Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan said in a recent lecture that you didn’t really need to get a book, song or poem to enjoy it. For Dylan, the way a work of literature made its readers, or listeners, feel was more important than understanding its intended meaning.
I believe that the notion that you don’t need to understand every line of a work of literature to enjoy it is a liberating one, which gives readers the freedom to enjoy ‘difficult’ novels, and interpret and experience books in their own way.
This approach to literature might explain the appeal of novels by James Joyce and William Faulkner, which are notoriously difficult, but also highly celebrated. For the average first-time reader, The Sound and the Fury is downright incomprehensible. Yet, there is something deeply memorable and evocative about the book – in the distinctive voices of family members, in the simmering tensions between the characters, hard to pinpoint but impossible not to notice, and in the Mississippi landscape.
As Dylan suggested, it is not just in books that the beauty of language and tone can be more influential than their story line or intended meaning. Many are the songs that listeners have ignorantly adored, misinterpreting a song of love lost or betrayal and requesting it at their wedding, or playing a song of lust at a funeral.
I know that on the rare occasions I have taken part in karaoke, I have been surprised by some of the words, which are quite different from the very meaningful ones I had been singing. I think that Anthony Kiedis and I both know that “With the blood we’ve shed it’s a lonely view” is a much better line than “With the birds we share this lonely view” in Scar Tissue.
It is a mistake that Dylan would not criticise, but encourage.
“If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important,” he said in his Nobel Prize lecture. “I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.”
When I was a teenager and first started reading more grown-up books, I remember getting stuck on some passages, struggling to decipher some of the words’ meanings. My mother said to me that it wasn’t important to understand every word and paragraph, but to gain a general understanding. I was surprised and relieved that I didn’t have to labour over every passage.
I realised that when I was not studying a book so closely, I had the space to feel it, to drift along with the words and see where they took me. It was liberating and, I believe, helped me to recognise that the impact of literature on an individual reader could be more important than the foundation, or plotline, upon which it was constructed.
It is for this reason that I rarely read the back cover of a book to determine whether I am likely to enjoy it. I find a perusal of the first few pages, to sample the style of writing, to be far more valuable. It also explains why I was recently surprised when a friend said he had never read any of Helen Garner’s novels because none of the topics appealed to him. It struck me that a previous interest in the topics of Garner’s novels was almost irrelevant, as they were written in such a way that it is impossible not to become interested.
This is true of many books, not just Garner’s. I have very little interest in swimming, yet loved Barracuda. I don’t think anyone really likes cricket, but Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland was fascinating. I’m no birdwatcher, but I was moved by Mateship with Birds. Language surpasses any preconceived ideas of what is and is not interesting.
I can’t even remember what One Hundred Years of Solitude was about, but it is one of my favourite books because I loved the mysticism and lyricism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s words. While the specifics of the story have faded away, I distinctly remember how it made me feel.
The reality is that the topics these books are ostensibly about is not what they are about at all. They essentially tell universal stories of struggle, pain, triumph, despair, rejection, love…
In his book The Seven Basic Plots, Christopher Booker asserts that all stories come down to seven basic plots: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. Similarly, a study which analysed 40,000 novels found there were just six story lines, and two categories: man on a hill (with a mid-way peak) and man in a hold (in which a character plunges into trouble and crawls out). And yet, there are millions of very diverse books, despite these common foundations. Clearly, it is not the story line but the language, style and tone that make each unique.
It is something that anyone who reads to children will understand. In picture books, musicality and tone are all-important and if you have read Where is the Green Sheep? or Goodnight Moon, you will know that a fairly thin story line can make a big impact on a reader.
And so, next time you are struggling with a book, give yourself a break. Allow yourself to get carried away with the words and see where you end up. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself in the unexpected position of being moved to tears by a book about cricket.