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The Importance of Reading Difficult Books

The Importance of Reading Difficult Books

In his work The Western Canon, Harold Bloom wrote that a “reader does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence.”

The apparent message in Bloom’s flourish is that a reader ought to be after something more difficult to attain than mere pleasure. Passive consumption of entertainment will simply not do. Instead, readers are to be fully engaged with the work in front of them, especially when the process is difficult. It’s through this difficulty that a reader inevitably enlarges what Bloom refers to as a “solitary existence,” or, put another way, an existential engagement with the human condition.

However, it appears that readers, especially young Americans, aren’t invested in excavating the existential questions often presented in books. They don’t seem all that committed to investigating the philosophical implications of Nietzsche’s eternal return or the way paranoia often preys upon the mind of someone deeply entrenched in the world of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. As a former university and high-school teacher, I have often heard students proclaim that books are too hard and too boring to be worth their time.

This diagnosis has become even more evident with the advent of uber-addictive social media platforms. Complex novels, such as Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, cannot effectively compete with dopamine-riddled dance and mukbang videos. Short, well-produced content on TikTok and Instagram and the endorphin rush they provide are comparable to illicit drugs. Difficult texts require more of the reader than passive attention, and most young people simply refuse the challenge.

Even for those who wish to read difficult material, it can feel like searching for a diamond in the rough. The so-called serious fiction of today features didactic tracts promoting the latest in progressive politics. Often, the inherent—albeit contradictory—message in these tracts features a heavy criticism and dismissal of white men and, ultimately, the Western world. Though this may be an attractive literary neighborhood for some, it doesn’t scratch the same intellectual and spiritual itch that, say, Albert Camus’ The Stranger does.

Instead of inviting the reader to actively and openly engage with material, these didactic tracts overtly explain how the reader should see and think about the world. It’s not rare for these tracts to bludgeon the reader with guilt and undeserved sentimentalism. One good example of this type of writing is White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, the thesis of which suggests that implicit bias is something white people will forever have to fight against. DiAngelo says that the necessary work to rid oneself of implicit bias “will be lifelong: really thinking deeply about what it means to be white, how your race shapes your life.”

These books are generally antithetical to critical thought, and many people have been able to snuff out the modus operandi of such a work. They’re not helpful; they’re not engaging; and they don’t sharpen one’s “solitary existence.” Bloom condemned such works when he said, “We are destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards in the humanities and social sciences.”

It’s hard to argue with Bloom’s observation. For intelligent young readers, it can feel like being grinded between the millstones of virtual hedonism and reductive sophistry. It can seem like an impossible task to find books worth one’s time. But despite what it may seem like, thought-provoking and aesthetically beautiful books are still available to anyone who’s willing to do a little digging.

The books that possess the most aesthetic power and interpretive potential are those that have stood the test of time. This is because these works are those that acknowledge a universal plight or disposition about the human condition. The best books are more than a watered-down plotline or call to political action. They are a form of communication between the reader and writer. The best books are reminders that we’re not the only one to have felt the way we do—that we are not alone in the world—and that the questions we have about the world have been asked many times before.

It’s through reading difficult books that we come away with something far more meaningful and long-lasting than a viral video on social media, namely, the expansion of our solitary existence.

Image credit: Pexels-Skitterphoto, CC0 1.0


C.G. Jones
C.G. Jones

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  • Avatar
    Hugh E. Brennan
    January 26, 2023, 12:19 am

    Life and Fate, Vassily Grossman. Soldier of the Great War, Mark Helprin. Champlain’s Dream, David Fischer. Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar. The Nazi Doctors, Jay Lifton.

    Due to a tragic loss, last year was the hardest year of my long life. Reading was essential to my endurance. There were many others. I started reading from my own collection, but I did challenge my concentration with challenging works ( to me) by Roger Scruton, Harry Jaffa, and that original Great Book, the Bible.

    It is the root of our present frightening fall that younger people no longer read. There is no conversation because there is no knowledge and allusions, references, and quotes pass unrecognized.

    There is opinion, self-regard, and moral certainty, but the motto of the age might be "don’t know, don’t wanna know, and don’t care."

  • Avatar
    Sebastian Max
    January 26, 2023, 2:49 am

    This is all by design – the "leveling up" once postulated as the greatest virtue of a free public education has been "re-imagined" as the inverse – dumbing down. Largely so that blacks, and other Third World non-whites can have the same "outcome" as the more intelligent races. The paradox of equality is that it can be achieved only by low-achievement or universal failure – universal success being an impossibility, and even universal high-achievement being so rare as to be possible only in a selected subset of any population (even the most homogeneous populations still exhibit the same normal distributions of human attributes and qualities as "diverse" ones do – thus ensuring that substantial differences in "outcome" will naturally manifest absent of any design or bias).

    Its too bad that the Marxist obsession has destroyed the admiration that our societies once had for the natural order – true celebration of differences and diversity consists of merit-based systems that allow the best to reach their full potential – and the worst to strive as they might to reach theirs – even if it will always be lowly or insufficient or unsatisfactory it doesn’t have to be so for the lack of effort.

    The geniuses and the prodigies of the world should be recognized as the unique mysteries they are – examples of the potential and possibilities of the human body, mind, and spirit.

    Rather, they are castigated as being the products of racism and bigoted world views and criteria that relegate all non-whites to failure or second-class status.

    Even though all rational people recognize this as sour grapes – the non-whites are simply confused and embarrassed by their own relative failures to compete with Western cultures; their cultures and peoples didn’t create the Modern Era, or invent nearly everything that has transformed humanity into an advanced civilization….and they’re mad about that. That rejection of objective reality and refusal to accept responsibility is the source of the cognitive dissonance that manifests as jealous rage and powers the revisionism, white-blaming, and accusations of bias and racism.

  • Avatar
    January 26, 2023, 3:05 pm

    This is such an important article. I am homeschooling my two teens and they are avid readers, but they only want to read for pleasure. If you had to pick the top ten books all high schoolers should read, what would make the list?


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