Terrible reading experiences: we’ve all had them. There are some books we vow to never return to again; literature that just seems to take more than it gives. I’m talking about the selfish literature that just doesn’t love you back. Although, as a caveat to this ‘rate or hate’ dichotomy I should probably add that most of these, for me, are books that are great to study (I am an English student) but awful to actually read; their stimulation is intellectual only and this meeting of minds is often somewhat torturous.
Actually the essay I wrote last week gave me the idea for this piece. It was a novel which I thought I would love, I adore satire. So when I sat down with Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy I thought it would be a match made in heaven. Alas I was disappointed. Also, this isn’t because I don’t ‘get’ Tristram Shandy, I understand just how clever it is in exploding narrative convention and consistently undermining the reader’s expectations. But this is the problem, a pseudo autobiography in which it takes the narrator two volumes to even get to his own birth sounds hilarious but is actually quite similar to what I imagine the experience of torture is like. What I assumed would be a comic ride into whimsical digression became a nightmarish exercise in disorientation and confusion. It’s a little bit like being lost in a Dali landscape, desperately trying to get to the other side but constantly being beset by elephants on stilts that just don’t seem relevant to the painting you thought you were in. And the colours are strange, and maybe beautiful retrospectively, but not right now because you’re blinded and overwhelmed and stuck in the painting, not in a comfortable art gallery. Also the clocks are all melting, obviously, because Sterne is sucking and melting your time away. You start to have the suspicion that maybe Sterne has changed time and that all the clocks are melted, even in the gallery. Well, until you finish reading and actually look at the theory – then it’s ok.
During sixth form I also became involved in a love-hate relationship with literature, this time with an Ancient Greek text you may have heard of – Homer’s Iliad. I was actually reading in translation for Classics A-Level so seemingly had nothing to complain about in terms of difficulty. My main issue with reading the Iliad is partly that there are lots of routs and mini-battles which are hard to keep on top of, but mainly my problem was with the Catalogue of Ships. Here Homer has fun, presumably by playing some kind of joke on the people who would have to learn his poem off by heart, by listing roughly a million contingents of the Greek army, referencing their ships and often adding a fun fact about their hometown. Looking back on my antipathy towards said Catalogue now, I feel quite bemused by the level of hatred excited in my Classics class by a comparatively short section of an epic and the couple of homework assignments we were set to record and analyze it. I think the intensity of the Oxford term has cured me of this more flippant species of book hatred – what seemed like weeks of annoyance in sixth form would now be an afternoon’s mild vexation for me, which is quite comforting really.
In fact in all of this, perspective is important. Also, the fact is that I am probably the problem, or maybe modern consumer culture is. The assumption that the experience of reading for pleasure and reading as a student of literature is very different is perhaps one that we should question. Maybe the culture of best-sellers and “easy-readers” has in fact made us lazy, or just altered society’s perception of what “good literature” is. I mean, if I only read trashy romance novels it would hardly be fulfilling, even if they are like swimming through water as opposed to honey. A key pleasure then, is in decoding, and being challenged by literature. Maybe I should in fact, learn to embrace difficulty or tedium for the things which I can learn from them – maybe I need some good old fashioned didacticism in my approach to books.
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