Our Reading Lives: Why I Like Difficult Novels

While we at the Riot are taking this lovely summer week off to rest (translation: read by the pool/ocean/on our couches), we’re re-running some of our favorite posts of 2014. Enjoy this Best Of, and we’ll be back to your regularly scheduled programming on Monday, July 7th!

This post originally ran January 13th.

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When I first read David Foster Wallace’s notoriously difficult novel Infinite Jest in the fall of 2008, just weeks after DFW’s suicide, I was terrified I wouldn’t understand it. So I cheated. I picked up a guide book to the novel, partly because I loved the title — Elegant Complexity. There’s no better way to describe DFW’s 1,079-page magnum opus, and the book helped immensely. Infinite Jest IS a difficult, complex novel — it’s purposefully disorienting, it’s purposefully verbose, meandering, and digressive, and it’s just so goddamn long. But finishing it — taking my time and working at understanding it — is also about the most rewarding reading experience I’ve ever had. I loved it. Absolutely loved it.

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Readers read for dozens of different reasons. One my favorite is to be challenged. Certainly, I don’t want most (or even 2 percent of) novels I read to be as tough as Infinite Jest. But I think spending a good amount of time with a book, really putting in some effort to piece it together, and coming out on the other side feeling like you’ve accomplished something is just so gratifying.

It’s why I also took on Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow a few years after Infinite Jest. And while I’m glad I did it — mostly so that that novel could be removed from my “Books You Claim You’ve Read But Haven’t Actually” list — it was a out-and-out battle. It was really, really tough. It took me six months. And I was so relieved when I was finished, I felt like celebrating at a level normally reserved for job promotions or anniversaries. The point is liking difficult novels doesn’t mean you’re going to like every difficult novel.

But so, when Eleanor Catton’s 832-page novel The Luminaries won this year’s Man Booker Prize (it’s also a Tournament of Books finalist), and I started to learn a little bit more about it, and discovered that it is “long and demanding,” “baffling,” and “an ingenious ourobouros,” I was champing at the bit. Let’s do this!

And so I did. And, man, is this thing a head-spinner. But it’s not like Pynchon because it’s really readable. And it’s not like DFW because it’s not digressive or purposefully superfluous. In The Luminaries, the difficulty comes from the number of characters, how they’re all involved in the plot but from different perspectives and with different motivations, and how the plot folds back upon itself several times — not necessarily to mislead the reader, but to really make him/her pay close attention to details. So I took notes (here are my notes/section summaries, if you’re interested in wrestling with this bear, too), really took my time, re-read if I didn’t understand something, constantly flipped back, and wound up getting to the end in about two weeks. And you know what? I got it! I totally understood it. And while I didn’t totally love the story — I finished more with a sense of awe of Catton than of head-over-heels infatuation with the novel itself — I loved the reading experience itself; that I put in the time and “sweat,” and got something out of it.

But that may just be me. No one is here to cast aspersions on the reason anyone else reads, and there’s no hierarchy of rationalities for why you should read. To be challenged is one of the reasons I read. And it makes me happy, as reading should.

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