A quickie today, as I promised my wife I’d be ready for coffee with her in an hour, and I’ve spent the past 55 minutes doing my weekly Turkish conversation lesson.
Yesterday I started on next week’s new Mini-Book Club choice (see our Literature page if you have no idea what I’m talking about), Giovanni Verga’s ‘I Malavoglia’, set in a Sicilian fishing village in the second half of the nineteenth century.
I’d picked this one to do next because it doesn’t seem to be so introspective and philosophical as the current one ‘Uno, nessuno e centomila’, and because I hoped it would be a quick, pacy read, perhaps even unputdownable, who knows?
And indeed, from the first two chapters, it does seem that way – there’s a cast of colorful characters, lots of potential for the development of the story, and the narration moves along at a cracking pace. I wasn’t bored at all, as I had been at times in all three of our previous Book Club or Mini-Book Club choices.
And yet, reading the opening chapters of ‘I Malavoglia’ made me quite tetchy, to the point at which I snapped at my wife, who’d asked, innocently, how the new book was going. It would be going a damn sight better if I wasn’t constantly being interrupted, I informed her.
Later I had to apologise and explain that I had been reading that same paragraph for a third time (later a fourth time) and still couldn’t work out who had done what to whom, even though I thought I understood all the words and grammar.
So, what is it that makes a text, and here we’re talking about reading, but the same is basically true of listening texts, hard?
Let’s start with the obvious: if you don’t know most of the vocabulary, or there are grammar structures that you know so little about that you completely confuse the writer’s intent, than that is clearly going to be an obstacle. Though not necessarily an insurmountable one – not all of the words, nor every grammar structure, will be essential to ‘following’ the development of the ideas or events in the text.
What should be obvious, but often isn’t, is that the reader’s motivation is probably the most relevant factor regarding whether a text is ‘hard’ or not. I have Italian colleagues who refuse to read Italian texts (contracts etc.) because they’re too difficult. Sure, they could do it if they wanted to, and better than me, probably. But they don’t want to. I’m the boss, so it’s my job to read boring texts in a hunt for obscure but critical details. I accept that. They don’t.
Similiarly, how many people (me included) have not read extensively in the canon of classical literature in their own language? Or don’t read the serious press? The majority, no doubt, because it’s ‘not for us’. How many times have you heard people say that they don’t like ‘literature’, or classical music, or black and white movies, or jazz, or modern art, or basically anything, for that matter? And how often do you suspect that, were they to give the genre a try, they’d probably like it well enough. It’s just that they can’t be bothered.
With motivation comes our next factor: experience. Any Harry Potter fanatic, who we can reliably assume will have consumed thousands upon thousands of pages of J.K.Rowling’s output, will find the magical adventures of Harry and his classmates much ‘easier’ (and more pleasurable) than a newbie reader. As with any series or genre, having the background knowledge makes a big difference to your level of confidence and to the ease with which you process new information (or perform a task).
OK, next we have the factors that might contribute to what we could call ‘intrinsic’ difficulty – Umberto Eco’s choice of historical context in ‘Il nome della rosa’ (monks and heresy in the fourteenth century), for example.
Verga’s Sicilian village in ‘I Malavoglia’ is a historical context too, but not such an unfamiliar one, perhaps. However Verga chooses to introduce virtually every character in his story, the members of the extended family plus the inhabitants of the village itself, all in one blast in the first couple of chapters. That made me sweat some.
The author’s ‘structural’ decision making is a huge factor in how ‘hard’ a text is, in my opinion. Eco introduces his characters gradually, whereas Verga herds all his through the reader’s consciousness like a stampede of long horn cattle through the piazza of a Sicilian fishing village. Thanks mate.
Eco is no saint in this regard, though. With his monk-detective plot, he brings in his suspects one at a time for our inspection, so far so good. But every chapter or so he abandons the whodunnit entirely in favour of a parallel storyline about heresy and church politics. Yo, if I’d wanted church history, I wouldn’t have chosen a historical novel! But what am I saying? Ah, that’s Eco, kidding with me.
Then there’s the language used to tell the story, and by language here I mean ‘style’ rather than the stuff we language teachers are supposedly expert in. Verga’s villagers are authentically Sicilian apparently, and certainly far removed from the twenty-first century, both of which should make them basically hard to understand. Though it gets easier once you tune in – the human brain has a pre-istalled app which deals with this sort of thing.
In contrast, the monks and lay people who populate Eco’s book speak in a confusing range of styles and about a range of unfamiliar topics, much of which, we must suspect, is done to deliberately make the writing of the book more entertaining, and the reading of it more challenging. Eco admits as much in his ‘Postille’.
Verga sets out his story and tells it consistently, though in a hard way at first. Eco messes with our heads by cooking up an erudite stew of genres and complexity, pulling the tablecloth out from under our repast whenever we’re getting too greedy to know what happens next, so dragging the whole thing out for over five hundred pages (well done to club members who finished it, by the way!)
Which brings me to my last point: theme. Neither murder and heresy (Eco) nor debt and misfortune (Verga) challenge our perceptions of the world, particularly. But then there’s Pirandello and his protagonist Moscarda, raving in ‘Uno, nessuno e centomila’ about the way we perceive the world and are perceived by others in turn. It’s not a book that gets shop-lifted much, I’d assume.
Pirandello’s text is shorter than Verga’s, but I bet I’ll get through the new one in half the time it took me to find out what happened to the person who was not Moscarda, despite the sprinkling of archaic Sicilian terms and fact that each of Verga’s cast of thousands has both a name and a nickname.
This is because Pirandello required that I think, ideally that I concentrate as hard as I was able, which is something that I usually prefer not to do. After which I had to sit a while and puzzle about whether I’d actually understood anything at all (often not.)
Whereas Verga (and to an extent Eco) were telling a story in a much more traditional way. And with ‘stories’, the narrative will carry you along, like a cork on the tide, whether you like it or not and even if your Italian isn’t that hot, which is an important point (and the reason we produce and sell ‘easy Italian reader’ ebooks.)
Is reading IN ITALIAN hard? Well, not necessarily.
If you pick something that is constructed by the author so as to be easy and fun to read (Harry Potter, whodunits) then it will only be as ‘hard’ as your lack of tolerance for unknown words and your frustration with unfamiliar grammar dictate. If you’re willing to gloss over the words that you don’t know, that in any case are not likely to be critical to the plot, and to guess at the meaning of the more complex sentences that would otherwise be above your pay grade, well then, you should be reading authentic Italian texts quite happily in the not-too-distant future. They won’t be as easy as reading in your own language, though, or not for many years at least. But if that’s OK with you, you’re all set.
If, on the other hand, you’re into the classics, well yes, it probably is ‘hard’. Everything we’ve read so far in the Book Clubs has been ‘hard’ for me, in one way or another, and I’ve been reading in Italian for over twenty years.
HOWEVER, I assume that these texts would also have been hard if I’d read them in my own language, English. How many classics of English literature have I read in the last decade? Probably about none. Why not? “Too hard.” So why am I reading classics in Italian now? “For my job.” And aren’t they hard? “Indeed they are.” But? “But I’m enjoying them anyway.”
People who read ‘hard’ texts often do it because they’re hard, or perhaps in spite of them being ‘hard’. But they do it anyway, for their own reasons.
‘Hard’ has taught me something, it seems.
1. You don’t have to be interested in reading in order to learn Italian with our club. Just go to our website and start studying. It’s free.
2. Also free are our EasyItalianNews.com bulletins. Yesterday’s was a good one, I thought. I was telling my wife about something I read it in – I know, she said. I’m the editor, remember? Ah yes, and my eldest daughter puts the webpage together, and my son records the audio. Suddenly they all know more about what’s happening than I do!
3. Next week we’ll be publishing a new ‘easy Italian reader’ ebook: ‘I Malavoglia’, level B1, so rather short and extremely simplified! If you’d rather read the original, go right ahead! It’s available free online. Just search for the title plus ‘.pdf’, or check one of the various online libraries of ‘out of copyright’ classics.
Not into literature? Then browse our Catalog to see all our ebooks, listed by type and level.