Friday, March 5, 2010

The Place of Difficulty in Reading

Lately, I've been reading a lot of books reviews for experimental literature and I've noticed one thing: nearly every negative review centers on the difficulty of the book in question. The reviewer usually says that -insert difficult book- did not make any sense and that they must not be smart enough to understand it. Often, those reviewers claim that those who do like it are only trying to appear "smart" or "cultured." Sometimes the book is outright dismissed as an elaborate joke orchestrated by the author.

I don't want to espouse a "difficult-for-the-sake-of-being-difficult" kind of argument, because I think that position is largely responsible for the reactionary attitude those reviewers take. However, I do think that most readers who dismiss books for being too difficult are forgetting how they learned to read in the first place: by challenging themselves. By challenging yourself as a reader, in whatever form (content, style, concept), your capacity to understand will grow. The entire art of communication, of which books are a part, is about understanding. Not all ideas are as easily communicable as others, which is why some books are more difficult than others. One example: Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons.

I can think of few other books that have frustrated readers as much as this one. Anyone who's read any of it can attest to its difficulty; it's non-normative use of syntax and confusion of parts of speech completely defamiliarize the language. The result is a book that forces you to pay attention, to consider how meaning is made, and to look for relationships when they're not obvious. In short, it's an instruction manual on learning how to read again.

Critics might try to argue that they already know how to read, but this is exactly the kind of complicity Stein was fighting against. They might try to argue that they don't care what her intention is, but Tender Buttons is one of the few books in the last century to completely empower the reader. Admittedly, it is difficult, but it has to be; Stein could not write a book that forces you to question (and understand) how meaning and relationships are formed by adhering to the normal hierarchies and rules of the language. To do so would be contradictory to the book's entire premise.

The challenge this book presents is offset by the insight that is given to the reader. If the reader can make it to the other side and actively engage with the material they will be forever changed. If not, well, I'm not interested in creating a heirarchy of readers. I think the aversion to difficulty that many readers express on sites such as Goodreads or Amazon is the direct result of such mindless entertainment as daytime television programming. However, since the reading public is a minority compared to the TV watching public, I would encourage anyone with that still has an appetite for books to try and read at least one book a year that's outside of their normal interests. I think those who do will find the time that they spend more rewarding than usual.

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