was a child my way of testing a book is to open it at random somewhere in the middle and read a page, with no clue what I'm reading about. Either I like the way the author uses language or I don't, and this test has proved a remarkably good guide to whether or not I'll enjoy it as a narrative. If it's particularly odd or inaccessible I'll take a few more random samples, just in case I've come into the middle of a dream scene or a mediocre chapter.

Difficulty has nothing to do with it...in fact I've probably bought or picked up more books because of a 'wtf?' reaction than because it was obvious what was going on. Vintage, language of origin, length, subject matter are irrelevant to me. A plot is nice but an author needs a voice above all else.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:12 AM on May 20, 2011


anigbrowl, that's a great technique for someone who doesn't care about spoilers (presumably you don't). I purposefully don't read the descriptions on the backs of books, because they often give away major plot points of the first few chapters, and if someone starts to describe the plot of a book, I (politely as possible) leave the room.

I would be scared to read a page from the middle of a novel, because it might say, "We all gathered at Laura's funeral." Then, if on page one, the author built tension by leaving it open whether or not Laura would die, that tension would be ruined for me.

It depends on what you want from a book.
posted by grumblebee at 6:27 AM on May 20, 2011


To those saying that you shouldn't read something that you don't enjoy, at what point do you know that you will not enjoy a given novel? 50 pages in? 100 pages?

They say that with movies, IN MOST CASES, you've made up your mind after ten minutes whether you like it or not. This doesn't mean that you won't be pissed off by a stupid ending, but in terms of a generalized appreciation of the characters, the themes etc, and the way the director and his team have put it all together, you either like or you don't after ten minutes. You're either enjoying the ride or you're not.

With books (fiction in particular), my guess is that something similar holds true. It certainly does for me ... IN MOST CASES. Because as I've referenced already, there's always something like DUNE, where the dense and complicated and discouraging early pages (overloaded with plot set-up and character introductions) finally give way around the 100 page mark to one of the greatest stories ever told (at least for me). So yeah, in reading as with every worthy discipline, the final rule is always: THERE ARE NO RULES.

Interesting difference between movies and books is that with movies, particularly in the theater, you are sort of a captive audience. Not that you can't walk out but most of us, for a variety of reasons (we're with people, it was hassle to get to theater in the first place) don't do it very often. Books on the other hand are just so darned easy to put down.
posted by philip-random at 10:10 AM on May 20, 2011


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