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The Case for Reading Hard Things

Elizabeth Bastos

Staff Writer

Elizabeth Bastos has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe, and writes at her blog 19th-Century Lady Naturalist. Follow her on Twitter: @elizabethbastos

I’m trying to read Homer’s The Odyssey. Wine dark sea. Sing muses. I find its easier to make fun of than to read. I’d pause and think of myself as Homeric. Sing muses, of this Mother, she of the flashing eyes, who gets angry at the grout, who daily in her duties excels in cutting the crusts off sandwiches, and like Athena, gets the kids to review their sight words. But really reading it? I whined to my husband, “Why am I doing this?”

Why indeed, did I pick up Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway after being sucked into Michael Cunningham’s The Hours like it was a pneumantic tube to another world, a cut-glass tunnel into the side of magic mountain? It challenged me. Reading hard things is like a yoga. Pose of Being Stretched By Literature. It can add vertebral inches.

I paged though some of The Tempest. This is freakin’ hard, I said to myself, why do they teach this? Well, because hard things can be beautiful like diamonds. Junot Diaz? I am sure it is a task to write as breezily as he does. But sometimes, Puritan that I am, I want to knock my head against a book. Wrestle with it. Misunderstand it. Get frustrated with it. Vow to stop reading it, but (here’s the key) not stop reading it.

What if I had given up on Beloved? What if I had given up on Latin American Magical Realism, which I have come to absolutely love?

What if I had given up on Middlemarch. Now I think dense, hard, studded with challenge – it’s like trying the pound cakes of different countries, foods of different cultures and finding you like, like really like, Tibetan yak milk tea.