Feb 6 2012 8:32am

A Gold Medal in Reading: Reading as a Competitive Sport

Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses

A story this morning in the Guardian UK discusses how “ebook sales are being driven by downmarket genre fiction,” and once again brings up the beloved concept that e-readers are embarrassed by their choice of reading material and so are embracing the ebook format because their covers are hidden.

The journalist goes on to say that:

“Reading has always been a competitive sport. Why else would anyone have read Ulysses?”

While we leave you to decide just how snotty and dismissive that is—especially for readers who actually read and liked Ulysses—we want to ask you:

What’s the most high-concept, intellectual, difficult book you’ve ever made it to the end of? What is the book that would win you the gold medal in reading?

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1. ladybirdchance
Women Who Run With The Wolves, took me 3 tries but I made it through.
Megan Frampton
2. MFrampton
For me, I think it's Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, which wasn't hard to read, but definitely hard not to just blithely go through and read the words without quite understanding.
I tried to read Ulysses many times, have never made it past the first three pages.
Christopher Morgan
3. cmorgan
I'm going with what I like to call the Ayn Rand biathlon, The Fountainhead followed immediately by Atlas Shrugged. It tests stamina and resolve.

First instinct was more of a sprint, explain the "My Mother was a fish." chapter from As I Lay Dying. And then I wanted to go with an intelectual gut-check with anything by Foucault, but I'm happy with my final choice.
4. Bricbrac
Absalom Absalom by William Faulkner or maybe Moby Dick ...almost killed me
5. brontëgirl
Henry James' Portrait of A Lady . . . ughnnnn . . . the only reason I read it was for a class. Hannah Arendt's On Revolution is tough sledding, but still less dense and more rewarding than James!
Tori Benson
I liked Ulyssees. lol

I'd have to say Carl Sagen's Cosmos and Matt Bai's The Argument: Inside the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics were both challanging to say the least.
Megan Frampton
7. MFrampton
@Torifl, I have MAD RESPECT for you now. And @BricBrac, Moby Dick? Yikes! (I liked Absalom, Absalom, but I read it in college).
@brontegirl, I have read a lot of James in the past, but I don't think I could get through him now.
@cmorgan, Foucault, I refuse to even admit Foucault has books (he does?). I tried to read Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, and just wanted to cry.
8. JacquiC
If we count books read at university, I'd say Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, which I read in both French and English. Leaving out the intimidating philosophy tomes I made my way through during my undergrad years, I'd have to say that War and Peace was my biggest challenging non-school-related book. Also Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which is an excellent book but requires some concentration to keep track of the shifts in perspective in the narrative.
Carmen Pinzon
9. bungluna
I read many classics in school and college, which I wouldn't count as personal gold reads because "they" made me do it. Of my own personal volition I've read a few "serious" books, like "The Old Man and The Sea", "Notre Dame de Paris" and "Don Quixote" (which I just couldn't finish!). Unfortunately, they never made it into my personal fave's shelf. As I've gotten older, I dedicate my precious reading time to books that entertain me. Call me shallow readaholic.
10. BeretBrenckman
I think I deserve a gold medal for getting a M.A. in Literature. I had to wade through some seriously highbrow, snotty, yucky stuff...(Hello, William Faulkner!) I'm glad I read them all now but I still prefer my romance novels.
11. pamelia
The most challenging book I've read is "Dhalgren" by Samuel Delaney. Oddly enough, it is science fiction one of the so called "downmarket" genres that ridiculous article mentions.
Jill Slattery
12. JillSlattery
I find non-fiction to be almost impossible to get through. I took me FOREVER to read A People's History of the United States, mostly because there was no magic, dragons, or making out.
For me, it's a toss up between Christine by Stephen King (I read that back in the days when I would never DNF a took me 2 years to finish it) and Jose Saramago's Death with Interuptions (not a very long book but written in such a style that everything, even dialogue, was simply separated with commas. A single paragraph could go on for 3 pages or more! The writing took some mental shifts to read successfully.)
14. AMG
I'm a saint for reading the Gulag Archepelago! But that's non-fiction. I have to go with Foucoult's Pendulum. It used to be a joke w/friends that if you saw it on a bookshelf, check to see if the spine was actually cracked. I spent about 1 month reading it during dull February shifts in retail in the 90s .
I could never get into Faulkner, actually enjoyed Rand in an LOL way, and enjoyed War and Peace as a zippy page turner!
I've read all of Solzhenitsyn's fiction and liked it.
Myretta Robens
15. Myretta
I have quite a long list from my time as a Philosophy major (including Wittgenstein), but if we're not counting books we had to read and, as I gave up endurance reads sometime in my late twenties, I don't think that I've read anything that I deserve a medal for reading . I do keep A Short Life of Kierkegaard in my beside table, but this is because its soporific qualities far exceed Tylenol PM (or possibly even morphine). If I ever finish this book, I will deserve a medal and will probably also deserve to be in the Guiness Book of World Records for longest bout of insomnia.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
16. tnh
The definition of a "highbrow, difficult" book has nothing to do with the complexity or quality of its text. It's a book which you don't like and aren't enjoying, but which you read anyway because (1.) you think reading it is somehow "good for you"; or (2.) you're required to read it for a class; or (3.) you want to impress someone.

By the same logic, a book you scarf down at a great rate because you're having such a good time reading it must not be as much of a classic as you thought. That's why I get no highbrow credit for reading Faulkner or Melville: I liked them. Shakespeare was terrific, so he's out too. So was Chaucer in the original, and John Brown's Body, and "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." A People's History of the United States was salted peanuts. MacPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom and Mann's 1491 and 1493 were even better.

What have I read that was high-status but nearly unreadable? Eeeesh. Descartes, I suppose. One semester of Philosophy was enough for me. How smart can those guys be if they can't write readable prose?


Antonia Senior, author of the piece in the Guardian, doesn't know jack about books and bookselling. Her article is full of snotty assertions she doesn't even try to back up, viz.:
There is a literary snobbishness at play here, clearly.

Yes. It's hers.
Reading has always been a competitive sport. Why else would anyone have read Ulysses? Consider those boys who read ostentatious poetry to pull winsome girls; the girls who read Vanity Fair to let the poetical boys know that they are clever and minxy.
Senior has no idea why other people read the books they do. What she's telling us here is why she reads the books she does, and how unthinkingly she projects her motives onto others. I'm not the least bit tempted to believe her nonsense. I know too many people who've read Ulysses and Vanity Fair for fun.
The reading public in private is lazy and smutty.
No. Antonia Senior is a lazy and unambitious reader in private, and reporter in public. She has no idea what other people do.
E-readers hide the material --
They do indeed, and therefore she has no idea what the people on her bus are reading. If she's sitting next to me, I could be reading Rattis Raving, or David Graeber's Rent, or a piece of Buffy fanfic.

I'm guessing that she used to amuse herself on bus rides by passing judgment on what the other passengers were reading, and that she misses it.
Erotica sells well.
Pfffft. Erotica has always sold well, when people could get it; but even when it's been possible to publish and sell it, it was left out of collective reckonings of book sales.

Senior has completely missed two real stories. One is that online booksellers have far more freedom to sell books with explicit sexual content than brick-and-mortar bookstores do. For the first time in living memory, possibly for the first time ever, the publication and sale of erotica actually reflects what authors want to write and the public wants to buy.

The other story is that e-published erotica is enormously more diverse, original, and heartfelt than the formulaic rubbish that used to be cranked out by bored writers trying to cover the rent and groceries.
My own downmarket literary fetish --
She still hasn't established that what other people are reading is downmarket or a fetish.
-- is male-oriented historical fiction (histfic). Swords and sails stuff. I'm happier reading it on an e-reader, and keeping shelf space for books that proclaim my cleverness.
If she cared about having people think she's clever, she wouldn't write articles like this one.
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
17. tnh
Myretta: You got through Wittgenstein? I'm impressed.
Myretta Robens
18. Myretta
@tnh. I only read The Blue and Brown Books, which were more like sketches and less taxing than his longer, more robust work like Philosophical Investigations. And I will admit that, at the time I read it, when I had a young, flexible brain, it was fascinating. Now... not so much. I also agree thoroughly that a difficult book is one you aren't enjoying. I've read more than a few of the books mentioned in these comments and do not think I deserve a medal for finishing them (okay, maybe some kind of physical prowess medal for reading Wolf Hall in hard copy. That thing was heavy).
Vanessa Ouadi
19. Lafka
I agree with tnh's definition of a difficult book. Any book can potentially be difficult to read, no matter how well written or how interesting they are objectively, if the reader is not interested in it.

Nonetheless I must admit that some book are objectively quite tough to read - unless one is costumary with the fact of twisting oneself into knots, that is. For example, I had really hard times finishing Nietzsche's Thus spoke Zarathustra, though I did pick it voluntarily and was not "forced" to read it anyhow. Fascinating book really, but damn hard to read, pfew.

I also had hard times reading Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon. I loved the book, but it was really a mind-twister to me. Every page was some sort of struggle to fully understand what was said and to comprehend the universe I was in. The novel is really dense and I think you must have some time to think it ahead in order to appreciate its full extent.
20. brontëgirl
@mframpton, I don't think I would've ever read James if it hadn't been for school. Arendt I discovered through school but read on my own now. No one's mentioned Drabble, who reminds me of James . . . I do like her Victorian history book though--it's quite readable.
Cristina P
21. krissapl
One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This is the one I pat myself on the back for. I've read longer books (The Vicomte of Bragelonne by Dumas, for example), books by authors considered "heavy" like Dostoievski, but that book by GG Marquez remains as the one I think about with a "How could I have finished that?"
22. Jerseygirltoo
Not counting books I had to read for school, the most difficult that I voluntarily read for enjoyment, were The Sot-weed Factor and Giles Goatboy by John Barth, also anything by Dostoyevsky and The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica by John Calvin Batchelor. They were all worth it, although my reading nowadays is lighter. I agree with @pamelia that Dhalgren was challenging also.
23. Kristi Grant
Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It was for a class titled Colonialism and I was a determined student. I learned a great deal about why certain groups of people came to be the "haves" or the "have nots."
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