Reading for Virtue

I love reading and spend most of my spare time doing it, but I’ve been wondering lately what it means to read for virtue. There are books I want to have read, but that I don’t enjoy reading, usually classics of some sort. What’s going on when a book is a slog?

In many cases, I end up feeling rewarded by the book even though it wasn’t “fun.” For example, I’ll confess that Ursula LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness was not a pleasant reading experience for me–I couldn’t stand Genly Ai, who is, unfortunately, the main character. I’m so glad I read the book, however, because the world-building was incredible, and I loved Estraven. LeGuin’s exploration of gender in the book was fascinating, as was her use of invented folklore.

Another example, more recent for me, was Samuel R. Delaney’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. When I first picked up the book, it blew me away. The prologue seared me. Unfortunately, the rest of the book was paced quite differently. I stuck with it because the book has incredible prescience–though written in the 80s, it describes something very like the Internet. Delaney is also amazing at world-building (maybe this is a theme for me), at describing settings, and at inventing believable alien cultures. He plays a language game in the book that rips apart conventional notions of gender. The plot, however, moves slowly. Delaney ends up resolving the book with respect to the main character’s knowledge, but leaves other major threads unresolved. All of this was unsatisfying to me, and difficult to get through. Delaney’s afterword was one of the most incomprehensible things I’ve ever read.

In both these cases, I’m glad to have read the book, but I wonder what it is that can make me find value in world-building, say, and yet makes it hard for me to keep the pages turning. As a writer, if readers came to me with a problem like that, I would blame myself and revise more. As a reader, however, I still tend to blame myself–in the case of these classics, I tend to assume that I’m missing something. What’s the deal with this discrepancy? I’d welcome any comments on how to think about this.

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