Should You Actively Seek Out Challenging Books?

Since I am finally finished my exam, I have a lot of time on my hands now, which is why I picked up Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Judging from the reviews and the size of the book, I figure it would be one of those hard and challenging books, which I am right about. I can’t read this book without a dictionary around. Sometimes, I even have to reread parts of the novel. Then it occurred to me: Is it worth the effort? Should I have avoided this kind of book in the first place?

Reading this novel is really rewarding. In fact, it’s not like any other novel out there, because it intertwines 6 short stories from different settings. I am not done reading yet, but I have already learned a lot from reading this. I’ll write a review about it once I’m done, but I digress.

It’s not like I can’t understand what’s going on. I can. I just need to put a lot of time and effort into it, but this makes me feel like I am just trying to enjoy someone else’s good read. What makes a book good in the first place? To me a good book conveys thoughtful ideas in a clear and interesting way. If it needs rereading and a dictionary to convey the idea, does it mean that the author failed on my part and I should try to avoid this kind of book for future reference?

The thing with challenging books is that the more you read them, the better you’ll become at understanding them. But is it worth it? I am quite undecided.

What’s your opinion on this? Do you actively seek out challenging books, or do you tend to avoid them?

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Update: turned out Cloud Atlas was worth reading. Check out my review of it here.

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13 responses to “Should You Actively Seek Out Challenging Books?

  1. allthatisonmymind

    hmm..it would be fun if you tried to skim such books, and guess the meanings without referring to the dictionary; once you finish reading a bit of it, you can check if what you had guessed was right..otherwise , referring to dictionary would break the link, also you would deprive your brain from good exercise of trying to interpret meanings from the scenario.and, a good book is pretty much like a good person, there are so many different kinds of them, mysterious,open,(and the list goes on) so, each book that you enjoy reading and which you learn something from, is good, i guess. 🙂

  2. If a book is so challenging that I have to keep notes about it so that I know what’s going on in the book, I would probably put it down. That said, I have no problem with challenging books, as long as there is something in the book that I can hang my hat on to keep my interest.

    Some of the best examples of challenging books that I enjoy are the books in the Wheel of Time series. There is so much going on in these books that you will never digest it all in one reading. However, the books are written well enough so that you are interested in the overall story on your first read-through. You can easily read through those books dozens of times (and many people have) and relearn about a new subplot or discover a new theme in the series every time.

  3. I think it depends on my mood. Sometimes I want something a little different and challenging, sometimes I just want brain candy. Totally depends! But i’ve heard great things about the Cloud Atlas, so I personally can’t wait to read it. Glad to hear you are enjoying it.

  4. I personally think that the writer should not use words that can not be understood by her audience unless there is no way to say what she wants to say in simpler words. I don’t mind the odd word, they’re great for expanding your vocabulary, but if you have to open the dictionary at every sentence it is a bit too much.

  5. Cloud Atlas is on my towering to-be-read pile. It’s sitting near the bottom and perhaps it should stay there. I think if a book is too difficult and takes away the enjoyment of it, just hurl it across the room. 😉 I do like a challenging book, however; if the subject matter interests me and offers insight or inspiration or both.

  6. Great book and a totally rewarding reading experience. It all comes together in a wonderful aha moment.

  7. I don’t think working on a challenging book is a bad idea, even if you have to refer to the dictionaries from time to time. However good our language skills are, there would always be some books that are a little bit out of our reaches. So long as this book can broaden your views and make you think wisely, or give you some knowledge that you don’t know, then reading a challenging book is totally worth it.

    Btw, I have began reading English books for the past half a year. I felt it very hard to understand, but anyway I kept on and on, and now I find that I can read a lot of books without referring to a dictionary. Every English book is challenging to me at first, but anyway, I am really glad that I can get around that problem sooner or later.

  8. If the story is compelling enough, sure. If you are constantly looking up words (more than 5 words per page) in order to make sense of the story – that you absolutely cannot make sense of the sentence without looking up the words – then probably not.

  9. I think it is absolutely worth reading challenging books. As Jennifer R. said, not if you have to look up every 5th word…but to me that’s not a challenging book, that’s just a poorly written book by an author who wants to show off his vast vocabulary. To me, and challenging book is on that, yes, has words I don’t know, but much more than that is one that makes me really use my brain, think hard about what the author is saying, and re-evaluate my views on things. Everyone SHOULD read books like this, in my opinion, because if we always read the same stuff and never challenge ourselves, we’ll stagnate, and that wouldn’t be much fun now, would it? 🙂

    I do however love brain candy as well…reading nothing but books that make you think would get tiring. Bring on the sci-fi and fantasy baby! (though an extremely well written “candy” book can also make you think, it’s just usually not as in-you-face.)

  10. I won’t actively seek out challenging books. I look for something I’d like to read and if it happens to be difficult, I’ll go ahead and try to read it.

  11. I definitely seek out challenging books. I hate when writers spoon feed you. I take it as a sign of respect when authors make you do a little work! But then there are some books, like Finnegans Wake… Infinite Jest… Moby Dick… which I am totally intimidated by and wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole.

  12. I wouldn’t say I actively seek out challenging reads. I find books based on word of mouth. Though if it happens to be challenging, I certainly won’t turn it away. There are authors who just try to show off, as Jen mentioned. But more often than not, writers have a purpose for the challenge (a few big words, switching points of view, etc). And that is certainly commendable because it expands the reader’s vocabulary as well as exposes him or her to different voices in the literary world.

    That being said, it’s important to keep a balanced reading life. While I hold respect for books (and the authors that write them!) that make me work, there is something to be said for a light read. Sometimes the brain needs to rest while still taking in a decent story.

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