Literary Blog Hop, A Difficult Book

The Literary Blog Hop is hosted by The Blue Bookcase and “is open to blogs that primarily feature book reviews of literary fiction,classic literature, and general literary discussion”.

This week’s topic is:

What is the most difficult literary work you’ve ever read? What made it so difficult?

I’ve read a number of difficult books.  But it is my experience with Beloved that I will discuss today.  I first attempted to read the book in 1993, when Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I was already a fan of her earlier works.  Her other grand novel, The Song of Solomon, is simply superb.   So without any hesitation, I picked up Beloved to read.  To my dismay, I couldn’t get through the first chapter.  I didn’t know what was going on and I couldn’t connect with the book at all.  Now, usually I will stick with a book through at least the first two chapters before quitting.  I gave up on Beloved halfway through the first chapter. I’m convinced that the subject matter (or what I thought it was about) intimidated and scared me a whole lot.  I thought it hard, dark and a bit hazy.  Like entering a scary corridor with your vision a bit obscured by a thin film of gauze or something.

So after a couple of failed attempts, I put the book back on my shelves.  And I forgot about it.  I was left wondering what all the fuss was about and often remarked how the book did not deserve all the accolades it was receiving.  Fast forward about nine years.  On a Saturday morning, I pick up Beloved to give it another go and this time I get through the first chapter.  And I spend the rest of the day reading and enjoying the book.  I’m so blown away after reading it, I spend the following Sunday reading it again.  To my amazement and delight, Beloved is a masterpiece.  And it took me almost ten years to discover that.

So what had happened in the intervening 10 years?  Well, I’d become a better reader.  I read a lot of literary fiction over the period.  I especially read a lot of magical realism. I think books by Alejo Carpentier and Juan Rulfo (whose Pedro Paramo is the scariest literary fiction that I’ve read) helped me is break into and connect with Beloved.  I call this experience The Beloved Effect.  And I’m at the beginning of such an experience with Ulysses.  I can’t get past the first 10 pages.  But I’m confident that one day I will be able to complete  and enjoy a reading of Joyce’s masterpiece.  In the meantime, I continue to hone my skills as a reader so that I can tackle those notorious difficult reads of literary fiction.

What are your difficult reads?

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51 comments

  1. THE GOD OF IMPERTINENCE by Sten Nadolny is the book that knocked me cold six years ago. I was in high school and won it for a prize. I think I just couldn’t get it because it was my introduction to German literature. Going through this post, I feel like digging it out of my library right now. Time to conquer.

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  2. Oh I loved Beloved! I read it at about age 17 or 18 and it was the first book that seemed complex! That took lots of work to comprehend! That made words into a grand power that controlled a realistic, painful setting! It is a difficult book in terms of subject matter and writing style, but I still love it for the majesty.

    I have not read much other Morrison: I read The Bluest Eye and Sula around the same time and I think I was just too young? I should try again. I have Song of Solomon on my shelf. I’m glad to hear you love it as I’m always afraid I won’t like the second book by a favorite author quite as much.

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  3. Probably the one that is in your “Lined up” list, Labrinths was one of my harder reads. I knew it was good when I was reading it for the first time, I just wasn’t sure what it was trying to say. I love the work contained in those pages, but it took a few rereads to get it. I also think Absalom, Absalom from Faulkner was a hard one to get going. Mostly because I realized you can’t read him in 2 page sections, if you want’ to keep track of what is going on. When I sat down and read him one vacation over four or five days it was a great book.

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  4. I really like this post, especially your comments on growing as a reader. In some ways I think I ‘diminished’ as a reader after I had my last literature course in school, as I had less time to read and when I did it was mostly lighter fare. Now that I’ve gotten back to reading, I’m finding that books that would have been not a problem while in school, but a challenge a year or two ago, are now back within my reach. I hope to only continue growing as a reader.

    On another note, I have Beloved on one of my many ‘to read’ lists, so I’m glad to hear that you found it worthy of its acclaim.

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    • I’m so encourages by the comments to this post. Glad to see that I’m not alone in my quest to become a better reader. I think your experience occurs quite a lot to people. I know that it is necessary, perhaps. But reading heavy classics and literature in school sometimes makes readers shy away from similar books when they are out of school. I think a less educational approach to literature and a more reading/enjoying approach in school may create more lifelong readers in the long run. Beloved is very much worthy of all the effort it might take to get through it. In good time, of course.

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      • I think that is so true, at least too much of the time. I remember when we read “Macbeth” the teacher drew it out so relentlessly, that I’ve lost my taste for that particular play. On the other hand, I’ve had classic novels taught in wonderful ways that really enhanced my reading of the books. In my case, I really have only myself to blame for my regression as a reader–I simply choose not to take the time.

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  5. I don’t know the details, but I’ve heard rumors of a Ulysses readalong early 2011. I’m not a fan of James Joyce, but I’m currently reading The Odyssey and might be talked into more of Joyce’s impossiblities. 😉

    I read Beloved years ago–my first Morrison. I do remember it being really tough, but I agree with you that Morrison is a literary master. Her writing is so beautiful and moving. The Bluest Eye is a wonderful one if you haven’t already read it–and much shorter!

    Thanks for coming by on Friday. 🙂

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    • I will have to join the readalong of Ulysses then. Perhaps reading it with others will help. Yes, The Bluest Eye is also wonderful. I now love all of Morrison’s books!. Thanks for stopping by.

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  6. Kinna, I love this post. Your comments on improving as a reader are so true. I also think that sometimes, as readers, we have to come to the right book at the right time. Toni Morrison is one of my favorite writers, and I started with The Bluest Eye, then read Beloved. The Bluest Eye is a beautifully written book, but difficult to read on an emotional level. Morrison does an amazing thing: she can imbue terrible cruelty with a strange beauty. Did you go on to any other Morrison books? I can recommend Sula, Paradise, A Mercy–all of her books really!

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    • Yes that is it: “the right book at the right time”. And a lot goes into making a specific time the right time. One has to be in a place to be prepared to hear and appreciate what the author is saying. Now, of course, I love all of Morrison’s books. A Mercy was another trip! Thanks for stopping by.

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  7. I salute you for your journey to become a better reader. I agree about ‘Beloved’. I picked it up earlier in the year and put it back again. I did make some progress and was enjoying it but I realised I wasn’t giving it enough attention. It’s such a deep, dark, scary read. I can’t wait to go back to it. Also thank you for letting me know about Pedro Paramo. Magical Realism is so beautiful. I love how Latin American writing is imbued with it. Wonderful stuff, great post!

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    • After my experience Beloved, I’m convinced that over time I can read any difficult book. It’s just a matter of preparation. Someone once said that enjoying a work of art should not be difficult nor should it be a chore. I said that it’s not a chore but sometimes one has to train once eyes and senses to appreciate what the artist is attempting to do. And that there is nothing wrong with training oneself to understand art. Especially since artists themselves do take the time and trouble to train themselves and to push the limits of their craft.

      Pedro Paramo is a marvel of magical realism. I hope that you enjoy it.

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  8. Beloved is on my list! It’s encouraging that your difficult read ended up being a book you really enjoyed. I haven’t forced myself to tackle many difficult books, feeling like I’d read enough of them in school. One of my goals for the next year is to change that, as I think sometimes the difficult books can be the most rewarding.

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    • I think the practice of introducing some difficult books to teens and young adults may be counter productive. Especially since the educational systems forces students to looks at text as classics etc. It would be better if we encourage more personal reading as opposed to studying the text. Just my 2 cents. Difficult books are very rewarding indeed. But sometimes the reward comes at a steep cost one’s sanity and patience!

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    • You did make it through Mrs. Dalloway and you will make it through Beloved and the others as well. It’s uncanny that the same set of books are being talked about in this edition of the Hop. I haven’t even thought of getting close to Moby Dick!

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  9. Kinna,

    What a lovely post. Chinua Achebe’s *Things Fall Apart* was incredibly difficult for me this past summer. While I did finish the book, I didn’t enjoy it as a read. Too much post-colonialism and hyper-patriarchal society for me. These themes, presented in Achebe fashion, went right over my head. I hope to “rediscover” Achebe in a few years because I do believe there is something special about him.

    Thank you for your words.

    Regards,

    Dominique

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    • My favorite, among Achebe’s work, is Arrow of God. I recommend that and I think that it works better than Things Fall Apart. I also recommend Maps by Nurrudin Farah, the Somali author. Also, try Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih. These might work as different approaches to African literature and then if it proves successful, you could try Things Fall Apart again. I’ve always insisted, contrary of popular belief, that Arrow of God is a far better book.

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  10. some books just don’t fit you, until you reach a certain age, maybe its because you have no reference points for them, but then again something you adored when younger, you now have no patience for, a bit like looking at the younger version of yourself with embarrasment for the way you came across, the way you projected yourself.

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    • What you’ve said reinforces something that I’ve been mulling over in my head. That reading is sometimes like having a conversation with the book. It’s an interaction. And we sometimes think that we will have the same interaction every time with the same book. But it’s a conversation that is always changing.

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      • I think all great books talk to you, it’s whether you’re receptive to that particular one, at that particular time. It’s like when you meet someone for the first time, there are those that you need the formality of an introduction & then there are the few, that it’s like you’ve always known them, “You get them” there’s no need for a polite shake of hands, you’ve been friends “like forever” I think books are the same, some it takes a while before that open up to you, some never will & there are those that you hold in your hands & know.

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  11. I really enjoyed reading this post! Have to agree with you that timing seems to be so important… whether it’s a few more years of ‘life experience’ or just finding the right mood or frame of mind needed to begin a specific book. Maybe there is hope for me and Beloved after all!

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  12. I bought Beloved a few months ago but haven’t read it yet. One book I still have difficulties getting into is Ben Okri’s Starbook. I read that book halfway and just dumped it somewhere because I couldn’t get into it or understand anything 😦

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    • Oh gosh, I’d forgotten about Ben Okri. Well, his books are notoriously difficult. I sometimes think that I have no frame of reference with which to approach a reading of his work. he can leave one feeling like an insecure reader! Read Beloved soon 🙂 I would love to hear your thoughts.

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  13. I agree with growing into books ,think age makes a difference with some books ,plus what you’ve read ,think some books need you to be well read to read ,I ve only read one morrison ,should try more really ,all the best stu

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    • Yes, do try more Morrison. Perhaps Song of Solomon. Yep, a great motivation to continue reading so one can continue to read and appreciate more books. A wonderful cycle that leads to more reading.

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  14. What an excellent point. “The Beloved Effect”. We do (hopefully) become better readers as we get older, but also our life experiences can add to our personal interpretations of the material as well. I have not read Beloved (yet), but I loved Song of Solomon, and just acquired The Bluest Eye the other night.

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  15. Oh, I love that: The Beloved Effect.

    What an inspiring story. I hope to have the same experience, when I read Morrison. A rebirth, of sorts, as a reader.

    Good luck with Ulysses. 😉

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  16. I always wonder about books that I loathed in high school and if I would like them more now. 🙂 I had to read Death Comes for the Archbishop when I was 16, and I didn’t like it at all! But this year, I decided to give Willa Cather another go and quite enjoyed My Antonia. So even though I’ve always read and loved ‘classics’ as a monolith, I definitely think I’ve grown into certain authors. And just recently, I’ve found myself really want to give Proust a try, whereas before he just didn’t seem my style.

    I still have no interest in Ulysses though! Maybe in another decade. 😉

    Also, Beloved is such a masterpiece! Oh Toni Morrison!

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  17. What you say about ‘growing as a reader’ is so true, and I think of this often when I read some of the dismissive reviews on sites like Library Thing, Amazon and Good Reads. Sometimes dislike of a book is simply a matter of taste, but too often the reviews I see are not explanations of why a book doesn’t suit the reader’s taste but an outright and rather immature rejection of the book and the author when the reader clearly hasn’t read widely enough to understand what’s going on in the text.
    I felt like that the first time I came across Ulysses and said so, vociferously, to my friends – but mercifully there was no internet then and I couldn’t broadcast my opinion to the world! Now I’ve read it four times and I love it more each time I read it. (See the Disordered Thoughts of an Amateur tag on my blog for my latest journey). As you say, it’s what you read in the interval that makes the difference. I’ve learned to love ambiguity, wordplay, and modernism. I’m not dependent on a straightforward narrative to enjoy reading the book, I can ‘go with the flow’ and hope it makes sense eventually. (It usually does.) I think that life experience also makes a difference – I’ve just read The Gathering which many seem not to like and because I’ve experienced the loss of loved ones, all the confusing muddle of grief-stricken thoughts in Enright’s book made sense to me.
    Beloved is a wonderful book, isn’t it! How lucky we are to be able to read books like this!!
    Cheers
    Lisa Hill, ANZ Litlovers

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  18. Your story is inspiring. With so much to read out there, I feel I’ll never catch up. Rarely, I’ll go back and read something I loved, but the thought of reading something again that I didn’t like, or that I tried to read and gave up on, is very daunting. Would I spend my time doing that? It could be very worthwhile after all…

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  19. excellent post. I had a similar experience with russian lit. I picked up the brothers karamazov a few years back and couldn’t finish it, but when I read crime and punishment recently I absolutely loved it. so now I’m going to go back to it and see how my reading habits have changed. I liked your comment about becoming a better reader, I think that’s very perceptive.

    and Beloved is a brilliant book, but the beginning is really confusing. It shifts in time a lot, then settles down a bit. Weird, but brilliant.

    I’m glad I found your blog on the hop! following 🙂

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  20. I read Ulysses earlier this year. It doesn’t get better.

    Nice post — further evidence that the time period in which one reads a book has an immense effect on how you enjoy it.

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    • What is one to do with Ulysses, oh dear. Well, I’m still hoping I can at least finish it so I can pass some sane judgment on it. Hopefully, my patience does not run out at I grow progressively older. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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  21. That’s very interesting, Kinna. I’ve recently also realised that it really matters when you read a book. What stage in your life you’re in and your maturity level, both generally and in relation to reading.

    It works the other way as well for me: I read The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevky) years ago as a teenager, and I’m not sure I would enjoy it now (I did enjoy it then and never felt intimidated).

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    • Interesting that it works the other way with you. Perhaps might be the same for me if I reread books that loved way back when. The Brothers K is one of my all-time favorites, still.

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  22. Oooh, lovely post, esp “I’d become a better reader. ” I read Invisible Man in high school and got it, but reading it again in my 30s brought an entirely different experience. And I find that whenever a book is difficult for me, it usually says something about who I am or what I’m resisting.

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    • “who I am or what I’m resisting” – that is so true. I feel that over time I can tackle and enjoy most books that are considered difficult or problematic. I just hope I don’t run of time before I do so :). Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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  23. Very nice post. It shows how age changes us and the more we read the better we get at it. It can be upsetting to have a negative experience with a book, especially one everyone else seems to think is so good. Glad you gave it another try. A good lesson for al of us.

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