Fat Books & Thin Women

Difficult Reads

Literary Blog Hop
Like Greg at New Dork Review of Books, Infinite Jest has the honor of being one of the most difficult literary books I’ve ever read. No question, this is in large part due to the book itself; I love David Foster Wallace, his essays and stories, but keeping track of multiple plots (or even one plot) has never been one of my strong points. Wallace’s prose is labyrinthine, and although there were many sections of the book I found hilarious (a lot of them taking place in the halfway house), I couldn’t keep track of it all.

And like Ingrid at The Blue Bookcase, I’ve found Mann a tough read as well. I read The Magic Mountain over the summer before leaving for Peace Corps (I actually finished it in the car as my parents drove me to my “staging” in Washington, D.C.) and it was often slow going. This may sound babyish, but as with Infinite Jest, one of my sticking points with The Magic Mountain was that the font was very small. And the book, about Hans Castorp’s visit to his cousin Joachim in a sanatorium, which ends up as a seven-year stay of his own, is very much about perceptions of time, and the book and characters all expound at length on this and other issues, which (please don’t judge me, please don’t judge me) sometimes pushed me towards sleep.

Both Infinite Jest and The Magic Mountain are what I would label “important books,” which is the vague definition I usually apply to books I think I should read (War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Gravity’s Rainbow, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon) and will probably one day get around to reading. And both books are on the ever-lengthening list of books I plan to reread, because I know there are things in them that I missed. What I find sometimes exciting and sometimes frustrating about “difficult” books is that I head into them knowing I will need to reread. Some books that were initially difficult, like Ada, or Ardor, have opened themselves up to me after a few reads, so that what was initially a baffling collection of sometimes beautiful sentences is now the only book I cannot imagine living without, the book I’m going to be rereading every year or two for the rest of my life.

And these two books, I hope that’s what will happen with them, but at this point it’s hard to tell. My copy of The Magic Mountain is back in New Jersey, and I don’t plan to reread it until I can hold that copy and see what sentences I underlined, what notes I made in the margins. My copy of Infinite Jest is in the same place…or, well, I don’t know exactly where it is since my parents have moved, but it must be in a storage container somewhere in the state.

This brings me to a point, or a halfway point, that I meant to get to earlier in the post when I made some lame statement about how the font in these two books was too small. That is only partly true (though the footnotes in Infinite Jest often left me so dazed that I couldn’t read anything for the rest of the day after an hour reading them), but I do wonder how much the form of a book influences our reading experience. My reading of Infinite Jest became progressively less satisfying as I went along, in large part because I shifted from reading a hard copy in the states to reading on my kindle here in Macedonia. And maybe the kindle lets you “bookmark” and “underline” pages, but I couldn’t flip back and forth the way I needed to to remind myself of who certain characters were, or what had happened the last time they had appeared. When I reached the end of the book I couldn’t do what I really wanted to, which was to flip back to the start of the book and try to get a better sense of how it all linked together.

Some books are inherently difficult to read, sure, but I think the form in which you read them can also make a difference. My youthful fondness for Dover thrift editions has given way to a desire for wider margins and larger fonts, because I’ve found that for me, those things impact my reading experience. I have a hard time enjoying a book if my eyes don’t find a certain amount of blank space (an invitation to write some always insightful marginal notes, such as “????”) on the page.



Ahh, I’ve always been curious about Magic Mountain. I have to say, flipping open a big book to very small type is a bit disheartening.

Comment by Ingrid

right? it used to be something i loved – the smaller the type the better – but i think that ended when i got to be about 14. maybe my brief love of small type was nothing more than a reaction against the too large type of some ya books.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I admire those who struggle through difficult text. Seems to me that an advantage of e-books might be the ability to immediately footnote and provide weblinks for difficult passages.

Comment by debnance at Readerbuzz

you have a point, there are some good things about the e-reader. i’m much more likely to look up a word when all i have to do is click on it, than i am to find my dictionary or go online and look up a word. but i find it to hard to tackle really dense texts on there, which is why i’m saving my war & peace reading for when i am back in the states and can hold a copy of the book.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Oh I can’t imagine reading a difficult book on an e-reader. I need to flip back and forth and mark the pages.

Comment by charlie C

Hear hear… I’m with Charlie on this one. The whole point of reading is the challenge of it. I admit I don’t like small type either, but what the hey. Having said that, ‘Ada’ has caught my eye. I’m dying to read a bit of Nabokov again.

Comment by mywordlyobsessions

I do plan to read Mann soon, but will start with Buddenbrooks (hopefully this winter). Have never read any DFW, but am beginning to think I should…

Comment by JoAnn

yes yes yes! i first got into DFW because of his essays, which are much easier going than infinite jest or even his stories, and are also very funny. buddenbrooks is on my to read list and i’d be interested in hearing what you think of it.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Excellent point about fonts/white space. I have definitely been somewhat “turned off” by books that had too small a font, where it seemed the words began swimming all over the page. Some books are worth it to fight through it of course, but for others I do try to search out a “thicker” edition that may have larger font!

Comment by Sarah

yeah – it’s funny how this changes over time. maybe 10 years ago i preferred books withOUT much white space, but maybe that was a matter of pricing as much as anything else. if i could buy a book for $1 or $2 instead of $6 or $7 i’d go for it regardless of appearance. but it may be something i’m more sensitive too now because a lot of the classics i’m interested in starting are translations, and the best ones tend to be in the $12 paperbacks rather than the thrift editions which, for example, always go with constance garnett’s translations for the russians. i wish i could remember the exact quote, but nabokov said something about her translations and the result of them being that every american thought tolstoy & dostoevsky had the same writing style.

correction: wonders of google and all, found the quote, and it’s from joseph brodsky, not nabokov: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I have read a lot of classics in my school and college years. And some still remain my favorites. However, there are a few I could never get into..

Here is my Literary Blog Hop post!

Comment by gautami tripathy

it is always an honor to receive a comment in which there is so little evidence of the author having actually read the post in question. generally, when i am trying to garner hits by leaving identical comments on a string of blogs, i find it helpful to vary my choice of words. (or even, you know, to leave a comment thoughtful enough that it won’t repel people from ever visiting my blog.)

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I truly applaud you on Ada. I included that as one of the two most difficult books I’ve ever read today, and it took me 10 years to conquer the book. The sad thing is that I don’t think I got anything out of it. :( Maybe I’ll have to try again.

Comment by Amanda

yeah, it is a hard book. more than any of nabokov’s books ada is the one i suspect there are huge swathes I still don’t get. I focus on certain aspects of the book, like how time is structured, and how van and nabokov play with time, and how the reader experiences the book’s time, and i’m sure there are countless aspects of the novel i’m leaving out when i read this way.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Thankfully, you have not discouraged me from picking up and reading Infinite Jest! I completely agree with your comments about the dissuasion of small type and the lack of pleasure one would derive from transitioning to an e-reader in the middle of a book. I’ve been holding out for the right time to get in the head of DFW and believe the holiday break should do the trick. Cheers, DC

Comment by Dan Cafaro

haha, i’m glad that i haven’t discouraged you from reading IJ. i can’t say i understood the book as a whole, but there were sections, especially at the school and the halfway house, that were so funny as to make the reading worthwhile. i’m happy i read it, if only because it gets me closer to understanding the book on a reread.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I read thomas mann, years ago, whilst working in Germany, after work had little to do but read so it was conducive for this kind of book. not read infinite jest, will have to check it out.

Comment by parrish

I think fonts, typeface and spacing make a world of difference. I find it hard to completely relax and get into a book if the printing is bad. I can’t even imagine tackling a book that requires lots of attention and concentration if the font is too small.

Comment by Kinna

Thanks for stopping by my blog.

I’ve never really thought about the way a book’s format could impact the reading experience. I know that I usually like older editions of books, but that’s mostly because the covers are less cheesy and they make me look like I’m reading something important. (Don’t I sound stuck up!) I definitely don’t like small print that’s hard to read, but print that’s too large can be even more of a hassle, because I feel like I can’t see enough of the words at once to read at my usual speed. I definitely agree with you about having a certain amount of white space. Not only does it make the book easier to write in, but I think it just makes it easier to look at in general. What an interesting thing to think about!

Infinite Jest has always intimidated me. It’s one of those books that I want to read at some point in my life, but at the same time I’m too scared to start. Maybe someday!

– Emily @ Reading While Female

Comment by Emily O

haha, well i think it is equally or maybe more stuck up to admit that a big part of the reason i finally finished IJ was that i wanted to say I had finished it.

sometimes i prefer older copies of books too. i used to work at a used bookstore so i had pretty good access to “old timey” covers and yeah, some of them i love – like the hardback editions of updike’s rabbit series, or the old hemingway covers. plus they’ve got that great old book smell, even if their pages are maybe more prone to falling out than those of newer books. thanks for visiting back!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’ve worked as a bookseller, and you would be amazed at just how important the physical format of a book is to some readers. I have seen customers refuse to buy a book because they didn’t like the roughness of the page edge, the quality of the paper, or the size of the print. A book is an intimate object, one the reader holds closely, and I’m sure format has some effect, conscious or not, on a reader’s experience of a book.

Comment by Lisa Almeda Sumner

thanks for your comment, it’s interesting to get some more on this from a bookseller’s perspective. i didn’t think i was alone in my concern with the aesthetic aspects of books (like, i love rough page edges, paperbacks with the covers that fold over to form inside flaps, print that is neither too small nor too large), but i never thought too much about how much consideration many people give to the physical side of books when they’re shopping. but, as you say, format has an effect on the reading experience.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great, great essay! And I am so glad I found your blog. I look forward to future visits.

Comment by Rose City Reader

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