Difficult Reads can expand your mind, or drive you nuts
Oh, it starts off simple enough, this reading business. One day it’s all “Hop on Pop” and “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” followed by a gentle transition to “Ramona Quimby, Age 8” to “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” to “Ranger’s Apprentice” and “The Hunger Games.”
But then whammo!
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
“From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
“Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”
Ummm ... huh?
Legions of 14-year-old freshmen stare in befuddlement. It’s English, sure, but so fancy? So convoluted? What was William Shakespeare even saying??
It’s a Difficult Read, perhaps the first Difficult Read. There will be others, and more difficult, on the road to a well-rounded education, and so the reader of difficult texts begins to wonder, “Yes, but is it worth it?”
It becomes a balancing act, weighing the difficulties against the rewards. And there are many types of difficulty. Some texts are difficult because the language is archaic (“The Canterbury Tales”), some are difficult because the structure is dense (“Nightwood”), some are difficult because they’re emotionally wrenching (“The Road”) and some are difficult because the big fat jerk-face kid just takes and takes (“The Giving Tree”). And some are “War and Peace.”
But are they worth it? Depends on the reader. So, in that vein — and in honor of Ruth Ozeki, author of “A Tale for the Time Being” (a wonderful book that mightily wrings the emotions) appearing Saturday night to cap this year’s One Book, One Mesa County reading program — we asked various readers to name their Difficult Read (but Worth It).
Jason Reddoch, assistant professor of English at Colorado Mesa University
Difficult Read (but Worth It): “The Iliad,” by Homer.
“It’s such a massive work, its size, its subject, just getting through it,” he explained. “But it had a huge impression on me as an undergraduate.”
Reddoch noted that Homer offered extended descriptions of clothing and geography and battles, as well as legions of names and places that can befuddle the modern reader. Plus, it’s written in dactylic hexameter, not the easiest text structure for a reader.
“But at its core, it’s addressing perennial questions, questions about life and death,” he said. “For me, the biggest moment is in the beginning of the very last book, where Achilles and Priam come face to face. Priam’s son has just been killed, Achilles has lost a close friend in the war, and it’s this moment of reconciliation. You really get their humanity in this kind of face-to-face encounter that is really powerful.”
Reddoch said that when he teaches “The Iliad,” he tries to give plenty of background on places and names so that students don’t get totally lost, and lets them know it’s OK to read through the details — “they can’t hold on to everything, so I just try to guide them through the big pictures.”
(We also asked readers to name a Difficult Read that’s Not Worth It, and Reddoch cited “Deuteronomy” in the Bible’s Old Testament: “If you’re reading the Bible as literature, it’s just not worth it,” he said. “It’s boring.”)
Joseph Sanchez, director of Mesa County Libraries
Difficult Read (but Worth It): “The Categories,” by Aristotle
“‘The Categories’ is considered the hardest text he wrote to read and interpret,” Sanchez explained. “It’s really alienating if you’re not a classicist.”
Sanchez said that as a graduate student, his studies were taking him more toward the Greeks and even though he wasn’t a philosophy major, he had a background in philosophy and was intrigued when a friend mentioned “The Categories.”
“It had a profound affect on my way of thinking about thinking itself,” he said. “Aristotle really started formulating questions about questions, are we thinking categorically, are we thinking systematically. That’s what really hit me is the fact that he was being careful at every level, and it was the beginning of the philosophy of science, he had all these difficult concepts, he was talking about how we approach a thing in multiple categories, like a human being can be a human being, it can be a mammal, it can be a husband, so depending on which subject and predicate, it changes the way you think about them. I think I started thinking much more carefully.”
Sanchez did admit, however, that the reading was difficult “and it took me hours to get through a couple of pages because I was researching everything on the page.”
(Sanchez’s Difficult Read but Not Worth It: “I was thinking the Russians, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky. For the amount of work you put in as a reader, and they’re amazing stories, full of great moral play, I have to ask, good lord, couldn’t you have done this in half the pages?”)
Kurt Haas, professor of English at Colorado Mesa University
Difficult Read (but Worth It): “Paradise Lost,” by John Milton
“At first it looks like it’s a bunch of boring Renaissance theology, but the more you go on, Satan becomes this sympathetic guy, and that’s a whole different way of understanding the universe,” Haas explained. “But yes, Milton has this weird Latinate English going on and allusions the modern reader probably won’t understand.”
Haas said he first read “Paradise Lost” as an undergraduate and not only came to see the beauty of the language, but how Milton confounded expectations.
“Milton was this Puritan and you would expect him to treat good and evil in these absolutist terms, but instead, he messes around with your point of view all the time, and so really it changes the way, or at least tries to change the way you understand why things are the way they are, why people do bad stuff, assuming you consider angels people.”
Reading Stanley Fish’s “Surprised by Sin” helped clarify “Paradise Lost,” Haas said, illuminating how the story “kind of tricks you into rooting for Satan, and then have forehead slap moment, and where you go from there is up to you. But that realization that you’re rooting for the representation of all that is black and dark and evil, it’s really powerful reading. There’s one place in the poem where (Satan is) looking at Adam and before he decides he’s going to destroy them utterly, he has this moment where he loves them, and he’s so envious and it makes him so sad. He’s really humanized there, even though what he’s up to is absolutely bad.”
(As for Difficult but Not Worth It: James Joyce’s “Ulysses” — “I’m not such a philistine that I won’t say it isn’t brilliant,” Haas said, “but if you have to have a handbook to read it, that makes it questionable to me.”)
Margie Wilson, owner of Grand Valley Books
Difficult Read (but Worth It): “The Work of Wolves,” by Kent Meyers
“It’s a coming of age story set in the west, and it’s about power versus the powerless, it’s about money versus the unmoneyed, it’s a story about four young men who are kind of thrown together in a moral dilemma,” Wilson said. “It’s a story that’s set in the west written by a western writer who knows it well, and his way of expressing his feelings about the landscape and the way that the landscape informs our decisions and way of living in the west, it is a tough read.”
Wilson explained that the writing isn’t necessarily difficult, but the emotions it elicits and the images it paints. She mentioned one scene in particular that made her hold her breath as she was reading.
“This family is sitting at the kitchen table discussing whether to sell this ranch,” she recalled “and the son was so enamored with the land and ranch and heritage that his parents and grandparents had built, and letting go of it would be one of toughest things he could imagine. So, his parents are making this decision without him and he feels he should be included in it, he feels it should be part of his future. That scene in the book just made me hold my breath.”
(Wilson’s Difficult Read but Not Worth it: “‘Moby Dick,’ that’s one that you don’t re-read unless you’re crazy,” she said. “Yes, it’s a classic of modern literature, but oh, boy, is it hard to read.”
William Wright, professor of English at Colorado Mesa University
Difficult Read (but Worth It): “The Waste Land,” by T.S. Eliot
“Having read it myself and with students a number of times, and performed it rather than trying to analyze it, it remains an uncanny text rather than one that explains itself,” Wright said. “It continues to have an artistic feel to it rather than an explanatory feel.”
“The Waste Land” is notoriously difficult because it has dozens of voices with very little, or sometimes nothing, to differentiate between them. Plus, Eliot occasionally lapses into German or French and the poem seems to wander arbitrarily through time and space. Wright compared it to an abstract painting in the way it resists easy interpretation.
“I think I like the accident of ‘The Waste Land,’ how (Ezra) Pound got hold of it and cut out all the interstitials so you have all these different voices on top of each other. It is bleak, it’s hard to find optimism in ‘The Waste Land,’ as well as it’s hard to find meaning.”
When he teaches “The Waste Land,” Wright said he assigns parts so that each student is reading a different voice in the poem, “and just hearing that different contrast of voices, there’s a loveliness to it like music.”
(Wright’s Difficult Read but Not Worth It: “I still struggle even approaching Pound’s “Cantos,” almost any of Pound’s work. The ‘Cantos’ are either opaque or arrogant without being really deep.”