Challenging Reading

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Paul Whybrow

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Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK


Books that are hard to read can be fiction or non-fiction. I'm not referring to books that I refuse to persevere with, through being badly written, or which fail to engage me in some way—life's too short.

As I write crime novels, which have gruesome details, I need to do a lot of research to get the facts correct; the success of the various CSI television series makes readers think that they're experts in forensic medicine. In recent years, I've read learnèd tomes on autopsy procedure, psychopathy, post-traumatic stress disorder, body decomposition and United Nations reports about genocide in Bosnia. All of these were unpleasant reading, if occasionally fascinating and startling.

I read widely, challenging my arty-farty brain with subjects that are out of my comfort zone. I don't know if this a mind-expanding activity, but it appears to awaken brain cells that spend most of their time snoring! I make an effort to read several science-fiction and fantasy stories every year. Last year, I enjoyed Robin Hobb's Farsee Trilogy, before realising that they were part of a series in The Realm of the Elderlings saga which includes seventeen other novels and six short stories!

I may return to that fantasy world one day, but, more recently I've ventured into The Dark Is Rising Sequence written by Susan Cooper. I know that several members of the Colony subscribe to Dove Grey Reader's blog and after she mentioned reading them, I decided to investigate. I've read the first two titles, and though enjoyable, they're very dated in content and writing style. Published in the 1970s, they could have been set in the 1940s. Still, it's fun to read stories without computers and smartphones! The children have to work stuff out by themselves, rather than Google it.

On a more cerebral level, I'm currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, after seeing it mentioned in all sorts of lists of ten favourite book by authors and media stars. It's a stimulating read, though what Harai says about the rather oafish Neanderthals has recently been challenged by findings about their contribution to cave art.

Such are the risks of scientific writing.

I'm next going to be dropping a depth charge into my brain, by reading Nobel prize winner Richard Feynman's Surely, You're Kidding Mister Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character

It would be remiss of me not to mention a challenging book written by our own Agent Pete. I read You Don't Need Meat in various stages of disbelief. It affected me, to such an extent that I had a nightmare in which I was pursued through a wood by an avenging mob of angry pork chops, which were hurling hot gobbets of apple sauce at me! It was enough to turn Homer Simpson vegetarian!

Have you tackled any challenging reads?

Are there any books that affected how you saw a subject?

Have any of you suffered nightmares from reading something disturbing?

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Schindler's List, Thomas Keneally.

Masai Dreaming, Justin Cartwright.

The Forgetting Time, Sharon Guskin.

Can't bring myself to read about the way we treat and slaughter animals. I remember a cow, crying for her calf, who had just been taken away. If there's any mercy in the world, they forget. But I don't believe they do.
 
I found Sophie's Choice by William Styron (which I read after seeing the movie) more difficult to get through than watching the film. Which I adore, by the way, because of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, and Peter MacNicol each turning in stellar performances. :)
 
The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell, isn't always easy, but I found it to be often rewarding. Tunc/Nunquam, by the same author, is somewhat easier and (I thought) also somewhat more rewarding.
 
Have you tackled any challenging reads?

Not lately. I'm old and crotchety. When I was a kid I thought nothing of tackling challenging reads. I read Tolkien before I was a teenager. I'm not sure I could do it now. I would actually pick up anything and read it. I had all the time in the world to think about it, wonder about it, and immerse myself in it. Maybe I should challenged myself to read a few really difficult books a year. I mean things like Tolstoy and Dickens and Melville. Maybe Proust. I'll think about it ... get back to you ...

Are there any books that affected how you saw a subject?

Yes. Showboat impacted how I saw minorities -- ironically. I'm sure there are other books that have impacted how I see a subject. I'd guess books always impact how I see a subject. I hope they impact how I see a subject more than people have.

Have any of you suffered nightmares from reading something disturbing?

Nope.
 
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