Friday, August 7, 2015
Books that are hard to understand
I was excited to get hold of a celebrated book which many people have highly recommended over the years. I started reading with great anticipation, but a moment was enough to show me that it was going to be one of those difficult, wordy reads. The sentences twist and turn, and when you come to the end of a paragraph, you have to return to the beginning to remind yourself what you've just read. The subject matter was great, but my enjoyment had taken a nose dive. It wasn't the treat I expected.
It was a perfect example of why academic and intellectual books aren't my favourites. I often find that I don't completely grasp a chunk of text when I first read it. I need to mull over it a second time, and sometimes even a third. Then, even though it may be good and wise, I get tired of the effort because it makes the reading experience three times as long as it might have been. If it happens to be a dense work of fiction, all my hard work really tends to choke the flow of the story.
The lady who wrote the book I started has been hailed as 'a female Henry David Thoreau' in an article I read. That explains a lot, because I find Thoreau's work just the same. Even though I've had 'Walden' on my kindle for a few years, I've never managed to get right through it.
These types of books remind me of studying English at Uni years ago, when the course material was often so incomprehensible we needed special reference books to help unravel them. I had Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' or Spenser's 'The Faerie Queen' open by one elbow, and an Elizabethan almanac by the other. 'I'm not actually dumb,' I'd tell myself. 'It's just that the English language has evolved so dramatically over the centuries between then and now.' But I'm afraid I can't make the same excuse when it comes to figuring out the writing of modern academics in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Here's a confession. I get a bit daunted when I proofread my son's essays. Logan is in his second year of a media degree at Adelaide Uni, the same place I went to at his age. His essays are full of the required long words and waffle, and he tends to let sentences linger on for the length of a paragraph. I have to figure out what he's even talking about so I can do my favour for him, which is to figure out where to place the punctuation. The question, 'Mum, how quickly can you proofread this essay?' might turn out to take the better part of an hour. He sometimes leaves his request until shortly before the cut-off time, usually midnight. One time he got an assignment submitted online with six seconds to spare! Still, I need to take the time to be thorough. I remind myself that he's been studying the subject matter and I haven't.
I wondered whether some subjects are so complex and profound that they can only be expressed in academic waffle. It's a sad thought. With this on my mind, the next book I picked up turned out to be a delightful read. It was chatty and conversational, yet the content was just as fresh and meaningful to me as the more famous book that let me down. It was pleasant to read without sacrificing it's deeper message. I thought of other books which fit the bill too, proving that it can be done. Great truths can be expressed simply, and in a way which appeals to the general population (like me).
I don't give up on those hard-to-understand books. I think trying to untwist meaning from verbose waffle might be good for the brain. However, they are never my first choice. It begs the question, since the easy-reading experience can also be wise and moving, why doesn't everyone use it?
A young woman in the colonial novel I'm reading agrees with me. Now, when I call it a colonial novel, it really was published in 1854. The novel itself is quite easy to understand for its time. It's 'Clara Morison' by Catherine Helen Spence, and the character is Miss Margaret Elliot, who was known around her parts as a bit of a bluestocking. Here's what she has to say.
'If what a man writes is not clear, he must either think indistinctly, which is a radical error, or mystify his clear thoughts by involving them in a complexity of words, which is a contemptible practice, merely followed to make people wonder what the meaning really is and fancy that as it is incomprehensible, it must needs be deep and wide.'
I think that's a good enough wrap-up.