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Ulysses and Difficult Art

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The Nation: James Joyce's Untamable Power

 

Any satisfying account of Ulysses must refuse the glamour of mastery, allowing us to recognize that the novel is always other than what we say it is, especially when what we say is accurate. In this regard the book resembles all great works of art, but few works of art make us so self-consciously aware of how any particular description carries the danger of occluding other necessary descriptions. How can a book scrupulously devoted to historical fact be simultaneously a book dominated by the most arcane flights of fancy? How can a book that contains this sentence—“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls”—also contain this sentence: “Universally that person’s acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held most profitably by mortals with sapience endowed.” Or this sentence: “Come on you winefizzling, ginsizzling, booseguzzling existences!” Or this sentence: “lick my shit.”

 

 

And, more to the starting-point of this thread:

 

Ulysses the mythic phantasmagoria is hard to read—at least as hard as Paradise Lost—not because Joyce prized difficulty, but because ambitious works of literary artistry are by their nature hard to read. WritingUlysses, Joyce wanted to produce a work of art in a relatively new genre, the novel, that would stand shoulder to shoulder with the most challenging and time-honored achievements of Chaucer, Spenser or Milton. To the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, who was writing in the eighteenth century, the notion that a future century’s signature epic might take the form of a novel would have seemed as implausible as the notion that a century’s signature epic might be a dictionary. And even today, when a writer like Joyce might aspire to be published not by a small bookstore on the Left Bank but by Amazon, the relationship of the novel to artistic achievement remains in some quarters equivocal: dismissing Ulysses, Richard Ford is not implying that he prefers to spend his evenings curled up with a copy of The Faerie Queene.

 

 

Still unread, still on the list.

Edited by NBooth

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biblioklept: Selections from One-Star Reviews of Ulysses:

 

The book is not so good, it is boring, it is a colection of words and a continuous experimentation of styles that, unhappily, do not mean anything to the meaning of the story; that is, the book’s language is snobbish and useless. Those who say that “love” such a writing are to be thought about as non-readers or as victims of a literary abnormality.

 

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Here's a question.

 

So I want to remedy my own abominable procrastination and finally read this.  But the initial problem seems to be that an editor by the name of Hans Walter Gabler has produced an edition of Ulysses that did away with some of Joyce's own revisions to the text.  It appears as if the Gabler edition has been criticized for a number of different problems, in which case I would probably prefer to avoid it.

 

This looks like it's Gabler's edition.

 

For another instance, this doesn't say which edition it is, but being Random House, it appears from that Wikipedia entry that Random House used the Gabler edition until 1990.

 

In fact, there are quite a few selections on amazon that do not say which edition the book is.

 

Does anyone here know how many main editions are there?  And if so, which one is preferable? - or, which one is closest to Joyce's?

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Hmmm, ok, I just found this:


... Which Edition?
cleardot.GIFUlysses has had a long, strange publishing history, and there are still controversies over which edition is closer to being “definitive.” Although the first-time reader will probably notice zero difference between editions, it’s a fun little story to tell, so I’ll give the basic outline of “The Joyce Wars.”

cleardot.GIFThe original edition of Ulysses published in 1922 had many, many errors – which wasn’t all that surprising. After all, the damn thing was enormous, the language and typography were offbeat, it had already been serialized in various magazines, and Joyce was an extensive reviser, spreading revisions over numerous drafts, fair-copies and typescripts. Although Joyce partially oversaw attempts to correct subsequent editions, it wasn’t until 1961 that a “corrected and reset” text was made. This edition stood for over a decade, until a team of researchers headed by German scholar Hans Walter Gabler decided to produce an improved and more accurate edition. Returning to the original sources – reams of papers, scripts, drafts, early editions, etc. – the team worked from 1974-1984 to produce a “Critical and Synoptic Edition.” This was eventually published with great fanfare in 1986 as “The Corrected Text.” This edition was intended to replace all previous versions, which were removed from publication.

cleardot.GIFIt didn’t take long for Gabler's edition to come under fire, and this new text was soon attacked by a team of Joyce scholars lead by the American John Kidd. Claiming that Gabler’s “corrected” text was essentially worse than the 1922 original, the arguments between Gabler and Kidd became known as “The Joyce Wars,” a rather heated and often snarky academic scandal played out to a largely indifferent public. By the early 1990s, Kidd had made enough of an impact that Random House had decided to keep both 1961 and 1984 versions in print, and the “Corrected Text” was downgraded to the “Gabler Edition.” Given that the Joyce Wars are not over, and Ulysses’ copyright isn’t getting any fresher, it seems inevitable that we’ll soon have more versions, whether the long-promised “Kidd Edition” or something new. (Internet Joycean Jorn Barger has made his own “clean-up” of the Gabler version as well.)

cleardot.GIFSo what does all this mean to the common reader?

cleardot.GIFThere are currently three different “versions” of Ulysses available, plus a fourth “Reader’s Edition” that severely edits the text for – ahem – clarity. The first, and least read, is the original 1922 edition, filled with errors and omissions. Like a dotty but beloved old aunt, it remains in the attic, paring her nails above the hoopla playing out among the youngsters downstairs. Although Oxford publishes a nice, compact and affordable version, there’s also now a “facsimile” of the original available from Orchises Press – complete with the famous “Greek blue” cover and a lovely storage box. (All editions are featured below, with cover images and links.)

cleardot.GIFNext is the most common edition of Ulysses, the 1961 “corrected and reset” text, which was pulled off the shelves from 1986 to 1990. Known for the huge letters that begin each section of the book, the 1961 text has two common versions, the Vintage paperback and the Modern Library hardcover from Knopf. If the 1961 version is your choice, I advise the Modern Library edition; for only a few dollars more, you get the binding of a hardcover, and you can support the Modern Library, a fine and worthy series.

cleardot.GIFThe third current version of Ulysses is the controversial “Gabler” edition. It has more frequent line numbers and the chapters are clearly numbered, but it doesn’t have those nifty capital letters that I'm rather fond of. It does, however, make more claims to an increased textual authority, and for the most part, I tend to think that the Gabler corrections feel right. Unfortunately, the most common U.S. Gabler edition is the Vintage paperback, the one with the horrible cover that looks like a Colorform-Fun nightmare. (An astute reader might note that since Vintage and Knopf are imprints of Random House, they are covering all their bases quite nicely.)

cleardot.GIFFinally, there is the new “Reader’s Edition,” as edited by Danis Rose. This edition actually – are you ready for this? – alters Joyce’s text, untangling some of his longer sentences, breaking down and hyphenating his compound words, and adding punctuation to Molly’s soliloquy. Needless to say, this is blasphemy to most Joyceans, and if you choose the Rose edition, don’t be surprised if they throw rocks at you when you walk across campus. In my opinion, Rose’s “easier” version isn’t worth it – if you are really serious about reading Ulysses, a few compound words aren’t going to scare you away. It’s like making Wagner’s Ring Cycle more “compact” by cutting out a tuba and sacking a dwarf or two ...


So apparently if you go with this, you're going with Gabler, but if you go with an older used copy, then you can obtain the closest thing to what Joyce actually wrote (and revised).

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Hmmm, ok, I just found this:

... Which Edition?

cleardot.GIFUlysses has had a long, strange publishing history, and there are still controversies over which edition is closer to being “definitive.” Although the first-time reader will probably notice zero difference between editions, it’s a fun little story to tell, so I’ll give the basic outline of “The Joyce Wars.”

cleardot.GIFThe original edition of Ulysses published in 1922 had many, many errors – which wasn’t all that surprising. After all, the damn thing was enormous, the language and typography were offbeat, it had already been serialized in various magazines, and Joyce was an extensive reviser, spreading revisions over numerous drafts, fair-copies and typescripts. Although Joyce partially oversaw attempts to correct subsequent editions, it wasn’t until 1961 that a “corrected and reset” text was made. This edition stood for over a decade, until a team of researchers headed by German scholar Hans Walter Gabler decided to produce an improved and more accurate edition. Returning to the original sources – reams of papers, scripts, drafts, early editions, etc. – the team worked from 1974-1984 to produce a “Critical and Synoptic Edition.” This was eventually published with great fanfare in 1986 as “The Corrected Text.” This edition was intended to replace all previous versions, which were removed from publication.

cleardot.GIFIt didn’t take long for Gabler's edition to come under fire, and this new text was soon attacked by a team of Joyce scholars lead by the American John Kidd. Claiming that Gabler’s “corrected” text was essentially worse than the 1922 original, the arguments between Gabler and Kidd became known as “The Joyce Wars,” a rather heated and often snarky academic scandal played out to a largely indifferent public. By the early 1990s, Kidd had made enough of an impact that Random House had decided to keep both 1961 and 1984 versions in print, and the “Corrected Text” was downgraded to the “Gabler Edition.” Given that the Joyce Wars are not over, and Ulysses’ copyright isn’t getting any fresher, it seems inevitable that we’ll soon have more versions, whether the long-promised “Kidd Edition” or something new. (Internet Joycean Jorn Barger has made his own “clean-up” of the Gabler version as well.)

cleardot.GIFSo what does all this mean to the common reader?

cleardot.GIFThere are currently three different “versions” of Ulysses available, plus a fourth “Reader’s Edition” that severely edits the text for – ahem – clarity. The first, and least read, is the original 1922 edition, filled with errors and omissions. Like a dotty but beloved old aunt, it remains in the attic, paring her nails above the hoopla playing out among the youngsters downstairs. Although Oxford publishes a nice, compact and affordable version, there’s also now a “facsimile” of the original available from Orchises Press – complete with the famous “Greek blue” cover and a lovely storage box. (All editions are featured below, with cover images and links.)

cleardot.GIFNext is the most common edition of Ulysses, the 1961 “corrected and reset” text, which was pulled off the shelves from 1986 to 1990. Known for the huge letters that begin each section of the book, the 1961 text has two common versions, the Vintage paperback and the Modern Library hardcover from Knopf. If the 1961 version is your choice, I advise the Modern Library edition; for only a few dollars more, you get the binding of a hardcover, and you can support the Modern Library, a fine and worthy series.

cleardot.GIFThe third current version of Ulysses is the controversial “Gabler” edition. It has more frequent line numbers and the chapters are clearly numbered, but it doesn’t have those nifty capital letters that I'm rather fond of. It does, however, make more claims to an increased textual authority, and for the most part, I tend to think that the Gabler corrections feel right. Unfortunately, the most common U.S. Gabler edition is the Vintage paperback, the one with the horrible cover that looks like a Colorform-Fun nightmare. (An astute reader might note that since Vintage and Knopf are imprints of Random House, they are covering all their bases quite nicely.)

cleardot.GIFFinally, there is the new “Reader’s Edition,” as edited by Danis Rose. This edition actually – are you ready for this? – alters Joyce’s text, untangling some of his longer sentences, breaking down and hyphenating his compound words, and adding punctuation to Molly’s soliloquy. Needless to say, this is blasphemy to most Joyceans, and if you choose the Rose edition, don’t be surprised if they throw rocks at you when you walk across campus. In my opinion, Rose’s “easier” version isn’t worth it – if you are really serious about reading Ulysses, a few compound words aren’t going to scare you away. It’s like making Wagner’s Ring Cycle more “compact” by cutting out a tuba and sacking a dwarf or two ...

So apparently if you go with this, you're going with Gabler, but if you go with an older used copy, then you can obtain the closest thing to what Joyce actually wrote (and revised).

 

This is the version I read here.

 

It's the Random House/Bodley Head version. 

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I think I have the 1961 edition; it's a white paperback with a cover like this one. Honestly, though, I picked it up because it was in a store's free bin. Still waiting for a summer to come when I can actually read  it. [Five years from now, I'll bet].

Edited by NBooth

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I think I have the 1961 edition; it's a white paperback with a cover like this one. Honestly, though, I picked it up because it was in a store's free bin. Still waiting for a summer to come when I can actually read  it. [Five years from now, I'll bet].

 

Well, it will come. I did it in one of my summers between the MA and returning to grad school for the PhD.

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A friend of mine just shared this on Facebook: 'Ulysses' and the Moral Right to Pleasure:

 

Birmingham’s brilliant study makes you realize how important owning this book, the physical book, has always been to people, maybe first and foremost because it told other people who they were. In 1994, in a bookstore in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, I saw, in a case full of treasures, a ponderously bound book labelled “Bible.” I opened the case and plucked the book from its stand; inside it was an early edition of “Ulysses.” Copies of the book were bound in all manner of disguise; copies were unbound and carried as single sheets or small booklets. John Quinn, Joyce’s patron and the organizer of the Armory Show, hid several copies in a shipment of Picassos.

 

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A friend of mine just shared this on Facebook: 'Ulysses' and the Moral Right to Pleasure:

 

Birmingham’s brilliant study makes you realize how important owning this book, the physical book, has always been to people, maybe first and foremost because it told other people who they were. In 1994, in a bookstore in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, I saw, in a case full of treasures, a ponderously bound book labelled “Bible.” I opened the case and plucked the book from its stand; inside it was an early edition of “Ulysses.” Copies of the book were bound in all manner of disguise; copies were unbound and carried as single sheets or small booklets. John Quinn, Joyce’s patron and the organizer of the Armory Show, hid several copies in a shipment of Picassos.

 

 

 

Great read. In fact, I shared that last night.

I think I have the 1961 edition; it's a white paperback with a cover like this one. Honestly, though, I picked it up because it was in a store's free bin. Still waiting for a summer to come when I can actually read  it. [Five years from now, I'll bet].

 

Ah yes, the very edition I read Ulysses for the first time in. Unfortunately, the one I had was not meant to be stored in the backpack of a high school student. By the time I finished it, not only was the cover gone, but the last page was in danger of getting torn from the rest.

Edited by Kinch

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For those who have read Ulysses, I'm wondering; which, if any sections of the novel did you find particularly challenging? For me, it was Oxen of the Sun.

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Hmmm, ok, I just found this:

... Which Edition?

cleardot.GIFUlysses has had a long, strange publishing history, and there are still controversies over which edition is closer to being “definitive.” Although the first-time reader will probably notice zero difference between editions, it’s a fun little story to tell, so I’ll give the basic outline of “The Joyce Wars.”

cleardot.GIFThe original edition of Ulysses published in 1922 had many, many errors – which wasn’t all that surprising. After all, the damn thing was enormous, the language and typography were offbeat, it had already been serialized in various magazines, and Joyce was an extensive reviser, spreading revisions over numerous drafts, fair-copies and typescripts. Although Joyce partially oversaw attempts to correct subsequent editions, it wasn’t until 1961 that a “corrected and reset” text was made. This edition stood for over a decade, until a team of researchers headed by German scholar Hans Walter Gabler decided to produce an improved and more accurate edition. Returning to the original sources – reams of papers, scripts, drafts, early editions, etc. – the team worked from 1974-1984 to produce a “Critical and Synoptic Edition.” This was eventually published with great fanfare in 1986 as “The Corrected Text.” This edition was intended to replace all previous versions, which were removed from publication.

cleardot.GIFIt didn’t take long for Gabler's edition to come under fire, and this new text was soon attacked by a team of Joyce scholars lead by the American John Kidd. Claiming that Gabler’s “corrected” text was essentially worse than the 1922 original, the arguments between Gabler and Kidd became known as “The Joyce Wars,” a rather heated and often snarky academic scandal played out to a largely indifferent public. By the early 1990s, Kidd had made enough of an impact that Random House had decided to keep both 1961 and 1984 versions in print, and the “Corrected Text” was downgraded to the “Gabler Edition.” Given that the Joyce Wars are not over, and Ulysses’ copyright isn’t getting any fresher, it seems inevitable that we’ll soon have more versions, whether the long-promised “Kidd Edition” or something new. (Internet Joycean Jorn Barger has made his own “clean-up” of the Gabler version as well.)

cleardot.GIFSo what does all this mean to the common reader?

cleardot.GIFThere are currently three different “versions” of Ulysses available, plus a fourth “Reader’s Edition” that severely edits the text for – ahem – clarity. The first, and least read, is the original 1922 edition, filled with errors and omissions. Like a dotty but beloved old aunt, it remains in the attic, paring her nails above the hoopla playing out among the youngsters downstairs. Although Oxford publishes a nice, compact and affordable version, there’s also now a “facsimile” of the original available from Orchises Press – complete with the famous “Greek blue” cover and a lovely storage box. (All editions are featured below, with cover images and links.)

cleardot.GIFNext is the most common edition of Ulysses, the 1961 “corrected and reset” text, which was pulled off the shelves from 1986 to 1990. Known for the huge letters that begin each section of the book, the 1961 text has two common versions, the Vintage paperback and the Modern Library hardcover from Knopf. If the 1961 version is your choice, I advise the Modern Library edition; for only a few dollars more, you get the binding of a hardcover, and you can support the Modern Library, a fine and worthy series.

cleardot.GIFThe third current version of Ulysses is the controversial “Gabler” edition. It has more frequent line numbers and the chapters are clearly numbered, but it doesn’t have those nifty capital letters that I'm rather fond of. It does, however, make more claims to an increased textual authority, and for the most part, I tend to think that the Gabler corrections feel right. Unfortunately, the most common U.S. Gabler edition is the Vintage paperback, the one with the horrible cover that looks like a Colorform-Fun nightmare. (An astute reader might note that since Vintage and Knopf are imprints of Random House, they are covering all their bases quite nicely.)

cleardot.GIFFinally, there is the new “Reader’s Edition,” as edited by Danis Rose. This edition actually – are you ready for this? – alters Joyce’s text, untangling some of his longer sentences, breaking down and hyphenating his compound words, and adding punctuation to Molly’s soliloquy. Needless to say, this is blasphemy to most Joyceans, and if you choose the Rose edition, don’t be surprised if they throw rocks at you when you walk across campus. In my opinion, Rose’s “easier” version isn’t worth it – if you are really serious about reading Ulysses, a few compound words aren’t going to scare you away. It’s like making Wagner’s Ring Cycle more “compact” by cutting out a tuba and sacking a dwarf or two ...

So apparently if you go with this, you're going with Gabler, but if you go with an older used copy, then you can obtain the closest thing to what Joyce actually wrote (and revised).

 

This is the version I read here.

 

It's the Random House/Bodley Head version. 

 

 

I own and have read both a Dover paperback printing of the original 1922 edition, and the most common (1934 as corrected and reset in 1961). My first copy was one of the latter, but as I've said earlier on this thread, that copy was useless by the time I finished the novel. So a little while later, I bought the Dover 1922 facsimile, and picked up the 1990 Vintage printing (of the 1934/61) a few months ago at Goodwill. I intend to someday own the Gabler and Reader editions, as well as a copy of any other major, controversial edition that may come in my lifetime.

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Less on Ulysses and more on difficult art--here's The Guardian: "Hard Books for Hard Times: Literary Experimentation Gains Popularity"

 

Between the decline of the traditional bookshop and the internet wrecking our concentration, many thought the novel was on its last legs. With all the reports of writers facing penury and the dwindling of literary fiction as a dominant narrative form, you might assume that authors, fighting over a shrinking pot of coin, would be pushed to write pedestrian pieces and avoid risk. But is that what's been happening?

Well, yes. But not only that.

Risks are being taken. More than this, they're being rewarded. With the growth of independent publishing presses, prizes and the rising number of literary journals, there's been something of a tide change in the profile of innovative novels. Challenging writing is not only being produced, it's finding an audience, winning awards, sometimes being advertised on the sides of buses.

 

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The Atlantic: Readability is a Myth

 

"Difficulty," like "good" or "bad," is subjective. Some folks (okay, many folks) may be put off by Henry James's endless sentences and deliberately opaque social vacillation, but others may find it engrossing. Some people may love to flip their way through Jack London's manly adventures; others may find a novel's worth of cruelty to animals so upsetting as to be unreadable. Some people may love the sweep and romance of Gone With the Wind; for others, the unrelenting, vicious racism may be off-putting. For that matter, most reader surveys indicate that men, as a group, don't read fiction of any sort.  Does that mean that men are serious-minded readers of non-fiction? Or does it mean that romance novels and mystery novels, those quintessential guilty pleasures, are, at least for some, difficult?

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I dunno. I think Berlatsky's main point is rather obvious, "There aren't "difficult" books and "easy" ones. There are books that are difficult for some people, and easy for others," but I have a different definition of readability than he does. I don't think it's wrong to say that some writing is more complicated and more difficult to read than others. The article, and the bit NBooth quoted above, approaches readability from a content perspective  ( the social vacillation in James, the animal cruelty in London, the racism in Gone With The Wind), rather than the language itself**. Difficult to read and difficult to stomach are two very different things. I find it hard to stomach gory horror films, but most of them I would consider very easy/simple to watch from a form perspective.

 

He briefly mentions James's endless sentences, but allows that many find it engrossing. That may be true, but it is more difficult to read endless sentences with few paragraph breaks than staccato sentences broken up into short paragraphs. This has very little to do with reading preference. I prefer to read James over Hemingway, and find it easier to do so, but I would easily say that Hemingway's writing itself is less difficult. 

 

I don't think Berlatsky's point would be able to hold up when studying, say, Chaucer in its original middle English. Sure, it's easier for some and more difficult for others, but it requires learning almost another language, and while those who have studied and read Chaucer for long enough would be able to say "it's easier to read Hous of Fame than the latest John Grisham novel," but that's due to the reader, not the text, and even if familiarity with the language is a given, Chaucer's wordplay and structure is just plain difficult. This is not to say that difficulty is necessarily objective - it's revealing that I still have to gauge a book's difficulty through a comparison to another. But still, isn't this ground covered at a basic level in reading comprehension tests?

 

 

**The difference between content and form, while necessary to differentiate, may have been overstated here.  It is true that often content and form can overlap on the difficulty scale -- Melville, Joyce, Faulkner, McCarthy, and a lot of philosophy fall into this category, but often in those cases the difficulty lies in having the proper knowledge base. Just as it is difficult for us, on another level, to read Chaucer because of his cultural and literary references, it would be incredibly difficult for him to read a John Grisham novel, even if we accounted for the language barrier, because he wouldn't comprehend so much of the cultural backdrop. 

 

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Berlatsky is certainly over-simplifying in all the ways you mention, though re: your Chaucer example, I think the formal demands of a Grisham novel might tax him along with the cultural ones; we tend to take it for granted, but pop/pulp literature is actually fairly sophisticated in terms of achieving its effects, with stuff like stream-of-consciousness writing trickling down from Modernism and becoming taken for granted (I don't read Grisham, but I'm willing to bet there's at least a simplified version of SoC at work there, because it's everywhere. Last semester my students read Dos Passos and immediately thought of the Hunger Games books [!]). [it's the same way that--per Tony Zhou--Michael Bay manages to produce some fairly complicated/sophisticated effects in spite of his mass-market approach. Film audiences of a century ago wouldn't have been able to process these shots as easily as viewers today can. Trash gets better, for certain values of better]

 

He briefly mentions James's endless sentences, but allows that many find it engrossing. That may be true, but it is more difficult to read endless sentences with few paragraph breaks than staccato sentences broken up into short paragraphs. This has very little to do with reading preference. I prefer to read James over Hemingway, and find it easier to do so, but I would easily say that Hemingway's writing itself is less difficult. 

 

Perhaps the difference here is between an absolute-grammatical understanding of "difficulty" and a subjective-readerly understanding? This past semester I read both Absalom, Absalom! and Gone with the Wind and I found Absalom to be much easier to get through than GwtW, just on a sentence-by-sentence basis. On an absolute-grammatical basis, I think I'd agree that Faulkner's sentences are "more difficult" [i.e. more complex] than those of Mitchell, but on a subjective-readerly level I found Mitchell more difficult to read.

 

Then again, as you point out, part of this has to do with training. Which means, possibly, that "difficult" just means "a kind of work with which I am unfamiliar." I think Berlatsky would say it also has to do with expectations--and that's at the core [perhaps] of this attack on the idea of "difficult" books. It may be that, if a reader expects difficulty, a work will be more likely to demonstrate difficulty. On the other hand, the opposite has proved true in my experience--I read The Sound and the Fury lo, these many years ago, and I kept reading it even when I found it opaque because I expected opacity anyway and thought that was just par for the course.

 

But still, isn't this ground covered at a basic level in reading comprehension tests?

 

My own reading comprehension is fizzing out on me here. Do you mean "reading comprehension tests show that some works are more difficult than other works" or "reading comprehension tests demonstrate the need for different kinds of reading for different texts, which is all the author of this piece is really saying anyway"? If the former, then we'll have to move [as you point out] from the level of absolute-grammatical difficulty toward something else; if the latter, then--yes. I presume so.

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Perhaps the difference here is between an absolute-grammatical understanding of "difficulty" and a subjective-readerly understanding? This past semester I read both Absalom, Absalom! and Gone with the Wind and I found Absalom to be much easier to get through than GwtW, just on a sentence-by-sentence basis. On an absolute-grammatical basis, I think I'd agree that Faulkner's sentences are "more difficult" [i.e. more complex] than those of Mitchell, but on a subjective-readerly level I found Mitchell more difficult to read.

 

Then again, as you point out, part of this has to do with training. Which means, possibly, that "difficult" just means "a kind of work with which I am unfamiliar." I think Berlatsky would say it also has to do with expectations--and that's at the core [perhaps] of this attack on the idea of "difficult" books. It may be that, if a reader expects difficulty, a work will be more likely to demonstrate difficulty. On the other hand, the opposite has proved true in my experience--I read The Sound and the Fury lo, these many years ago, and I kept reading it even when I found it opaque because I expected opacity anyway and thought that was just par for the course.

 

This is exactly what I was getting at, in a less concise way, esp. "the difference between absolute-grammatical understanding of "difficulty" and a subjective-readerly understanding." After all, some can find children's books to be a slog to get through, but I doubt it's because they're having any difficulty with complex language.  Regarding the issue of training though, I'm curious if by needing training at all (beyond a certain threshhold, which would vary person to person), the work is ipso facto "difficult." Learning to read Chaucer is not going to cease being difficult, it doesn't necessarily follow that once familiarity is established it ceases to be difficult. We simply cease to recognize the difficulty. Of course, if this train of thought is carried through to completion, then any reading is "difficult" at some level, which is why I noted the need for a difficulty threshhold. 

 

To break from that train of thought, which I'm not entirely sure makes sense as it stands, I find the idea of contrasting "difficulty" with enjoyment to be detrimental; at times I find myself much more engrossed by a text that forces me to work through it, track down references, make mental footnotes, etc. But does the fact that I enjoy doing so still make it difficult? I would hold that it does, and I think that's what Berlatsky is trying to get at when he describes difficulty as subjective, but I don't know if the piece on the whole backs up that statement.

 

 

 

But still, isn't this ground covered at a basic level in reading comprehension tests?

 

My own reading comprehension is fizzing out on me here. Do you mean "reading comprehension tests show that some works are more difficult than other works" or "reading comprehension tests demonstrate the need for different kinds of reading for different texts, which is all the author of this piece is really saying anyway"? If the former, then we'll have to move [as you point out] from the level of absolute-grammatical difficulty toward something else; if the latter, then--yes. I presume so.

It's the latter. 

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To break from that train of thought, which I'm not entirely sure makes sense as it stands, I find the idea of contrasting "difficulty" with enjoyment to be detrimental; at times I find myself much more engrossed by a text that forces me to work through it, track down references, make mental footnotes, etc. But does the fact that I enjoy doing so still make it difficult? I would hold that it does, and I think that's what Berlatsky is trying to get at when he describes difficulty as subjective, but I don't know if the piece on the whole backs up that statement.

 

 

Agreed.  I like difficult or opaque works, I like being stretched and pushed and prodded. The same way some folks get a kick out of going to a gym, I guess.

 

Part of me wonders whether Berlatsky isn't trying the same trick I've seen people use in discussing Chinese: saying "No, no, X thing isn't difficult! X thing is easy. It's just different." Or something--anyway, that's the approach I'd be inclined to take (it's the approach I do take when instructing students in literature or rhetoric--play down the difficulty, play up the mechanical aspects).

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Waywords and Meaningsigns.

 

It's Finnegan's Wake set to music. The whole thing, come May 5. They have samples up now.

Edited by NBooth

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It's Bloomsday. So here's some Finnegan's Wake:

 

 

--btw, in my quest to have all the books I'll never read, I managed to get Annotations to Finnegan's Wake for .75 at a used-book store the other day. One day, perhaps....

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Joanna Scott: "The Virtues of Difficult Fiction"

 

Think back on our country’s rich literary traditions in fiction: from Hawthorne to Melville, through Poe to James, Stein, ­Ellison, and Faulkner, just to cite a few. Their books make use of circularity, fragmentation, and elision, and at their most extreme reject coherence in an effort to produce new meaning. Their wildness has played an important defining role in our culture’s literary identity. Some of those writers went unheralded in their time. There are writers at work today who go unheralded. Yet this is a big country. There is as much room as there is need for both simplicity and complexity, for fiction that is spare and crystalline along with fiction that is messy and difficult. There is space for writers who do not sell a lot of books but may end up playing a defining role in our culture’s literary tradition. If we want to make sure this important tradition continues, we have to sustain the curiosity to care about work that, at first glance, might seem difficult.

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Edwin Turner: “First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville” | On Audiobooks of “Difficult” Novels

Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Melville—a

difficult foursome, no? I would argue that the finest audiobooks—those with the most perceptive performers (often guided by a great director and/or producer) can guide an auditor’s ear from sound to sense to spirit. A great audiobook can channel the pneuma of a complex and so-called difficult novel by animating it, channeling its life force. The very best audiobooks can teach their auditors how to read the novels—how to hear and feel their spirit.

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On 4/5/2016 at 8:17 PM, NBooth said:

I think there's really something to this. I've seen similar recommendations that students listen to recordings of Shakespeare's plays before (or while) reading in order to get a sense of the language and how it flows, because many are put off by the poetic passages and confused by the archaic language. Also, it's been my experience with audiobooks that an accomplished narrator only enhances the beauty and unique style of a well-written book, but mediocre or poor writing is exposed more painfully by reading aloud, because every unnecessary word, every inappropriate adjective or adverb, every awkward phrase and anachronism is spoken right out, impossible to ignore or skim over.

Reading aloud in company was more common up through the 19th century--even educated people had fewer books, so a family or a group of women might listen to one among them read aloud in the afternoon or evening. I think this led to writers having better "ears" for the sound of language. They expected both prose and poetry to be heard at some point. It's much rarer today.

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On 4/5/2016 at 8:17 PM, NBooth said:

I think there's really something to this. I've seen similar recommendations that students listen to recordings of Shakespeare's plays before (or while) reading in order to get a sense of the language and how it flows, because many are put off by the poetic passages and confused by the archaic language. Also, it's been my experience with audiobooks that an accomplished narrator only enhances the beauty and unique style of a well-written book, but mediocre or poor writing is exposed more painfully by reading aloud, because every unnecessary word, every inappropriate adjective or adverb, every awkward phrase and anachronism is spoken right out, impossible to ignore or skim over.

Reading aloud in company was more common up through the 19th century--even educated people had fewer books, so a family or a group of women might listen to one among them read aloud in the afternoon or evening. I think this led to writers having better "ears" for the sound of language. They expected both prose and poetry to be heard at some point. It's much rarer today.

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