To read well must you accept not understanding?

This morning I read four books over two hours, and I didn’t understand some of what I read in each of the books. Does that make my reading pointless? Or is accepting that you can’t understand everything part of reading well? I’m not sure, but I’m going to reflect on it here—to learn what I think.

The first book was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. It’s set at the end of the 14th century and is full of references to ancient writers, mostly theological, I’ve never heard of. I could look them all up, but surely it would spoil my reading of a rich book that is an atmospheric whodunit and a celebration of books. Chunks of the book are in Latin, which I can’t understand, and one of the characters speaks in an amalgam of languages (Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, and English). I could understand it all only by stopping and using Google Translate, itself an inexact tool.

This morning I read about the complex manoeuvring by the Avignon Pope and the Emperor with many different religious orders and sects taking different sides. I got the general drift—of religious complexity—but I couldn’t begin to explain it to others. I could stop, look up the history of the time, learn about the orders and sects, and then—the main means to understanding for me—write it all down. But I’m sure that to stop and do so would destroy my pleasure in the book. But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps my pleasure would be enhanced.

Next I read the biography of Napoleon. It has many more characters than a Russian novel and much of the book comprises highly complex descriptions of battles fought by hundreds of thousands of troops over weeks. The book includes maps, but I can’t read them on my Kindle. I could try and follow every twist and turn, but again it would, I think, block rather than increase the pleasure of my reading. Perhaps I’m more like a soldier (even Napoleon) caught in the heat of the battle with limited understanding of what’s happening but keen to know the outcome. I want to know the broad sweep of Napoleon’s life and to try to know more about him as a man. I could have read an entry in Wikipedia rather than an 800 page biography, but the book is marvellous, giving a real feel of Napoleon, maintaining a narrative despite the complexity, exploring the many false stories about Napoleon, and full of excellent quotes, many of them from Napoleon itself. By accepting my poor understanding of some parts I’ve enjoyed a much better read than a Wikipedia entry that I could have followed.

My next book was Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, and I read a chapter on Aristotle’s metaphysics. Russell is a clear and entertaining writer, but I couldn’t claim to understand all of his description of Aristotle’s thinking. This was partly, Russell argued, because Aristotle himself wasn’t clear, and it’s partly because we don’t share the world view of the Ancient Greeks. Then there’s also the problem of language: Ancient Greek was a highly subtle nuanced language, and translations into English are inevitably clumsy. But some of the lack of understanding was down to me. If I’d read every sentence again and again—and tried to write down what I was learning—I could probably have done better. If I was doing a degree in philosophy I would have done that, but I’m reading the book for pleasure—and enjoying it greatly. “What,” Aristotle or Russell might have asked, “do you mean by pleasure?”

Finally, I read a long poem by Emily Bronte. I’m reading a book of her complete poems, which is, I fear, a mistake. I would perhaps have done better to read a book of selected poems, but I’m enjoying the immersion in her poems. Most of them are miserable, full of death, graves, loss, storms, grief, cold, and broken hearts. I find and mark wonderful passages. Her poems are hard to follow, and this morning I read a long poem that seemed to tell a story—but I grasped it only vaguely. Should I keep reading it until I get closer to the narrative? I don’t want to.

We are used to the idea that we don’t “understand” in any rational way music and paintings, although we can enjoy trying to puzzle out paintings like Bronzino’s Allegory of Love or think of Shostakovich’s string quartets as a diary of his life. Most of us also accept that we can never fully understand the best poems—perhaps Eliot’s The Wasteland or Tennyson’s Ulysses; and it would be a great shame to avoid reading the poems, as I fear many do, because we don’t fully understand them.

But am I doing “the wrong thing” by reading prose and failing to understand it all? I’ve convinced myself in writing this piece that I am not—but perhaps you disagree.



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