May 31, 2011

To Be Challenged... Or Not to Be?

One of the events I attended at the recent Sydney Writers' Festival has got me thinking about my reading habits and choices. The event was a talk by Australian author Gail Jones and she was speaking about the influences and processes involved in the writing of her most recent book Five Bells which I reviewed here. Jones was a beautiful speaker to listen to - lyrical and passionate (just like her book) and at one point she was speaking about the importance of reading in offering us a challenge - that we should be reading novels and other works that challenge us with their construction their language and their ideas.

I must admit I am not always reaching for the challenging in my reading - after a day full of work where I am emotionally and intellectually drained sometimes I just want to reach for that 'easy' read - something that will allow me to tune out and not have to think too deeply. Having said that I know I do often challenge myself in terms of the content of the books I choose to read - reading in areas I might not necessarily know anything about, or choosing a book that has particularly difficult emotional material to get through. The books I don't often challenge myself with are those that are difficult to grasp in terms of language - I started Dr Zhivago on the weekend and while I am loving the story so far I am struggling with the number of Russian names to get my tongue around and the differences in language and expression. I have found myself resorting to my 'easier' reads now that the work and study week has resumed.

I guess the idea of a challenging read will be different for everyone but I am wondering what reading challenges you - and how have you overcome the challenge to enrich your reading even further? What books have been worth the challenge?


Rebecca Chapman said...

I think that there is a time to be challenged and a time not to be. At the moment if my head wasn't screwed on it probably wouldn't make it out the front door with me in the mornings, so reading a challenging book isn't the right thing for me right now (I'm reading Phillip Pullman's Northern Lights series instead).

I find different books challening for different reasons. The Transit of Venus by SHirley Hazzard was challening because of the quality of the writing, but I found that the maazing writing acted as a barrier between me and the story.

A Suitable Boy was a big challenge simply because of how long it was. It was easy to read but it just went for so long.

I can't think of a challenging read that I loved right now - but there have been many of them.

THis is the kind of thing I love about the writers festival. It really gets you thinking.

Anonymous said...

I have to be in the right mood for a challenge. I normally wait until the winter months when the cold weather and dark evenings see me in on the sofa more, and with the time and attention span to devote to something I can't just whip through without thinking too much.

Doctor Zhivago was my big challenge this past autumn - I'd already read it once, but I tried the new translation. It was a slog and I did nearly give up, but I kept going to the end and I was so glad that I did. What helps is having a list of character names to hand and also having an alternate translation if the one you're reading doesn't work for you. I didn't like the new one in the end so I switched back to the original English translation and then I enjoyed it much more.

I wish you luck with your challenge! Doctor Zhivago is such a powerful read and you will be glad you pushed yourself when you get to the final page, promise!

Karen K. said...

I've been reading a lot of Victorian novels the last few years and I do find the sheer length of many of them daunting, plus the writing style is something I had to get used to. I did tackle The Way We Live Now a couple of years ago, and it was really worth it, though I don't know if I could say it was a difficult read because Trollope's writing style is not that strenuous.

I have attempted Faulkner and given up, and I admit Russians are not my favorite. I had a hard time with Dr. Zhivago and I wonder if I'd have appreciated it more if I'd had a better understanding of Russian history. I haven't tried Dostoevsky but several of his works are on my TBR list.

Alex (The Sleepless Reader) said...

I thought it would be the other way around, but it was when I was about 18 that I was reading the most "challenging" books I've ever read and loving them (e.g the Russians or Zola).

I still enjoy a book that makes me work for my reward, but tend to stick an easy one on the mix for those evening where my brain is mush.

Joan Hunter Dunn said...

Interesting thoughts as another, non literary blog, I read was posting about how wonderful the internet is but that we can use it to escape out and not necessarily be challenged. Reading it made me think of the book challenges that abound and are a prompt for suggestions to be break out of one's comfort zone.
Hmm Maybe I should use your Paris in July for just that too.

Ellie said...

I think I challenge myself by reading as broad a range as possible.

I try and read at least one "literary" book a month. Though sometimes the writing gets in the way of an enjoyable read. I think it's possible to advance your brain and enjoy yourself at the same time.

Karen said...

Hi Becky - Thanks for your comments. I too found A Suitable Boy a rather challenging challenge!

Hi Booksnob - Thanks so much for your insight around Dr Z - I am reading the new translation but if I find it a little hard going I will definitely swap over.

Hi Karen - Victorian novels are ones that I usually quite enjoy although I haven't read one for a while - I might have to change that...

Hi Alexandra - I totally understand about the brain mash!!

Hi Joan - I think I am going to use Paris In July as a bit of a reading challenge this year - haven't quite decided on what I will read yet though...

Hi Ellie - I love the idea of being challenged and enjoying yourself at the same time - a perfect combination really!!

Jeanie said...

This reminds me of a recent date at the bookstore with Rick. I bought a tiny little book on Paris and he bought Les Mis... all 1,000 pages of it, which he's still reading (and says is very good -- and WAY more than the musical!).

My mom's old copy of War and Peace is on the top of a book box in the laundry room and every time I go to the basement, I see it and think, "Maybe this summer..." But the stack is so tall! (And all those Russian names!)

Karen said...

Hi Jeanie - I completely understand what you mean about the Russian names - they are a struggle for me!!

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