Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Well Said: On the humility of trying harder

We live in an era where opinion is currency. The pressure is on us to say "I like this" or "I don't like that," to make snap decisions ... But when faced with something we cannot comprehend at once, which was never intended to be snapped up or whizzed through, perhaps "I don't like it" is an inadequate response. Don't like Middlemarch? It doesn't matter. It was here before we arrived, and it will be here long after we have gone. Instead, perhaps we should have the humility to say: I didn't get it. I need to try harder.
Andy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously
This has been an approach which has come to me in the last few years. Because I kept trying, I was finally able to get through Great Expectations and like it by the end. It took listening to the audiobook of The Lord of the Rings (as well as The Tolkien Professor podcast) before I was able to get to the end. And love it.

It doesn't always work, of course. Sometimes we don't get it because we can't like every single classic. I tried three times to get through The Brothers Karamazov before admitting that novel is one which I am not going to appreciate.

I have a feeling I am having the same experience with Don Quixote, having just abandoned it after my second try, which got me through 20 chapters. (Perhaps if I hadn't read The Pickwick Papers first. About 10 chapters along Charles Dickens hit that sweet spot which made me love the book ... and feel as if, by contrast, Cervantes just had a lot of gags strung together.)

However, I am very aware that the fault is not with the literature, but with me. It's why I am now willing to return to my failures in great literature and try once again to see if trying harder yields rewards.


  1. You might be interested in a recent RadioLab podcast on the real Don Quixote at They describe it as Cervante wrote is as a meta-narrative, sort of like a story within a story, but the meta-story builds a whole story around the story of Don Quixote, pretending the meta-narrative to be real story behind the story. They claim it was the first time this literary device was used.

    For example, before Cervante could write a sequel, a second author wrote a sequel (like fan fiction). So Cervante included that in his sequel by having the "real" Don Quixote meet the "false" Don Quixote and poke fun at the second author's attempt to cash in on his fame all within the story.

    Give it a try. They did a better job explaining than I can.

    1. Like many people, I am way behind in my RadioLab episodes, though I guess it says a lot about my interests that I did manage to listen to the football episode. :-D

      I noticed that episode but didn't think of it as relating to my personal reading so thank you for the heads up on that. I did know about the fan fic version, having read just enough of the introduction to DQ to see it mentioned. I was more interested in the fact that Cervante became a priest just a few weeks before his death. (Just can't shake that Catholic focus!)

      Though, claiming it as the first time that literary device was used is surely unnecessary, right? I mean, it is usually credited with being the first novel. So naturally the nested, meta story would be used in a novel for the first time if it was employed in that book.