14 August 2012

"The Worlds Most Difficult Books"

Lists like this one from the Guardian are always arbitrary - and always thought provoking:
[Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg] started their quest to identify the toughest books out there back in 2009, looking for "books that are hard to read for their length, or their syntax and style, or their structural and generic strangeness, or their odd experimental techniques, or their abstraction."
Here is their list:
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
The Phenomenology of Spirit by GF Hegel
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein, and
Women and Men by Joseph McElroy.
I've not read any of them, unless perhaps I slogged through Swift, Woolf, Spenser and Joyce back in college, but that was decades ago. 

In recent years the most difficult-to-read book I've finished was by Jose Saramago (see Jose Saramago - King of the Comma Splice?); as I note in that post, Gabriel Garcia Marquez can be difficult to read when a sentence is 50 pages long, but in his case the content and style reward the reader sufficiently to justify the effort.

Feel free to add comments re difficult-to-read books that are nevertheless worthwhile.


  1. Oh? Nightwood is one of my favorite books, and I don't know what's difficult about it. It is very dreamy and I highly recommend it.

    "Jenny Petherbridge was a widow, a middle-aged woman who had been married four times. Each husband had wasted away and died; she had been like a squirrel racing a wheel day and night in an endeavour to make them historical; they could not survive it.

    She had a beaked head and the body, small, feeble, and ferrous, that somehow made one associate her with Judy; they did not go together. Only severed could any part of her have been called "right." There was a trembling ardour in her wrists and fingers as if she were suffering from some elaborate denial. She looked old, yet expectant of age; she seemed to be streaming in the vapours of someone else about to die….She was the master of the overly sweet phrase, the overly tight embrace…..

    When she fell in love it was with a perfect fury of accumulated dishonesty; she became instantly a dealer in second-hand and therefore incalculable emotions As, from the solid archives of usage, she had stolen or appropriated the dignity of speech, so she appropriated the most passionate love that she knew, Nora's for Robin. She was a squatter by instinct."

  2. I found To the Lighthouse incomprehensible and loathed it. After fifty pages or so, I gave up and just read the Cliff's Notes. It's the only time that I've ever Cliffed a book.

  3. As a graduate student of theology, Heidegger and Hegel are two of my favorite! While I haven't read these works in their entirety, I've pulled pieces of them apart. It is certainly the most challenging (But, rewarding) work I've done in terms of academic study.

  4. If we're accepting poetry, then I always found The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot rather indecipherable. I had to do it at University and loathed it, as did most other people I know.

    1. How can you loath it if you found it indecipherable? You cannot form an educated opinion on something that you, by your own admission, have no understanding of.

  5. If you loathe a book, I daresay that fact might disqualify you from commenting on it. The comments remind me of my sixteen year old son's frequent comment while learning to drive: " dumb clutch".

  6. Reading is a relationship between 2 parties. Just like you put sometimes more, sometimes less effort into relationships in your life, or how some relationships come in low risk/low reward or high risk/high reward shapes and sizes, books are the same. It's relative. It confuses me when people say books are 'hard'. Marathons are hard for the sedentary. To ultra-marathoners, they're easy. It's the effort, imagination and engagement you put in. 'Finnegans Wake' is like Mozart on a page. 'Listening' to Mozart takes engagement as well, or should...

    1. That was well put. Thank you.

      The world could use less "switching off" and more engagement, I'd say.

  7. Aside from a few German philosophers this is more a list of "The Worlds Most Difficult Books in English Language".

  8. This may come as a surprise, but I'd like to add a comic book: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume 2 and The Black Dossier (I haven't read Volume 3 yet). Alan Moore (the author) has always been an extremely literate writer, but in these books he lets his knowledge of printed fiction loose. He borrows from, and makes references to, so many classic works of fiction that it's difficult to trudge through it all with any solid understanding.

  9. i nominate thomas pynchon - gravity's rainbow.

    it might be better described as a very long work of prose poetry rather than a novel. i lost count of the different languages he uses without bothering to translate. it took me more than half way through the book to recognize that it even had a plot, much less what it was. once you get into it though, it's stylistic density isn't so much a fault as a feature, he wrings such nuance from the language. horrific things are tenderly detailed, quiet moments brood, beauty is fierce and fragile, the perverse humor makes it just palatable enough for the reader to continue wading through the transgressive and tragic. years after reading it, i'm wondering if i have a sort of stokholm's syndrome from the ordeal.

  10. During my senior year of high school I had to read To the Lighthouse and, using no secondary sources, write a 14 page exposition which I then had to defend to the entire English department.

    To this day I have no idea what that book is about or why I was allowed to graduate.

  11. Infinite jest - David Foster Williams -1500 pages and 100 pages of extra notes - long distance sentences - several plots -it took me 3 months to read it -it took the translator 7 (in words seven) years to translate it from english into german
    the hardest book i ever read http://dinnerfornoone.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/dfw-infinite-jest-david-foster-wallace-unendlicher-spas/

  12. House of Leaves by Danielewski, by quite some distance. If you google your way to the history of the book, you'll want toget your hand on a copy no doubt.

    But also one of the most rewarding books i've ever opened (and finished)!

    1. I note it's described as "ergodic literature" -

      "In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text..."

    2. Thanks. I've never heard of this novel and after learning more about it, I'm itching to read it.

  13. Definitely second the nominations of both Gravity's Rainbow and Infinite Jest. I've read GR three times and once you "get" what Pynchon is doing it's an absolute joy -- the problem is that it's a musical in written form. Imagine a very twisted version of The Wizard of Oz set in the dying days of WWII where you get only the words, not the music. Plus Dorothy doesn't get to go back to Kansas at the end.

    I read Infinite Jest for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed that -- three months of dedicated reading is about right. Yes, it's crucial to read all the footnotes when they come up (you really need two bookmarks -- one for the main novel and one for the footnotes) or else you'll miss key details. Like, GR, it's absolutely hilarious in many places.

  14. I also struggled with Jose Saramago, although not the one you mentioned. I had a hard time with Blindness. Love in the Time of Cholera was no easy haul either, I much prefer Marquez's short stories.

    A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth was an achievement due to it's length which wasn't helped by the very small font. I had such mixed feelings when I finished reading it though. I was pleased to have reached the end, but sad to know I wouldn't have the comfort of it the next day.

  15. I had trouble with The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but consider it worth the effort.

  16. Also (and this may seem strange), The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson.

    I was given it when i was 10. I finished all ~1200 pages, but at that age, it was heavy. I didn't like it, but something bothered me and i wanted to understand more about the undertones. Somehow i knew much of it was going past me.

    I was compelled to read it again at 12, but it was still a bit too much. I'm an impatient person in general, but i gave it another go at 16 and it's been firmly cemented among my favourite fantasy fictions ever since.

    It's a simple book by adult standards, but if you want to compel a young reader and foster an interest in quality writing... Well, it worked for me.

  17. Well, there's "Marxism and Linguistics" by the great Georgian Marxist Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili, who also had a notable career in politics.

    You're asking for books that are "difficult-to-read books that are nevertheless worthwhile" - I wasn't so sure about the "worthwhile" part of the work until I saw one of the reviews on amazon, by one Cinderella Bloggerfeller:

    "Hurriedly recognized on its publication in the Soviet Union in 1951 as the greatest breakthrough in the science of linguistics in this or any other century, Comrade Stalin's book on Marxism and Linguistics has taken a long time to work its unique magic on the West. At the time only the visionary Eric Blair managed to appreciate the immense impact the Great Statesman had made on language in general - he knew that Stalin certainly had his way with words. Treasured by a generation of Eastern European schoolchildren for its fresh and engaging style, the work loses none of its charm in translation. The writing is effortless (it's a pity that reading it isn't quite so effortless but we can't all be geniuses of this stature and the book is definitely worth struggling with). You can easily see why Stalin was soon acclaimed as "Velikii Khitry Lingvist" (which might be translated as the Great Cunning Linguist). I was surprised how many of Stalin's insights were still relevant today, for instance the idea that "All literary works are written in some language or other" was a real discovery for me. I was also relieved to learn that there was no need for language to transform itself completely after the Revolution (as were the members of the audience at the first reading of these lectures who were unaware that they had still been speaking Russian since 1917). I found this book a true re-education. A linguistic work to rank with Chairman Mao's " Norwegian Intransitive Verbs: A Beginner's Guide"."


  18. Alnilam, written by James Dickey, is a single paragraph of over 400 pages in which the protagonist is present in every scene. It's difficult, and actually not a very satisfying read, especially from a writer of Dickey's stature, but as another reader mentioned, it sticks with you. I read it in the 80's, and Alnilam is still in my head.

  19. Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban. One of the best novels in the world!

  20. Agree with Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, and House of Leaves.

    But for a book where the ideas (philosophy, psychology, and literary criticism) are the hard part, not the perfectly accessible prose I nominate...

    The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jayne. It's on my repeat reading list somewhere between Godel, Escher, Bach and the Analects.

  21. You Bright And Risen Angels by William Vollman. Was the only book I had with me on an Amtrak ride from Minneapolis to Glacier National Park. One of the few times in my adult life that I've read a book and thought to myself 'my reading comprehension skills are not up to the challenge.' I knew that there was electric stuff going on, and I could tell that what I was working with was probably a work of genius, but simply wasn't up to the task. Still on my to-read shelf.

  22. The first paragraph or so of Finnegans Wake goes like this.

    riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend
    of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to
    Howth Castle and Environs.

    1. It's a famous first sentence:

      "The entire work is cyclical in nature: the last sentence—a fragment—recirculates to the beginning sentence: "a way a lone a last a loved a long the / riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs." Joyce himself revealed that the book "ends in the middle of a sentence and begins in the middle of the same sentence."

  23. Finnegan's Wake is No. 5?

    Shem is as short for Shemus as Jem is joky for Jacob. A few
    toughnecks are still getatable who pretend that aboriginally he
    was of respectable stemming (he was an outlex between the lines
    of Ragonar Blaubarb and Horrild Hairwire and an inlaw to Capt.
    the Hon. and Rev. Mr Bbyrdwood de Trop Blogg was among
    his most distant connections) but every honest to goodness man
    in the land of the space of today knows that his back life will
    not stand being written about in black and white. Putting truth
    and untruth together a shot may be made at what this hybrid
    actually was like to look at.

  24. Why the hell is Ulysses by James Joyce not on that list. In fact, maybe it should be at the top of that list.

    1. No, no, no, it should not be in this list, especially when compared to Finnegan's Wake. My parents had Ulysses on their bookshelf since around 1947 when they were both 18. I recently decided I should try to read it since it has such a high reputation ( as the "greatest", etc). I thought it was a mountain I should try to climb. The trick that worked for me was to start it again after I had read about 30 pages, and then start again after about 50. By the third time, it just clicked in my head and I could read it through. I had been reading the novels of the Aubrey/Maturin saga by Patrick O'Brien and had only one unread out of the series of 21 novels. As soon as I "got" Ulysses - and this happened little by little before I got to the third time - I regretted spending time on O'Brien. Joyce's skill with words is simply astonishing. It was a joy to read the words, even if I still don't understand the story in all its details. Perhaps a fourth time? Persevere. It was worth it.

  25. In one of the Patrick O'Brian Aubrey and Maturin books, one character comments that she didn't hang herself reading Clarissa, but only for the want of a strong hook.


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