Why are some books more intimidating than others?

James Joyce.
I've been thinking about "intimidating" books of late, partly because of my Russian Literature 2014 Challenge, and partly because of Adam's Ulysses readalong he's hosting (15th December - 5th January), which, I might mention, I haven't ruled out. If you add Karl Marx's Das Kapital into the mix, a book I think I may be ready to read very slowly, you have what I call intimidating: a lot of Russian Literature, James Joyce, and Das Kapital. As it happens, Finnegans Wake is less frightening that Ulysses. I have read both, and I remain intimidated by only one, Ulysses. I'm not saying it's harder per se, I'm saying expectations are higher. You cannot be surprised to learn that I didn't understand the majority of Finnegans Wake: that is the point of it. Ulysses, on the other hand, whilst very difficult, is readable. I'm considering reading along with Adam because I want to put some more work into it this time. Reading Finnegans Wake is impressive enough; the physical act of reading it can be said, by some (not all), to be enough. Not so with Ulysses. Also, it's links with Homer's The Odyssey, another one of my nemeses, makes it a truly terrifying prospect. But it is possible, people read it and people have opinions on it. Reading it and not understand a lot of it, as I have done, is no good. 

As for Russian Literature, a lot of people, myself included (which is why I proposed the challenge) find a lot of Russian Literature intimidating. War and Peace is the one that is mentioned most frequently. I've seen it said umpteen times, and Goodreads have it at the very top of their Intimidating books I long to read/finish list. Why is this? I'm not saying people are wrong to be intimidated by it - please be very clear on that. I would never think less of someone for being intimidated by a certain book when I myself have some odd choices (for example, so many people love Anna Karenina yet I remain very much "put off". I have read it, years ago, very quickly, and I was no further forward. The spell is not unbroken, in short). But, staying with War and Peace - I've seen several people get along happily with Hugo's Les Misérables, a similar length, yet still be in frightened awe of Tolstoy.

Because some books are quite literally awesome. Awe-inspiring novels with a daring aura. Karl Marx, the Das Kapital I mentioned, is on the shelf above me (of course above me, even my choice of where to put the thing says a lot about my attitude) and it doesn't invite me. It challenges me to pick it up. It dares me. It doesn't matter that I suspect I'll like it, and I'll certainly learn from it. It dares me to pick it up. And I know if I do pick it up, I'll read the first sentence and be frightened away. What is this? Size is a factor, of course, but not the defining factor. One cannot say War and Peace is too huge if one has read Les Misérables, and, consulting Goodreads list, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is about average in size, so is Dracula by Stoker, and Great Expectations (I really don't know why this is "scary") and The Idiot by Dostoyevsky are comparatively short for the 19th Century. On the other hand, Clarissa by Samuel Richardson and Remembrance of Things Past by Proust are gargantuan, they do ask for a lot of patience and commitment, and that is a concern. Can you remain faithful to a book for potentially months on end? If you read others along side it, would you not be distracted? Would you not end up losing the pace? Would it end up half or a quarter read and put back? Entirely possible.

It is no surprise that size and complexity are key factors. I mean, this is it. Some small books are frighteningly complex and inspire great feeling and thoughts, and there's always the fear that, say, with Frankenstein - what if I don't understand it and everyone else does? Or - what if I hate Dickens when the world seems to love him? What if I'm forever lost in a Shakespeare play when Shakespeare is so revered (as I am)? Then, as I say, there are the books that threaten pulled muscle or a trapped nerve because of it's weight.

But, there's another thing, and I feel it's possible that the 19th Century Russians suffer a little from it. It's about accessibility, and it's about awareness. I've read many articles and posts about the vast array of characters in War and Peace, but I wonder how that compares with the vast array of characters in a novel by Dickens. It's known to be complex, but Dickens doesn't have that particular level of concern: it's not often discussed. We get on with Dickens quite happily (some of us, anyway), and we're not hugely concerned about that.

Leo Tolstoy.
Because the Russians have a reputation and it becomes self-fulfilling. One doesn't just read Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, yes, War and Peace, or some of the other Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys - one builds up to it. I ask myself, am I ready? Am I prepared? Will I manage this feat? We're told they're intimidating, so they are intimidating. And I've read countless articles and posts about George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, and they're more often than not thoroughly engaging. I want to read people's opinions and I want to share my own; a conversation is had. Russian Literature is not so much written about in newspaper articles and posts. They're not as familiar, so they stand back a little. They're nearer the edge, so they're further out of my comfort zone. And then, forget about the old faithfuls, Dostoeyvsky and Tolstoy: what about Gogol? What about Turgenev? Pushkin? Chekhov? Bulgakov? It is not often I see posts or articles about them. And, after that, Zhukovsky, Saltykov-Schedrin, Fet, Kropotkin? These are novelists from the "Golden Age" of Russian Literature, and the "Silver Age" - Merezhkovsky, Gorky, Akhmatova (the one female I've seen mentioned). Who are they? I have never come across these names until I started preparing for the Russian Literature 2014 announcement.

It's the same with Ancient Greek literature, and Roman Literature, too:  talk about a vast array of characters! I feel like I need to know more about Greek Mythology before I read Greek mythology, so I have my unread The Greek Myths by Robert Graves (scary), and Apollodorous's The Library of Greek Mythology (shorter, so not quite so scary). How do I make my break? There'll be a period of reading, say, Homer, and having Graves and Apollodorous sitting next to me, and this doesn't feel like reading, it feels like studying. Like the Russians, they're nearer the edge, certainly out of the comfort zone, so once more, one does not simply read Greek Literature (or indeed Lord of the Rings, but that's another story).

Anna Akhmatova.
But what about just jumping in? Forget about everything, all the preconceptions, what is already said, and the equally alarming what remains unsaid. When I started reading classics, Zola was my Pushkin and Wilkie Collins was my Zhukovsky (I don't know why I'm embarrassed to admit that - how can I expect anyone to believe I was born with a knowledge of The Moonstone?). And I'm not saying I'm not intimidated by Russian Literature. I remain a little uneasy despite all of this. But some are big like Les Misérables, have a lot of characters like Dickens, are dense (like any of our favourites), and dwell upon the psychology of a character, like Woolf. There is a new world of literature out there, out of England, France, and America. Great authors never heard of, books to be loved, conversations to be had. It's important for me, who is determined to stay within the comfort zone, to leave it from time to time. Too much is hidden. None of my fears or preconceptions are helpful in the slightest, quite the opposite in fact.

Comments

  1. It is very interesting to see which books are intimidating - and to learn, that it's mostly in the anticipation phase they are so scary. I've read War and Peace, Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov and loved them all. They are such great novels but I know that it will be worth rereading them all because they are such complex novels. I have two Dostoevsky novels on my Classics Club list so I plan to join your Russian Literature challenge. And I'm looking forward to be introduced to some newer Russian authors!

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    1. Glad you're joining :)

      And yes, for me it is about 99% of the anticipation phase that is frightening. When I said I'd be frightened away by the first sentence of Das Kapital - I wasn't. I'm certainly not at ease, but when I read it, I did think reading the whole thing is possible! (Though I bet it takes a year or so to read properly!)

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  2. With the Russians, I think a lot of the fear comes from the names. People who aren't used to the names can read a story featuring Alexei Fyodorovitch Karamazov, Alyosha, Alexeichik, and Lyoshenka and not realize for quite a while that all 4 names refer to the same character. Really, a few minutes of study will solve this problem, but it's one of those scary things that takes on huge importance in your mind--'everyone knows' that you can't figure out the names in Russian novels.

    I loved Anna Karenina, so I hope you're planning to read it again sometime. I'm planning on War and Peace this year because I loved it so much. Tolstoy, yay! And your mention of Gorky reminded me that I had planned to re-read his autobiographical trilogy. I'd better get those out.

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    1. Funny, I've never thought that names are difficult for the foreign readers! I guess it's mostly the fault of translators: there must be a note about it when a variant first appears!

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    2. The names are tricky for me as well - even just the struggle to pronounce them! When I read Brothers Karamazov I had to say their names out loud a few times, and though my pronunciation is no doubt wrong, having a vague idea helps.

      Also, yes, the different names for the same character is tricky, but Jean, you're right, a few minutes of study or even jotting them down helps.

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  3. I love Russian literature but I always feel uneasy before each book I read. Why? For me, I struggle getting into the Russian mindset. On one hand they are clipped and stark and dour and then suddenly they burst into emotion and light. The wild swings startle me and it usually takes me a little time to adjust. My dream would be to spend a whole year reading Russian literature, to soak in their culture and worldview, to understand them better but, of course, it is only a dream.

    I went to a seminar once that was called "Educating Ourselves". The speaker stressed that even if we only understand 20% or 30% of a book, we are still better off than never having read it at all. This was very inspiring and freeing, and helped challenge me to read books that I would have passed over as intimidating before.

    Now, I would say, most of my intimidating books are only intimidating because of my bad attitude. I avoid authors like Hemingway, Woolf, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Joyce, James, etc. because I've either read something of theirs (usually ages ago) that I did not like, or they have the same style as another author I think I don't like. However, the way I read in my teens is completely different than the way I read now and, honestly, when it comes to classics, just because you don't like a book, doesn't mean that you can't learn something from it. I really have no excuses and I need to delve into some of these authors who I've avoided for so long.

    What a great post,O. I love these type of posts that make you think and challenge you and, therefore, make you grow!

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    1. I love this comment :)

      "if we only understand 20% or 30% of a book, we are still better off than never having read it at all" - I agree very much. When I read Virgil, I loved it, but I bet I only got 20% of it! It was still a very good experience. And we learn from it. I'm glad, for example, that I read Euripides's Hippolytus: I struggled greatly with that, but it's essential reading if one wants to study Zola's The Kill. We may not "master" a book on the first read, but as we go through the web that is literature, we can learn more about a book we read years ago.

      PS - Steinbeck and Woolf are two of my favourites! Adam of Roofbeam Reader has written some great stuff on both Woolf and Steinbeck, so if you ever decide to delve in you could check out his posts.

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  4. A very interesting and earnest post! I was also wondering why some books are intimidating, and completely agree that it's some form of collective unconsciousness: everybody around is intimidated, and so we are too, before even opening it. In case of Russian literature, I can't feel it, because for me it's school course, so I'm not afraid I will not understand it. Not like Ulysses, for example. My foreign friends who are afraid of Russian lit I usually forward here: http://wutheringexpectations.blogspot.cz/2010/07/russian-books-are-short.html
    It is a great article, which helps with the fear of "huge Russians".

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    1. Thanks for that link. I do admire Tom's posts - one day I'll actually engage rather than read in silent awe! I'll go check out that post!

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  5. Everything that we don't know much of is a scary at the beginning. It is much easier to stick with what you know such as Western lit. It's more a cultural thing I guess. We categorize books and authors and places. Fiction is incredibly subjective though so once you do start reading a whole world opens up. To me, it transcends all borders imaginary or not and it serves its purpose well.
    That's what sparked my interest in African lit and there's indeed a whole big world out there.

    I loved 'Anna Karenina' and a friend recommended me 'The resurrection' which I loved even more (and it is a rare sight to see it reviewed/discussed on blogs or other sites). But it took a while because it sounded more intimidating than the previous novel.

    Ulysses I read when I was 16 and in a couple of days back to back. I got incredibly burned out because while I had read 'The Portrait of the artist as a young man' first it did not prepare me for the confusion and feeling that you are simply reading without digesting and without getting anything out of it. Needless to say it needs a re-read especially since I 'conquered' and loved 'The odyssey' last year.

    Ultimately the thing is that we are prepared for anything just that we put mental barriers.





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    1. The fear of the unknown is very much a factor, but it's a vicious circle. It's good to branch out, at least from time to time.

      I have The Resurrection - I think it'll be one of my reads for 2014. And no, I've seen many reviews or discussions on it either!

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  6. My gateway drug for legends and mythology, especially Greek, were the Roger Lancelyn Green retellings Puffin printed in the '60s and '70s. Written for children they are still good simple re-tellings of the stories which you can then use the more esoteric Robert Graves to build on.

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    1. I might check that one out. Got a feeling Graves is for those who have some knowledge. That said, I'm thinking I might have some luck with Apollodorous. It's quite little, for one thing! :)

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    2. Roger Lancelyn Green was pretty great. I always recommend his King Arthur for a first read-aloud, and his Egyptian mythology books were excellent too.

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  7. I wonder if, in addition to the aspects of unfamiliarity and names, the idea that a book might require work plays a factor? Not because of a fear of work per se, but because of the extra time commitment that might involve when so many of us are already so busy. I've come to think that books needn't be intimidating--that they are all just collections of much smaller units, words and that individually words are not scary--but at the same time, I find time such a factor that I tend to stay away from the long books.

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    1. Definitely is a factor. It is difficult when one has a lot going on, and it's so good to settle down to read, but with some books it's like you have to read them at your desk, notebook and pen at the ready, and a few study aids to boot. Not so welcoming, but perhaps we're not giving ourselves enough credit.

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