Library pumpkin (noun): a person that flourishes best between bookshelves.
Books are rarely just about sunshine and chocolate, but there are books, and then there are difficult books. Not ones that are hard to read because of the language, necessarily, but because of the topics. War, rape, death, slavery, incest…they are all serious and hard to talk about subjects, but they need to be talked about.
Sometimes they hurt to read, sometimes they are offensive, sometimes they are just uncomfortable. This post isn’t about why you should read books like this, but one will probably follow at some point, but some helpful pointers on how to read them.
Difficult books can be tiring to read. They can need more concentration, to understand what is happening, and why. Some writing can be horrific, and absorbing it is tiring for the brain.
One of the best things about books is how they suck you in, but when reading about, say, abuse, this can also be a bad thing. Read in bursts. Make a drink in between, or watch an episode of something. Don’t feel like you have to take it all in at once.
2. While reading, think about what the book is trying to say, and process the book after.
A book that I found really hard to read was Triomf, by Marlene van Neikerk, which has themes of rape and abuse, among various others. If I had read the book alone, I would probably have put it down at the end, dismissed it as kind of horrible at points, and left it at that. But because I had read it for university, I then had a seminar about it, where I got the chance to discuss it, and hear other people’s thoughts about it.
When reading an uncomfortable scene, pause, and think about it. Why has the author included it? Does it teach us something new about characters, or does it show us one of their wider themes?
For instance, is the scene where the small boy is hit carefully on his back designed to show us how the character reacts, or to show us the starting point for his story? Is it there to remind us that abuse happens in secret places where we don’t know? Does it show us the historical context, or culture, or is it trying to tell us about general human cruelty?
A bit of analysis can take a scene out of the I don’t like how this makes me feel territory, and into understanding why this scene exists and why it has been designed to make you feel like this.
Taking even a few minutes to process the book after can also help. Difficult books often don’t solely exist to make reading a stressful experience. They are often trying to make a point, teach you something, or show you a side of life that you have never experienced before. Have a little think about it, and see what you can take away from it (apart from feelings on the spectrum ranging from ‘squeamish’ to ‘traumatised’)
3. Read lighter books during and after.
Like a longer extension of the above. If you are reading Lolita and finding it an uncomfortable experience, maybe don’t read it first thing before bed. Sometimes you have to know when to dip into something completely unrelated just to give you head space.
4. Look for the light, the humour, and the beauty….
Triomf can be awful, but has a lot of dark humour in as well. Lolita is uncomfortable, but is beautifully written.
Just because a book is about a serious topic, doesn’t mean there isn’t humour in there as well; or if not humour, hope and redemption; or if not lighter themes, beautiful writing. Try to take a step back from the hard bits, and appreciate the book as a whole.
5. ….but remember that not all ‘difficult’ books are necessarily ‘good’ books.
Approaching a daunting or harrowing subject does not instantly make a book ‘great literature’, just like talking about a positive topic doesn’t make something invalid or unworthy. It also doesn’t make you a GREAT READER.
If you are reading a book and it is written badly, or doesn’t make sense, or is actually dealt with in a really insensitive manner, and you can’t see any sort of reason behind it, you don’t have to read it. If you try reading a book and the subject makes you feel really uncomfortable, you don’t have to read it.
Battling through something ‘hard’ doesn’t make you a brilliant reader/genuis, and talking about something traumatic like abuse or war doesn’t automatically make an author worthy of the Nobel prize. You can pick your way through what you want when you want.
What are the hardest books you have read?
How did you get through reading them? Let me know below!