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Is there a sweet spot between high literature and the beach read?

I have been reading Apeirogon by Colum McCann, a book that I heard widely praised by critics last year. I was intrigued to see what it was about.

It turns out that Apeirogon is a literary reflection on the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and is both teaching me about the personal reality of conflict and giving me a much better understanding of a conflict I knew little about before. It is poetic and intense … but it just isn’t much fun.

(Apparently the title refers to a generalised polygon with a countably infinite number of sides. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.)

You might say that a book like this isn’t meant to be fun, and it’s true. It’s point is to highlight the impact of conflict on individuals; to make the reader think; and to challenge the reader.

That is all good and well – and extremely worthy – but sometimes it’s nice to read solely for entertainment, without needing to be challenged or enlightened. Or even better, to read a book that strikes just the right balance between challenging and entertaining.

I’ve noticed the gulf between challenging and entertaining books more than ever since I’ve been listening to audiobooks. I find difficult, complicated books impossible to listen to. I get distracted and lose hold of the thread, need to keep repeating sections to understand what is being said, and just don’t feel the same enthusiasm when I return to the story.

The more critically acclaimed the novel, the less likely I will be able to listen to it on audiobook. Just a few books that I haven’t been able to finish lately have been Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians or Tara June Winch’s The Yield.

Sometimes when reading these complex novels in hardcopy it is still a slog, although I am more likely to persevere. Despite all of the praise it received, I struggled with On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Like Apeirogon, it was poetic and beautiful, but just a bit hard. Even Ali Smith’s seasonal books which have attracted so much attention are a little too … literary … without being enough fun.

This degree of challenge is what has kept me away from some prizewinners that I want to try, but never feel up to. Among this group of books is A Girl is A Half-formed Thing, The Milkman and Lincoln in the Bardo, all award-winning but too intimidating to open. Once I did try James Joyce’s Ulysses and didn’t understand a thing that happened. Perhaps that was the point.

On the other hand, when I’m listening to Liane Moriarty, Dervla McTiernan or Sally Hepworth, I find that I’m making excuses to go for a walk so that I can keep listening and find out what happens next. My walk or cleaning or mowing – whatever I’m doing while listening to the audiobook – zooms by and I just want more. It is the only time you’ll see me cleaning the windows or dusting the eaves.

Recently, books and audiobooks that have been easy and enjoyable to read have included Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, Colette’s Claudine in Paris and Dervla McTiernan’s The Scholar and Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing. These books were clear and readable and I didn’t even have to try to understand what was happening. However, while they were fun to read, I wouldn’t say they challenged me in any way or expanded my thinking as might be expected of high literature.  They didn’t test out the boundaries of prose or play with chronology or structure; they were not innovative or experimental, thank goodness. But sometimes, I have to admit if feels good to be challenged and changed by a novel.

In the best books, the literary and unputdownable collide;  these are the novels that hit the sweet spot between the less accessible high literature and the beach read. They provide insight into different cultures and ways of thinking, while remaining engrossing reads. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Lanny by Max Porter, and even classics like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights are some examples of these perfectly balanced books, which require the reader to think while also providing incomparable entertainment. There are many, many more.

For Nora Ephron, reading did not just offer entertainment or self-improvement, but a wide range of benefits.

“Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”

Ultimately, I understand that as a reader, it is worthwhile to be challenged and the experience is not always comfortable or enjoyable. It just isn’t as likely to get me out the door for a walk.

Equally, sometimes an easy read is exactly what the doctor ordered and self-improvement be damned.

But what I really want it to gain as many of Ephron’s benefits of reading in a single book. To learn, to change, to live, to find something to talk about later on. But most of all, to find my bliss.  Is that too much to ask?

Which books do you think hit the sweet spot between the literary and the beach read?

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