Did anyone catch the recent Atlantic article Readability is a Myth? It’s an interesting take on what constitutes an easy or difficult book. The author, Noah Berlatsky, suggests that difficult and easy are not good terms to describe books because, as we have all likely experienced, a book I find difficult you might have found easy and vice versa. It’s completely subjective.
Plus, these descriptions often come laden with value judgments. Literature is difficult and because it is difficult, or rather, can be, it is worth our time and effort. It’s the take your vitamins approach in disguise. The books we label easy often fall into the commercial fiction category, who could possibly find The Da Vinci Code difficult to read? Easy means fluff, means a waste of time, means if you find easy difficult then you must be braindead. I imagine we have all made value judgments about people based on our perceived difficulty of their reading material of choice.
I used to work with a woman who was one of the nicest people I have ever known. She tended to like Dan Brown sorts of books and it was so very hard to not hold that against her. It’s not that I thought she was dumb, I just couldn’t understand why she would want to spend her time reading thrillers and conspiracy theory kinds of books. She always asked me what I was reading and once, out of her mouth popped, do you ever read anything that isn’t hard? And I was so surprised because I didn’t think the books I mentioned were hard at all and I didn’t know how to respond to her question.
Recently someone asked me if I like music and if so what kind of music I liked to listen to. When I replied that I like a lot of different kinds of music but mostly rock and pop she was surprised. She thought given the kind or things I like to read that I was too highbrow for Katy Perry and she expected me to say I only listened to Mozart and Vivaldi. And then I worried all day whether people think I am a snob.
Berlatsky asks us to try and remove the value judgment from easy and difficult and try to think of them differently. He, for instance, says that Fifty Shades of Grey is one of the most difficult books he has ever read. Now we can say, yeah, that’s probably because it is such a bad book, but is that fair to all those readers who loved it? I don’t like it when someone sneers at a book I loved, I need to really work at being better about not sneering at books other people like. We all readily admit that “good” is a subjective opinion but for some reason it is harder to agree that difficult is also subjective even though we all know that it is.
Berlatsky makes a good point even though his argument is a bit weak in the end. To equate easy with bad and difficult with good is downright silly. Yet maybe because it has been so ingrained it’s hard to separate them, at least it is for me. It will take work, but it seems worthwhile to try and break it all apart.