Friday, August 6, 2010

Difficulty Revisited

A few months ago Justin Cooper, one of my friends from New Hampshire, told me that if a book required a class to be understood then it was a failure. He was talking about Ulysses. Part of me wanted to agree with his position. If any random person walking down the street can't understand or take something away from the experience of reading a particular book, what good is it?

I should mention that Ulysses is one of the greatest books I've ever read. Not because of the plot or the characters, but because it still stands as a manual on how to experiment with language. I should also mention that I took a class my junior year at Naropa in which we read Ulysses, and I loved it.

I'm fairly certain that if I shoved a copy of this book into the hands of anyone walking down Willoughby Avenue, they would a) think I'm crazy for asking them to read on a Friday night and b) think James Joyce is more a lunatic than an author. However, despite the difficulty that Ulysses may pose to any reader, it is still worth the effort. I think it may be more worthwhile if you're interested in experimental literature or becoming a writer, but, if not, it's good to challenge yourself every now and again.

This is an easy claim to make, that X book is valuable. But why is it valuable? This question often puts the person advocating for said book at a loss for words. If you don't care about what conceptual framework that Y unknown and unsuccessful author was writing under and just want a straightforward, no-frills reading experience, why is it important?

Because the best art is that which troubles us. Not in the way that "edgy writers" try to confront us by using shock value; rather, it is the art that we cannot make sense of yet are still drawn to like moths to a streetlight. The second we have everything figured out and the mystique evaporates, it becomes too easy to explain, reduce, or identify, like the image of moths congregating around a streetlight.

All of this is a result of me toying with the idea of reading The Cantos. After reading the first canto the other night, I realized it's going to take me a year or longer to finish, and a significant portion of that time is going to be spent researching allusions, identifying patterns, and generally trying to piece together one of the most notoriously difficult pieces of Modernist literature. The question I asked myself was: will it be worth it?

I think so, but I know that I won't convince anyone who doesn't already believe that there is a virtue in reading dense or difficult material. We'll see if I have the stomach to do this without the aid of a class.

PS: I found out that New Directions is releasing a new edition of Louis Zukofsky's 800+ page poem, "A". This is another piece of difficult literature I've been interested in reading. Now that a dog-eared copy won't run me $80, I'll finally be able to check it out. That is, of course, after I finish The Cantos.

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