Three summers ago, I started a personal reading tradition. I decided to take the 90+ days of June, July and August to delve into longer, more challenging books. My goal was twofold: 1). to take advantage of the longer days and relaxed work schedule that comes from working in the public school system, and 2). to actively guard my brain against the mindless fare offered at cinemas or on television during the muggy months.
I would pick a long book from my TBR pile, one that was 800 pages or more, and divide up the pages into manageable, easy-to-read chunks each day. In this manner, I was able to make it through both Don Quixote and Infinite Jest in a matter of months. Surprisingly, while both were undoubtedly challenging, they were also both highly enjoyable. I was especially concerned about Infinite Jest, but once I got into the rhythm of the language, I loved it. It helps that David Foster Wallace is one of my favorite writers.
Anyway, armed with this challenge, I passed two pleasant summers reading books I always wanted to finish. I was pleased to find that if I hit my reading quota for the day, often only 12-15 pages, I’d still have time to read something lighter or less challenging.
But last year, my summer challenge failed spectacularly. I decided to tackle the Great White Whale: James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of the most notoriously difficult novels ever written. Written almost exclusively in stream-of-consciousness, the novel details, in maddening and highly allusive prose, the exploits of an Irishman in Dublin over the course of one day in June.
Unlike the other two, Ulysses didn’t eventually start making sense. In fact, the further I got, the more complex and confusing it became. Reading it became a slog, but I had committed, so I forced myself to keep going. Eventually, about two hundred pages or so in, I just stopped. It wasn’t a conscious decision to give in. It was just one of those things where I missed reading one day, and then the next, and now here we are, a year later.
This was a rare defeat for me. It wasn’t made easier by the fact that I had shared my goal with my entire office to keep me motivated, and co-workers soon began ribbing me over how Ulysses was going. I even interviewed someone who said his favorite book was Ulysses. When I asked, agog, how he managed to get through it, he looked at me blankly and said, “I just read it.”
I don’t like leaving things unfinished. These comments made me more determined than ever to make it through the book. Ulysses became my Mount Everest: it may take me several tries, but I’m determined to make it through, even if it kills me.
Why would I do this to myself, you may wonder. If reading Ulysses is so clearly not fun, why would I waste my time? Because while I agree that books are meant to be fun and enjoyable, I also think that books are meant to challenge and push us past our comfort zones. And that’s what I want my summer reading to be. You don’t climb mountains because it’s fun, you climb mountains because they’re there to be conquered.
So, this summer, I’m tackling Ulysses again. I’m starting over, from the beginning. Maybe it will be easier, maybe not. If I don’t make it, there’s always next year.
What books have you read that you found particularly challenging? What made you finish them? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!