Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Hard Reads

I’m reading a hard book. Back in college I read Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart (is to Will One Thing) and grasped very little of it. Now I’ve picked up another book of his called Fear and Trembling. The title I suppose tips its hat to Philippians 2:13: “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” It is a verse I’m fond of, as you might imagine, and so perhaps was one reason I picked up the book.

But it is a hard book, not easily grasped or understood. I have read books like this before. I’m sure that you’ve had books like that too.

There’s nothing more frustrating than finishing a book and feeling more confused than when you began. This fear is one good reason many abandon books that seem to be headed in that direction.

I have learned, though, reading books like this, that it is valuable to take a “wait and see” attitude. Hold off on making a final judgment.

Now, there are many poor writers out there who simply can’t communicate well. A reader can spot them easy enough. Others write well, but their ideas leave the reader scratching his head with conclusions just out of reach. In the middle of either book, the reader may feel the same temptation to abandon it for fear that all this confusion will not clear, and his time will have been wasted.

Not so fast. Which kind of book is it? If it is the first kind, poorly written, of course, throw it out. If it is the second kind, clear yet confusing, soldier on. Often the book’s reputation, or the author’s, can help you figure it out.

Reading good, hard books, I’ve learned, requires trusting the author—believing that he will uphold his end of the bargain we’ve struck. He has spent the time writing it, wrestling with the ideas; I have agreed to take the time to read it and wrestle with them myself.

I’ve also learned that there are often indicators along the way with books that will make good. Even as I read and the big picture is unclear, brief moments of clarity will often appear. Bits and pieces will make sense. These are encouraging moments and signs of a good book. Look for them. These moments renew my trust and perseverance. If I simply make it to the end, the book might yet come together.

Another thing I’ve learned is to hold the ideas loosely and let them roll around in my head. The key isn’t understanding them but just remembering them. I find that if I can do this, I’ll make connections between ideas later, and eventually this web will begin to hold something tangible. The key is remembering.

Even at the end of a book like this, though, sometimes the clarity isn’t at all like what I expected. In fact, sometimes, I reached the end only to realize that in order to really understand, I’d have to go back and reread some or all of it. It’s as though, once I’ve finished the book, all I’ve acquired is the delicate web. But it’s a web I didn’t have when I started. Now, to reread the book is to begin to strengthen the web and catch the ideas strewn about. The book helps do this.

I also think life is a bit like a hard-read book. I have lots of the same worries and questions. I wonder if it will turn out okay. I wonder if it will bring any clarity, or just more confusion. I wonder if it’s really going to mean something.

And just like a hard book, I know I have to trust that the author is a good writer. I know that I’ve got to keep reading, believing that for all this confusion, there will be some “crystalarity” at the end. It’s not a word, but you know what I mean. Some clear and tangible. Something real and true.

And there are moments of crystalarity. And they renew my faith long enough to keep going.

But I also recognize that I need to practice remembering a lot better. There are a lot of moments that go by without much thought or concern. I don’t pay attention to them because I don’t know whether or not they’re significant. I can’t spot the important moments. But when I look back, I can see them better. The key is simply remembering—remembering long enough to see them come together. Sometimes that takes a while.

And sometimes that means getting to the end first before going back to reread the book. We need the web that we can put thing into. But that’s the value of remembering. We put memories into that web and we see them in context of the ending. We make sense of both the memories and the ending when we see it all together.

But it’s still a hard read.

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