One night when I was very young I was crossing a bit of wasteland in Sheffield when I said to my companion, “I never leave a book unfinished.” Struggling to explain myself, I added, “The author has gone out of their way to try and tell me something –to express something – it seems wrong not to read their book.” “That’s as deep,” returned my companion in broad Scouse, “as a muddy puddle.” For these were the sort of young men I went to university with.
Since then I have discovered, sadly, that there are unreadable books. It isn’t necessarily that the books are “bad”, though it might be. Occasionally a book is so bad I’ve flung it against a wall; once I even trampled on one. (And no, I won’t tell you which it was. It might be your favourite.) To qualify for this thankfully rare treatment a book must exhibit something cynical in the workmanship. It will be a smug, complacent, passionless piece characterised by sloppy thinking and lazy writing.
But most books have something to offer and I’m prepared to accept that even if I don’t like them, someone else will. This can be disconcerting, especially if I’ve just lobbed the latest big thing across the room, the books everyone’s reading, the Bookers and Oranges, the reviewers’ darlings, the book club choices. At times like this I doubt my literary sanity: What am I missing? Why can’t I see it? Is it me that’s mad or everyone else? In these cases it’s best to quietly slip the book into the Amnesty International pile and say nothing. Never, ever, criticise a popular book, my friend! It will only bring down wrath upon your head.
Badly written books aren’t necessarily unreadable books. In fact, a book by someone who hasn’t the least feel for language and only the weakest hold on grammar can be perfectly readable. Its badness might even be part of the pleasure of reading it. What a relief not to have to attend to the quality of the writing and just get on with enjoying a good story! (And if it is a good story is it a ‘bad’ book at all…?) A book may survive a preposterous plot, silly characters, and dialogue like this:-
“You’re just in time,” said Chloe, “we’re giving a dance next week.”
“A dance! How peerless! But I’ve nothing to wear.”
“Oh, that’s all right. It’s a ‘drency’.”
“That means fancy dress,” I explained to Peter. “When we all lurked together as students we had a lot of portmanteau words. ‘Prill’ means ‘pretty foul’, and it is a nice crinkle-your-nose-in-disgust word, isn’t it?”
“Ah, but our most useful word was ‘cuxt’,” said Jo.
F Tennyson Jesse’s The Milky Way (1913), scoring high in all three categories. In spite of it, I read the book. Fey, gushing, and downright daft, yet something in it appealed to me: the otherness of the lives and people, their passion for art, even its outmoded style. And tucked away amongst all the nonsense is some beautiful prose: descriptions of the sea, the south of France, sunlight on water. Of course, I know no one reads books for description these days. Words only exist to rush us through the plot or convey information; why waste time on seeing beauty in them as well?
Books I have no intention of reading may, for all I know, be quite readable. I read scores of book reviews but I buy only a fraction of the books mentioned. It’s just that the setting, story, characters, style, or genre of the rest simply don’t appeal to me. And there are already so many waiting on the shelves! On the other hand, an unreadable book is necessarily one I am drawn to.
Take Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. Here is a book I have wanted to read for years, Hardy’s retelling of the Napoleonic Wars written as an epic-drama meant for reading, not performance, intended says Hardy, “for mental performance, and not for the stage”. What an intriguing idea - what an exciting experiment – what a stirring subject! While Hardy is not one of my favourite writers I have enjoyed many of his novels and found his work and ideas interesting. Then, too, The Dynasts was a challenge. I’d heard that no one reads it. Ah hah! thought I, Bet I can.
I opened the book with excited anticipation. I began to read. I began to wonder. I began to realize. It is an unreadable book.
Yet how can this be? Here are passion, ideas, theories, vision, interesting characters, daring devices, and crafted writing. But what is one to make of this:-
Hold what ye list, fond unbelieving Sprites,
You cannot serve the pulsion of the Byss,
Which thinking on, yet weighting not Its thought,
Unchecks Its clock-like laws.
Or this speech from a Lady:-
Something uncanny’s in it all, if true.
Good Lord, the thought gives me a sudden sweat,
That fairly makes my linen stick to me!
These are the Prime Volitions, - fibrils, veins,
Will-tissues, nerves, and pulses of the Cause,
That heave throughout the Earth’s compositure.
If you want to explore Hardy’s philosophy then you must study this book. If you’re looking for a topic for a dissertation this is dripping with them. If you admire Hardy you will not cease until you have got yourself a copy and devoured every word. But it’s unreadable.
Or perhaps it’s my literary sanity that’s at stake. Michael Millgate in his entry on Hardy in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography comments that although “The verse of The Dynasts has come to seem flaccid, its structure ponderous, and the cosmic apparatus of the Spirits perhaps a little absurd” yet “at the same time, it remains highly readable”. Flaccid – ponderous – absurd. It all adds up to unreadable for me I’m afraid.
And so ends my unreadable blog.