I’ll bet you forgot I was doing this list, which is a real shame because I rely on you to remind me that I’m doing things like this, which is doubly shameful because like I said before YOU NEED TO KNOW THESE 100 THINGS ABOUT ME. If we have any chance of making this relationship work where I write things and you read them while talking on the phone at work, it is indispensable that you read this informative, timely list. To that end, I bring you number seven – a little known fact about me that may surprise you seeing as how my writing isn’t dripping with intellectual content. It would seem, I admit, that opting for stories about “huge bunnies” and “poop” would give off the impression that I am, how should I put this, ignorant. Actually though, I am a learned man. I went to college. I get British humor. And . . .
#7 I read hard books.
You may peg me for a romance novel kind of guy (it wouldn’t be the first time), but the fact is I read the classics with no regard to size or stature. From Voltaire to Joyce I’ve struggled through books deep and dense and light and allegorical. I was an English and Philosophy major in college, so that means you know I am smart. And if a fine arts education taught me anything, it’s that a fine arts education is worthless. If it taught me anything else, it’s that there is a rich reward in tackling difficult works. Thus my motto has always been: “The harder they are, the longer it may take you to read them, and you might not understand it 100%, but that’s OK because it’s worth it.”
At least that’s what I thought until recently when Amazon.com took a figurative steaming dump right on my the top of my ego’s head.
It seems some years ago, a man named Dr. Rudolf Flesch developed a “formula” with which to determine the inherent difficulty of any written work.
Little known fact: Dr. Rudolf Flesch, who was also a pirate, could not read.
Dr. Flesch even wrote a book about his formula entitled “Why Johnny Can’t Read.” Johnny, devastated by shame, subsequently committed suicide and sales of the book declined. Dr. Flesch’s follow-up, the dark comedy “Why Johnny Can’t Move,” received little attention by critics.
Reading isn’t for everyone.
Some time after Dr. Flesch’s discovery that young children can’t read hard books, J.P. Kincaid, who wasn’t a doctor, reaffirmed the hypothesis and teamed up with the disgraced Dr. Flesch to create the official “index” which measures a text’s difficulty according to a number that corresponds with a grade level. For example, a text whose statistical data yields an 8.3 on the Flesch-Kincaid Index means that a child in the 8th.3 grade will be able to read it.
This late Picasso actually depicts J.P. Kincaid, although historians are unsure which one he is.
For some of their books, Amazon.com now offers statistical data, including the Flesch-Kincaid Index level. And, wouldn’t you know it, all this time I thought I was reading the most difficult books ever written it turns out I was reading at an approximate 9th grade level. Take the last five books I have read:
5. In Cold Blood* by Truman Capote
True story of the brutal massacre of a family in a Kansas farmhouse in 1959.
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 7.9
4. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
One of three brothers kills their father for money and revenge. The longest book I’ve ever read, clocking in at 364,467 words. Gets good in the last two to three hundred words.
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 9.0
3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Six different narratives, including tales of a bisexual power struggle between composer and apprentice and a futuristic tale of Armageddon and a reversion to tribal rule, wind together through a complex journey to and fro in time.
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 7.4
2. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The hardest book I’ve ever read, it took me almost a year to get through the 325,648 words, which are arranged no so much into coherent thoughts as in ramblings of an articulate yet senile swashbuckler. Includes an infamous sentence that runs on for two pages. The premise involves a GI soldier in London whose erections cause enemy Blitz bombs to fall from the sky.
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 9.5
1. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Pages and pages of dense philosophical discourse between people who think they are ill, but really aren’t because they have come to the magic mountain to be “healed.” Regrettably, their “disease” is WW2, and their “cure” is love, and the “metaphor” is 337,525 words long.
Flesch-Kincaid Index: 11.3
All told, those intense labors of intellectual stimulation average out to a 9.02 on the Flesch-Kincaid Index. I think I can say with confidence that in the ninth grade, at age 15, reading the majority of those books would have caused me to drop out of school and devote my life to a trade. I can also say with confidence that Dr. Flesch and J.P. Kincaid have developed one of the worst indexes ever. Sadly, all this proves is that Johnny’s death was indeed in vain.
The humiliation was too great to attend Johnny’s funeral.
So, while my ego may have taken a hit, I am buoyed by the knowledge that this index is a little more than a literary parlor trick meant to amuse small minded people who, like me, now spend hours going through Amazon.com trying to find the hardest book ever written (Chomsky gets a 15.4 so far). Also, Microsoft Word can compute the Flesch-Kincaid Index level for a document, and this blog post reads at a 10.4, so at least I’m writing at a higher level than I am reading.
* Yes, it was embarrassing to read a great American classic after it had won an Academy Award. My only recourse was to never read it in public and, when I was done, to bury it under other books on my shelves to make it seem as though I had owned it for years.