Thoughts on Readability

So what do we mean when we say a book is “difficult”? The Atlantic (“Readability is a Myth”) had some interesting thoughts on the topic —

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“First, I think it’s more true to the experience of reading to see “difficult” as wrapped up in evaluation of “bad,” rather than as separate. Most people are willing to admit, even if grudgingly, that aesthetic quality is to some degree subjective. You may (as I do) find Art Spiegelman’s Maus a tedious, pompous slog, but that’s a judgment about which reasonable people may differ (even if, of course, all right-thinking people agree with me.) But “difficulty” seems to hold out the possibility of more objective standards — to assure us that these books, over here, by Joyce and Faulkner, are 1000 pounds of pure prose, while these books over there, by Stephenie Meyer or Tom Clancy, are sniveling 90-pound weaklings of meretriciousness. It’s as though “good” may be relative, but “tough” is always and everywhere the same.”

I think readability is a funny term to begin with, and we likely often tend to mean different things when we say Henry James is “difficult” or The Road is “difficult.” Sometimes it’s constructive and refreshing to pause and think about what we mean when and how we come to arrive at those value judgments.

There is a virtue in difficult reading — by which I think of as challenging, long, complex, or outside of our usual reading norms — but I wonder about the line of argument that suggests a stoic moral obligation to finish reading a book, no matter what (Tim Parks had a great read on this, via The New York Review of Books: “Why Finish Books?”).


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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