This month has been all about leisure, but at Ark we are also all about that hard work. Some books just have to be read despite their tedious sentences, wacky logic or complete lack of grammatical coherence. It’s tough, but someone’s gotta do. Here are a few staff picks, for when you feel like giving yourself a good old literary migraine.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Honestly, this book was an enjoyable read, but it took me six months to plough through. As an English lit graduate, it’s kind of a must-read, and the first 60 pages are also immensely exciting. Our main character Ishmael arrives at a dingy inn at a dark harbour looking for work and ends up sharing a bed with the terrifyingly “exotic” Queequeg from Polynesia. After some slight but probably unintentional homoeroticism and a job on the fateful ship of captain Ahab, the book then progresses into about 500 pages of details about whaling ships, whales, and whale hunting. Finally, in the last 60 pages, the plot takes off again as the chase for Moby Dick intensifies. Then the book ends. The thing that kept me going for six months was the language; Melville’s sentences are so poetic and his descriptions of life on the ocean so vivid that even the manual-like chapters were enjoyable, in small doses. But all in all, not a quick, easy, leisurely read.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Good old Virginia, you’re so good with words, but let me tell you, sometimes it is a bit too much. I truly admire and love most of the works by Woolf, but I must admit, going through To the Lighthouse was one of the most painful reading experiences I remember. The whole story is beautiful and insightful, and the writing is of course magnificent. What I mean is that I don’t regret having read the book, but at any moment I thought about not finishing. It really is a good book. I just couldn’t wait to finish it. I felt that reading To the Lighthouse resembled more doing homework rather than reading for enjoyment: I had to do it. I might have had some fun in the middle, but at the end it was all about trying to take in whatever I was supposed to learn and move on.
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
I first read this book for a course called “German Literature and Narrative Theory.” Considering it was meant to be a survey of modern German literature, I was very excited for Kafka and Sebald and Musil, but instead, we read some of the most emotionally and/or intellectually grueling post-war texts I’ve yet to encounter. (This was how I discovered the incredible Ingeborg Bachmann though, so I won’t complain too much). Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher is both kinds of grueling. The novel revolves around Erika Kohut, a piano teacher at the competitive Vienna Conservatory, and her relationships with her controlling mother and a student and romantic interest named Walter Klemmer. Perhaps as a result of the oppressive and co-dependent mother-daughter relationship with which the novel opens, Erika has a few perverse and sadistic tendencies—to put it lightly—which progressively surface over the course of the novel (think: sniffing used tissues at a peepshow, razor blades, shards of glass). Jelinek’s language—even or especially in translation—is also infected by the violence it narrates. At once deceptively simple and intensely alienating, it hits you and suffocates you and makes you feel violated and also somehow complicit in the violence. To put it simply, this novel, while absolutely worth getting through, is probably not a great beach read. (If you’re feeling really anti-leisure, or just looking for a different medium of negative affect, you might also check out Michael Haneke’s adaptation, which makes some of the novel’s most gruesome scenes quite visually visceral.)
Richard Yates by Tao Lin
This is not a bad book. It may actually be an excellent book. But the reason that it may be excellent may be that the book has absolutely no regard for my enjoyment of it. The narrator, in the most affectless of prose, follows the doomed illicit romance of the 22-year-old Haley Joel Osment (no relation) and 16-year-old Dakota Fanning (no relation) as they chat on Gmail chat, shoplift from Whole Foods, have the particular kind of sex that one can only have in their parent’s house, laugh together and co-dependently emotionally abuse one another. It truly is a tale for our age. What makes this a taxing read is its commitment to affectlessness, wherein the protagonists’ names are written out in full whenever they communicate verbally or otherwise or indeed do anything. So dedicated is this that it feels at time like the kind of systematic composition one may find in modernism. However, it is instead merely the upshot of using find and replace all on the original names that stood there.
Richard Yates is a book about the oppression and alienation of post-postmodernity seeping into our most intimate relationships and weaponizing honesty in as a means of emotional abuse. For this, I greatly admire it. That said, Lin’s writing so skillfully sucks you into the thought processes of that environment that it would only be a leisurely read if your idea of relaxations is a screen-mediated miasma of an oppressive doomed relationship. It is very good.
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Being a self-professed Don DeLillo fan, of course I had to have a go at reading his longest and most important work (is there a correlation between the two?) To be honest. I can’t really remember the plot anymore, only that the opening chapter involved the intricate details of a historic baseball match. Not being much of a baseball connoisseur, I both had to wrap my head around all the technical jargon and try and grasp the implicit historical context of the whole thing. The rest of the book proceeds in a similar fashion, and for an Americana-outsider, it can be a bit of a stretch to understand the whole Zeitgeist-picture that DeLillo is painting. Luckily, he is a master with words, and the classic DeLillo vibes of uncertainty, liquidity, and ephemera come off the page like fine particles of dusty sunlight. Tough but worth it.
Anything but especially Aesthetic Theory by Theodor W. Adorno
I know someone who for at least two years (and maybe longer) read an aphorism from Adorno’s Minima Moralia every night before falling asleep. And not because the tangled and dense German sentences put him immediately to sleep, but rather because this was the book he wanted to dedicate his daily guaranteed leisure time to reading. If you haven’t read anything by Adorno before, I can almost definitely guarantee that you won’t be inclined to do the same. I pride myself on my speed-reading abilities, but when I read Aesthetic Theory for the first time it took me five straight hours to get through the first “chapter.” (The original German version has no chapter or section breaks, but the English-language editors mercifully decided to add a few in). While it’s probably one of the most important works of theory I’ve read, Aesthetic Theory is a test of patience, endurance, and focus, which you should probably read in a library, next to a brimming pot of coffee, which you’ll likely need to drink the entirety of. In addition to the absurd difficulty of his prose, Adorno is also infamous for his dislike of light-hearted activities and frivolous cultural products, which makes for some great anti-leisure reading. As rumor has it, this Marxist theorist once called the police on his own protesting students in ’68 and was later, to his horror, ambushed by a group of topless women throwing flower petals at him. Then again, Adorno did live in sunny Los Angeles for a few years, so maybe if you can channel some of his beach vibes (or his general disdain for pop-culture), that will help you through it.