Everest vs Balbec

by Jess

Mark O’Connell lays forth an interesting theory on reading long or “difficult” novels, over at The Millions. He posits that reading such books is not unlike being kidnapped by their authors, with whom we come to sympathize over the course of the journey. He writes:

Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.) And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. …

[A long and difficult] book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back.

I buy his premise that part of our enthusiasm over long and difficult books comes not from their inherent literary quality but from our satisfaction at having endured and finished. It does feel good. But I think it’s asking too much to simply lump “long and difficult books” together, as though Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest and Gravity’s Rainbow will strike everyone the same way (I, for one, read Moby-Dick twice, every word of it, and adored it, though not as much, or perhaps just differently, than I cherished Infinite Jest — and as for the muddle that is Gravity’s Rainbow, I never finished it nor do I have any immediate plans to do so). For some readers, the length of the text may have nothing to do with its readability, and you’d be hard put to quantify what makes a book “difficult.”

For example, Matthew Stadler over at The Stranger has a love affair with Remembrance of Things Past that is about as far removed from Everest — or from Stockholm, for that matter — as possible. He says:

I don’t mean that I am an especially skilled or hardworking reader; I am not. I am in fact poorly prepared, self-indulgent, and lazy. Rather, to fall into Proust’s work is a trackless, opiated pleasure — a surrender — which only becomes “difficult” when approached as a kind of self-improving challenge for the intellectual athlete. Reading is too often regarded as a hardship to be endured for the rewards that attend any hard work — betterment, learning, whatever. The difficulty posed is usually put as the challenge of “getting through” a book. …

But what if reading involves a dissipation into languor and ease, rather than any kind of mounted effort toward victory? What if the book is our final and only destination, a place we live in rather than “get through”? To complain that a book is “difficult” is like complaining that mornings are difficult. One cannot simply strike them from the day or refigure them as a kind of therapeutic exercise (though, tellingly, this is what many of us do with that part of the day, or those particular friends, or that season of life that we term “difficult”; rather than indulge in the fine texture of the time we spend there, we try and “work through it” — find the lessons such hardships teach us).

I can also relate to Stadler’s philosophy, particularly when it comes to Proust, whose work can seem tedious to navigate and has, after all, taken me years with little progress to show, in part because its winding sentences take me so long to parse and in part because I keep taking breaks from it to read other books; but each time I return to it, I immediately fall into its easy, languid embrace. Remembrance of Things Past always makes me feel a little sleepy, or like I’m sitting in a warm patch of sunshine on a long, lazy summer day. It’s a strange and pleasant sort of hypnosis. I honestly wouldn’t call it difficult. Just very, very long.

So I’m not picking a camp. I’m just going to keep on doing whatever it is that I’ve been doing — scaling mountains or lazing in the sun, however the mood strikes me.