Friday, August 7, 2015

Books that are hard to understand



I was excited to get hold of a celebrated book which many people have highly recommended over the years. I started reading with great anticipation, but a moment was enough to show me that it was going to be one of those difficult, wordy reads. The sentences twist and turn, and when you come to the end of a paragraph, you have to return to the beginning to remind yourself what you've just read. The subject matter was great, but my enjoyment had taken a nose dive. It wasn't the treat I expected.

It was a perfect example of why academic and intellectual books aren't my favourites. I often find that I don't completely grasp a chunk of text when I first read it. I need to mull over it a second time, and sometimes even a third. Then, even though it may be good and wise, I get tired of the effort because it makes the reading experience three times as long as it might have been. If it happens to be a dense work of fiction, all my hard work really tends to choke the flow of the story.

The lady who wrote the book I started has been hailed as 'a female Henry David Thoreau' in an article I read. That explains a lot, because I find Thoreau's work just the same. Even though I've had 'Walden' on my kindle for a few years, I've never managed to get right through it.

These types of books remind me of studying English at Uni years ago, when the course material was often so incomprehensible we needed special reference books to help unravel them. I had Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' or Spenser's 'The Faerie Queen' open by one elbow, and an Elizabethan almanac by the other. 'I'm not actually dumb,' I'd tell myself. 'It's just that the English language has evolved so dramatically over the centuries between then and now.' But I'm afraid I can't make the same excuse when it comes to figuring out the writing of modern academics in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Here's a confession. I get a bit daunted when I proofread my son's essays. Logan is in his second year of a media degree at Adelaide Uni, the same place I went to at his age. His essays are full of the required long words and waffle, and he tends to let sentences linger on for the length of a paragraph. I have to figure out what he's even talking about so I can do my favour for him, which is to figure out where to place the punctuation. The question, 'Mum, how quickly can you proofread this essay?' might turn out to take the better part of an hour. He sometimes leaves his request until shortly before the cut-off time, usually midnight. One time he got an assignment submitted online with six seconds to spare! Still, I need to take the time to be thorough. I remind myself that he's been studying the subject matter and I haven't.

I wondered whether some subjects are so complex and profound that they can only be expressed in academic waffle. It's a sad thought. With this on my mind, the next book I picked up turned out to be a delightful read. It was chatty and conversational, yet the content was just as fresh and meaningful to me as the more famous book that let me down. It was pleasant to read without sacrificing it's deeper message. I thought of other books which fit the bill too, proving that it can be done. Great truths can be expressed simply, and in a way which appeals to the general population (like me).

I don't give up on those hard-to-understand books. I think trying to untwist meaning from verbose waffle might be good for the brain. However, they are never my first choice. It begs the question, since the easy-reading experience can also be wise and moving, why doesn't everyone use it?

A young woman in the colonial novel I'm reading agrees with me. Now, when I call it a colonial novel, it really was published in 1854. The novel itself is quite easy to understand for its time. It's 'Clara Morison' by Catherine Helen Spence, and the character is Miss Margaret Elliot, who was known around her parts as a bit of a bluestocking. Here's what she has to say.

'If what a man writes is not clear, he must either think indistinctly, which is a radical error, or mystify his clear thoughts by involving them in a complexity of words, which is a contemptible practice, merely followed to make people wonder what the meaning really is and fancy that as it is incomprehensible, it must needs be deep and wide.'

I think that's a good enough wrap-up.

9 comments:

  1. Reminds me of a quote from Mark Twain: 'A classic is a book people praise but don't read'. I think a lot of those high-falutin' books are like that. People think it makes them sound intelligent if they say they enjoyed them but I wonder sometimes how many really do.

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    1. Hi Lynne,
      I agree, and I'm sure lots of Pulitzer Prize winners, or other highly acclaimed books, fit into Mark Twain's quote too. I love Mark Twain's quotes, as well as Albert Einstein's.

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  3. I unashamedly just say "huh?" when people use words I don not understand. I know there are times when we must read these darn things (e.g. my Style Manual ....eeeek). Mostly I just enjoy reading and like to be entertained; I am no snob when it comes to literature ;) I agree with you Lynne Stringer. Thank you for another wonderful and thought provoking post Paula :)

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    1. Hi Jo'Anne,
      Yes, there probably is a place and time for them, but when it comes to relaxing with a book as a reward after a long day, I way prefer the flow of easy-to-read stories.

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  4. Hi Paula - some interesting thoughts. I think it is a skill to put deep or challenging concepts into simple language. For me, it depends on the aim of the book. If the book is to entertain or to explain the mysteries of science, religion or philosophy to the layperson - then the language and illustrations used should be clear and relatively easy to understand. But if the book or article is between peers or educational (beyond an elementary level) then use of technical terms and pushing the envelope with complex concepts is inevitable. Technical terms provide short-hand ways to refer to concepts that otherwise might take a paragraph or more to explain - so when a psychologist says Oedipal complex or the mirror stage, or when a doctor says it's a subluxation of an acromioclavicular joint, their colleagues know instantly what they mean. Having said that, I think sometimes the learned do heap up the technical terms unnecessarily in an effort to sound brilliant.

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    1. Hi Jenny,
      Yes, articles for peer reviews are a different matter for sure. Those of us who'd complain about them have no right to, since we're not the target audience. With your medical background, you can keep a foot in both camps.
      I love it when acclaimed scientists make an effort to write down to the layperson, so we can get a bit of grip on fascinating material too.

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  5. I can enjoy a book written with obscure words if they are not too frequent. I can also enjoy 'verbal gymnastics' and one of my favourite books employs these. But I tend to prefer going back to the old rule, in my own writing and this is often what I enjoy reading. This rule was quoted by John Pfitzner ( probably quoting someone else) 'Good prose is like a clear pane of glass' - which to me means the style does not intrude on the meaning. Thanks, Paula, I enjoyed the post.

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    1. Hi Jeanette,
      I do agree that this stretching of our vocabs and verbal gymnastics is great, but also that there is a line which may be crossed between just enough and too much. I like the quote by Pfitzner (or whoever).

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