Before attempting to tell people that they should read challenging books, it is important to first identify why we read at all. Centuries ago, reading was limited to the upper and educated classes and so the only books available were either books that taught or entertained; but even those books whose chief purpose was entertainment (Catullus’ poems for example) were written for an upper class audience which had received a certain degree of education. And all over the world, this education centered around mastery over a small group of classic texts; in South Asia we can identify these as certain core Sanskritic texts, which were eventually supplanted by or made ancillary to vernacular texts, in East Asia the Chinese classics (even in Japan, as we can learn from Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s Diary) formed the core of any educated person, and in Europe, well into the 19th century, education largely meant a thorough grounding in the Latin and Greek classics.
One of the remarkable qualities of the modern period is the rise to dominance of the novel and the essay. Both of these genres were old, and every literary tradition has possessed a ‘large fictitious work in prose’ (M.H. Abrams’ definition of a novel), but despite the popularity of some of these works (Petronius’ Satyricon, Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Apuleius’ Golden Ass come to mind), the novel never became the dominant genre of literature. The essay form, which one can see everywhere today — in newspapers, blogs, websites, etc, too was not popular.
Again, this lack of popularity for these forms should be attributed to the socio-political conditions of the day. As Ian Watt has argued in The Rise of the Novel (an argument Andrew Placks has shown to be equally applicable in the Chinese case), the rise of a capitalist economy created a dynamic new class (the middle class) which needed to be literate and which had a great deal of free time to do things like read. Knowledge of the classical languages, hardly necessary for a merchant, declined; and so authors who hoped to make a good deal of money, wrote works that would reach the widest possible audience — most of whom, as I’ve shown, had no knowledge of the classical languages.
One of the side effects of this revolution is that our reading appetites grew. We began to read more, and ordinary people began to read. The idea of printing cookbooks for a working class male audience would have sounded absurd to a Renaissance publisher. In our age then, the idea of what makes a book “challenging” has become vague. Let us try to clarify it. By calling a ‘challenging’ I do not mean that its language is hard for us to digest. We may find Fielding and Dickens difficult to read today, but that is because we are unaccustomed to their language. Their contemporaries easily devoured their works, and did not find their language difficult; working class people in Victorian England read Oliver Twist as easily as we read Stephen King’s It.
Thus, when I am talking about ‘challenging’ books, I do not mean a novel whose language has become outdated. When I speak of ‘challenging’ books, I mean books that challenge and provoke. Kafka once growled that ‘the only books worth reading are those that bite and kick…happy books we could write ourselves’. That is what I mean by a ‘challenging’ book. Oliver Twist is not a hard book because everything ends happily. Great Expectations is a ‘hard’ book because Pip forces us to confront our own selfishness. Pip leaps at the opportunity for monetary gain and leaves his caring but poor brother-in-law Joe behind since he is ashamed of him. But when Pip falls ill, it is Joe who returns to care for him — not his new found rich friends. Dickens forces us to realize that we too often abandon those who have cared for us simply because they do not have money.
Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a delightful tale. It is, in fact the play I reread most often. But it is not a ‘challening’ book. King Lear is. I was once thinking about Lear at the gym when a friend of mine walked by and asked how I was. I told her that I was thinking about Lear. “Isn’t that the one where everyone dies?” she asked. Yes, and therein lies the difficulty of the play. King Lear himself is a proud bastard who deserves to be punished — but does he deserve to go mad, hurled out of every home, wander the land like an itinerant beggar and finally die holding his innocent Cordelia in his hands? And what wrong has Cordelia done to suffer so terribly? What about her two sisters — Lear has clearly favored Cordelia over her two older sisters, and they have reason to hold a grudge against him, but what happens in the play defies all reason. Gloucester has wronged Edmund, but does he deserve to have his eyes gouged out in his old age? And what about Edmund — we know that he has never felt love, or been appreciated, but does that justify his streak of cruelty? Lear is a difficult play because there are no easy answers to these questions. All of the characters are flawed, and none seem to deserve mercy; yet as we look around us, we will find that most people resemble the cast of Lear. Lear is difficult because it depicts reality with such ferocity that we are afraid of it. Kafka would suggest that we reread Lear often. And to me this is what makes it such a ‘challenging’ book.
The ‘challenging’ books, are books which force us to think deeply about ourselves and our world. Marx’s works are challenging, and so are Adam Smith’s. Both thinkers dissect our world and lay its faults bare before us. Richard Wright and Dante are both challenging writers because their works force us to see that all is not well in our world; Joyce’s Ulysses is a challenging book because it shatters our arrogance and shows us that a tubby, unimpressive, cuckolded pervert is the modern-day Ulysses. Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room shows us the hurt we can inflict when we choose to follow societal convention instead of our hearts. Equally importantly, it shows us how difficult it is to follow our heart instead of subscribing to societal convention.
I want to emphasize again that books are not ‘challenging’ because authors use large words or write in a different language. Roth’s American Pastoral is a ‘challenging’ book — it is indeed one of the most ‘challenging’ of all books; but its language is simple enough for a middle-schooler to grasp. Its difficulty lies in the truths it shows and the comfortable lies it exposes. Earlier I said that Oliver Twist was a ‘challenging’ book — not if you’re Jewish. For then you must face the reality that even in a supposedly enlightened society, Jew-hatred exists. And that it’s perfectly possible for hundreds of readers to enjoy a book without once noticing the fact that your whole people are depicted as criminals and scumbags.
Is there a test which tells us which books are ‘challenging’ and which are not? No. Most people may read Austen’s Mansfield Park with a smile on their faces, but a reader sensitive to the pains of imperialism knows that the wonderful society shown in the novel depends upon chattel slavery for its livelihood. I want to end this by stressing that difficulty in terms of books depends on the reader, but that there are some books, by the nature of the author’s genius and the books own expansive vision, cover so broad a scope that they are challenging for most everyone to read.
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