On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

Michael Greenberg writes of Jorge Luis Borges:

He advises his students to leave a book if it bores them: “that book was not written for you,” no matter its reputation or fame.

Good advice, but not easily followed.

Borges’ advice isn’t easy to follow because the decision to continue reading is just another instance of that most insuperable of dilemmas: Should I stay or should I go? Should I press on to the summit, risking life and limb, or should I turn back, foregoing glory and the chance to prove myself against the unforgiving elements? I was warned, after all, that I would experience many, many, moments of utter exhaustion, that I would have to dig deep into reserves that I didn’t know existed. Should I persist in this floundering relationship and attempt to rescue it from the doldrums in which it finds itself, thus investigating the depths of my emotional and romantic commitment, or should I cut my losses and run, seeking a better partner elsewhere? The romantic was always supposed to be our sternest test, wasn’t it?

The reading of a book poses this question in particularly vexed form. We have been urged to show a little backbone in our intellectual endeavors; we have been warned pleasures of the mind are not so easily earned; we accuse ourselves, relentlessly, of indolence in matters of edification. We are convinced we are distracted and flighty, flitting from one easily earned pleasure to the next; we are well aware the classics are often ‘difficult’ and require ‘sustained attention’. If a book ‘bores’ us, surely it is our fault, not the author’s, and we should press on regardless, trusting the difficulty journey ahead will bring its own rewards soon enough. Glory, we well know, comes only to those who persist; those who take the first exit on the highway to greatness are destined to only enjoy minor pleasures. So, this boredom that afflicts us, surely it is a reflection of our intellectual infirmity, an entirely ersatz disease. Can its reports really be trusted?

Matters, of course, are made worse in this day and age, as we suffer the ever-growing deluge of the written word, online and offline. We learn every day, with growing dismay, of the decay of the reading mind, the growth of the 140-character missive. Boredom by book seems like an exceedingly common disease, possibly even over-diagnosed.

If we could only trust our own inclinations, our own expressed desires, Borges’ advice would be far more tractable. But we do not. They have gotten us into trouble many times in the past; we know they will continue to torment us so in the future.

Fears of premature abandonment aren’t going away any time soon.

Note: In the past year, I have abandoned classics by Stendhal and Balzac; my guilt lasted for several days, and it was not assuaged when, on reporting these surrenders to a friend, he responded, “Really? I’m surprised. Those are great reads!” Borges can at least rest content his writing will never bore me.

7 thoughts on “On Reading the Unreadable (or Persisting)

  1. Although I surely must have abandoned other books, the only one I can think of right now is Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin. My decision to quit reading, about halfway through, really surprised me because I LOVE Atwood and had been super excited to get her Booker-Prize-winning novel.

    But I was soooooo bored. The writing was beautiful, of course, but turning the pages became excruciating. Life is just too short to waste on a book that doesn’t engage you when there are so many countless others waiting to be discovered.

  2. It’s hard to describe, exactly, why I feel gravity tugging at one volume in hand but not another. Usually it’s a matter of effort but, in the same breath, even I notice that some of my favorite books require repeated readings, repeated efforts, to fully understand. I look no farther than Borges as an example standing in for many others.

    I also just put down the Shallows by a Nicholas Carr. Perhaps in an effort to prove him right I did not finish the novel but it’s rather good. It details, simply, what the internet is doing to our brains.

    1. AmyClae:

      I’m going to start putting down more books from now on, to be honest. Life is just too short. It has to be grab me (that gravity you speak of) or not.

      And I need to stay off the net more – like Carr says!

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