Battling Literature

literature-versus-traffic_obKyL_11446Suggesting books occasionally leads to conversations like this:

“What were you thinking?”


Crying of Lot 49. I almost quit with five pages left. That was the longest short book I’ve ever read. I’m not sure I understood a word of it.”

“I’m sorry—“

“You are going to have to explain to me why anyone would consider that great literature.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Among lists suitably retitled “100 Books You Should Suffer Through Before Dying” or “50 Books Smart People Know” or “Bragging Rights: Books” are some troublesome texts, and, as an English teacher, people sometimes want me to name them. They ask me what was the strangest book I read—A Void—or the most complex—Name of the Rose—or the most troubling—Blood Meridian—the most baffling—Tie: Pound’s The Cantos and Joyce’s Ulysses.

I regard these conversations as getting-to-know-you banter, but my listeners sometimes hear them as recommendations:

“You are one sick dude.”


“You told me about that book Disgrace. Christ, could it have been more miserable? I wanted to jump off a bridge.”

“You didn’t like it?”

A special person undertakes books as challenges. You have to love puzzling, carrying a riddle around all day hoping the tiny metal ball will somehow—while you’re not watching—nestle into its dimple. You have to put aside knowing and settle for guessing. You have to feel good about having a sense of meaning.

“Do you think anyone really understands The Sound and the Fury?”

“I don’t know. Maybe people who study it.”

“Why would anyone study it? It’s just so bizarre. I was completely lost.”

“You didn’t like it?”

Right now, in one of my classes, I’m teaching Time’s Arrow, a narrator’s account of living within his “host” as the host’s life reels backwards toward a horrendous past. Every event is presented in reverse—tennis players gather the ball out of the net or backstop and then bat it around until someone, seemingly arbitrarily, grabs the ball from the air and pockets it. The narrator doesn’t understand what we ought to, but actually we don’t understand it without effort either. We have to rearrange, read in reverse, talk about it. In class, that process might lead to discussion:

“I don’t get it.”

“What specifically?”

“Anything. What is the point? I mean, if the narrator is confused, how are we supposed to know what’s going on?”

“Because you figure it out.”

“But that’s impossible… or, anyway, really, really hard. Too hard.”

“What, you don’t like it?”

As a high school student I gathered my book badges, the arcane and long-hair novels I’d read on my own—Moby Dick, The Metamorphosis, Crime and Punishment, Wuthering Heights, and Pale Fire. I can’t say I understood them all or grokked them as fully as I did later, but I didn’t expect to. I accepted that I was exercising, matching my brain against brains much more complicated and potent than my own. As an acolyte, what more might I expect?

Some of my students take the same perspective. They love the process even if it leads to no material result, and they revel in conversations about what might and might not be known. They experience singular excitement over not understanding entirely. Being at sea, they recognize, is sometimes wonderful. In literature, there’s certainly less harm in being mentally adrift than actually being lost in a lifeboat, and they don’t mind feeling dumb if they also feel stimulated, tested.

“I love the language.”


Remembrance of Things Past

“Do you get it?”

“No, not really, but sometimes.”

“So are you understanding it?’

“Sometimes, but that’s enough, I guess.”

“You appreciate it.”


“So you like it?”



Filed under Aesthetics, Art, Education, Essays, Genius, High School Teaching, Hope, Laments, Meditations, Reading, Teaching, Thoughts

7 responses to “Battling Literature

  1. There is an interesting tension that I see here between “understanding” and “appreciation” as well as between “the poem” and “the novel.” It is perhaps an unfair comparison but one that people inevitably make. People have a lower “expectation of understanding” with a poem than they do perhaps with a novel. Plus there is the difference in time investment. If one spends ten minutes with a poem and walks away mystified, one is a lot less likely to be resentful than if one spends 12+ hours reading a novel and comes away not “understanding” what it was “about.”

    I fail to understand much of the work of many of my favorite poets (Stevens, Merwin, Plath…) and yet that does not detract from my appreciation or esteem of them. Often, in fact, it adds a bit of intrigue even–a tantalization. I am afraid I am guilty of not being so wiling to make that kind of commitment to fiction, but then I am not sure that I was ever really taught or helped to learn the “right” way to appreciate longer works…but I am trying still to learn.

    I often find myself compelled to read authors that are considered “difficult” but I (unfortunately?) cut my fiction teeth on science fiction, and have a much harder time getting into a book if something strange or weird doesn’t happen in the first twenty pages or so. I have been able to overcome this on a few notable occasions, however, and I am glad of it.

    I suppose I have gone on long enough so I’ll just say–
    Great post. Got me thinking.

    • dmarshall58

      You’re right about that feeling that poems don’t have to make sense, which is the same feeling, for me, that dreams don’t have to make sense. It’s definitely tougher to be patient with novels where narrative and character development seem required, but most novels have lyrical passages that require rereading… or re-savoring, you hope. I’ve read a lot of science fiction myself, and some of it is challenging (I remember the first time I read Neuromancer and Snowcrash I had to scramble a bit). You have to be up for it, I think. That’s the key for me. And, yes, I suppose that’s partly learned—the notes you take on that blank page in the back, the squiggles in the margins—but partly it’s just accepting struggle.

      Believe me, I’m not suggesting that people should read these novels—I don’t have the patience for them half the time—but I think it’s okay to write them. I suspect the people who did had motives very like poets, trying to represent their thoughts and feelings without being able, finally, to name them entirely. If these books have a greater reward, it’s partly because they required more investment on the reader’s part. They aren’t everyday sorts of books though, so it seems funny when people ask me to recommend them as if they were. That was my main motive in writing this post, which may not have come across clearly.

      Thanks for your comment, and thanks for visiting. We will have to swap science fiction recommendations some time! –D

  2. Chris

    As human beings, we are infinite variations on a theme. Literature reflects that variation and it would be strange if every reader had the same reaction to a book or a poem. As someone who writes, you must be acutely aware of the trap that is trying to find the ‘meaning’ of a work. As a teacher, you are, however, compelled to do just that. I view literature more as I would view a painting, as a collection of images and thoughts that is intended to create a feeling state. So I come away with an emotional reaction and I seldom recall much of the details of the story. This is what I hear when someone says they liked or did not like a work. Of course, words have meaning so we cannot escape that but I doubt any author writes a work of fiction meaning to shift the reader’s world view in one direction or another. And if a book is ‘unpleasant’, it is often because the subject is unpleasant, the language is too dense/obscure or there is a discordance between the reader’s emotions and those evinced by the novel. I would view someone’s judgement on books is more a statement of their personality than their intellect. So let us not judge the judgement of another reader, lest our judgements be judged in return. Amen.

    • dmarshall58


      I’m surprised at how vehemently a few of my students feel about whether books are bad or good, as if that were a universal judgment and the be-all and end-all of any discussion of a book’s value. It gets tiresome because there’s little convincing them to think or feel otherwise, but they are much more effective at poisoning the book for others. Plus, I don’t really want to convince them, because I’m not in sales and have no devotion to a particular “meaning” for the work, only a desire to teach them to read a book well and attentively. If I can get them to put aside judgment long enough to absorb the work as fully as possible, I feel successful.

      When I suggest books, I sometimes get the same response—I’ve recommended a “bad” book so my taste or judgment is impaired. Like my students, my selection of the book (and as a teacher, how can I avoid selecting books if we’re to read together?) sometimes makes me the problem.

      In any case, I really didn’t intent to sound so judgmental, only to defend the way I appreciate challenging books… when I can appreciate them… according to their resonance with my own emotions and experience, as you suggest.

      Hope you’re doing well. David

  3. I really enjoy Thomas Pynchon, but I can see how his writing would not fit in everyone’s brain. Crime and Punishment in fact much of Dostoyevsky I really actually enjoyed. He was able to describe behaviors so that they were comic and tragic and real. Crime and punishment is very interesting, but the Possessed and the Idiot were better. And parts of the Brothers Karamozov were so brilliant. I feel like when I pick up a book I want to find out what the author has to say. If they are speaking in a voice I can believe and listen to they can tell me anything. I couldn’t get through Proust or The Cantos or Ullysses. I found Blood Meridian hypnotic and horrifying but I was unable to stop wanting to know what he was getting at. I guess what it comes down to is I am able to put up with some disorientation and discomfort if it seems like the author is going somewhere I will at least be able to comprehend a little bit and it isn’t going to take eternity to get there. I wanted to stick with Proust , but there were other books I wanted to read as well.

    • dmarshall58

      I think my brother Chris (also in this string of comments) was exactly right in describing how reading involves personal resonance. Some of my students probably feel the same way—some like hearing my voice and some don’t. They may not be altogether conscious of it, but that probably doesn’t change their response on every level. I gave an assignment recently and recorded their presentations. The presentations (and my students) were phenomenal, but the most painful part was listening to my questioning them. I sounded alternatively pretentious and condescending. I’m not sure I even like listening to me much. A few authors hit me the same way, not many but some. And my own writing sometimes turns me off, which is an awful feeling.

      Thanks so much for your visit and thoughtful comment. —D

      • I hate hearing my recorded voice. It sounds much better inside my head. I feel better about the way I write sometimes, as long as I don’t hear myself reading it out loud. I love to read authors like Steinbeck and Kerouac out loud the rhythm and sounds of the words drives a lot of my appreciation of some authors, Cormac McCarthy for sure on this list.

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