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The Value in Reading Difficult Books


Am I alone in thinking that some books are just more difficult to read than others?

Of course not, and you aren’t too.

Taking a step back and evaluating your reading level, how would you rate yourself?

Have you significantly improved through the years and considered or become an academic?

Or have you stagnated and stayed on either your reading level in college, or worse – high school?

I’m not saying that the high school reading level is far inferior to college reading level, although there’s both obvious and proven basis to say that it is. In short – I’m not discriminating those who’ve only finished high school and never finished or even attended college. But there’s an obvious relationship between literacy and educational attainment which, I won’t really talk further about on this article.

I’m posing the questions I had at the very beginning to ask you the reader, exactly how you feel about your reading level. And often it can be difficult to exactly rate oneself on this aspect because of the varying fields of expertise. If you were curious about your own reading level, there’s a test called The Macmillan Readers Level Test offered online by Macmillan Publishers.

But this article isn’t about assessing yourself on how far you’ve come as a literate human being. I wrote this article to encourage you, the reader, to pick up a book that’s difficult to read and – even if you start developing a headache even as you finish a long paragraph – plow through the whole thing until you reach the last page.

That’s exactly what happened to me when I read three consecutive books that weren’t the easiest to read (at least for me). I wanted to prove to myself that I could read every word and sentence and feel a sense of fulfillment for having put myself through such an ordeal but being able to follow through in the end. Instead of turning this into a full-blown book review, let me tell you about my reading experience after reading three of what I have so far considered the most difficult books I’ve ever read (and consecutively).

The First Difficult Book: The Trial by Franz Kafka

To be completely honest, I didn’t pick up and read this book because I wanted to try something difficult. The very reason I picked it up from the bookstore was because I was an avid Haruki Murakami fan and in his writings he often references Franz Kafka and even entitled one of his best works, ‘Kafka on the Shore.’ I had read Kafka’s short story ‘Metamorphosis’ – a story about a salesman who wakes up one day and finds out that he’s turned into a huge insect. That short story was a very weird one and like several Murakami reads I wanted to immerse myself in some more weird stories.

But The Trial did not turn out to be such a weird story. It turned out to be this story with very long paragraphs and with chapters usually entitled after the key characters whom the protagonist meets. While it was an ordeal in getting through the book, especially because the English translation does not read too contemporary, finishing the book was one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve had.

I was only capable of reading ten pages a day on average, but when I got to the latter parts of the story it transformed into something far more interesting that I could have imagined before I picked the book up. The Trial is a classic on what happens when a world becomes a bureaucratic mess and you’re caught not knowing what it was exactly you did wrong and worse, never knowing how to fix it.

The Second Difficult Book: The Picture of Dorian Gray

Apparently I was caught unaware that Oscar Wilde wrote with homosexual themes. But The Picture of Dorian Gray, no matter what your sexual orientation is, is without any doubt one of the greatest works of fiction that ever existed. The premise of the book is simple – there’s a painting of you taken while you were at the peak of your beautiful youth, and instead of you yourself aging, you make a secret deal (with the devil) that it’s the painting of you that grows old and weary.

Reading through the whole thing, it’s obvious that Oscar Wilde’s works are not the easiest to read especially if you’re not a reader of Victorian pieces. I could only ever find myself to finish Sherlock Holmes stories from a similar time period because they were written concisely, but a Wilde or a Dickens – every page was brutal for me.

Nevertheless, finishing the book was very fulfilling. The Picture of Dorian Gray had one of the most brilliant story endings one could ever write (which you can probably do a quick Google search on) but one which I will not spoil.

The Third Difficult Book: The Autumn of the Patriarch

Reading this book is something I would not recommend to those who wish for a casual Friday-night-in-bed reading under a lamplight on cold rainy weather. To say that the sentences are endless is an understatement. This is no exaggeration, but a single sentence of this book can stretch as far as twenty pages!

Making matters worse, there are hardly if none at all, quotation marks to indicate a person making a dialogue. And perspectives shift with no warning to the reader – one minute you’re a loyal soldier, the next minute you’re reading the perspective of the protagonist’s lover. And time itself in the novel does not seem to be linear. Not the hop from time periods stuff, although you do get a little sense of time passage by how the protagonist’s mother is healthy then becomes sick, dies, and becomes a candidate to become a saint. At least there’s that.

To be honest, finishing the book was more of a relief than a sense of fulfillment. It was definitely the most difficult book I have ever read. When I put the book down, I was glad that I no longer needed to read impossibly long sentences where I struggled on which page to find the end punctuation. But this isn’t a criticism to Gabriel Garcia Marquez – the way he intentionally wrote it this way to display the main character’s thought was unbelievably creative , and I don’t think anyone else could pull it off like he did.

In conclusion, I’d encourage you to expand your horizons and read more difficult pieces. Because while not every difficult piece will leave you with a huge sense of accomplishment, the fact of having finished a difficult book just opens more types of literature for you and all of a sudden you’re able to tap into interests you’d never known you had.

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