Reading Difficult Books Here, thanks


Reading Difficult Books
Here, thanks to Minute Particulars an interesting quote from Jonathan Franzen, who, I think desires that his novel, The Corrections be numbered among those "difficult to read" and thus "literary." Haven't quite gotten over his snit at Oprah for choosing him and making for him a small fortune among her legions of fans. Oprah's books are, you know, according to this great mind of our age, "Middlebrow."

Jonathan Franzen has an interesting article in the 9/30/02 issue of The New Yorker magazine on hard-to-read books. He describes his reading of William Gaddis's The Recognitions as follows:
Every morning for a week and a half I went from the breakfast table to a beige ultrasučde sofa module, turned on a lamp, and read non-stop for six or eight hours. I had some professional curiosity about Gaddis, but a few hundred pages of "The Recognitions" would have satisfied it. I sat and read the extra seven hundred pages in something like a fugue state, as if planting my feet on a steep slope, climbing. I was reluctant to leave my ultrasučde perch for any reason. The only way I could justify sitting there and spending borrowed money was to make a regular job, with regular hours, out of climbing the mountain.

(I can't help but point out the pretentiousness and even the preciousness of adding that darling little accent to suede. We have immediately marked ourselves head and shoulders above the crowd. Very likely we also pronounce Sidney Lanier's last name lahn-yea. It's just too too.)

The Recognitions IS difficult to read. I won't compare it to Ulysses as that would serve no purpose to a person who has read neither. However, I would like to address the question T.S. O'Rama asks (by whom I found this link).

I'm not sure I get the point of needful obscurity. Obscurity can be beautiful; sprinkled words of a foreign language even look beautiful on the printed page. But some of it I think appeals to the pride of the reader - I got this allusion! It's art as a glorified crossword puzzle I guess. Shakespeare wrote plays that sound obscure to us only because of the antiquated language. To people of his day, it was plainly understood, albeit laden with rich prose, foreshadowings, symbolism, etc. The very beauty and comprehensiveness of Shakespeare perhaps spoiled the broth for later generations who could not compete. Ultimately, the moderns often have less to say but have very creative ways of saying it. But perhaps this is merely sour grapes for not "getting it".

I am not certain that obscurity is so much needful as ingrained. There are people who write what is in their heads, and what is there is obscure. The point is not to be obscure, but perhaps to convey a richness of expression and vision. I must concur, that reading these obscure books can give rise to "pride," I would say rather a certain rich pleasure. For example, in The Corrections (the title of which is deliberately patterned on The Recognitions) one of the characters has an email address that ends in Of course, this is making a deliberate allusion to one of the monoliths of modernism. Perhaps second only to Ulysses this book is revered by those who would abscond away with literature and lock it in an ivory tower well secured from all the "middle-brows" out there who would pretend to better themselves. They will of course never be first rate intellects, and the test of The Recognitions can readily demonstrate that.

Now, in defense of The Recognitions I agree with part of what Franzen said, but I didn't find the point particularly difficult to grasp. I thought the work interesting, involved, entertaining, and yes, partly obscure, but nothing truly beyond the capabilities of a reader dedicated to the task. But then, I believe the same of nearly every work I've encountered. Gaddis wrote the book that he alone was capable of, and I found it a good deal more relevant and comprehensible than say, Gravity's Rainbow the praises of which elude me entirely.

Okay, so I didn't answer T.S. O'Rama's question. But I hope this has been obscure enough to live up to its progenitors.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on October 25, 2002 5:06 PM.

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