But Faulkner's classic tale of a Southern family is a difficult book to end all difficult books. I didn't realize this when I started all those weeks ago. All I knew was that it had somehow wriggled free from my English Lit syllabus, and never came into my orbit since then.
My progress has, however, been massively helped by a new edition from the Folio Society, which sees the first part of the book laid out in 14 different colors that represent different time zones in the narrative.
I have a love-hate relationship with difficult books. Infinite Jest I love, despite – or perhaps because of – David Foster Wallace's end notes upon end notes, his meandering digressions, his interminable descriptions of tennis games.
Ulysses, on the other hand, not so much. I think I made it through about 50 pages through James Joyce's masterpiece before chucking it across the room.
Sometimes love turns into hate. Reading the first volume of In Search Of Lost Time, I remember giving Marcel Proust a spontaneous standing ovation for the way he captured aspects of the human experience. Then I stalled halfway through the third volume. I’ve still got about 700,000 words to read at some point.
The main problem with difficult books is this: They just don’t lend themselves to the 21st century way of life. Proust’s 1.2 million words could be devoured by contemporary fans from the comfort of their art deco armchairs.
Today’s reader has to bat away the awareness of cool new Netflix shows and the insistence of Slack pings or WhatsApp chats. There's always the promise of something new on Facebook. My wife and I recently added a baby to the distracting mix.
Put all that together at the end of a work day and a hectic commute, and the opening 70 pages of The Sound and the Fury don’t stand a chance. A stream-of-consciousness account from Benjy, the first of several narrators and the mentally-challenged son of the Compson family, whose fortunes the book chronicles, it dives back and forth between at least fourteen time zones.
Shifting from the present day, 1928, back to 1898 and on to many other years in between, the book drags the reader this way and that as it pieces together bits of Benjy’s life and the fall in the family’s fortunes — with just a shift from roman type to italics and back again to mark the jumps.
They were designed, Faulkner said, as the "unbroken-surfaced confusion of an idiot which is outwardly a dynamic and logical coherence."
In the second section of the book, narrated by Benjy’s brother Quentin, the action again shifts back and forth between pasts and present. This time Quentin’s more intact mind shifts back to events from his youth in a more controlled fashion. Except when it doesn’t, and he’s compulsively propelled back into recollections from the past.
Faulkner marks these passages with much freer punctuation. The whole thing is dazzling, with seemingly fragmentary sections tied together by recurring themes. It's also the definition of difficult.
Every page demands you stay on your toes. Faulkner himself knew how complex his novel was – he described it to his friend and agent Ben Wasson as “a real son-of-a-bitch” and to his aunt as “the damndest book I ever read” — and he repeatedly expressed the hope it would one day be published in ink of different colors to mark the time periods.
A bookmark with line numbers and a description of exactly which memory / time period we’re in also helps, as do extensive notes from two Faulkner scholars (some 200 pages worth for around 300 pages of text).
It’s not cheap. The slipcase hardback, bound in blocked cloth can be yours for almost the cost of a Kindle: $87. It’s hefty too, at 10 inches by 6 ¼ inches — not something you’d want to lug around on your commute. But it’s a perfect bedrock for your bookshelf.
Is an annotated version the best way to read The Sound and the Fury for the first time? Not necessarily. It takes away some of the challenge – and reward – of wrestling with the text alone, and it also inadvertently provides spoilers. I found out a major plot line involving Quentin long before I would have worked it out on my own.
Colored text itself, on the other hand, feels like a breakthrough for publishing. It's a playful approach perfectly attuned to our era. Learning in general has already moved away from dusty tomes of monochrome text to brighter, shinier and more interactive methods.
The scholars involved in the Folio edition admit in the introduction that its literary merits and successes are up for discussion, but the new edition undoubtedly offers a more accessible way in to a rewarding read.
In a time of short attention spans and digital distractions, could multi-colored publishing work for other difficult books?
Would Proust's interminable sentences be easier to navigate if they switched back and forth from one color to another, allowing the reader a sense of a light at the end of each tunnel?
It's not just tough reads that could benefit from a new look. Maybe George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series could be recast in different hues, with Melisandre's tale a fiery red and Daenerys' a dragon green.
I certainly can't see myself having the time to really do The Sound & the Fury justice without this help any time soon. Working through Faulkner’s layered and allusive prose, line by line at a snail’s pace in a few snatched moments at the end of the day, is a meditative, joyous and colorful experience. Read more...