Friday, June 26, 2009

The Problem of Hard to Read Books

Last night, I was asked why I would choose to read a long, challenging novel in the midst of summer when so called “beach reads” seem to make more sense. Its summer! Take it easy! Go pick up a Stephen King novel!

The question itself did not make much sense to me as I cannot say that I believe that any given season should dictate a persons reading habits but, what the hell. The simple answer, the one that I wielded while walking the leafy streets of Cobble Hill with a copy of Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” under my arm, was that occasionally I like to remind myself that even now, years removed from academia, I still have the capacity to read and comprehend difficult literature.

Then this morning while on the F train into work, I recalled an article by Jonathan Franzen that I had read in The New Yorker that confronted the “problem of hard-to-read books” and wished that I could have repackaged that argument last night as my answer. Taking advantage of the fact that I have access to the entire electronic archives of The New Yorker, when I sat down in my cubicle high above Times Square I downloaded the Franzen article from the September 30, 2002 issue.

Franzen (of “The Corrections” fame) creates a binary regarding the two prevalent models of fiction as it relates to its audience: the Status model and the Contract model. The former is grounded in the idea that “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work its because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independently of how many people are able to appreciate it.” The Status model draws a parallel between the difficulty and the quality of a given piece of work and leads one to believe that the author did not sell out and stayed true to the path of the artist.

Meanwhile, the Contract model insists that a novel “represents a compact between the writer and reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.” Its fun reading, escapism without much sweat, and perfect for the beach. To adherents of the Contract model, difficulty in a work of fiction is an alert that the writer has been allowed to wallow in his or her own artistic vanity, in fact encouraged by MFA instructors nationwide.

I cannot say that I would rank one of these over the other as in my opinion the best books represent a convergence of the two models. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead,” and Balzac’s “Lost Illusions” all come to mind. Books that cause people on the subway to take pause due to their girth and strange titles but are truly straight forward narratives that do not require the mental gymnastics that it takes to read Thomas Pynchon, Lawrence Durrell or David Foster Wallace.

However, there is something redeeming about pushing through and finishing a BIG BOOK. As Franzen puts it, after he finished the 900 plus pages of “The Recognitions” by William Gaddis he felt “virtuous, as if I’d run three miles, eaten my kale, been to the dentist, filed my tax return, or gone to church.”

And this is what I love about a challenging read. The sense of literary self-worth that I get when it comes to an end that is almost cathartic. I don’t give a damn if it is 90 degrees and muggy out, I am going to take a 706 page vacation to a sanatorium high above Davos, Switzerland with Thomas Mann. A vacation that takes a little work.

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