I love it when you make me think

In Garth Risk Hallberg’s article in last weekend’s New York Times, he  writes about taste and why we might claim to like art that is difficult:

…French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who at the dawn of the ’80s promulgated the notion of “cultural capital”: the idea that aesthetic choices are an artifact of socioeconomic position. Bourdieu documented a correlation between taste and class position: The scarcer or more difficult to access an aesthetic experience is — the novel very much included — the greater its ability to set us apart from those further down the social ladder. This kind of value is, in his analysis, the only real value that “refined” tastes have.

The idea, it seems, is that we read difficult books because by having read them we become more distinguished and get to look down on those who haven’t managed to read them yet. It isn’t, we’re told, a question of pleasure, it’s about achievement.

Well, maybe there’s some truth in that. I think I got more enjoyment from cycling from Paris to Brest and back with only two hours sleep than I got from reading Moby Dick. But the novel that’s difficult to get into can give pleasure in more ways than simply the satisfaction in having read it.

By way of explanation, let me tell you what we got up to last week in New York. It was my birthday so I demanded that we watch the NFL playoffs in a bar, and also that we went to some art galleries. New York has some of the best art galleries in the world.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is stunning. The building is airy and a pleasure to move about in. The range of exhibits is more than any human being could properly absorb in a week. We had a day. We concentrated on the Twentieth Century paintings and there are some lovely pieces that bewitched us for hours. These paintings are accessible works that can be enjoyed for their aesthetic beauty as well as their historical significance.

Tired, we headed for the park, but Central Park was too cold, so we went to the Guggenheim instead. A building shaped like a giant swirl of ice-cream has to hold something incredible. We were, however, quite disappointed. There was a load of rubbish hanging from the ceiling, and a handful of modern paintings that were frankly rather mediocre compared with the stuff in the Met. But, we’d paid quite a bit to get in so we’d better try to get our money’s worth, so we stared at the rubbish hanging from the ceiling for a bit to try to work out what it was all about. It is a collection of Maurizio Cattelan’s work, gathered together and strung up by the artist into a single perplexing piece of art. We battled with it for while. Decided it wasn’t as bad as we first thought, and then gave up and went back to Central Park to get cold again.

What’s the significance of those art gallery trips? At the end of that day there were several notebook pages filled with inspiring ideas. Most of those were written in the Guggenheim. The art that we were still thinking and talking about three or four days later wasn’t the beauty of the breathtaking Metropolitan Museum, it was the scruffy collection of sculptures hanging from the ceiling in the Guggenheim. Why? Because they’d forced us to think, and we loved it.

Novels are like this too. The book that is beautifully written and perfectly plotted is a pleasure to read, but the pleasure is fleeting. The books that I remember, that I go back to, are often flawed, complex, even baffling. A book that demands that I think, that I battle a little to understand, will engage me so much more and that adds to the depth of the pleasure. Jackie at FarmlaneBooks highlighted this in her blog post Some of the Best Books Aren’t Very Good. By being difficult, or some way flawed, a book can be more memorable. The flaw draws your attention, it jars and reminds you that it’s a book that you’re reading, bringing the author to your attention. I’ll never forget the tedium of Moby Dick, and long after I’ve forgotten many better written books, I’ll still remember it.

You might wonder why a writer of Westerns is trying to defend the idea of difficult novels. Isn’t that a contradiction? Not really. I can enjoy a pop song and an opera. I can enjoy reading Louis L’Amour just as much as Lawrence Durrell and Malcolm Lowry. They’re different, not better. Sometimes I don’t have the energy to want to think about what I’m reading, I just want to be entertained and relaxed. They’re not ‘guity pleasures’, they’re just fun. There are other times when I want to be challenged, to have to think about my view of the world, or just to be tripped up by a convoluted sentence so that I can take pleasure in the words themselves. I don’t care if people see me reading those difficult books, or if they think any better or worse of me for having read them. After all, I never got any sense of being ‘set apart on the social ladder’ from reading Moby Dick. The only sentiment I’ve ever provoked by admitting having read it? Pity.



  1. Moby Dick is a great example! I’ve recently finished it after an 8 month slog. Parts were hard work, parts were fantastic, but I think I’ll always remember it. I couldn’t read more than a couple of books like that a year, but I get a lot of satisfaction from completing them.

    1. Now you’re just trying to get better social standing with me by showing off what hard books you read! 🙂

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