Of Human Limitations

July 23, 2010 | 3 books mentioned 6 4 min read

coverI read The French Lieutenant’s Woman on a bet from my mother when I was eleven years old. A voracious reader, my mother proclaimed the book to be among the dullest she had ever encountered. “You’ll never be able to get through it,” she said. “Fuck if I won’t,” I thought (or might have thought, had my penchant for expletives been the same then as it is now).

A year later, I read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy for my sixth grade library project. I chose the novel for the sole reason that I had heard it was the longest book ever written. It took me a semester to read, and though my presentation (in verse, obviously) lasted only ten minutes, the social repercussions of being such an outrageous, unprecedented show-off lasted easily until I (inevitably) changed schools.

It seems far too grandiose to presume that we are what we read. But if our persona as a reader is shaped, perhaps not by the books we choose, but by why we choose them, then this was my ignoble beginning: as a stubborn, competitive show-off.

I wish I could say that I was drawn to those books because of a precocious curiosity in their subjects. I wish I had lingered over Fowles’ Darwinian pontification rather than viewing it as bland nutrition that made the (disappointingly few, considering the title) love scenes seem that much more flavorful. But apart from the reasons given above, my outside interest in reading those two books was, at the time, negligible.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care for reading. There were many other proper, compelling books that I had proper, compelling reasons for wanting to read. But I didn’t want to read the books I wanted to read. I wanted to read the books I didn’t want to read. Let me rephrase: There was a divide between the books that I wanted to read, and the books that I wanted to want to read.  And the latter category won over the former time and time again.

coverNo doubt the years have stitched up the gap between what I want to read and what I want to want to read, because only children have that much to prove – right? We’ll see. Several years later, in high school, my English teacher assigned Gravity’s Rainbow to our class. This may come as a shock to no one, but about 100 pages or so in, she gave it up as a bold experiment gone hideously awry. Still, she was an unconventional teacher (there was a sign on the classroom ceiling that said, “If you can’t eat it, smoke it!”), so she gave the few of us who wanted to keep reading the option to form a satellite class. In exchange for being able to skip school, set our own assignments and conduct this “class” at our leisure (responsibilities we handled with unwavering diligence, if I recall), we had to successfully convince her why we wanted to continue with this mad novel when (in what I assume to have been her subtext) we had already demonstrated ourselves to be Pynchon-unworthy morons.

Until recently, when I began writing about literature, I’d all but forgotten about that exercise in Pynchon, and what I wrote to my teacher at the time. But though I’m no longer particularly fixated on the psychology behind my persona as a reader, I now desperately want to define my persona as a writer.

I’ve heard it said that when you’ve found your style – whether in writing or any other form of creative expression – like a successful love affair, it just flows. For a long time, I fantasized about writing the sort of obsessively analytical criticism that involves impossibly vast theories and encompasses broad surveys of literary works. (Admittedly, this is a peculiar fantasy.) But now that writing is actually supposed to be, well, lucrative, doubts begin to arise. That genre of writing, for me, is far more about effort than flow. It doesn’t always come easily. It isn’t always so natural.

Oh, well. Perhaps not all of us, as writers, are cut with the analytic capabilities of Harold Bloom. Given years, of course, I might be able to achieve something passably close to maybe the worst thing he’s ever written. But it might be a waste of my potential as a writer (not to mention my finances) slaving to be a second-rate Bloom when I could be a first-rate someone else entirely.

The existential struggle of settling into the sort of writer I am is not so different from coming to terms with the sort of reader I am. Perhaps not all of us are meant to read Gaddis. That’s not such a curse, is it? We all can read Gaddis, we should certainly try, but to fruitlessly labor – at the expense of reading books with which we share a natural chemistry – might once again be a waste. Perhaps we should stick to what we’re good at reading, just as we should stick to what we’re good at writing.

But, my inner Vikram-Seth-reading obnoxious brat whines, I don’t want to just write what comes naturally. I want to write the harder stuff. If writing about literature, for lack of a less irritating word, is my “art,” then what do artists do if not struggle and suffer for their art? And implement unsound financial policies?

I want to read the harder stuff, too. I don’t exactly recall what I wrote to my teacher about Gravity’s Rainbow in school. I probably breezed over the fact that I didn’t understand it much, and that I was intimated both by its size and by the bizarre labels it seems to generate, like: “Requires Proficiency in Calculus for Even Elementary Understanding.” But I do remember writing to her that although I wasn’t quite sure what sort of reader I was yet, I wanted to read Gravity’s Rainbow because I knew that was the sort of reader I wanted to be.

coverSince then, as a reader at least, I’ve come to see the struggle in a very different light. A few years after Gravity’s Rainbow, I struggled through Of Human Bondage – which made the process of reading the novel actually resemble human bondage. Eliot Fremont-Smith, in his New York Times review of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, described the use of the “deliberate stimulation of the reader as part of and means to a total, authentic literary experience.” Struggle is such a stimulation. I was as frustrated by my compulsion to finish the book as I was frustrated by the incredibly unsympathetic protagonist Peter Carey, and the inexplicably poor decisions he made again and again. Peter and I commiserated in our frustration. We united against the author, our common enemy. Finally, on the last page of the book, Maugham writes, “It may be that to surrender to happiness is to accept defeat, but it is a defeat better than many victories.” I knew exactly what Maugham meant right then. And just like that, all three of us were free.

is an associate editor for The Millions. She works for the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NY Chapter of the ACLU. She was formerly a writer for The Atlantic's news website The Wire, and a co-editor of NY media blog FishbowlNY. Her writing has appeared in The Millions, TheAtlantic.com, Newsday, National Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and is partly collected at her website, TheCivilWriter.com. Follow @ujalasehgal.


  1. I, for one, cannot deny the “show-off” factor that accompanies any declaration that one is going to read a “A Suitable Boy” or a “Of Human Bondage.” I confess to feeling a little foolish, however, that neither book appeared on my list of roughly 50 notoriously difficult and/or long novels that I compiled little more than a year ago when I set out to conquer a short list of the most impenatrable novels ever written.

    But my point: Beyond the show-off factor, one cannot dismiss the importance of these novels in appreciating other novels, the ones that have been written since. Can one really talk intelligently about stream-of-consciousness in a 20th century novel unless one has read Proust? Or Ulysses? For that matter, can one really “get” Joyce unless you’ve read the Bible? We can certainly say that “Moby Dick” is the ultimate study of obsession, but unless we’ve read “”Othello,” do we really know what we’re talking about?

    By the way, you’ve surely learned since “A Suitable Boy” that it’s not the longest novel. And the only reason I know that is because one of the books on my short list is “Clarissa,” which I’m reading now, although I was stunned the other day to learn that Richardson wrote an even longer one: “The History of Sir Charles Grandison.”

  2. Enjoyed your piece, Ujala! I, too, have been guilty of reading books because I thought they signified something about me–namely, that I was a smarty pants. I still remember, at like 12 years old, purchasing a Henry James novel, and thinking how incredibly cool I was. I never actually read the thing. Nowadays I push myself to read widely, and occasionally I like to venture outside my comfort zone, but I don’t jump into novels if they feel too much like a multi-vitamin–and nothing more. Some readers, it seems, get off on the challenge aspect of reading, and though that can be rewarding, it isn’t what pulls me to an author or a book.

    I always say, write the book you want to read. Problem solved!

  3. Loved the article. I have also picked up… and put down Gravity’s Rainbow and V many times, they currently sit on my bookshelf collecting dust… maybe I’ll give it another go. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Welcome, Ujala — and thanks for this. The “difficulty” factor, i.e. the torture factor, in reading and writing, is perhaps analogous to the “friction zone” in driving. If you’ve ever driven a manual/stickshift, you know there’s a kind of magic “click moment,” when gearshift and acceleration connect. And that getting into first gear is the most difficult part of learning to drive a manual transmission; terrible noises and clumsy jerking often accompany these first lessons. But once you get into gear, you’re on your way. But: if you stay in first gear indefinitely, if you can’t get into second, third, fourth, etc., then those noises get worse. If one finds oneself stuck in first gear in Pynchon, or in the first draft of a philosophical comedy, then maybe that’s the sign to move on? A half-baked analogy, for sure. But this question of productive vs unproductive difficulty is so profound, in art and life. The million-dollar question. Thanks for raising it.

    (By the way, the “jerkiness” of Of Human Bondage, I thought, was that the prose is so readable, and yet Peter Carey — his poor decisions, as you say — is so aggravating.)

  5. Great piece, but there are still a couple of tomes that may outfox you. I worked my way up to Ulysses by reading Joyce’s short story collections, but having reached the end of that book (and understood a small percentage of it), I understood that I would never even attempt Finnegan’s Wake.

    A Suitable Boy isn’t even in the same league. It’s accessible and linear and fun. It’s just large. I read all 1400 pages over two weeks as I was determined to finish it before a holiday so I didn’t have to take such a large book on the plane.

    I have also read Moby Dick (lots of boring bits), War And Peace (just wonderful) and Infinite Jest (go on, I dare you). These days I think twice about taking on a really big project, but sometimes the reputation is justified and the rewards are there.

    I had a friend growing up who was addicted to James Michener who, it seemed, couldn’t write less than 800 pages on any subject.

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