Good Books Don't Have to Be Hard Work, But Lots Are

Lev Grossman's post on the renaissance of storytelling in the WSJ is a good read.  I love a good story.  The other day I was talking with a friend who told me he loved spy novels, and then went on to say that he'd never read the "Sherlock Holmes" stories.  "I wish I could read them again, for the first time," I replied.  A good story is what brings me back again and again to Tolkien, Lewis, Chesterton, Dumas, Doyle, and so many more.

I love "hard books" just as much.  In fact, I love them more.  I've spent the entire summer reading books that were so hard I was forced to slow my reading to a crawl in order glean what was being said.  I like doing the work of reading.  Having been taught the joy of it, I've never stopped.  Many of the books I read are ones I couldn't recommend to friends, since they don't share my joy of reading difficult work.  The hard books are so hard that they are not really read anymore.  But something incredible happens when you do do the work to read them: you realize why they are so beloved by others who have made the effort too.  Grossman writes,

Imagine what it felt like the first time somebody opened up "The Waste Land" and saw that it came with footnotes.
I know exactly what he's talking about.  I can remember the exact moment I first started to read "The Waste Land."  My then girlfriend, now wife, and I were sitting in the Bora Laskin Law Library at the University of Toronto late one evening during our undergrads.  She had to research a paper and I, like any good boyfriend, was reading beside her, keeping her company through the long hours among the stacks.  With its deep leather chairs and bookcases running in every direction, I pulled a black book from my bag (it's on my shelf right over there) and opened to the week's assigned reading, T.S. Eliot's great poem.  I was completely unprepared for what I encountered.  It was so far beyond me that all I could do was read it, and read it again until its lines echoed within my head.

When I was done university, and with it two degrees worth of reading hard books non-stop, I rediscovered like Grossman the joy of the luxurious plot.  I packed away my literary theory and philosophy books "for good" and bought "The Complete Sherlock Holmes."  I remember reading that, too, for the first time.  I remember reading fast, and unceasingly.  I was sitting in our first basement apartment as a married couple, my wife reading a novel at one end of the couch, and me crouching in the rain with Holmes at the other.  I hadn't enjoyed reading that much in years, and I relished every page.

My shelves are full of books both hard and (easy?, soft?, fast?).  Looking now from where I write to my bookshelves, that copy of Eliot's poem is wedged between Shelly's Frankenstein and Hesse's Steppenwolf.  The order is not alphabetical or by genre, but mainly my wife's, who periodically reorders my books, which has the effect of both losing and find books I want.  One book further to the right is by Heidegger, then Kierkegaard, then Girard, then Wangerin.  It goes on like that for shelves and shelves, and I feel no need to properly divide them into something that would suit a more complete literary appraisal.  They are what I have read and what I read, and so belong together.

Let me read to you a bit from a hard book I've loved all summer, Heidegger's "What is Called Thinking?"

Can we see something that is told?  We can, provided what is told is more than just the sound of words, provided the seeing is more than just the seeing with the eyes of the body.  Accordingly, the transposition by the leap of such a vision does not happen of itself.  Leap and vision require long, slow preparation, especially if we are to transport ourselves to that word which is not just one word among many...We cannot deal here with the preparations needed to make that leap of vision which transposes us into That which speaks from this word.  Here we can state directly only what such a leap sees.  Whatever has been seen can be demonstrated only be being seen and seen again.  What has been seen can never be provided by adducing reasons and counter-reasons.  Such a procedure overlooks what is decisive--the looking.
I can't hope to show you what I've seen through my reading.  I can show you the books where it has happened, and through them, hope to point you at the paths I've taken.  Some of these paths went through the dark heart of hard books, and other through the open and fast roads of good plots.  Sometimes, not very often, I've chanced on roads that do both, as in the case of books like Moby Dick.  The only thing I can say about the road I've taken is that it has meandered where no map goes, that the proper way to travel is to get lost and stay lost.  And whether my walking companion has been Prufrock or Watson, I've always enjoyed the way.

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