On hard books

This is a serious post: how difficult should books be to read?

I think back to my college days (English major here), where I was reading for hours a day — Dosteovsky and Coleridge and Rich, Melville and Dillard and Chaucer in its original English. I would be tired, spent after some of those books. Rejuvenated, too; like I had just run a mental marathon.

There’s a burst of rebellion I think many English majors succumb to post-graduation when we’re suddenly free to read for fun in more ways than we could before. For me, that meant lots of chick lit and bestsellers; then I joined Scholastic and my pleasure reading became almost exclusively YA. And then I started writing YA for real, and studying the genre. And then I realized how many amazing books I was missing from other genres and started to make concerted efforts to expand. Now I think I have a nice balance of reading material, but still — there are so many good books to read, and not enough time.


It is no secret I read a lot of children’s books…and, well, some of them (considering I have a penchant for old series from the ’80s) aren’t always the best quality. I mean, that’s a can of worms right there (because any book that gets a kid to fall in love with reading is a good book!). But the actual text of some of the stuff I’ve been re-reading is on the weak side. (I love it, but still.) And as a writer, lately I’ve been struggling with what I read for fun, and whether it’s (perhaps negatively) influencing my writing.

I am a writer who is mostly inspired by other writers — meaning, reading a fresh poem triggers something in me, or getting lost in a new book makes me rush to finish so I can get back to my own. I have read some ah-mazing books lately — The Vanishers by Heidi Julavitz, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller…but I’ve also just come back from vacation, and a few days of illness where I wanted my comfort books, so I’ve been reading some not-so-complicated books lately, too. (Like my beloved Baby-sitters Clubs.)

There’s something to be said for making your brain hurt now and then. So I’m taking this list of the 10 Most Difficult Books from Publishers Weekly (some of which I’ve read — but only some) and thinking: do I need a month of “hard” reading? Do we all? Should my reading be about challenging myself, or about comforting myself? What’s my role as a reader — what’s my obligation to the world’s best authors?

Where should I start?

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One Response to On hard books

  1. Laura S. says:

    Thanks for posting, I saw that list in PW, too and you raise something that I often think about, especially because I’ve spent the last two years reading YA and MG exclusively for school.

    I’m reading Robertson Davies Fifth Business now — excellent book. But at the same time I’m reading Plain Kate by Erin Bow and The Warrior Heir by Cinda Williams Chima.

    If you ever want to tackle Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, let me know. I think I’d need a support group.

    Love your blog, btw!

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