Do We Mistake Inaccessibility for Brilliance?

Aug 30, 2015 · 62 comments
Lauren Yobs (New Jersey)
As Wallace once said of fiction to Salon.com, "There’s another level that a piece of fiction is a conversation. There’s a relationship set up between the reader and the writer that’s very strange and very complicated and hard to talk about. A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I’m sitting in a chair."

What I understand of this passage is that fiction, to Wallace, was not two-dimensional, cut-and-dry escapism. Yes, there are moments in which the reader forgets himself. However, as I experienced when reading Infinite Jest for the first time and as Jamison so eloquently states, there is a "binary...between absorption and intentionality" that gives texture and a far more poignant sense of place to the book, its meaning, and the reader himself.
Tom Daly (Oakland)
I loved "War and Peace," "Middlemarch" and especially "In Search of Lost Time." But I only read about a quarter each of "Gravity's Rainbow," "Ulysses" and "Infinite Jest." Maybe I'll pick them up again sometime. But when I stopped reading them, they didn't seem to be worth all the time and effort involved. "Gravity's Rainbow" and "Infinite Jest" were funny, but the plots weren't gripping enough for me. And I seem to have misplaced my copy of "Ulysses."
Janice Steinberg (San Diego, CA)
My "Infinite Jest" was Roberto Bolaño's "2666." I wasn't as disciplined as Leslie Jamison; it took me 4-6 months, not one, and I took breaks from it to read other things. But I stuck with it, especially at the beginning, when I kept thinking, why this endless literary joke about a fictitious author (which Bolaño did brilliantly in The Savage Detectives)? And I goaded myself, when I considered abandoning it, by looking at the cover emblem for the National Book Critics Circle Award and by reading the blurbs about its audacity. I'm accustomed to—and, I admit, fond of—manicured, disciplined narratives, and "2666" was chaos. I ended up loving it for that, seeing it as a kitchen sink book into which Bolaño threw everything he was thinking about life and culture and the border and violence, and came up with moments of astonishing imagery.
Dan (Pittsburgh)
Words are funny, words are cool, words are stupid, I am a fool.
Sleater (New York)
I also want to point out that reading difficult works, which is to say, texts with formal complexity, may be good for the brain.

From NY Times: How nonsense sharpens the brain:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/health/06mind.html

and

From BoingBoing: Reading Kafka may improve learning:
http://boingboing.net/2009/09/16/reading-kafka-improv.html
Sleater (New York)
I'm glad I read through both Ms. Heller's and Ms. Jamison's essays. Both make excellent points, and as Ms. Heller notes, we can dismiss works we find challenging without giving them a chance. It took me several attempts to get through William Faulkner's *The Sound and the Fury* when I was younger, but now I think that however difficult parts of it may be, it is one of the greatest works of American (or any) literature. The same is true of many other writers too. (Most people I know find Toni Morrison's *Beloved* hard to get through, but I was able to read it without much trouble.)

I admit to having struggled with the music of Gustav Mahler. Once upon a time I preemptively labeled it a loud mess, but once I gave it a few listenings, I have grown to love it. I feel the same way with literature. One of the great contemporary writers whose work poses overt challenges is Laszlo Krasznahorkai, whose serpentine sentences can sometimes unfold for pages on end. I tried repeatedly to start of his books, gave up, then returned to his sublime *Seiobo There Below,* and am very glad I did. It is one of the most remarkable works of our time.
Elizabeth Andrews (San Francisco)
Leslie Jamison, I think virtually all of your comments about Infinite Jest also can be applied to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, which I have been wading through all summer with an aspirational goal of 25 pages a day -- similarly savoring the rewards of moving "constantly between rapture and effort." Thanks for the encouragement!
K. N. KUTTY (Mansfield Center, Ct.)
No lover of literature needs to feel guilty about not finishing fiction and poetry
that do not yield their meaning in the second attempt. (The second attempt
for me is a concession to the inevitable singularities and idiosyncrasies of individual style. I'd conclude that if the material of the writer stubbornly resists accessibility even in re-reading, it is is not worth wasting one's time on. To write fiction or poetry is to engage in a dialogue with the reader; if the dialogue snaps because of ill-chosen words and syntax, then the writer is giving notice that he/she is indifferent to guiding the reader along. No one has complained that Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" is impenetrable. In fact, the author's rewriting and revising entire chapters, which took seven years, only made the novel more lucid. Consider the overwhelming transparency of Albert Camus' "The Stranger," a novel that can be read on many levels. His prose, no doubt influenced by Hemingway's minimalism, almost blinds us with its brightness that evokes the Algerian sun on the beach, where the pivotal action of the novel takes place. Beckett and Kafka deal with abstruse metaphysical issues in pellucid prose, in "Molloy" and "The Trial." My point is depth and simplicity of style aren't at loggerheads with each other. The true stylist is one who can render the abstruse and complex in simple words. Some writers, as Zoe Heller suggests, "don't have the chops" for their wild and wayward prose.
Chloe (Long Beach)
A large number of readers seem to take issue with Heller's essay without having read anything more than her pull-quote.
J. Cahill (Beaverton, OR)
I think the subject and theme play a large part in dictating the form. Faulkner wrote in an obscure style because he was bringing the reader into a foreign, Gothic world that could not have been described adequately with clear, lucid prose. Hemingway wrote plain spare prose because his subject was direct action, not analysis and meditation. Dickens' Victorian locution brings us to Victorian England. Herman Wouk's sturdy, earnest prose draws us into the sturdy, earnest America of the 1940s and '50s.

With that said, there is a lot of self-indulgent obscurity among second-rate writers who are striving to distinguish themselves.
Mitchell Shapiro (Fort Lee, NJ)
What a relief to be in such good company, with Ms Jamison. I thought I was a dolt, not being able to get past 300 pages of Infinite Jest (although I had no problem breezing through Wallace's The Pale King). However I have no plans to return to Infinite Jest-- there is plenty of other literature out there equally rewarding without having to work so hard.
Jason (Columbus, OH)
Except that as Ms. Jamison states, that effort makes the book more rewarding. I liked The Pale King, but it's obviously incomplete. Infinite Jest seems incomplete when you finish it, but the more effort you put into understanding it, the more complicated and complete and interesting it becomes (as Ms. Jamison indicates in the first part of her essay).
suzanne (new york)
It would be interesting to have a discussion about what literary difficulty actually is. For example, I personally found Absalom, Absalom! to be more challenging than Gravity's Rainbow, because Faulkner's work demands that I understand the details in order to grasp the whole. With Pynchon, not so much. Many (not all) of the details are closer to intellectual window dressing. It is a difficulty of allusions, and if you don't get the allusion, no worries, as long as you follow the picaresque misadventures of Tyrone Slothrop and company, you're good. Don't get me wrong, I think Gravity's Rainbow is brilliant, disturbing, and hilarious (Byron the Bulb!), but for me, it's not a rigorous of a book as Faulkner's masterpiece.

Another issue with literary difficulty: we sometimes mistake originality for difficulty. When I first read John Ashbery, I didn't like his writing, because it seemed so abstruse, needlessly difficult. Now, he's probably my favorite American poet (sorry Walt and Emily!), and I read his work effortlessly, because I realize now that its pleasures are more on the surface than I assumed. Sometimes we assume a work is "deep" and that we therefore aren't getting it, when it's really quite evident, as soon as you get used to the originality of its execution.
BJ (Texas)
Yep. I doubt if any two book reports on Gunter Grass' trilogy by the Nobel committee members would be even vaguely similar. The work is monumental gibberish. Reading it was torture, a kind of penance to remind me of the worthlessness of 99.9% of fiction and the speciousness of non-science Nobel prizes.
michael roloff (Seattle)
THE TIN DRUM & CAT+MOUSE are examples of the novelist as fairy tale writer.
William Larson (Michigan)
I have not read "Infinite Jest" and have no plans to after recently listening to a recorded interview of D.F. Wallace. In it, he gave a whiff of phoniness, implying that he had a privileged vision that was not likely to be understood by mere interviewers or readers. A previous comment mentioned that these types of difficult or inaccessible are known primarily through their interpreters, which is an incentive for writing in this way, as it has the potential to create an academic "buzz" and provide a notoriety not otherwise achievable.

I don't believe that post-modern, inaccessible fiction should be taken seriously It is word play and should be read as such. The attempt to interpret it is a distraction.
Oh what the heck (Boston MA)
Understood, but I would submit that it's always a mistake to confuse the artist with his art. I think the interview you saw was unrepresentative of Wallace.
michael roloff (Seattle)
Isn't the question whether certain matters can be expressed simply and others can't? Whether essential chararacteristics will be lost by reduction? As a Joycean/ Faulknerian/ Handkean I have it easy in pointing out that complexity in verbal ampli -and long-itude translated into something simpler will simply not do the same thing to a mind receiving it.
Joe Pearce (Brooklyn)
i dislike music by Arnold Schoenberg, plays by Samuel Beckett, poems that rarely rhyme, most art that is not Representational, architecture that looks like it was made up as the building rose, and literature that is inaccessible to my (obviously, you will say) pedestrian mind. I am considered by my friends to be reasonably literate, musically knowledgeable, even expert on Things Theatrical in general and Opera in particular, yet inaccessibility is nothing more than a red flag to me and I react accordingly. Obviously I am not alone in this, even among the more culturally refined (an increasingly rare group, many of us think), so something really must be said in defense of accessibility of any kind. If it is deemed necessary to hide something's meanings from anyone but the most astute thinkers and observers, is it worth knowing to begin with? Just asking.
Jay Gee (Boston)
"The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it," said Samuel Johnson.

I've always thought you could divide readers into those who love the puzzle palaces of writers like Joyce, Nabokov, Pynchon, and D.F. Wallace and those who love more immersive reading where the text invites more than it resists.

But then you know what Robert Benchley said about binaries. "There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who divide the world into two kinds of people, and those who don't."

Loved Ms. Heller's essay but was bemused by her use of bemusement.
TV Cynic (Maine)
I'm willing to put up with complexity or difficulty of grammar or vocabulary if I detect the writer is going somewhere of interest to me. Not sure I put 'Gravities Rainbow' down for complexity or grossness--too long ago. Eco's 'The Pendulum: I thought: where the heck this guy trying to take me. But that was just my reaction. One persons art is another's unreadable.

Regarding Ms. Jamison's piece: She did indeed make the point of the discussion with her own language (the 'binary' comment). Do they actually sit around at Harvard, or wherever, and talk that way? Or just too much time spent in the rarified air of NYT's back rooms?
stertay (Alabama)
I've always believed that an author should write as simply as s/he can to convey what s/he wishes to say. I guess that's another way of saying, "Don't make your writing difficult or inaccessible for no good reason." The thing is, Joyce could not have said what he wanted to say in "Ulysses" any simpler. A Hemingway-esque account of a Jewish advertising canvasser wandering around Dublin would hardly be worth reading. (Not to disrespect Hemingway. Both "The Sun Also Rises and "Ulysses" are on my personal Top Ten novels I'ver ever read.) What would be the point of a journalistic account of "The Sound and the Fury" or "Gravity's Rainbow?" (Although, the latter is probably impossible. Pynchon is not necessarily that difficult stylistically. It's...well, everything else.)

I have occasionally set aside a novel that I thought was pretentious or willfully obscure for obscurity's sake. (Not without wondering if maybe the fault might not be in me, rather than the author, however.) Other books seem to me likely to be fine works that don't interest me enough to try to get through them.

In any event, I think that the question is not well phrased. Some "brilliant" books are not readily accessible, and some are. The same can be said for many books that are, well, not so brilliant. I agree with both Ms. Heller and Ms. Jamison that our culture is more likely to undervalue inaccessibly than overvalue it.
Martin (New York)
"We like to think that we live in an emperor’s-new-clothes world — full of pretentious people lavishing praise on high-toned fakes. But we actually live in a sour-grapes world — full of people scoffing at what they can’t, or can’t be bothered to, reach."

Thank you. I couldn't agree more. The real pretentious fakes are the pop-culture no-brain books & movies that get graded on a very steep curve by newspaper critics.
John Lemons (Alaska)
There is, of course, a difference when some authors compose convoluted, hard-to-read sentences because, as the writer of the book review suggests, some authors don't have the 'chops' to make simpler ones. But this comment neglects the value of prose offered by some authors who know how, with excellence, to use complex sentences as an aid not only to story telling but also with style. Although many other examples could suffice, I am reminded of John William's book 'Stoner.' Williams uses semicolons and numerous commas to set off subordinate clauses. Yet, not only is his writing absent any superfluous word or misplaced punctuation mark, but his oft used semicolons, commas, dashes, etc., add to the beauty of his writing. None of this detracts from the story he tries to tell, but rather elucidates it. Often, I had to reread passages in order to admire his words and his punctuation because on first reading everything flowed so exactly and perfectly and beautifully. There were no hard stops by his use of punctation and, again, this made his prose perfect. So maybe if more readers were, well, better versed in literature they would come to understand the complex sentences and punctuation might be essential for a good book.

I can give people more examples, but in my view John Williams's book is the best example why good writing need not be reduced to unacceptable lower denominators.

John Lemons
Professor Emeritus
University of New England
DSM (Westfield)
Thomas Jefferson apologized for writing a long letter because he "did not have the time to write a short one." Literary snobs prize being able to cite difficult to read books as personal favorites because they are a means of showing how smart they are, regardless of the merits of the book.

The flip side is the dismissal of mysteries and other popular fiction as "guilty pleasuers", as if enjoying crisp writing and brisk narrative flow should cause guilt.
Finite Jest (Mississippi)
Dear Ms. Heller,

You should read DFW's essay "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky." Inaccessibility might sometimes be mistaken for brilliance, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Brilliant literature should be somewhat inaccessible; inaccessible literature is not ipso facto brilliant. That is, great works should be difficult and challenge the reader to think in constructive new ways. And yet both brilliant and non-brilliant inaccessibility is important; by digesting both we train our brain to distinguish between the two. The problem is, it's hard to find Serious Novels like Dostoevsky's today that are widely appreciated, partly because we are so quick to cast them aside as "pretentious and overwrought and silly." And in doing that we only worsen our dependency on literature replete with cute, curated, ironic snapshots of reality, rather than building an ability to decoct a complex whole. We swallow the poison and mistake it for the cure.
DW (Philly)
Difficulty is not the real issue; difficulty doesn't relate very closely to the quality of the work. There are great books that are extremely easy to read, and bad books that are easy to read, and there are both bad books and good books that are pretentiously overwritten or all jargoned up - and everything in between. Don't be cowed into thinking that just because something's hard to make sense of, that means you're too stupid to get it. Give me a break with jargon like "binaries between absorption and intentionality." In fact give me a break from "binary" anything; speaking of pretentiousness. Fancying oneself to be deconstructing binaries is academic bullshit from at least a decade ago.
Ron Bocking (Regina, Canada)
After reading your columns on "Do we mistake inaccessibility etc." , I was reminded of something I decided when I was a youthful would-be intellectual: if it's unreadable, don't read it.
T (NYC)
Meh.

I read a couple of books a week. I've studied Latin and Greek and have a passing understanding of complex syntax in those and other languages. I'm not a millennial with a minute attention span.

I have ZERO interest in a book that is "inaccessible". If the author can't say what s/he means in clear sentences, why should I bother reading it?
Helmut Wallenfels (Washington State)
The ability to write about a difficult subject clearly and readably is the ultimate literary brilliance. Among my favorite examples are Homer's poems and Bertrand Russell's " History of Western Philosophy ", written with a deceptive simplicity of which only truly great writers are capable. His was a well deserved Nobel Prize in Literature.
Matt (Seattle)
Because you're reading literature, not a memo. "If the author can't say what s/he means in clear sentences, ..." Let me stop you right there. No one is claiming the author "can't" do it. That might just be the narrative voice that suits the work best.

I'm sorry you don't find reward in difficult things. Art is meant to challenge you sometimes. Why should I bother engaging with art at all when I could stare at a romantic comedy movie for far less effort?
DMcDonald_Tweet (Wichita, KS USA)
When I think of all the wonderful books I would have missed out on had I been unwilling to work and endure, I can only say that my life would have been measurably poorer in quality and my worldview would have been measurably narrower in scope. That said, some texts are simply dense for the sake of density. It is convenient that most of this latter type is confined to the academic presses, and so they can be easily avoided.
DW (Philly)
Pretty much this. Certainly sometimes difficult books reward the effort. If the material is simply difficult by nature, then reading it is going to be difficult.

But assuming one is of at least slightly above average intelligence, one can assume that if one works at it, a text that has anything to say will eventually reward one for the effort. If a modicum of effort over a reasonably sustained period produces nothing but a headache, resolve not to be a masochist. Life is too short, and there are way too many really good books to read, to waste one's time on pretentious nonsense.
Jay Joris (Houston, TX)
I find Frederic Jameson's writing to be quite clear. He just writes complex sentences in the continental style as opposed to the analytical style.
Allen Boyer (Staten Island, NY)
There is a saying attributed to Gil Scott Heron: "Deep is when every word means something and the whole thing means nothing." Some works of literature are complex and challenging and worthwhile. Some works hailed as literature are simply deep.
Crystal Bernard (Ormond Beach, Fl.)
I realize that we are all more alike then different, but I honestly thought I was the only one who had difficulty with convoluted writing, who felt it was an obstacle course designed to thwart the undeserving like me . Thank you for confirming I am not the only one who sometimes feels vexed.
As a teenager, with dictionary in hand, I plunged into Jane Eyre and was richly rewarded, but can I get my own teenager to do the same? no, and it's really too bad because not only did I feel proud that I had conquered reading it, but it opened up a whole new world for me.
Paul Wallis (Sydney, Australia)
Ahem. Is a writer supposed to be a GPS system, catering for all levels of understanding and providing directions? Much of the modern theory of literature regarding creating an environment was originally based on the whodunit approach - All the clues are there, making a murder story "legitimate" for the reader. No imponderables; just a nice, well-constructed nursery story with a few corpses.

Against this, we have that tactless thing, reality, in which facts and situations routinely don't and won't explain themselves. One of the joys of good writing is that much like reality you don't know what will happen next. You're exploring an unknown.

That literature should lug around theories of how to manage difficult situations or difficult ideas to make them "accessible" to readers is a pretty grim idea, almost dishonest. Should reality be more user-friendly? Should books come with fire escapes so baffled readers can get out of them, as well as in to them?

That readers should mistake inarticulate. ponderous, or self indulgent verbal flower arrangements for good writing simply means "accessibility" is a pretty damn undemanding thing. If a book drips sophistries, dire textual obscurities and blind alleys, what's to access?

I think writers should back noisily away from the logic where:

Difficult = Inaccessible = Excuse not to crank up the brain and read.

and

Theory of usage + degree of difficulty = Overrate content simply because it looks or tries to look difficult.
PAC (Malvern, PA)
Thank you Paul for articulating precisely what was in my head and for doing it so much better than I could have.
Rita (California)
I don't mind expending roughly the same amount of effort to read a book that the author expended to write it. A difficult book can engage the reader, force the reader to slow down and savor the author's expressiveness and intellect and deeply appreciate what the author has written.

Of course, some books are intended to be simple mind candy. I like them too.
NSH (Chester)
You can't be inaccessible and be brilliant because if you were brilliant you have illuminated something, made it clearer. If you are inaccessible you have made it harder to get to, and thus not easier to understand.

Shakespeare writes illuminated the human condition so brilliantly that so many of his phrases have become commonplace and people who could never have parsed his complex poetic structure uses he words every day of their life. Complexity is not the same as inaccessibility, but yes, most of the time, we think it is.
Raymond (New York)
Interestingly, we don't look at anything else aside from fiction this way. We don't ever complain that sports are too hard, we value the hard work we put into exercise and accomplishing all manner of challenging tasks. Even video games, another diversion, are a medium where challenge and difficulty is not only welcome, but often necessary.

So why is it different with books?
NSH (Chester)
Not true. A game in which it is too hard to go level to level does not get played or gets abandoned. Sports that are too difficult to play for amateurs same thing.
Jon Davis (NM)
I just read "Paranoia" by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2011/02/28/paranoia-said-sayrafiezadeh
for the creative fiction writing course I am currently taking, and the story works on every level.
I also just started reading "Mersault, contre-enquete" by Kamel Daoud.
Also brilliant on every level.
Jon Davis (NM)
The Spanish baroque poet Luis de Góngora was the first Spanish poet to invent a completely artificial style for poets that have no real internal meaning. The 17th century Spanish-Mexican poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz wrote poetry that rivals that of Góngora, but since she convinced more on meaning than form, Sor Juana is considered to be Góngora's follower, not his equal.

Later José Luis Borges became the unchallenged master of the Spanish-American short story, and his style led to the magical realism usually associated with Gabriel García Márquez in "100 Years of Solitude." Borges is the master of form when it comes to the short story. But the meaning inside Borges is that all lives and all histories are one life and one history and are, therefore, meaningless (García Márquez reached the same conclusions but his stories are so convoluted it is difficult to find this).

Writers write
a) because they think they have something to say, or
b) because they want attention and fame, or
c) because they have something they want to get off their chests, or
d) all of the above.

But although Twain's "literary offenses" of Fenimore Cooper are not the Bible when it comes to good writing, writing should have discoverable meaning, or meanings. And I don't care how brilliant a writer's form is, if he or she doesn't have something to say, not just to me, but to humanity, I don't really care about the brilliant form. As 16th poet John Donne:

"No man is an island..."
ACW (New Jersey)
Writers write because they (we?) can't NOT write.
Luder (France)
I'll take J. R. Ribeyro's short stories over those of your "unchallenged master."
Kevin Bourke (New York)
I think the article confuses difficult/easy with dull/interesting. A lot of easy books are also boring because they are badly written. I find it almost impossible to stay interested in any of the average best sellers. Some challenging prose (late Henry James) is interesting because of the rhythm and the beauty of each passage. Willa Cather--is her prose easy or difficult? Is it entertaining or dull? The reason I don't like Infinite Jest has nothing to do with the difficulty (I recommend JR and Gravity's Rainbow) but because the plots don't come together, and I feel like I have wasted my time anticipating an ending that did not satisfy. I enjoy Muriel Spark because she's a fun, sharp, quick read. Etc. Etc.
ACW (New Jersey)
I confess I have never succeeded in reading any of Wallace's novels (as opposed to his short stories, essays, and journalism). They are fine examples of work I admire from a distance, but can't imagine ever liking or reading voluntarily. Same is true of Ulysses or Moby Dick.
OTOH, I'm sitting down now with Middlemarch again. I could read Lolita, Pale Fire, or anything by Faulkner over and over.
So my query in approaching any work is not: Is this difficult? But: Is it gratuitous? Are there words, phrases, quirks or innovations of structure, etc., that are purely showing off as opposed to serving a purpose (set a mood, advance the plot, depict a character, elucidate or elaborate on the theme)? Does it smell of what Stephen King (who, god knows, has his own excesses) called 'hey ma, look how nice I'm writing'? (Oscar Wilde, I'm looking at you.) Or 'stand in awe of how much smarter, or hipper, or otherwise superior, I am compared to you'. (Fill in your favourite culprit.) And even so, does the author 'write nice' enough not only to excuse but to cherish those faults?
Difficulty, per se, is not the difficulty. A book is like a person. You form a relationship. Sometimes you find it worthwhile to persevere with a difficult person. Others, you will decide, are just nether orifices. Anyone who's ever wondered what your ex's new significant other could possibly see in him or her can affirm: one person's soulmate is another's nether orifice.
Edward Kelly (Philadelphia)
It sounds like fiction writing according to Strunk and White. It sounds awful.
kate (Austin, TX)
But you're the one assigning these nasty authorial intentions like "purely showing off" or "stand in awe of how much smarter, or hipper, or otherwise superior, I am." No doubt there are writers with such intents, there are all kinds of writers; but those are not great writers. Don't read 'em if you don't get anything out of it, but to assume Faulkner and Melville and Joyce and Wallace and Gaddis et al had no ambitions but to make you feel bad is kinda silly.
Jim (Tiffin, OH)
No one is allowed to call an academic essay or book "needlessly inaccessible" until they've written a complete, coherent, and jargon-free summary of it that captures the same content. I agree these articles exist, but a lot of lazy people say something is "needlessly inaccessible" just because they don't want to work to understand it.

When I first started reading Derrida's Of Grammatology, I started writing down a list in the back of the book of all the books he referenced that I hadn't read. When the list got long enough, I read those books, and then went back and read Derrida again. He made a lot more sense that second time.
ACW (New Jersey)
The danger with 'inaccessible' nonfiction works is that they inevitably fall into the hands of interpreters and popularisers, with the result that no one reads the original, and most people think they know what X wrote, but actually know what someone said someone else said someone said that X wrote. The intellectual equivalent of a game of 'Telephone' and with the same result.
I'm presently reading Hayek's Road to Serfdom. To most lay readers who were/are not economics or history majors, it will be 'inaccessible'. But if you persevere (and especially, as Jim did, fill in the background where needed), not only will it make sense, you will find Hayek, like Yogi Berra, didn't really say all the things he said. I've found the same was true of Keynes, Darwin, Orwell, Shakespeare, almost any seminal text - if you read the works yourself, rather than letting others with an agenda cherry-pick the thoughts, you find they don't fit nearly as neatly into an ideological or cultural pigeonhole as you'd been led to think. (Orwell, for instance, was something of a prig and prude, and a far stronger critic of the left than any right-winger could ever be; Hayek prized economic competition, but acknowledged government was necessary to enable it and curb its excesses; and so on.)
Matthew (Bethesda, MD)
My list of book I intend to read but haven't time time is quite a long one and is constantly growing. Unless an author of either fiction or non-fiction grabs my interest (and comprehension) within the first 2-3 chapters, I generally abandon it and move on to the next book on my list. I feel not a bit of guilt in the process.
Jack Haggerty (Carrboro, NC)
I’ve read some “difficult” books. I never got through Infinite Jest. But as I’ve aged (matured?) I’ve grown less accepting of them. I no longer think the shortcoming is on my part. The world contains many things –emotions, motivations, ruminations – that are not simple. It is the art of literature that makes them comprehensible. Transparency is a quality of beauty, of understanding, of sharing. Ms. Jamison, in her closing paragraph, celebrates the effort of reading “difficult’ books. She is happy to assume the writer’s burden. I no longer am.

There’s no mention of poetry by either writer. So many contemporary poets have abandoned meter and music, like so many 20th C. composers deliberately abandoned beauty in their works. The result is a chopped, obscure poetry. I wonder if these poets even understand their work, or is the goal only a vague, allusive affect? If so, it is an unsatisfying one for this reader. There’s nothing new in my comment: the emperor continues to parade about without clothes.
barbara (chapel hill)
As to poetry, which I love and write, I share your general views about some contemporary attempts. Incompatible words strung loosely together do not a poem make. While I honor those who look for new ways to express an idea, indeed am delighted when the poet succeeds, I want to ask: " If the reader can't fathom the writing, how can the poem be judged?"
m.pipik (NewYork)
So right @Jack
It is the writer's burden to make his/her writing comprehensible and transparent. We should not be doing with work. If you want me to read your book then make me WANT to go beyond the first 30 pages and WANT to finish it (perhaps the more common situation). There are other authors out there, of both fiction and non-fiction, who also want me to read their books. Why should I use my precious time reading yours?

Something has gone really, really wrong with literature in the past 25-30. Perhaps it is because writing programs and publishers want authors who write "literature" instead of a good read.
John Neeleman (Seattle, WA)
I will never forget my favorite college English teacher, the first day of class, asking us, "What's the purpose of literature?" We gave him a whole bunch of grandiloquent answers. "No! No! No!..." he said. "The purpose of literature is enjoyment. And what I hope to do is to teach you how to better enjoy it. That's all." On the other hand, this comment by Leslie Jamison reminds me of Thomas More wearing a hair shirt: "When we read a book that requires that effort — when the act of reading becomes rigorous and self-aware, rather than effortless and transparent — we get to have a history with what we’ve given ourselves to, a history etched into us by the demanding friction of its difficulty."
Jay Joris (Houston, TX)
Your English professor gave the class his OPINION on the purpose of literature as if it was fact. What was given to you was the insight that his opinion about the purpose of literature would be the guiding principle of the course. There is nothing wrong with that, but his was just one of many possible approaches to the purpose of literature.

Of course the question, really, should be framed: What are the PURPOSES (plural) of literature?
Al (Seattle)
I was very dismayed when I learned my son in high school was assigned The Book Thief to read and analyze in his honors literature class. I'm all for YA and any kind of reading, but when items like The Book Thief displace works from Borowski or Wiesel, that's not a good sign.
Jon Davis (NM)
Most high school graduate I know can't read an introduction paraphrase and find the thesis statement, or write an introduction paraphrase that has a thesis statement. I don't know which books high school students *should* read, but if they actually thoughtfully read any book, I'd be pretty happy.

I recall reading three books in high school: "Cry the Beloved Country" and "Julius Caesar" and "Catcher in the Rye", and not much else. I remember the first book, not because it's about racism, but because my English teacher was such a tyrant (no one was allowed to express any opinion which did not agree with the teacher). I remember the second work because my English teacher was old enough to have lived at the same with Shakespeare. I remember the third book because it was about a messed up high school kid in danger of ruining his future by not fitting in. The best book I read when I was in high school was Remarque's "The Spark of Life" about the Holocaust, and also Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun." I read them because I wanted to. Neither was on the school's list of required reading.
Susan (Boulder)
The trouble with assigning "great books" in high school is that too many of them are inaccessible to the students, not because the books are hard or the students under-achievers or whatever, but because children (yes, high schoolers are children still) lack the necessary life experience to fully appreciate those great books, thus find them dull, thus get turned off of "literature."
An omnivorous, exploratory reader all my life, I was assigned "The Scarlet Letter" in high school and found it the most boring, tedious book ever. When I reread it in my late thirties, I found it witty, wise, and thoroughly enjoyable. But then I was at an age, with some life behind me, to fully understand and appreciate its subtleties. So "The Book Thief" isn't a bad thing to read, if the kids read it and learn to delve deeper into a text and don't get turned off of something that, due to age alone, is over their heads.
Al (Seattle)
Thank you for your comment. I had the same experience with The Scarlet Letter. I disagree that high school aged students can't, or shouldn't tackle the classics because of a lack of life experience or a fear of boredom. IMO literature is a discipline that merits serious study, like biology, math or art, and accordingly can't (and shouldn't) always be enjoyable. Reading (and hating reading) The Scarlet Letter in high school surely helped me in becoming the reader I am now. My high school peers and I were reading Camus, Faulkner, Austen (another, How boring! for teens nowadays), etc.--we might not have understood all of it, but it's safe to say overreaching was better than the alternative. The Sound and the Fury vs. The Book Thief? I shake my head; my son's teacher could try to read for depth as much as possible with the latter, but by definition of YA can only go so deep. It's more appropriate for middle school.
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