Why read difficult books?

Poetry can be difficult, but I love to read it. Poetry is not the only form of ‘hard reading’ I do, though. Reading a text that’s challenging takes more time and more effort on my part, and for a person who is often pressed for time the question presents itself:

Why do I read hard books?

Bachelard. de Bolla. Girard. Kuhn. I’m immersed in Quiddities by W. V. Quine at the moment. Slow going, though I enjoy his sense of humor, because I’m not as comfortable with philosophical terms as I once was. Next up: Derek Parfit.

Philosophy, poetics, aesthetics…not as easy nor, I suppose, as entertaining as popular fiction. I admit I enjoy how novels erase the boundaries between my life and the characters’ lives, their times and places (historical? imaginary? far from Emmaus, Pennsylvania?); it is easy to feel wrapped up in a novel, and I appreciate being taken elsewhere.  I’m a fan of short fiction, too. It’s easy to love fiction.

That’s not always the effect I seek from reading, however. I read non-fiction to become informed, and I especially treasure information that is delivered in a beautiful, literary fashion. John McPhee, James Prosek, Annie Dillard, Phillip Lopate, Terry Tempest Williams, to name a few. Writers such as these make reading science and politics and biology and culture and other informational material a joy.

I read difficult texts such as philosophy and physics because I love to think. Thinking deeply has always resulted—for me—in new forms of perspective, in inspiration, and in poetry.

Poetry is sometimes difficult to read, as well. Think of the many ways the word “difficult” can mean in this poetic context: Marie Howe is difficult in a different way than Jorie Graham, or Lyn Hejinian, or Ezra Pound, Gray Jacobik, or Gregory Orr’s early collection Gathering the Bones Together.

Stuff that is hard to read can be extremely rewarding. And, when I am puzzled (which I often am), I feel inspired to question and to observe…which leads to writing. Much of what we call “art” is a response to difficulty.

Oh, how I relish the difficult!

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14 comments on “Why read difficult books?

  1. Excellent post, Ann. I couldn’t agree more. One of the most difficult reading experiences I ever had in terms of poetry was Arpine Konyalian Grenier’s Part, Part Euphrates. I was writing a review, and on a first read got little more than a confused feeling. I worked and worked at it and suddenly it opened up like a puzzle, which is something that happens with all difficult texts, I think: understanding doesn’t come gradually, but suddenly and completely. It’s a great feeling, a “reader’s high.” Anyway I wound up loving Euphrates–it’s a deeply layered text that really reinvents the language. It made me smarter!

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  2. annemichael says:

    I’m not familiar with the collection, or with Grenier. Now I’m curious! Thanks for the recommendation.

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  3. Sigrun says:

    I really like the way you take us from fiction to philosophy and physics – and then back to the poetics again in this post. I’m currently writing on a hybrid text, in which scientific research plays an important role, even if it turns into mysteries again on my pages.
    Today I read a short research article called (translated from Norwegian) “Tuna never freeze”. Tuna achieve endothermy by conserving the heat generated through normal metabolism… Scientifically this is all very interesting, but what really caught my eyes, was the title: “Tuna never freeze”. Its a great line for a poem, isn’t it?

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  4. Great post (and blog). Mind if I share it on LinkedIn and Facebook?
    Debra Daumier

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