Growing up I did like reading a fair bit, though I honestly didn’t get an itch for it until early adulthood. I could be rather picky. While I was younger, I remember I read most of the Harry Potter books, a couple from A Series of Unfortunate Events, Goosebumps, The Hobbit, a random Boxcar Children novel, and a book about a kid raising a raccoon or something. The list I can recall feels rather small. There had to be some superficial element to it that drew me in. I can’t remember the plot to that Boxcar Children book at all, but it had a picture of a T-Rex skeleton on the cover, so I wanted to read it. The novels I had to read for school, especially as I got older, often served as a barrier to my comprehension. At the time, if a book challenged me I was unlikely to want to bother.
I would not have imagined studying literature the way I have since, becoming the avid reading and amateur reviewer that I am now, nor the professional hopes I have for my future. Getting a good handle on literature just wasn’t my forte. I can still recall the feeling of pushing through a book I have to read, understanding some of it, but struggling with the writing all the same. It wasn’t fun, and it could make me feel dumb. I still get it from time to time, like when I’m reading something more scholarly, or more complexly structured like works of epic poetry. It is a problem I rarely encounter with any fiction though nowadays, which I’m grateful for.
With time and practice the difficulty went away, but it wasn’t until years down the line that I was conscious of the difference. Lately I’ve been thinking about that first time I realized how far I’d come. I’m sure anybody who has pushed themselves with challenging reads has felt this. You subconsciously know progress is happening, but with the grind of school and the challenges it presented in my case it wasn’t always easy to tangibly notice. As is often the case when you realize you’re better at something than you used to be, it happened to me when I was made to read a book I’d gone through before. This book was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.
I first encountered the book in Grade 12, where my teacher put it rather bluntly how difficult he believed the book to be. Once we dove into it I saw he was pretty honest about the whole thing. Despite being a rather short book it was a challenge to understand. Even with the narrative frame and other devices made spelled out to me, I found it easy to get lost in Marlow’s narrative. I remember finding it nearly impenetrable.
A year later, I found myself faced with the book yet again, in my first year of university, in the syllabus of a 20th century literature course. Here I was more on my own than ever, and while I was sure it must be easier the second time around, I found myself having difficultly reading through it comprehensively. I still remember sitting outside on campus, on a warm autumn afternoon, reading that book and trying to find my way among its pages. It didn’t trip me up, but I was happy to be through with it once we’d moved on to the next book.
It wasn’t until four years later that I had to read the book yet again. This time around it was for The Victorian Novel After 1860, part two of a pair of courses I resolved to take to get better acquainted with less modern prose. By then I owned my own copy, purchased outside of a campus bookstore. I wasn’t fond of the book, but I was especially obsessed with buying books at the time, and it was one I felt I should own. It had been impressed upon me in such a way that it felt like a milestone, if nothing else, on my path as a learned reader. It was this thin copy I picked up to read Heart of Darkness for the third time.
Before then, getting through it had taken me a while, despite the book’s length. This time, I was astonished to find myself reading through page after page without trouble, recognizing moments in the narrative, which merely stood out as obscure landmarks before, as part of the larger picture that they truly were. I got it. I could pick up Heart of Darkness and just read it, without a second-guess or trouble. I still remember that night pretty clearly. I was on the loveseat in my girlfriend’s (now fiancé) bedroom. What I thought was going to be a chore she would have to bear with for the sake of quiet company I instead had little trouble with at all. I remember excitedly telling her how much easier it suddenly was.
There are more daunting tomes, certainly, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for chuckling at a young man’s sense of triumph over Heart of Darkness. Goodness knows I would probably struggle with Chaucer now just as much as I did with Conrad then. All the same, I wanted to share this moment because it meant something to me, and I think readers of all kinds have a moment like this, where they come back to something that gave them a hard time, and with accomplished satisfaction realize that it’s not so hard as it was anymore.