Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Best Books Are Hard to Read

Here's a line from Thomas Merton's No Man Is an Island that I'm going to be chewing on for a while:

We too easily assume that we are our real selves, and that our choices are really the ones we want to make when, in fact, our acts of free choice are (though morally imputable, no doubt) largely dictated by psychological compulsions, flowing from our inordinate ideas of our own importance. Our choices are too often dictated by our false selves.


I'm reading this book by Merton alongside a book that might best be described as propaganda--a digest of several people's arguments against a predictable set of contrarian beliefs, presented with a high level of authoritarian conceit and adversarial derision. I read this other book and feel like I'm watching Fox News.

Both books are provocative, but only one strikes me as particularly conducive to constructive conversation and fruitful meditation. That's the Merton book; I'm not going to name the other one.

I've drawn a tentative conclusion about what makes a book good. It's tentative, so I could be convinced otherwise, and I should also say that I have in mind principally nonfiction books, although I suspect a similar principle applies to fiction as well. Here goes: The best books are hard to read.

By "hard" I don't mean unintelligible; I think part of the craft of writing is clear and compelling prose, rich and evocative poetry. More and more, however, I think that a book should be hard enough to read that we can't be by ourselves with it. The best books leave us unsettled, uncomfortable, moved in such a way that we feel a need to share it, to borrow wisdom from people we love and trust in order to better wrestle with it, to lay it open in front of other people and say, "What must I do with this?" The best books compel us toward something we may not even be able to yet identify, while humbling us enough to turn to others for support. The best books don't send us to our friends to wag our fingers at them but to ask them to read with us, guide us, pray for us.

If that's true, then perhaps the best reader ever was King Josiah, who when read the books of Moses by his royal secretary, "ripped his robes in dismay" and ordered his court to "pray to GOD for me and what's left of Israel and Judah. Find out what we must do in response to what is written in this book" (2 Chronicles 34:19-20). I guess even audio books can be good.

6 comments:

Rick said...

"Best books are hard to read" - you've said a mouthful with that one. Something I've chewed on for awhile, too, and will give you props if I end up running with that on my blog later.

I find myself reading the books that are hard, not wasting so much on those that are easy, that don't hurt or pull or stretch.

heather said...

I agree (in fact--I've posted on this before and this morning). You have to work to some extent at art--and it works at you.

Bob/Sir Pent said...

At one point in my life I was an avid reader, reading at least one book a week. Mostly fiction of different sorts, but sometimes historical.

I find now with my somewhat demanding job, commuting, spending time with my son/family and just other activities in general that I am lucky to read 2 or 3 books in a year. (Sorry Dave, this includes both of yours which do have a place on my "gonna get to" list.)

What I find weird is how almost ashamed I feel about that. As if the fact that I do not read on a regular basis makes me less of a person. I am lesser member of society because of this deficiency. I have let the world down. I have sometimes lied...YES, I just finished this fascinating book. (...6 months ago...)

I also find that I am irritated by the people that DO have/find/make time to read. I get angry that they have "ALL THIS TIME" to enjoy reading. They couldn't possibly be as busy in life as I am, then!

Life conspires against me.

David A. Zimmerman said...

I love when Sir Pent gets serious . . .

Sorry that I irritate you, Bob. Maybe it'll help to remind you that (a) you're right about being busier than I am, since I don't have kids; and (2) at least for part of my day, I get paid to read. Or perhaps that will irritate you more.

It's worth throwing in there that book reading isn't the only kind of reading, that there are other media that can serve whatever functions reading serves to one degree or another, that we can serve one another by mediating for one another the things that we read or otherwise draw insights or entertainment from. I, for example, don't have time to create music, as Sir Pent and his fellow Lizards from Afar are gettin' done.

So there you have it. Everyone stop reading and go listen to the Lizards.

Bob/Sir Pent said...

That's odd since I hate it when I get serious.
Believe it or not, the last book I read was a book on faith! So hurray for me. Unfortunately it was terrible.

...and keep in mind that there is always a place in the Lizards From Afar for Salvatore.

Margaret Feinberg said...

One of my fave editors on the planet is convinced clarity is number one. Then the poetry and pizzazz--like using words with lots of Z's even if you don't need 'em :)