Unreadable Books?

An article at Paper Cuts prompted me to wonder what unreadable books are AND if certain books just shouldn't be unreadable.

For example, a few folks in the comments listed The Great Gatsby as unreadable. I've heard this a million times - particularly when I was teaching American Literature to high school students - and the closest thing I could get to an explanation of this unfathomable mystery is that folks encounter this book too early and don't understand it.

In fact, now that I mention it, I think this may be the case with most classics. Many of my students ended up liking/loving The Great Gatsby because I took the time to explain it them. Most teenagers ARE Jay Gatsby, so it's beneficial that they understand him. The students who didn't like the book didn't read it. I am constantly running into the breed of reader who hates Gatsby because they read it in high school, didn't get it, and thought it was wretched. I attribute this reaction to one or more of the following reasons: 1. They didn't read the book. 2. Their teacher didn't care to connect the book to their point in life. 3. They weren't able to connect the book to their point in life. Point 3 is forgivable. It's difficult to connect to a book that, though may be dealing with issues of your age, is not written for your age.

I don't want to in any way imply that certain books should not be read at certain levels because one never knows which books are going to inspire which kids, but I DO think these books should be considered life courses and people should return to them again and again. I return to the same old classics that I've always loved nearly every year, and I am always surprised when I find something new. Yet, this is the nature of reading great books - a point that has been made a million times but bears repeating: classics are classics because they describe humanity and humanity is fascinating to us precisely because of the fact that it never changes. However, individuals do change in their own ways, and they change as they mature. Books that may have never made sense at 16 can seem to solve the world's great mysteries at 30.

So. I ask you: Should books be considered unreadable? Isn't it possible to dismiss a novel at a certain time of life because you just don't have enough experience to "get it" but return to it later in life and find it revelatory? Or are there some books that should never be tackled at all because they are simply unreadable?


  1. Maybe. I often find myself thinking that I can appreciate a book for being brilliant without actually liking it. I don't think I could read Faulkner's "Wild Palms" at any age and enjoy it.

  2. Very much so. My son had a gifted and brilliant fifth grade teacher who grieved that she could not teach her students how to write a logical 5-part essay. She hired a mentor to examine what she was doing wrong. The mentor simply said, "They haven't lived long enough." Having said that, I don't think I can live long enough to understand or appreciate the fantasy/science fiction genre.

  3. Sometimes, you're just not ready for a book. I stalled on Middlemarch 2x during my 20s then read it at 37 and again at 47. It's one of my favorites now. But 20 years ago, I was saying "unreadable." I guess this is kind of like what home before dark was saying...


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