In college, I took a course called Existentialism in Literature. I mostly loved it, except when we had to read Nietzsche. I hated that. Actually, hate isn’t strong enough a word to describe this liberal humanist’s reaction to the vile filth that is Nietzsche and his philosophy.
One of the most common pieces of advice people give to those who say they want to read more is to stop trying to finish books. They say it’s totally okay to put books down without finishing them if you find them boring, if you don’t like them, if you don’t agree with some part of them, if you find it distasteful or not perfectly mirroring your world view. They say to give a book 50 pages, or 30, or two chapters, or whatever arbitrary measure should be “enough” to judge whether or not a book is good or interesting or worth your time.
On the one hand, I don’t mind this advice. It’s hard for me personally, as a former English major, to follow — I’ve been trained to finish things whether or not I’m enjoying them. But if the idea of “having” to finish every single book you start is honestly preventing you from ever reading one, then please, heed that advice and get your ass to a library and play fast and loose with their checkout limits. Read one page out of every single book on a shelf until you find one that makes you want to keep reading. Read the first page and the last page only. Find 10 books and open each one to a random page and only read that. I don’t care. Just read something without feeling like an intimidating English teacher is standing over you going “and what does the river symbolize?“
I also feel like this advice just feeds our cultural phenomenon of “ENTERTAIN ME NOW YOU HAVE 15 SECONDS NOPE BORING GOOD-BYE.” The idea that our time is so limited and precious that we shouldn’t waste a second of it on something that isn’t absolutely hysterical and interesting and extremely easy to digest.
I think this advice also comes from the idea reading should be fun! all the time! a leisure activity only! something you do on the beach while the sun slowly melts your brain! That once you graduate high school, you’re no longer “required” to read anything and therefore reading should never feel like “work” again.
And I think those lines of thinking lead to all the people I see today reading nothing but YA books or books they’ve read already or books that Oprah and their book club and bloggers and Instagram told them to read. Books that may be really good, I’ll happily grant, but books that, on the whole, are easy. Books with vocabulary that wouldn’t challenge most eighth-graders. Books with characterization and plots so straightforward and simple that you’re not left puzzling over a character’s motivation, or haunted by how relatable the villain was. Books that don’t suddenly offer more meanings once you understand the author’s background or culture or social situation or historical time period. Books that don’t have nice happy endings with all the loose ends tied up neatly. Books that don’t really make you question anything — anything real, at least, I’m not talking about “Do you think Rachel ever got her life together after [GIRL ON THE TRAIN SPOILERS HIDDEN, but seriously, if you haven’t read it yet do you really care if I spoil it?]?”
Let me be clear, though: I’m not coming at you like some high-minded literary critic who reads every issue of The New Yorker cover to cover and prefers Raymond Chandler to Philippa Gregory. I’ll happily spend a weekend re-reading The Princess Diaries, I’ve enjoyed most of Rainbow Rowell’s works, and if you haven’t read any of the Harry Potter books, go sit in a corner. Against my better judgement, I’ve found myself absorbed in The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and more Dan Brown and Tom Clancy books than I care to list.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with easy, quick reads. I’m not saying that in the slightest.
But if those are all that you read, when it comes to books, I would really, strongly recommend branching out. Read something that seems boring or hard or intimidating. Try a classic or one of the “literary” books reviewed in The New Yorker. Read some really weird short stories that make you go “huh?” when you finish them. Revisit that book you couldn’t stand in high school, or the one you only skimmed the Cliffs Notes of. Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 or Animal Farm or anything by Emerson or Walden or The Old Man and the Sea or Crime and Punishment or Emily Dickinson or Vanity Fair or Lord of the Flies. Read something that espouses a philosophy that goes against everything you believe in, like Atlas Shrugged or Nietzsche.
When we discussed Nietzsche in class, I raised my hand and said, “I kept wanting to throw the book across the room.”
My professor instantly said, “Good! You’re supposed to react strongly!”
See, reading Nietzsche was hard because I believed so strongly in the opposite of everything he said, yet his reasoning was sound enough that I struggled to hold on to my beliefs. Reading Heidegger and Hegel in that same class made my brain literally hurt because their language and the concepts they discussed were just so out there. Reading 1984 and Brave New World in high school brought me into a mild depression (sort of. not really clinically depressed).
And yet it is so important to read those and books like them. We shouldn’t leave the stuff that’s hard or complex or “literary” or “highbrow” to the academics and pretentious critics. We need to read them because just as the body responds to marathon training or an Olympic weightlifting regimen and becomes stronger, the mind gets stronger when stressed with the exercise that is reading A Tale of Two Cities. Just as the body slumps and gets soft and decays without strenuous, challenging physical activity, the mind grows soft and dull without the occasional challenging idea to wrestle with and debate.
Opening Anna Karenina can feel like registering for marathon that’s six months out. You are making a commitment. It will be hard. It will take time. And when you finish, you will be a different person and that’s scary because maybe, okay, you’re not thrilled with where you’re at now but at least it’s comfortable and you know what to expect from your life and what will I do when all that’s challenged?
Running a marathon is hard. It takes time. It takes a commitment. It may not be an enjoyable journey. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a runner who, upon finishing her first marathon, won’t admit that it was worth it, no matter what the outcome.
Which is why I’m reading Moby Dick. And after that, a whole host of books that I feel like I should’ve read but somehow never did — Beloved, Slaughterhouse-Five, Things Fall Apart, One Hundred Years of Solitude, something significant by Dickens, Flannery O’Connors short stories, Hemingway. And books I haven’t read since high school or college that I want to revisit — Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, Crime and Punishment. I’ve mostly loved my reading habit over the past few years, but it’s time to flex some brain muscle and challenge myself again.
What’s the most challenging book you’ve ever read? What books or authors intimidate you or seem hard or boring?