7

You wouldn’t understand.

This morning I finished the New York Times crossword puzzle in less time than it took me to drink my cup of coffee (okay, so the coffee was on the cooler end of lukewarm by the end, but let’s say that’s irrelevant). On a Friday. In case anyone is unaware, the NYT crosswords increase in difficulty as the day goes on, which makes Monday the easiest and Saturday (in my opinion) the toughest. I was pretty sure that my brain had grown in size and that my synapses were finding connections they never knew possible and that my IQ could now be charted at genius, at least.

Because I knew it was too good to be true, I went on over and read what Rex Parker had to say, and he darn blew all the wind out of my sails. Rex Parker, for those of you who are not as crossword-obsessive as I am, evaluates the daily NYT crossword on enjoyability, creativity and difficulty. Despite this apparent subjectivity, I take his ratings as truth and subsequently berate or congratulate myself based on how difficult he deemed the puzzle to be. Today’s rating? Easy-medium. Of course.

While I don’t feel quite as ready to send in my application to MENSA as I did earlier today, it’s true also that one cannot completely take assessments such as these for absolute truth. There’s no way to judge how difficult something might be for every person, as everyone has singular personal strengths and weaknesses. Yet we’ve been told, ever since grade school, what types of things, books in particular, we will or will not be able to understand, follow and learn from.

How many times have you passed on a book simply because someone whose opinion you respect has said that it’s really dense, too complicated, or hard to follow? Or felt inadequate because a book that struck you as intricate and contemplative, but then had a mentor dismiss it as easy or boring? I know I’ve thought about reading Infinite Jest a number of times, because it sounds interesting and it’s a challenge I’d like to take on, but been dissuaded by general opinion. Of course, the same was true of Ulysses, but I’ve now read it twice, and I say this without pretense, it’s one of my favorite books.

There’s a reason general opinions stand as they do, but surely something as intimate and subjective as literary or intellectual pursuit should suffer because of them. I’m not entirely sure how to weight these values, because they do reflect personally.

Still, the day I finish a Saturday “Challenging” puzzle in one sitting will probably be one of the greatest days of my life.

7 Responses to You wouldn’t understand.

  1. Ciara says:

    I’ve definitely been put off reading any Joyce for fear that I’m just not smart enough to get it. Which is probably the case. But on a related note, in my teens I would only read “serious literary fiction” because I thought that reading anything else was going to rot my brain. Of course I know now that is completely ridiculous but realising it actually made me happier, branching out my reading has improved my life. It sounds dramatic but it’s true and it gave me an entirely different perspective on writing. I’ve long since left those pretentious days behind me and I can’t imagine going back to only reading one type of book, it’s unthinkable really!

  2. Jeff Chen says:

    That was EXACTLY my experience! My thought process after this morning’s sub-15 minute finish:

    Ah, I am surely a genius, a Brilliant (capital B) mind of the nth order. I am invincible; a mighty king amongst lowly serfs! This shall no doubt translate into the worldwide success of my Dazzling MG humor novel, MEET YOH MAKER (for which I queried John Rudolph three weeks ago, hint hint). I shall now read Rex Parker and bask in the glory of my stunning intelligence.

    (check, check)

    Well, crud.

    P.S. I’m also yet to have a 100% accurate solve of a “challenging” Saturday in one sitting. Working hard at it though!

  3. Donn says:

    I definitely agree that taking someone else’s judgment as a reference to how you should react to a new book is a bad (but at the same time, kind of inevitable) approach to take.

    Everybody has their own perspective, and what strikes one person as worthwhile may not to others.

    But then I don’t know, because…well let’s take this: I hated Swann’s Way when I read it, but even as I did I had to admit it was one of the most well written books I’d ever picked up. I’d highly recommend it to most anyone who’d ask.

    But I hated it.

    That makes me feel there’s a difference between opinion and appraisal. The problem I guess is we often use the same language to cover both areas. “It’s too complicated” might mean “It’d make sense if I personally was acquainted with what it’s discussing” or it might mean “It doesn’t make sense, regardless of your level of acquaintance”.

    So I think there is something more going on than just opinions when we talk about these things. At least, hopefully…maybe…sometimes…;)

  4. Maybe I run with a snobbier crowd than I thought, but too often I receive recommendations away from a book because it’s not literary, complex, deep, etc., enough. However, these are often the friends who look down at genre fiction, which I love, and they’re speaking out of bias without ever having read the book–which often times ends up being just as well-written and meaningful as many non-genre books. Why can’t I like both? And besides, even if the genre book wasn’t all that complex or deep, sometimes a little mindless entertainment is appreciated.

  5. Laura says:

    I still feel that way about Ulysses, never mind that you just said it’s your favorite and you read it not once but twice (??). I loved Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but Ulysses is a whole different beast. Some day. Possibly. Probably not. But maybe.

    • Rachel says:

      To be fair, the first time I read the book, it was with a one on one independent study professor, chapter by chapter. That helped a LOT, but didn’t at all lessen my enjoyment of it!

  6. Lisa Marie says:

    As a freelancer, I must write to the mean reading level in America: eighth grade. In some cases, sixth grade. When I first started freelancing, it was twelfth grade. (Obviously, my clients do a lot of market research.) So I can see how some people might find many books unapproachable. It’s not really a matter of preference, but the skills to read complex sentences and interpret advanced vocabulary. It’s not a lot of fun if the reader has to keep a dictionary on hand to look up words he or she doesn’t understand. Or if the reader has to go over the same sentence numerous times and break it down for meaning.

    I’ve read numerous books in my genre that are extremely smart, but the thing that struck me is that they’re written for people with a four-year degree. I’ve read single title romance novels that are as complex as the stuff I read in grad school – I love these, but I’m not sure how many people will. One thing that I actively did when I wrote my own book was to write as close to the mean reading level without “dumbing down” the text as to be obvious. I’m still getting comments from beta readers that I need to simplify more. Believe me, I take this to heart. ☺

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