Friday, December 21, 2007


This evening, between about 8 and 10:30pm I read Steve Martin's new book My Life Standing Up. It was excellent. After reading it I started thinking about books, and specifically, difficult books. That is, books that have challenged me.

Setting aside books that I have had to read on a deadline (for a class I was taking or teaching), in which case I have been forced to muddle through, speed read, and employ various other "techniques"- whether I've actually understood everything I was reading or not- I could only come up with three books that have been difficult for me.*

The Pope's Rhinoceros by Lawrence Norfolk: I loved his first novel, Lemprière's Dictionary, and thus I began his second novel with great gusto- it promptly kicked my intellectual ass. Sure, the plot was complex and the vocabulary enormous, but that had not been a problem for me in the past- I did read and enjoy Charles Palliser's The Quincunx after all! Nevertheless, I'd guess that I tried to read this book four or five times before finishing it. In between it sat on my bookshelf quietly mocking me. In the end, I was triumphant, but did I enjoy the book? I really don't know...

If on a winter's night a traveler... by Italo Calvino: Such a small book. Again, it took numerous tries over numerous years to get through it. It got to the point that I carried it with me wherever I went in the hope that the right time and the right frame of mind my suddenly intersect and allow me to finish it and eventually that happened. I read it between classes while working on my M.A. I'm assuming that my academic work had my mind honed while at the same time, in need of some escape and I was able to finish it. In this case, I think I just "surrendered" to the book and worried about figuring out what it meant and how it worked after I finished it. It was fascinating, and when it was over, I didn't want it to be.

Which leads me to the third book...

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco I'm a HUGE fan of Eco's novels The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and Baudolino- not so much The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. By my recollection I bought this book while visiting my best friend in AZ in around 2001 or 2002 and like the books above, there were many attempts, much failure, and the quiet mockery. Last night I started my most recent attempt at it and I feel as though I may make it this time as I have resolved to read it with...and this is not easy for me...patience. Regardless of whether I succeed this time or not, it contains one of my favorite quotes of all time, "The first quality of an honest man is contempt for religion."


*Setting aside pretty much everything I had to read by David Hume for a class in graduate school. Tough stuff to be sure, but I think the biggest problem may have been my disgust with the professor's inability to teach leading me to become passive-aggressive about the material. My attitude was something like, "If you're not going to teach, I'm not going to learn." My only non-A in graduate school was in the is class. Somebody almost got punched...

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