On Difficulty and The Name of the Rose

I have not been busy.  It’s just taken me this long to get through The Name of the Rose.

This book was difficult for me to get through.  Surface observations are these: when I would pick up the book, I would frequently find myself trimming cuticles, picking up my phone to play Candy Crush in the middle of a chapter, reading the same sentence over and over, skipping over pages and scanning for where the action picks up again, falling asleep–you know, the usual signs that the book you’re reading just isn’t really your cup of tea.

Some of my problems with books in the past is that they’re poorly written, unconvincing, or have flat characters.  None of this applied to The Name of the Rose. It was well written, other than some minor squabbles I might have with the readability of longer sentences. The book was utterly convincing: I never read a word that took me out of the pre-Renaissance setting, and I’d assert with confidence that the book was a product of plenty of research (at least language-wise, I’ve not enough knowledge to attest to its historical accuracy).  And I thought all the characters were marvelously developed.  From the material-wealth-loving abbot to the subtly snarky, deadpan William to the obsequious narrator, there was no one I didn’t think had their own personality.  And those personalities were developed skillfully and never presented in a way that seemed over the top.  So what made this book so hard for me?

George Steiner wrote an essay called “On Difficulty” which outlines problems readers might have with a text.  I think two of those apply here.  One of those difficulties is called “contingent.”  These are problems that arise when you don’t understand the material discussed in the text due to language or time gaps.  I recently bought my first property, and the difficulties I had with the closing documents were contingent ones–it’s all in lawyer-speak or referred to financial matters that I, up until now, didn’t know the first thing about.  Those were all challenges I could overcome with research and education (though I must confess that I prefer to let the legal-ese translators present at the closing spell it out for me).

One of the major things that made The Name of the Rose difficult for me was the Latin. The more learned reader can probably decipher plenty through knowledge of etymology.  That’s not really my specialty, so a lot of the dialogue went over my head.  Also, a substantial portion of the book was devoted to describing the warring religious sects’ tenets and interactions with one another.  It was impossible to keep up with, and even more impossible to keep up with which people belonged to which sect (and was mad at which other sects).  The religious history laid out was so layered and complex that I had no hope of following it unless I started taking notes.  And frankly, I am out of school and I am tired of taking notes.  So maybe chalk that up to reader error. At any rate, these are difficulties I could have overcome with research and work.  But this brings me to my second difficulty.

Steiner also outlined a difficulty he called “modal,” and this is the kind of difficulty that is a matter of personality conflict between author and reader.  Sometimes the objection might be moral. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste. And I think this is really where my struggles with The Name of the Rose began and ended.  I could have looked up the Latin, took notes on the characters, tried to understand the religious history and theological  complexity being described.  But I didn’t care; the book didn’t make me care.

That isn’t to say I believe the book has some obligation to make me care.  I don’t know what Eco’s belief about the reader’s role in literature is, but I’m not of the opinion that an author is some performer here to entertain me.  I’m just saying that I wasn’t interested enough in the plot and the subject material to do the work.  And that–the difference between my and Eco’s interests–was the modal difficulty that made the contingent difficulty impossible to overcome.

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