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>Hard books

>Having successfully evaded Middlemarch in college (I thought it was too hard), I am now reading it (via audiobook, with the Modern Library edition at hand) completely enraptured. It reminds me of another reason why children’s book professionals need to read books for grownups:

Buyers of the Middlemarch newspapers found themselves in an anomalous position: during the agitation on the Catholic question many had given up the Pioneer–which had a motto from Charles James Fox and was in the van of progress–because it had taken Peel’s side about the Papists, and had thus blotted its Liberalism with a toleration of Jesuitry and Baal; but they were ill-satisfied with the Trumpet, which–since its blasts against Rome, and in the general flaccidity of the public mind (nobody knowing who would support whom)–had become feeble in its blowing.

That’s not only a long sentence, with a confluence of colon, semicolon and em-dash that even the Horn Book wouldn’t let you get away with, it–I’m guessing–entails some aspects of English history about which I know nothing and care less. But I’m a confident enough reader to make peace with my ignorance and keep going, even while I remain defeated by Eliot’s epigraphs: “Qui veut délasser hors de propos, lasse–Pascal.”

Young readers are put in this position all the time, meeting words, sentence structures, and extra-textual references for the first time. It’s salutary for those of us concerned with their reading to put ourselves in their shoes, a circumstance more likely to occur for us in reading books for adults. Hard books, the definition of which being completely self-determined. When we hit a patch of French in a novel, we–at least those of us not educated to the standard Eliot expected of her readers–can look it up or shine it on, but either way we’re challenged by a text that doesn’t give itself up easily. That choice comes more easily to the veteran reader than to the neophyte who’s still underlining each word with a finger. Learning how to skip is just as important to reading as learning how to persevere.

But reading difficult books is not just a reminder of how hard it is to learn to read. The sentences in Middemarch are often enormous but also enormously dense–Eliot uses an awful lot of words but few seem extraneous. You really have to pay attention, especially with the audiobook–let your mind stray for a few seconds and you’re lost. But the reward of such required concentration is absorption, a rare and welcome state in a clamoring world.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.



  1. >Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Brilliantly put. As a writer for children, I need to read books that stretch me, so that I’ll be reminded to stretch my readers.

    After all, I’m bored by books that are too easy. Why shouldn’t children be the same?

  2. swarmofbeasts says:

    >I like to think that learning Japanese as a second language taught me something about children’s literature – not least that when I have a hard time just decoding the text, I don’t want a realistic sad literary story (even if the text itself is not that complicated). I want fluffy wish fulfilment. I hadn’t yet arrived at the stage of taking pleasure in symbolism and prose cadences, so I had to take pleasure where I could, in magic and inventive bits and happy endings.

  3. >And as I work my way through favorites of my own childhood with my children, I realize that the older books do, in fact, include many of the kinds of features you describe in this post. I still read aloud in the evenings to my 8 year old, and I find myself having to parse these compound-complex sentences using voice intonations, which makes me more aware of their complexity.

    Which leads me again to a previous rant about much current J and YA fiction. The modern emphasis by both educators (what a distasteful word) and parents on “reading level” as defined by some preset scale of word length and sentence length has resulted in books that seem to have been structured more by a computer model than by a living speaker of the language.

    I participate on a number of parent-related boards, and the number one question about books is not “Has your kid read any good books lately?” but “I need books at a 4th grade/Level M/DRA 38…” Everything is about the level, not about the content. BLECH.

    There was a time when Alice in Wonderland was a “Children’s Book.” *Many* of the classic books that kids keep turning to (or, realistically, being pointed at) wouldn’t meet today’s “metrics” for an “elementary aged novel” or “Young Adult book.” Yet – kids manage to read them.

  4. >I am a frequent lurker on your blog. Partly inspired by your earlier post about reading adult literature, I read Jane Eyre (for the first time) and was blown away. I am now reading Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, and agree with you about Eliot being “hard.” You have to concentrate so hard, but when you do, the payback is just wonderful. Her microscopic analysis of gesture and relationships is dazzling. Of course, I now want to re-read Middlemarch, which I loved in college. Thanks for the inspiration: reading adult books again has been a real adventure, and I’m sure that when I go back to the new spring books, which I must very soon, it will be as a newly energized reader.

  5. Anonymous says:

    >Dear Roger,

    I once tried Middlemarch on tape and couldn’t blend it with anything. It required all my concentration.

    One hopes you are not driving heavy equipment while listening…


  6. Roger Sutton says:

    >KT is right: even though you’re listening, you look away at your peril–between Eliot’s packed sentences and the perils of traffic, something’s gonna give. My audiobook sweet spot is located between the subway stop and my house, an uphill walk of about ten minutes.

  7. Andy Laties says:

    >I am reminded of Thomas Hood’s poem about skipping.

    Little Children skip,
    The rope so gaily gripping,
    Tom and Harry,
    Jane and Mary,
    Kate, Diana,
    Susan, Anna,
    All are fond of skipping!

    The Grasshoppers all skip,
    The early dew-drop sipping,
    Under, over,
    Bent and clover,
    Daisy, sorrel,
    Without quarrel,
    All are fond of skipping!

    [many more hilarious verses follow such as:]

    The very Dogs they skip,
    While threatened with a whipping,
    Wheeling, prancing,
    Learning, dancing,
    To a measure,
    What a pleasure!
    All are fond of skipping!

    [until finally we arrive–after the reader has grown tired of the repetitive structure and is ready to skip to the end of the overlong poem–to the last verse:]

    But oh! how Readers skip,
    In heavy volumes dipping!
    ***** and *****
    ***** and *****
    All are fond of skipping!

    [by the way I don’t recall ever seeing this marvelous poem in a children’s anthology]

  8. Roger Sutton says:

    >That’s hilarious, Andy. I wonder how many reluctant readers might join the crowd if they knew that skipping was o.k.

  9. Cassandra Mortmain says:

    >Oh Roger, you are a marvel. Two weeks ago I was deeply (and vocally) affronted by your suggestion that people who read exclusively children’s books need to “grow up”- and then you add the corollary “and read more books like Middlemarch” and once again I am putty in your capable hands. There is nothing quite like Eliot– if I could know for sure God thought the way she did, I would be deeply religious. And, of course, you’re right- reading books that challenge you, and force your brain to stretch and bend is a necessary part of being a good reader. And, in the case of reading Eliot, a better person.

    Lastly, if you ever want an exhaustive explanation of the historical context in which the novel takes place, please do ask me. I wrote a research paper on it Sophomore year and it’s (from my junior Victorian academic perspective) fascinating stuff.

    Alternately, the Oxford World Classics edition has really excellent footnotes. Happy reading!

  10. >I’m finding this to be true with Fanny Burney. I’m reading Camilla and loving it for the most part, but oh-those-sentences that remind me that I don’t know everything.

  11. Roger Sutton says:

    >Middlemarch is making me feel a little daunted at reading pretty much anything else (for fun). Eliot is so good at showing you how people are that I’m afraid anything else is going to seem like amateur hour.

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