> Novels are excluded from "serious reading," so that the man who, bent on self-improvement, has been deciding to devote ninety minutes three times a week to a complete study of the works of Charles Dickens will be well advised to alter his plans. The reason is not that novels are not serious—some of the great literature of the world is in the form of prose fiction—the reason is that bad novels ought not to be read, and that good novels never demand any appreciable mental application on the part of the reader. It is only the bad parts of Meredith's novels that are difficult. A good novel rushes you forward like a skiff down a stream, and you arrive at the end, perhaps breathless, but unexhausted. The best novels involve the least strain.
What did he mean by this?
This shouldn't be that surprising. Novels spoon feed you ideas in tiny little bits, spread out over hundreds of pages. It's not that you aren't being fed a lot, but it happens so slowly that an intelligent reader shouldn't have to strain so hard to consume it.
It's an opinion that I disagree with. There's merit to working through a difficult work in that it teaches discipline, and sometimes there are nuggets of wisdom that can only be uncovered in the right frame of mind. On the other hand, novels that don't challenge could be seen as more fun to read.
I found this true of War and Peace by Tolstoy, Tolkein's LOTR trilogy, and Adam Bede by Eliot. However, I did not find it true of Anna Karenina (again, by Tolstoy), or the Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas, or any number of shorter or not "difficult" novels. Jane Austen is very easy to read, and has little to say.
Perhaps he is thinking of a particular kind of novel that explains itself with little difficulty but has much (Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind), but it is too broad a statement to really mean anything.
It's not that long (~400+ pages), nor is it really that difficult. IMO it just takes some getting used to; Dostoevsky (at least in C&P, I haven't read anything else by him) has a pretty unique stream-of-consciousness style of writing which actually makes the book flow very easily after the first ~40 pages which are spent easing into the style, and out of the style of other books read previously.
What exactly do you mean by your references to W&P vs Anna Karenina? Are you saying that W&P did not "demand any appreciable mental application"?
I'm just a bit confused by your lumping together of Anna Karenina with The Count of Monte Cristo; I found the former quite taxing to read--admittedly if only due to its annoyingly brief chapters--and the latter extremely easy, in spite of its great length.
Okay, but I think there are books that are complex and nonetheless super good and useful to read - so I guess that I disagree with the proposition that all the good books are the books that explain themselves with little difficulty and have a lot to say.
Actually, I think I jumped the gun and didn't think my answer through.
For me, W&P required significant strain. I can only think of a few others that I found more difficult (Suttree by Cormack McCarthy comes to mind, but I did not finish that book). However, I didn't find it be anywhere near as good as Anna Karenina. I can think modern books that aren't considered classics that I would recommend over W&P. Tolkein's LOTR trilogy and Adam Bede
I found Anna Karenina to be more difficult than The Count of Monte Cristo, but still not particularly difficult. I enjoyed both immensely, which is why I'm starting to think that all the books I listed actually go with the principle in the OP.