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In Defense Of 'Difficult' Books

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The recent launch of the speed-reading app Spritz has thrown the reading community into something of a tizzy. By combining speed-reading ideals with e-book technology, the app makes speed-reading easily accessible to those who weren't motivated to become speed-readers the old-fashioned way, through classes on specialized techniques like "chunking." The app works by flashing words or groups of short words (up to 13 characters) in quick succession into one stationary window. This allows users to read a passage without moving the eyes or shifting focus; the app delivers each new bite of text directly to your focal point instead. Gone is the exhaustion of moving your eyes over the page, straining the ocular muscles to their breaking point! At last, long after the washing machine and the dishwasher, we readers have a labor-saving device to end our needless physical exertions.

The apparent assumption of Spritz's founders here is that without the energy devoted to eye movements, which they claim takes up 80 percent of our reading time, we can devote the full 100 percent, instead of the current 20 percent, to understanding the content itself. This assertion is suspiciously similar to the old myth that humans use 10 percent of their brain at a time, meaning only the failure to unlock the other 90 percent is keeping us from genius. (Sorry, not so much.) Though it may be true that we spend a considerable amount of reading time moving our eyes, it's quite a leap to suggest that we could read equally effectively but at significantly higher speeds only by removing the task of eye movement. In my experience, most of us continue to think about the meaning of the text even as we move our eyes, calling into question whether the elimination of movement would really add any time for faster comprehension.

"Shorter, faster, simpler. Not only do we need reading apps that push us through texts faster and more efficiently, we need written material to be clearer and briefer, easier to churn through."

Experts, in fact, are already crying foul. Psychologist Michael Masson, who has conducted studies on speed-reading, told The New Yorker that eye movements Spritz thinks of as wasteful are often a way of ensuring comprehension, arguing, "One of the reasons regressive eye movements occur is to repair comprehension failures." Keith Rayner, another psychologist interviewed by The New Yorker, agreed. Spritz leaves no wiggle room for occasions when the brain needs to pause to chew over a sentence or reread it for clarity. Instead, Rayner says, "Every time the brain needs to pause, it will be derailed" -- a significant annoyance when the text continues to flash by you unread.

Spritz's emergence isn't a singular phenomenon. It's part and parcel with the long-festering trend toward the Internet-ification of writing and reading. Shorter, faster, simpler. Not only do we need reading apps that push us through texts faster and more efficiently, we need written material to be clearer and briefer, easier to churn through. We expect writers to not only be on Twitter, but to make their longer writing, even books, more Twitter-esque. Accordingly, before Spritz there was another highly touted literary app that aimed to help the modern writer: the Hemingway App. The app's name references the celebrated conciseness of Ernest Hemingway's style, and the app itself aims to improve writing by pointing out areas that could be simplified and improved. It highlights passive voice, complex sentences, and adverbs (which apparently should always be replaced with more powerful verbs) and scores the passage according to how many of these issues appear in it. Remember, writers: If your composition isn't as simply written as humanly possible, you're doing it wrong. Again and again, we're telling authors, "Listen, there are thousands of books and articles I can read instead of yours, thousands of gifs and videos and tweets and listicles I can enjoy at the tap of a finger. So don't make this too hard for me."

Trained by the constant distractions of Facebook alerts, email pings, and the fear that we're missing out on a better, snarkier blog somewhere else, readers today are all, in a sense, speed-readers. Though we still read long essays and even long books, we expect to tear through them at a fast clip, as we would with the other media we tend to engage with. If writers want us to read the whole piece, we'd ask that they do the skimming for us -- cut out nuance, context, extra clauses and artistic flourishes in favor of engaging humor and easy-to-digest prose. If authors want us to devote hours of our short lives to the books, they can't ask us to spend those hours straining with mental exertion. We'd rather spend that time elsewhere. As David Foster Wallace, a challenging author to read himself, lamented in a 1993 interview, "It’s hard for an art audience, especially a young one that’s been raised to expect art to be 100 percent pleasurable and to make that pleasure effortless, to read and appreciate serious fiction." He was referring to the force of TV, and the addition of the Internet's distractions has foreseeably compounded this taste for effortless pleasure by providing us with unending options for possibly more effortless, more pleasurable pleasure.

Surely readers have always given up on books that failed to offer effortless pleasure, but there's a growing movement toward not feeling guilty about it -- life is too short to be bored by your reading material! Sometimes that means we are simply moving on from a dull or unsuccessful novel, but it's easy to be "bored" by something great that takes more effort than usual to decipher, something that challenges us more than we're comfortable with. As a testimony sits my own stack of shamefully abandoned books, which I insist on feeling guilty about: James Joyce's Ulysses, Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March, Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor. Joyce, Bellow, and Nabokov aren't poor writers, they simply aren't making it effortless for me. In a Chicago Tribune article about her desire to give up on Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, Julia Keller described how her mind wandered from the page toward more pleasant or immediate distractions, an experience to which any reader can likely relate. We tend to give up on books when this impulse surfaces -- I certainly do. It's frustrating to effortfully direct your attention back to the book at hand, and it's pleasant to tell ourselves it's because the book just isn't right for us, or is too dense anyway, and to move on to something that will make no undue demands on us. But those dense books offer precisely the reading experiences that give us the most scope for improvement as readers and make us better equipped to actually enjoy more taxing books in the future.

"Not all thoughts are straightforward, and trying to distill them down to a false simplicity that would fit into a tweet misleads more than it clarifies."

Maybe this all a way of saving reading; by making it easier for consumers on both fronts (by pressuring writers to simplify and shorten their work and by giving readers an effortless way to speed-read), we lessen the effort chasm between reading and more popular leisure activities, like streaming Netflix. But by stripping reading of the aspects that set it apart from watching TV or glancing at Twitter, we may be sacrificing too much in hopes of saving a hollowed-out shell of the form. As the imperative to be readable and brief migrates from Twitter to blogs to books, we're left with little pressure in any aspect of our reading lives to engage as readers, to think deeply and carefully about the ideas we're consuming.

In college, I took a class on Henry James and William Faulkner, two American novelists famed for their dense style featuring meandering, clause-riddled sentences. These two writers were rarely "bold and clear" on the sentence level, a virtue trumpeted by the Hemingway App, but they were nuanced and thought-provoking. My patient professor reminded us repeatedly that if we chafed at the complicated prose instead of slowing down and puzzling it out, we were missing the point. "Why didn't Faulkner just say what he was trying to say instead of muddling around like this?" we'd ask. Because, my professor would say, sometimes just saying it doesn't quite get it right. For the issues these two authors dealt with -- race in the South, societal restrictions -- a circuitous syntax made tangible the thorniness of their topics. Not all thoughts are straightforward, and trying to distill them down to a false simplicity that would fit into a tweet misleads more than it clarifies. Or, per an aphorism commonly attributed to Einstein, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler."

And the push, in recent years, has been more from the side of "making things simpler" than from the side of "but not simpler than possible." Many writers have sung the praises of paring down their work to accord with Twitter's limits. Twitter fiction that harnesses the medium du jour is on the rise. Anne Trubek noted in a 2012 New York Times article on Twitter and authors, "All the actively tweeting authors I interviewed agreed that the genre's formal constraints (140 characters maximum) make it enticing." It's not uncommon to hear a writer expressing gratitude for how Twitter has trained her to ruthlessly excise needless clauses from her sentences and scrunch her thoughts into readable bites. This can indeed be a good thing. The brilliant Teju Cole, in an interview focusing on his creative use of Twitter, noted that tweeting has influenced his other writing: "The precision of language, that is going to affect all the other writing I do. The idea that people are not used to language being used in a very intense and a very serious way." Many great authors have worked marvels with concise, clean language, and there is a particular beauty in seeing much accomplished in few words.

But neither is simplicity in itself a sufficient goal, and Twitter's ruthless 140-character limit enforces a brevity that fits awkwardly with the unique strengths of literature. Novels in particular have always been a bastion of the circuitous thought and the exploration of ambiguity. Some thoughts can be best expressed in 140 characters, but if you have to remove essential complexity to do so, more may be lost in truth than is gained in ease of reading. As cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf asked The Washington Post, "How much syntax is lost, and what is syntax but the reflection of our convoluted thoughts?" A world where nothing can be written that isn't perfectly clear and simple is a world where much of the reality of human thought and experience might go unexpressed and unexamined.

Even if writers persist in creating convoluted pieces, as many still do, the push to skim and speed-read threatens to nullify their efforts. Some texts can be read and mostly comprehended at 1,000 words per minute, but Middlemarch and Infinite Jest probably can't -- at least by most of us mere mortals. The ability to basically register what each word in Middlemarch means is not the same as the ability to understand the book. Complex works should offer us more and more meaning the more time we spend with them, whether we're rereading or simply slowing down to spend more time contemplating each passage. Rushing through a great book strips the reader of any value other than the right to say we've read the work in question. It's Cliff's Notes without Cliff's Notes.

"In an age of celebrating simplicity, are we doing too little to celebrate complexity?"

Even overtly simple works of literary fiction like a Hemingway short story hold layers of meaning, of course (and no one who's read a masterpiece like his "Hills Like White Elephants" would disagree). Yet they're all too easy to miss even without a speed-reading app, as we're tempted to simply zip through, reading for basic comprehension instead of exploring the subtleties of the author's precisely chosen words. The particular virtue of a "difficult" book is that it forces us to slow down to grapple with the text line-by-line. Even the most basic meaning of a complex novel is nearly impossible to grasp without dialing back and embracing a leisurely pace. Readers can't "zip through" Absalom, Absalom! even if we want to, so instead we must dedicate thought to each sentence. Compelling the mind to engage is one of reading's finest attributes as an activity, and more complex written works demand more engagement, urging us to appreciate and ponder each word. Reading difficult authors like Faulkner trains us to read simpler but equally profound authors whom we might otherwise rush through heedless of the rich, hidden meanings. And though tough writers are far from extinct -- authors like Thomas McGuane, Thomas Pynchon, Alan Hollinghurst and Rachel Kushner still tend toward denser syntax -- much of contemporary literary fiction traffics in spare precision rather than obscurity. Even the recent surge of long novels leans toward the readable, aside from the daunting thickness of the books (see: Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch).

There's certainly much to be said for those authors who can spellbind readers with only a few evocative words. But in an age of celebrating simplicity, are we doing too little to celebrate complexity? Lonely columnists and writers like Wallace have pleaded for more readerly dedication to difficult reading, for resistance to the Internet reading status quo. Some, such as writer Lancelot R. Fletcher, have advocated for a "slow reading movement," riding the coattails of the "slow food movement." But their pleas have remained on the margins. Still, the benefits of writing and reading complicated, layered, difficult texts are too valuable to give up without a fight. What is deep, slow reading if not the process of reflecting on nuanced ideas, untangling thorny strands of thought, and imaginatively piecing together a world from nothing more than a collection of letters and symbols? What could better teach us to break down difficult arguments or ideas and to engage honestly with the incalculable complexity of life? The world will not become simpler just because our ways of writing and reading do, and by succumbing to this abbreviated version of literary life we only lose another tool for understanding the world as it really is.

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