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Is it worth reading ‘difficult’ books?

There are two types of people in the world: one who loves a challenge, and one who likes nothing less.

I’ve always thought that I was in the latter category, preferring contentment to achievement. Sure, I admire people who run marathons, scale mountains and bake bombe Alaska, I’m just not one of them.

So it is with reading. I love settling into a book that is easy to read and simply enjoyable. I want books to relax me, to give me time out from everyday pressures or worries, and transport me, effortlessly, to a different place.

Then there are those books like the one I have just finished. The Sellout by Paul Beatty on the 2016 Man Booker Prize and was widely praised and adored. Presumably, by people who are more amenable challenge than I am. Set in the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, The Sellout was a witty, funny, extraordinarily clever book, with a strikingly original take on racism, slavery and segregation.

And while I was repeatedly astonished by its intelligence, pausing to re-read slabs of text that had captured a truth perfectly, or marvelled at a perfect turn of phrase, I found it hard to get through. It almost seemed as if it was too dense with cleverness. I just found that reading it felt a little like work, or like reading an article about the history of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that was informative, and hugely worthwhile, but a slog. And, at least it was a lot funnier.

So, was it worth reading? I would have to say, unequivocally, yes. Reading it was like mining, digging through words to find precious gems. And there were plenty to be found; so many points at which I had to pause to appreciate their brilliance.

The experience was quite different to that of reading Olive Kitteridge, which I had finished before picking up The Sellout. Reading Olive Kitteridge was a breeze, and I experienced sadness, joy and disappointment along with the characters. From the first pages, I was part of their stories, in a different world. The ideas or themes seem more sparsely peppered through the story, giving the reader the chance to adjust and move slowly through them.

The Sellout, in comparison, was frenetic. Ideas and observations tripped over each other in their eagerness to be heard.

Similarly, I found reading the Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria by Alexis Wright a challenge, due to the style of writing, which was quite foreign to me. I have to admit that I didn’t get through the whole book, which, judging by the critical acclaim the novel received, was my own loss.

And don’t even talk about the work of James Joyce or William Faulkner, which, even after I’d finished their books, I had no idea what they were about. Apparently, The Sound and the Fury and Ulysses were triumphs of some of the world’s best minds. To me, they were mountains too steep to climb.

However, perhaps I should take the advice of Faulkner himself, when asked what a reader should do when they have read one of his books two or three times, but still cannot understand it.

“Read it four times,” was his glib response.

Time often has a way of making some of the world’s great novels hard to read, as language evolves to make some words and turns of phrase obsolete. When I started to read Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, I found the language inaccessible. However, eventually I became more familiar with its flow, and I finished reading a book that was hugely worthwhile.

So, is it worth reaching for a difficult book when an easier one will be far more enjoyable? When I am about to go to bed, it is tempting to choose a novel that promises to send me to sleep, or provide instant relaxation and immersion. It is the experience I have when I read Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books – by the first page I am ensconced in Botswana, enjoying the sunshine, the characters’ charm, and the straightforward, recognisable story lines.

And while Big Little Lies, The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl might have generate tension, it is a tension quite different from that of trying to interpret difficult language or follow a complex story line.

However, American filmmaker John Waters was firm in his opinion on the reasons for reading, and for him, mere enjoyment was not enough.

“You should never read just for “enjoyment”. Read to make yourself smarter! Less judgmental. More apt to understand your friends’ insane behaviour, or better yet, your own. Pick “hard books”. Ones you have to concentrate on while reading.”

And it is true – so many great works and extraordinary ideas would be neglected if readers failed to take on the challenge of reading books they deemed to be difficult. Among a list of Goodreads’ most difficult books are some of my favourites, including the extraordinary, poetic One Hundred Years of Solitude, Anna Karenina, Middlemarch and A Clockwork Orange. I can only be grateful that before reading them, I didn’t realise they were considered to be challenging. These books are beautiful, enlightening and heartbreaking, and perhaps difficult, too.

Unlike many challenges, the reward of reading a difficult book does not just lie in its completion. The reader might often find that, past all of the obstacles of obsolete nouns, discarded punctuation and confusing character lists, knowledge and understanding that is only accessible to those prepared to be challenged may be found. So, while marathons might remain beyond me forever, perhaps one day I will go against type and embark on In Search of Lost Time. The Sellout and many other difficult books have shown me that it might, indeed, be time well spent.

Books mentioned are available at Booktopia (Australia) and The Book Depository (US and UK).

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