I'd prefer not to

My list includes Toni Morrison, Henry James, Faulkner and Beckett. Why are there some great writers we just cannot read?

Published May 28, 2002 4:33PM (EDT)

"When one reads these strange pages of one long gone one feels that one is at one with one who once ..."

-- James Joyce, "Ulysses"

Whether one chooses to admit it or not, every reader has a secret list of writers one is, for whatever reason, incapable of reading. To get it over with, what follows is my own: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Henry James, Jane Austen, Samuel Beckett ... already embarrassment keeps me from going on.

For a long time, I was careful to keep this information from falling into the wrong hands -- praising Faulkner, comparing work unfavorably with Beckett's, nodding indulgently at mentions of Morrison. But secrets are nothing if not what we carefully choose to share, and thus I would, if pressed, admit that Morrison, excepting her strong early work, struck me as suffering from a terminal case of allegorical bloat; that Faulkner, perhaps the streakiest writer to have ever lived, seemed to me only intermittently good; that, despite his staggering descriptive gifts, even James' shorter work left me feeling as though a very large screw indeed were turning into my brain; that Austen made me certain I would never care this much about my own wedding, much less the weddings of people who do not exist; and that not even Beckett's inarguable brilliance could relieve me of the suspicion that his godless pose was one of effortful heresy.

Shockingly, the truth is that, with the exception of Morrison's "Beloved" (a novel I was assigned to read no fewer than six times in college), I have never actually finished a book by any of these writers. In the case of Faulkner and James, I admit, God help me, to having never read more than a dozen sequential pages of their work. For a literate person to make such an admission is, I imagine, distressing to these writers' many devotees. For a former book editor and fiction writer to make such an admission is, I do not doubt, enough to have me dragged before a literary tribunal and stoned.

Why it is embarrassing to dislike reading writers widely regarded as great is obvious. If the doors of one's perception remain sealed to the bidding of something as elemental as greatness, surely the fault lies not with the caller but with he who is called.

As indentured as I was to this seeming truth, I always found myself furtively hacking at its leg chain. I was, I liked to think, a careful, sensitive reader. By my early 20s I had read "Ulysses" several times, worked my way through the whole of the King James Bible and once spent a summer reading Shakespeare's tragedies. Why, then, no matter the care with which I place my literary belays, do my attempts to conquer "Persuasion," "The Sound and the Fury" or "The Bostonians" invariably send me stumbling back to base camp?

Make no mistake: When I say I cannot read Austen or Faulkner or James or any other writer I recognize as great, this is no plain-brown-wrapper euphemism. I really mean it. I cannot read them. Their work falls through me as though I were a sieve, leaving behind only sodden peculiarities of tone and diction: Austen's conservatism, Faulkner's hysterics, Morrison's hot-gospeling, James' irritating delicacy.

What makes my inability to read these writers so peculiar is the volte-face pleasure I take in other writers whose work greatly resembles theirs. I regard Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" as probably the finest American novel published in my lifetime, and yet McCarthy's prose -- which has never met an unhyphenated compound adjective it did not like or a comma that it did -- seduces me in every way Faulkner's does not. ("I'm all for the complexity of Faulkner," William Styron once said, "but not for the confusion." Mr. Styron, sustained! But how quickly I would object to anyone who palled McCarthy -- who can be awfully tough sledding -- with the same judgment.)

Similarly, how is my love for John Updike possible -- in "Rabbit Is Rich," he expends several precious sentences describing an antimacassar, for crying out loud -- when he is our most Jamesian contemporary writer? Why do Austen's characters provoke in me reptilian indifference when they share the same connubial agitations of the characters in, say, Diane Johnson's "Le Divorce," a novel that seems to me virtually without flaw? (Of course, it could be that I love "Le Divorce" partly because Johnson also co-wrote the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining.")

Some, I am sure, would blame this fundamental short circuit upon my age. (I am 28.) Rather, some would blame it upon the age itself. In "The Gutenberg Elegies," Sven Birkerts recounts a sobering occasion when he assigned James' short story "Brooksmith" to a classroom of students from what he assures us are "relatively advantaged backgrounds." Predictably, these students, in Birkerts words, "didn't get it." Birkerts claims that this "glum illiteracy" has to do with a "conceptual ledge" over which young readers in particular find themselves obliviously peering.

"In place of James," Birkerts says, "we could as easily put Joyce or Woolf or Shakespeare or Ralph Ellison. It would be the same. The point is that the collective experience of these students, most of whom were born in the early 1970s, has rendered a vast part of our cultural heritage utterly alien." I was born in these same amnesiac early 1970s, and while it may be true that a fair number of my coevals' literary engines are clogged with the cognitive gum of MTV and the Internet, I refuse to believe that James is any more difficult to read today than when Birkerts first encountered him. Distraction from the demanding work of reading we will, like Christ's poor, always have with us.

What has changed, I suspect, is the size of the average college student's sense of entitlement. Thirty years ago, a student unresponsive to James may have swallowed "Brooksmith" like spinach, afraid of what a public dislike of James might have revealed. Since many students today regard their role as that of a freely discerning consumer, disliking James is as easy as sending back an overdone fillet. I tried, at any rate, to read "Brooksmith" in preparation for this essay. Two pages were enough to give me over to unbidden thoughts about the necessity of cleaning my clothes dryer's lint trap.

But I know James is a great writer. And Austen and Morrison and Beckett. I know, too, that in Faulkner we have the most able-bodied seaman in American literature. Pathos, humor, naturalism, tragedy -- nothing is beyond him. Ten pages of each of the half-dozen Faulkner novels I have tried to read allowed me that much insight. And even as I fight off the urge to recaulk my windows when he succumbs to the convulsive prose the term "Faulknerian" was concocted to diagnose, I recognize that these passages cannot be written otherwise and mean what they have to mean.

But my readerly inlets, as uniquely complicated as the whorls of my fingerprint, do not open up. Instead, they constrict with a recalcitrance that seems lifted from the pages of "Green Eggs and Ham." Unlike Seuss' dilettante, however, an easily remedied lack of exposure does not explain my dogged inability to enjoy writers that, by every imaginable right, I know I should.

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I first began to ponder how and why one responds to some writers and not to others last year, after rereading "Revolutionary Road," Richard Yates' classic 1961 novel of suburban despair. I had decided to pick up "Revolutionary Road" again because, a few weeks before, I had finished my edit of "The Collected Stories of Richard Yates," which Henry Holt and Company, my former employer, published in May 2001.

My first encounter with "Revolutionary Road" had been as an undergraduate. I was 19 at the time, perhaps 20. I remembered admiring the book very much, yet almost nothing beyond key character names, two or three extended scenes and its shocking dénouement had stayed with me. The book had left so little residue, in fact, that when I finished it for the second time, at home in Brooklyn one Saturday afternoon, I felt as though I'd been hit with a broadax. I set "Revolutionary Road" beside my bed and lay there in a lagoon of thoroughly unfamiliar despair.

Most obviously, "Revolutionary Road" is about the beginning of middle age. Frank and April Wheeler, its protagonists, live in a smotheringly tidy community outside New York City, where Frank works in what he regards as a meaningless job. In a blind and, eventually, tragic overestimation of themselves, the Wheelers decide to pack up and move to Europe, where they might finally live lives that properly suit them. They never get to Europe, of course, and the novel leaves Frank looking "like somebody you could walk up to and take a swing at and knock down, and all he'd do would be to lie there and apologize for getting in your way."

Why, I wondered, had this brilliant, unsparing novel in fact spared me the first time I read it? Why had I recognized only its achievement and none of its transfiguring power? Initially, and with some reluctance, I attributed the newfound effect of "Revolutionary Road" upon me to the fact that I was about to enter my incontestably late 20s, an age shared by the Wheelers.

While I am still a good number of years away from middle age, I am gaining some sleep-depriving familiarity with its memento mori: the things one has not and most likely will not ever do, the chances one did not take, the loves lost and squandered, the low-growing tick of one's suddenly and quite unexpectedly real mortality. As one matures, I reasoned, one's books also age and ripen; broken open, they can give off an entirely new aroma. Perhaps I had finally achieved chronological susceptibility to "Revolutionary Road" and its chilling lessons.

But I reject, in the end, the notion that books improve a priori with age if only because I have noticed that the age at which maximized reading potential is supposed to occur almost always happens to be the age upon which those who make the claim are creeping. More dubiously, this belief implies that as one grows older one necessarily has more interesting thoughts and experiences. What of the 25-year-old who has already lived a life of enviable derring-do? What of the 23-year-old who, having lost her parents early, commands an already formidable sense of justice and circumspection? Would we really think it appropriate to inform either of these souls that "The Brothers Karamazov" is going to improve when they are middle-aged? I happen to believe that, with a few exceptions (most of them female -- which warrants an essay of its own), literature is an arena in which the young are uniquely well-armed: "old enough for a glimpse at meaning," Richard Powers says in "Galatea 2.2," "immature enough to still think meaning pursuable."

Indeed, one's 30s seem a particularly fecund time for literary production. Melville wrote "Moby-Dick" when he was in his late 20s and Joyce was never better than in his 30s. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Gaddis, Pynchon -- their great books, their big books, were written at an age conspicuously prior to that at which they were to undergo some magical, deepening understanding of literature.

If my own negligible maturity did not contain the answer, why had my second response to "Revolutionary Road" been so profound? I gave the novel a postmortem page-through a few days after finishing it with the hope of figuring this out. What newly struck me about the novel, and what strikes me still, was what I can only call its aura, the ineffable, almost psychic pulse emitted by its pages. In other words, everything I had missed during my inaugural reading.

In college, I had read "Revolutionary Road" like an A-plus English major, parsing out the themes, coldbloodedly itemizing the beautiful paragraphs, charting out the book's plot turns in its margins. What I had missed was the organic experience of reading the novel, which in this case had less to do with age or experience than with the intramural mind-set with which I approached it. It was as though I had gone to a party determined to meet no one, and allowed the love of my life to walk undiscovered out the door with someone else.

I am now convinced that the books we love -- the books we cannot imagine ourselves without, the books that enter us like some primordial echolocation and return with our most private selves -- are not, as we are often told, the mere end product of simpatico politics or aesthetics or subject matter. ("All the people we like are We," Kipling says, "And everyone else is They.") Any and all of the above can certainly affect our reading of any given book, but these schematics do not begin to explain the irregularities to which dedicated readers are fascinatingly prone.

The unforgiving Nabokov, after all, loved H.G. Wells, and no less than Edmund Wilson deeply admired the atrociously bad "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In my own case, there are many writers whose politics I more or less share (Joan Didion, for one), yet I find myself fairly indifferent to their fiction. Conversely, writers whose politics I loathe (the pacifist Christianity of late Tolstoy and the anti-Semitism of Céline being two repellent examples) beguile me as fiction writers.

If, as some scolds have told me, a scarcely veiled racism forms the core of my inability to read Toni Morrison, why do I love the work of the black novelist Gayl Jones? If her fiction is any indication, Jones seems to have little use for honkies such as myself. Whites in her work are either absent entirely (as in "The Healing") or handled with bemused disgust. Surely there is no political explanation for my love of Jones' work, but nor is there any purely aesthetic explanation. I could read Faulkner quite happily if that were the case.

No, what I am talking about is a work of literature's temperament, the nearly cell-level sensation its voice provokes in a reader. Faced with the opening pages of a book, we subconsciously ask ourselves: Do I like the consciousness behind these words? The next question, even more cognitively buried, is: Does it like me? One can answer yes to one and no to the other, of course, and still like and admire a book. It is probably even possible to arrive at a negative conclusion to both questions and still attain from a book some form of enjoyment, however masochistic. But to say yes on both counts -- I like this, this likes me -- is often to love a book without judgment or hesitation. Such blind, consuming love makes us as protective and jealous as Isaiah's concept of divinity, and we are offended when others do not share the intensity of our passion. It should be noted that this is pretty much exactly analogous to how we forge friendships and love affairs with real, organic human beings.

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As the critic James Wood points out in "The Broken Estate," "the words 'hermeneutical' and 'hermeneutics' ... were [in the 19th century] applied to people as often as to the study of texts. Someone who understood other people, who attended their secret meanings ... might be called hermeneutical." Wood's point helpfully reminds us that neither books nor people are "read" in a rigidly analytic sense but in a positivistic sense far removed from the soothing reassurances of grammar or logic. V.S. Naipaul once said that a novel is a collection of opinions that does not necessarily add up to a point of view, a tough-minded aphorism that can be used equally well to capture the jumbled inconsistency of the average person. And readers do seem to have relationships with books that are remarkably similar to those that legate human interaction.

Some books, like some people, are forgiven by us their trespasses, no matter how numerous or flamboyant. (The work of Joyce, for me, being a particularly supreme example.) Others are maddening, tiresome affairs we can tolerate only in carefully regulated amounts. Some we hate reflexively, without thought or understanding. Some are respected from a comfortable distance we are often reluctant to close. Some we might come around to enjoy following reflection, and only then after taking into consideration our own not inconsiderable flaws.

In the universe of academic discourse concerning how we read and why we respond -- whether the loony fourth dimension of Harold Bloom or the collapsed star of Stanley Fish -- one finds many interesting, useful and eminently debatable convictions. However, it seems to me unassailable that to read literature -- as opposed to brute informational reading, such as how one skims Newsweek or, say, literary criticism -- is primarily a form of communication: one mind seeking shelter in another. From this point, theory lifts itself, with waxen wings, toward the sun. In its purest state, the urge to read is found beyond the legislative realm of politics, beyond even taste and hype. It is imbued with something more infinitely, nakedly human -- the same methodology of hope, perhaps, that sends us bravely marching into our next blind date.

Serious readers -- by that I mean readers who are given to Jacobinical passion, readers who hate and love and argue -- are, in crucial respects, looking for what one might as well call friends. This species of reader often evolves into that of the writer, and writers, I believe, tend to feel this intense, surrogate neediness for books much more than civilians. Thus it is always faintly painful to read of one favorite writer (Lawrence, in my case) disliking another favorite writer (Conrad, whose "Lord Jim" Lawrence dismissed as "snivel in a wet hanky"). At such moments, one feels as uniquely alone as when two beloved friends, meeting for the first time, despise each other -- as insignificant as a bit of cartilage between two gnashing bones.

Nicholson Baker is the only writer I am aware of who has openly addressed the heterodox notion that this sense of perceived friendship is a determining factor in how we respond to a work of literature. In "U and I," a book-length meditation on Baker's monumental idée fixe with John Updike, he writes: "If Hippocrates or Seneca, whom I know nothing about, says that art is long and life is short, it means little to me ... But if Updike says that life is short, I feel the strength of it with something close to shock ... The force of truth that a statement imparts ... depends ... on the sense that someone like me, and someone I like, whose voice is audible and who is at least notionally in the room with me, does or can hold it to be compellingly true."

Rick Moody tries (I think) to say something similar in a strange essay called "Primary Sources." Here, Moody lists upward of 50 books and albums, annotating a select few with memories and experiences the works have suggested or exhumed. (Many concern graduate school and/or binge substance abuse.) Moody's list is especially effectual in light of the questions posed here: his books -- salted with titles by Barthes, Derrida and Jung, which are in turn offset by plebe-hip works such as Groucho Marx's letters and an episode of "Star Trek" -- are not in any sense mine, and they reinforce for me the puzzlement and dismay with which I have read his fiction. They allow me finally to grasp why Moody is no friend I would want to have, whatever his virtues as a three-dimensional human being.

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When reflecting upon love affairs or friendships that have gone stale, not worked or been otherwise rent asunder, we often say, with a sigh, "I just wasn't in the right place." These vague coordinates are usually taken to indicate an emotional location, but might not our actual, physical situation be just as powerful a determinant? Meeting someone in a bar tends, unfortunately, to color one's impression of that person, sometimes to a diminishing point.

The same (and almost certainly unfair) set of presuppositions stands behind an unwillingness, endemic to highly mandarin readers, to crack open a book while it is seeing any kind of popular success. (One reader I know, a justly famous writer and editor, refuses to read any book until five years after it is published.) In reading as in romance, we are all looking for something unsullied by the marketplace; we want to believe more than anything that this book and this person has been intended for us alone. One might think that such unmoored romanticism is a perfectly excellent recipe for making oneself miserable. The short answer, I'm afraid, is, It does (just as it may explain a feeling prevalent among book editors that to read for pleasure, outside the confines of work, carries with it an illicit thrill not unlike cheating on one's spouse). It is also why we keep reading.

The where of reading's importance was vividly impressed upon me one night when a young novelist whose first book I had recently signed up stopped by my apartment for a visit. For largely unconscious reasons, I had always preferred to read manuscripts in bed, and so typhoon-swept across my mattress was the usual assortment of pages, agent cover letters and scraps of glyphically scribbled paper. "The abattoir," I said, mostly joking, as we walked into my bedroom. The young novelist looked upon my bed with the troubled relief of a milk cow strolling past a slaughterhouse. "There it is," he said finally. "The arrangement of your pillows is the one thing standing between these manuscripts and publication."

I had a sudden realization why I read manuscripts in bed and never in more public venues, such as the subway. Reading submissions was, for me, a far more delicate ordeal than reading published books. An editor's livelihood depends on a willingness -- some would say an innocence -- to clear from one's sight everything ephemeral and transitory. However long it takes an editor to realize that a manuscript is not something he or she is interested in publishing, the reading experience should ideally be uncluttered.

Life being what it is, this is far easier to believe than to practice, and I am certain that as an editor I wound up failing numerous manuscripts. But then I remembered, standing there with the young novelist, the circumstances that led to the moment when I knew I had to publish his book. Earlier in the evening, I had spilled a glass of orange juice on my bed. This forced me to begin his manuscript on a stripped mattress. As I recall, this was strangely bothersome, but as the pages deposited themselves behind the chunk of paper in my hands I had forgotten about it entirely. One of the reading experience's most wonderful paradoxes is how it sharpens our memory concerning the very things it has allowed us to forget. To be impelled by a novel to forget everything around you is surely as good a reason as any to publish it.

Couples are in many cases similarly exact about the particulars attending their first meeting -- dates, times, clothing, what they'd eaten that morning for breakfast, even scents and inflections. I doubt I am alone in noticing that the strongest relationships, romantic and platonic, often have at their commencement some compelling series of parallelisms or circumstantial oddities. One does not need to be a Greek polytheist or an Ivy League Republican to note that remarkable origins often lead to equally remarkable aftereffects. We are left with a conundrum of chicken-and-egg elusiveness: Are such relationships remarkable because of their provenience or does their provenience become retroactively remarkable because of the relationship?

Applying this question to the books one loves is no less maddening. Literature is not written in a vacuum and is read within less of one. The books to which I am most devoted are almost always reconjured in accordance with where I was when I read them. My second reading of "Revolutionary Road" was done mostly on the subway, bringing its theme of unfulfilled commuting into even more discomforting relief. Several of my favorite books were devoured when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. My reading of "The Collected Stories of Franz Kafka" upon a bench in a sunny Uzbek park will forever be linked in my mind with the too-fitting-to-be-true occasion of being approached by two curious KGB agents. "In Cold Blood" was read on a bus between the ancient cities of Tashkent and Samarkand at 5 in the morning, while a desert as unlike the plains of Kansas as is terrestrially possible spanned darkly beyond my window.

"Infinite Jest" will for me always be associated with the morning scrabble of chickens, as I read it mostly very early, my sleeping quarters helplessly athwart the stable belonging to the Uzbek family with whom I lived. Was my reading of Augustine's "Confessions" oddly enriched by the fact that, as I read it in a dreary Uzbek hotel, I could look out my window to see a mullah sweeping the stairs of his mosque?

Some books resist all attempts to place them within some cyclotron of explanation. What on earth, for instance, did I see in Norman Mailer's "Barbary Shore" (a dreadful novel-cum-socialist sermon I still cannot bring myself to dislike), greedily speeding through it at a writer's workshop in Vermont as a deathlessly vainglorious 18-year-old finishing -- can this be true? -- his own horrifically awful novel about socialism?

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"Every good reader has enjoyed a few good books in his life," Nabokov once told an interviewer who inquired after his favorite writers, "so why analyze delights that both sides know?" This is a judgment with which only a Frenchman could quarrel, but Nabokov's reply reveals an arch unwillingness to dirty his hands with the question's messy ramifications. The books we love do ruthlessly disclose something about us, as do the books we do not. And despite everything above, I am not certain I want to know what exactly my inability to read some great writers says about me.

"Opposition," according to Blake, "is true Friendship," and I do, in a strange way, feel an immense fondness for the writers I am unable to read. As I write this, I wonder if I should give them all one final try. But, as with a couple that has endured more than its tolerable share of betrayals and forfeits, I think too much stands between us now. I would like to think it is simply a matter of my never having been properly introduced to Morrison, Faulkner, James, Austen and Beckett that has allowed me such serene deafness to their work. This is not my fault. After all, the train was late. Or I ran out of gas. Rather, I have just this minute met someone else. They will be around tomorrow, after all, won't they? I will give them a call. All of them. Tomorrow. Absolutely.

By Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell spent five months living in Vietnam in 2004. "The Father of All Things," an account of his first journey to Vietnam with his father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, will be published by Pantheon early next year. A portion of the book recently appeared in "Best American Travel Writing 2005."

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