Top 10 Books Outside My Comfort Zone

This is such a busy week all my serious reviews will have to wait. In the meantime this meme from The Broke and the Bookish looked fun.


Georges Bataille – The Story of the Eye

Quite the most disturbing book, ever. The narrator goes on a sexual odyssey involving eyeballs, eggs and bull’s testicles. People get locked in wardrobes, priests are killed; every other page produces something new to flinch at. The first time I read this, in all innocence of what awaited me, I was on a train. Of course I was; if I couldn’t have been meeting someone like a new mother-in-law, say, with the volume in my hand, then the next inevitable option would be public transport. But it is one of those cult novels that belong to a tradition of subversive, challenging literature, hence someone suggested I read it. Never again.


Jacques Derrida – Positions

When people say they dislike literary theory, it is usually Derrida they have in mind. He was king of the tortuous sentence, and the kind of madly sophisticated exposition that boiled down to something really quite simple (except you couldn’t say it that way). I nearly threw this book out of a train window (trains, again!) when I was a student, and I’d paid £16 for it, which was a lot of money back then. Thinking I’d discovered him on that difficult, second book, I went to the library and checked out Of Grammatology. The only difference was that it contained 400 pages of impenetrable prose rather than 120. I tried to read the introduction by Gayatri Spivak, thinking there, all would be clear, and, who’d a thunk it, she was even worse than Derrida!  I made my peace eventually with Derrida by turning him into a dipping-in author. Honestly, it works. If you just read a paragraph here and there, he’s quite interesting. It’s the sustained argument that kills you.


Voltaire – Candide

Long-term visitors to this site will be aware of my, ahem, difficulties with Voltaire. Candide is all about people on a crazy journey in which everything apocalyptically dreadful that you could ever imagine happens to them. They get thrown from one traumatic situation to another, while this incredibly annoying philosopher among their party parrots that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, or some such nonsense. A very insightful friend said to me: ‘you can’t bear the thought that an idea should be more important than people’s humanity’, and the reasons why I cannot bear this book suddenly became clear.


Jorge Semprun – L’écriture ou la vie (Literature or Life)

Semprun was a Holocaust survivor, released from Buchenwald in 1944. He published this book in 1994, having taken 50 years to find a way to talk about his experiences in the camps. It is an amazing book, harrowing in places, yet far more gentle towards the reader than many similar memoirs. It has never left me, in fact, it often crops up unexpectedly in my thoughts. Everyone should have a Holocaust book, as a tribute to humanity, as a sense of perspective on one’s own life, and as a way of keeping one’s eyes open to the darker realities of the world. No kidding, though, it takes courage to pick them up.


Joseph McElroy – Night Soul and other stories

I have become very lazy of late. I used to read all sorts of books, which meant that when I first thought about this meme, I had to consider what my comfort zone might look like. In retrospect, I never used to have one. But now I do. These days I tend to read writers who are very clear. I love clarity. It makes me happy. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t intriguing qualities to less clear books. Joseph McElroy is a highly literary stylist, which is another way of saying that language is paramount in his books as a remarkable substance; he plays with it and bends it to breaking point. This sort of writing asks for a different kind of reading, and it’s good to be stretched. Quite what I’ll say about it in a review, I haven’t figured out yet.


Albert Camus – The Plague

This was a book I put off reading for years. I don’t like narratives about illness, and I feared this would be the literary equivalent of a disaster movie in which everyone fell down writhing in torments of agony, their helpless loved ones running about like headless chickens, etc, etc. In fact it’s not like that at all. It’s a brilliant book that asks searching questions about how we behave when in extremis, how to respond as a community to crises, who we become when the ordinary conditions of life are removed. And most of all, how to tell the story of what happens in an extraordinary situation with accuracy and justice. Outstanding.


Robert Graves – Greek Myths

To be fair, the main problem I had was that I must have been no more than 12 or 13 when I tried to read them. I had no idea I would be plunged into a divine bloodbath, or that I would need to find out what words like ‘parthenogenesis’ meant. What a jump from Enid Blyton and the Chalet School girls! I was afraid of the Greek myths for years, considering them inherently traumatic reading, until we bought my young son a tape of the children’s version and I realised they were actually enthralling. You’ve got to come at these things from the right level.


Catherine Cookson

When I was at school, I had a good friend called Caroline who used to read at every single opportunity during the day. Waiting in line outside the classroom, idle moments before the lesson began, idle moments in the lesson, when she could get away with it. I used to sit beside her in class, so I got a lot of over-the-shoulder reading done. She went through a Catherine Cookson phase, and so, by obligation, did I. If you’ve ever thought Cookson was a romance writer, think again. The things that happened in her stories! This would always be the lesson before lunch, and she would have reached the bit where some poor woman would be beaten by her husband, causing her to miscarry in full, queasy detail. Or some young girl would be forced to marry an uncongenial man and be raped by him, in full, queasy detail. Caroline was alternating around that time between Virginia Andrews and Catherine Cookson, and believe me, I thought they came from the same section of the bookstore.


Richard Bach – Jonathan Livingstone Seagull

I have a nasty feeling that Mister Litlove gave me this book when we were mere undergraduates together. Anyway, back then I wasn’t that great with allegories, and spent most of the time thinking, why am I reading about a seagull? I was especially not good with Christian allegories and I spent a lot of time thinking, why am I reading this patronizing drivel? I am not so stupid as to think that what happens to seagulls is the same as what happens to people. Please remove the syrupy tone or bring a real, live person into the story, or preferably both. It just rubbed me up the wrong way, although I do wonder how I’d feel reading it now, when I am much more accepting of all sorts of different perspectives.


Christine Angot – Incest

Angot writes memoirs, but not like any you’ll have come across before. This is, on the whole, a good thing, as the world is probably only big enough for one Angot at a time. In this book she describes the incestuous affair she had with her father (I think her mother divorced when she was young, so she didn’t know him well, growing up) that lasted, if we believe her, into her twenties. Angot is a fearless and brutal narrator, queen of oversharing, but what makes her books rather intriguing is that she is wholly unreliable, too. Just when you are thinking that it is amazing anyone would broadcast certain intimate events to an entire reading public, she’ll come out with a ‘You didn’t really think I meant that, did you? My goodness, you’ll believe anything!’. It is very disconcerting. Keeping the reader outside of any comfort zone is very much Angot’s business, and she does it effectively and well. Read her at your peril.



23 thoughts on “Top 10 Books Outside My Comfort Zone

  1. What a …fascinating…list. It’s a great idea to stretch far out of one’s comfort zone.

    I grew up loving the Greek myths, so glad you’ve now discovered how great they are. I had D’Aaulaires’ illustrated version and it was so beautiful.
    The Holocaust memoir sounds dark and sad, as it must be.

    The Incest book…pass. Have you (also) read The Kiss? By Katharine Harrison, about her own relationship with her Dad. So not going to read these!

  2. I had a very similar experience with Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, though it’s also been a long time for me. Also, you’ve really made me want to read The Plague! I read The Stranger some years ago and have yet to pick up Camus again. I’m not sure why.

  3. I am with you on Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. I would add to that sort of book The Alchemist by Coelho, which was recommended to me by a very dear friend, so I tried very hard to like it but failed. If I had to make up this list for reading outside of my comfort zone, Ulysses would top it. Can’t say as I enjoyed reading it, but I am glad I read it.

    I have fond memories of Candide, but I read it over 20 years ago in college.

  4. Hmmm… this is such an interesing list, and all the books here would be out of my comfort zone except Greek Myths. I read something similar to this when I was in ninth grade and thought the stories were quite interesting–and I also studied a lot of Latin in high (and many of the myths carry over into Latin). But I understand how such a book would be hard for a young person to read. I still enjoy reading the myths and find them so important in understanding great literature. I am working my way through the Divine Comedy now (I am almost midway through Purgatorio), and Greek mythology is such a kep part of this poem–and I am finding the Divine Comedy a work of utter genius!

  5. Good to read the synopsis and your pre-reading sentiments. You’ve certainly framed them in a new light for me. And from what you write about them, I can understand why they are outside your comfort zone… But I’m really surprised to see Jonathan Livingston Seagull in it. I admit that’s the only one I’ve read on your list, albeit I’ve read other titles by some of the authors on your list. I read JLS when I was a teenager. From my vague memory, I think it’s more ‘New Age’ and even ‘Buddhist’ than Christian. From my young mind, I was impressed with the ‘philosophical’ aspect of it, and of course, the photos. Back to your list, you’ve presented them in a way that really piqued my curiosity. Here again is the chance where I’d wait for a second-hand experience, reading your reviews. 😉

  6. This makes for an interesting combination of books.
    I’ve read quite afew and while I still don’t think I have a comfort zone there are things I don’t want to read anymore. I didn’t think Bataille subversive I find it tiring when there is always this rebellion againgst the church or the so-called holy.
    I’m intrigued by McElroy now.
    Voltaire is, for me, one of the most humane thinkers this world ever saw and Candide is a demonstration of it. But you can read him all sorts of ways and he will always divide. On one side those who swear by him, on the other those he makes run.
    I loved The Plague. It is quite a beautiful novel despite what one could expect, isn’t it?
    We read the Greek myths in school, maybe even earlier, around 10 but not a bloody version, not Graves. We also started readind De Bello Gallico at 11 or so… Talk about bloody. That makes Candide lovely. To this day my idea of Latin is 20 ways of thrusting a weapon and of slaying a man. I doubt it was age-appropriate or did make me love the language.

  7. Oo oo I want to play, maybe I will! I can well see that quite a few of these books would be outside my comfort zone as well (eyeballs ick) but isn’t it interesting when you find something you find hard to stand that is then this little revelation in your life, like your holocaust book. I’ve become really terrible at bringing myself to read the hard stuff, especially anything to do with African wars, but a good, solid reminder that sometimes the importance of the knowledge you gain must be allowed to push your personal boundaries aside a little (not always of course, everyone ahs limits and man are there thing I can’t take in my head).

  8. Ooo, what a fun meme. I’ll have to save it for a rainy day. I’ve never read Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but I have a feeling my reaction would be the same. In fact, I haven’t read any of these, although I’ve been wanting to read Robert Graves for years. Love your testimonies to my theory that it can be detrimental to give certain things to kids to read when they’re too young to understand and appreciate them (half the world’s most brilliant classics were ruined for me due to this phenomenon). I guess reading ebooks would take away that “embarrassment on public transport” aspect of reading, huh? But won’t that make life much more dull?

  9. I enjoyed reading your list and the reasons for your choices. I had to read a little Derrida in college and either my classmates were all brilliant or good liars because they all loved him and I sat there scratching my head, trying to figure out what he was saying. As for Johnathan Livingston Seagull, I read it when I was about 11 or 12 and loved it. To me it was a book about being different, embracing your differences and believing in yourself. I have not reread it since then but I suspect if I did I wouldn’t like it much.

  10. I haven’t read any of the books you’ve listed, but I’m familiar with Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. I’m very wary of allegories and I have a hunch that I might react exactly as you did. Maybe I’ll post my own list on my blog…this is a fun meme!

  11. A comfort zone is such an interesting idea to think about. When I saw your title I immediately thought “Hm, what’s outside mine?” and nothing sprang immediately to mind. But then I read your thoughts on Jonathan Livingston Seagull and I realized that Christian allegory is DEFINITELY outside my comfort zone. I so hate to be evangelized to, particularly by relatively modern writers (William Langland and Margery Kempe get passes). On the other hand I too loved The Plague and I hope to revisit in in French before too long.

    The Bataille is on my list for the disgust project…wish me luck. 🙂

  12. Interesting list, I wasn’t able to compile one on this theme 🙂 I completely agree on Voltaire! And strange as it may sound, I had the opposite reaction to Richard Bach: I didn’t mind it at the time, but now I just abhor it.
    (Arrived here through your post on Orsenna, left a comment there.)

  13. I am a total comfort zone reader. I don’t tend to stray too far outside it, and I sometimes think it is a failing as a reader–I should be more open to new and unusual things, but when I do try I often end up setting those books aside. I think my Holocaust book is the one I read by Primo Levi in the summer–I couldn’t even write about it when I finished. And I tried to watch a movie made from a Catherine Cookson novel, but I couldn’t do it. It went back to Netflix partially viewed–too bleak–talk about destructive relationships. Eek. And I think I’ll pass on the Richard Bach book–I don’t do syrupy well–do you give Mr Litlove a hard time about that one?

  14. Litlove, I think that McElroy is wonderfully humane and compassionate, as well as stylistically disorienting, someone who works (as few do consistently) on the level of the sentence and, moving out, the paragraph, occupying several planes of thought and feeling and narrative and style at the same time. I found that only by reading McElroy do I get to understand McElroy, whereas reading, say, Dreiser helped me understand Dos Passos (U.S.A. trilogy, as opposed to older and younger DP). McElroy’s unique. Looking forward to what you have to say about him.

  15. I had to laugh at your comments on Derrida, because when I started reading him for a graduate school literary theory course, I did throw the book across the room. I didn’t bother to read it and just faked my way through the discussions. Later, I picked the book up again and discovered that I had actually been reading Spivak’s introduction! But upon trying to read the actual book, I decided my initial instinct to throw it across the room had been correct.

    When I worked in a bookstore years ago, a customer came in asking for books by “that French philosopher, Diddly-Da.” I’ve thought of him as Diddly-Da ever since.

  16. Broadsideblog – I haven’t read Katharine Harrison’s book although I’ve heard of it. I think I figured I’d done my bit for the incest narrative! It is strange, though, the desire of some writers to make the reader over-intimate with their lives, or to talk about things you might think they’d want to keep quiet! The Greek myths are much better in just about any version other than the Robert Graves one – I still wince to read it!

    Nymeth – oh I’m so glad not to be alone with the seagull-dislike! Thank you for that. And oh do do read The Plague, or The Fall, either show Camus at the height of his powers and are amazing books. I’d love to know what you think of them.

    Lola – lol! whatever draws you to The Plague, is good by me. Candide was also a set text for me, a university one. But I was a callow first year at the time, and it was one of the very first books we ever did. Loads of people love it; it’s just one of those stories I dislike. Can’t bear the Book of Job either!

    Ruthielle – very glad to have another vote in the anti-JLS quarter, and glad you liked Candide. Lots of people do. I admire you for having got through Ulysses. I have never tried, although reading Stefanie’s posts (as So Many Books) as she’s been making her way through it has been fascinating. I’m still glad she’s reading it and I’m not, though! (I’m also noting the Alchemist as one to avoid…)

    Ali – Dante would definitely be outside my comfort zone, so good for you for reading him. You’ll have to tell me more as I’ve oddly never considered it for my TBR pile. I am aware, though, that good knowledge of mythology is essential! I really loved the myths once I had less bloodthirsty versions of them. Have you read Robert Graves? Skim it in the library one day and you’ll see what I mean!

    Laura – lol!! I so understand this. I think I did something similar before I gave up all hope of understanding either Spivak or Derrida for the entirely of a chapter/article/whatever. Seriously demanding reading.

    Arti – when I mentioned this again to Mister Litlove, he said he thought it was more Buddhist too. I think I just caught the spiritual aspect of it and wasn’t convinced by it. And it was a long, long time ago! I enjoyed reading other bloggers’ versions of this meme, thinking of all the books it was nice to read about but not have to read myself!

    Caroline – my son says something similar about his Latin lessons! Oh The Plague is an extraordinary book, and you’re right, it is beautiful despite everything. Bataille IS wearying, in just about every way possible. Never again for me. And Candide does indeed divide (Mister Litlove enjoyed it). I’m always glad when people get pleasure out of any book – it would be too dull if we all only liked the same things.

    Jodie – every once in a while – and it IS a while – I’ll feel, okay, I’m up for something unusual and difficult. I think more often than not in the past it paid off, but it is so easy reading strange things when you are doing so purely in order to write about them and discuss them. It changes the whole complexion of the reading experience. You don’t ask to be entertained, only given something to talk about and that is so different. Nowadays it is only from time to time that I feel able to take on a real challenge and then I don’t always appreciate what I’ve been given. I do feel a bit lazy now, but I know it’s easier sometimes than others to take on hard books.

    Emily – I generally hate public transport, but it is a wonderful place to people watch and see what the nation at large is reading. Harry Potter, mostly, for decades it seems! I completely agree with you that a book at the wrong age spoils it forever more. Dickens is a lost cause to me (although interestingly enough a friend of mine listened to them on audio CD and said they were brilliant that way, much better than reading them, and I think she may have a point). I love picking books for people, but I need a lots of information first, because a well chosen book is a delight but it’s easy to get it wrong!

  17. Stefanie – those classmates? They were good liars. Or else doing that thing of joining in the celebrations for the emperor’s new clothes, which is easy enough to do, after all. When I was thinking of adding Jonathan Livingstone Seagull to the list, I read the blurb on amazon and was surprised it had been about tolerating difference. I don’t remember that at all, although I think I was probably too close to all sorts of intolerance of my own personal difference to find the seagull story plausible! Ah it was all such a long time ago, though, and who knows what I’d make of it now.

    p2c2u – oh do post your own version – and do link to your blog when you next post so I can read it. I think it is such a fun meme and I really enjoyed doing it.

    Emily – oh! oh you have Bataille ahead of you! Well, good for you, and get prepared to tough it out. I think it helps if you know what’s coming, and I also think it helps when you’re reading with a specific project in mind. That research frame of mind is a good way to suspend the more everyday feelings of repugnance. I must say, when I first looked at the meme, I didn’t think I had a comfort zone as such, but it soon became apparent that I did! It’s amazing how many odd, disparate books fall outside the battle lines – Danielle Steele, for instance, and Derrida. Who’d a put those two together? 😀

    Lilian – I agree! Her life is extraordinary; shame I can’t bear her books.

    Scribacchina – oh there’s another meme lurking in there, surely, about books that we’ve changed our minds about over time. I can think of several that would fit. Thank you for visiting and I should have an answer to your question very soon.

    Danielle – I most certainly did give him a hard time, lol! It’s okay; not a mistake he made twice. I think of you as someone who reads very widely and I think your comfort zone is bigger than you give yourself credit for. Not many people would read as many classics as you, or as many books in translation, or rediscover authors that time has forgotten! And really, when you do find the limits of comfort, there’s not so very many books that are worth the stretch. Particularly not when you reach our age, ahem!

    JB – thank you for that! Something I will definitely be bearing in mind when I turn back to McElroy. I do think he’s going to be good – just worried about doing him justice at the moment. But once I get into it, all will be well.

    Kristi – oh what a hilarious comment. I will think of him as Diddly-da from now to eternity! I love it. And I can SO see how you would think Spivak is Derrida; there is absolutely nothing to choose between them as far as impenetrability goes….

  18. I’m not entirely sure what would be on my list — perhaps The Recognitions, which I struggled through, and anything by Neal Stephenson, whom Hobgoblin loves, but whom I find boring and very … hmmm … male, if I can say that 🙂

  19. Bataille – yes a disturbing book but an important one I think. Glad you read it even if you will never approach it again. Have you read Voltaire’s marvellous “Letters Concerning the English Nation”? I’m a great fan of his writing, particularly his essays which probably eclipse his novels. In this respect, for me, he is in the company of Ms Woolf and Orwell.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s