Difficult Books and Notable Articles

Introducing Difficult Books, A Descriptive List

By posted at 6:59 am on October 29, 2009 69

Whether scholars, creative writers, or citizen book lovers, most readers agree on a canon of certain legendarily difficult books—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.  This post inaugurates a new Millions series devoted to identifying and describing these most difficult books: ones we’ve read/wrangled with ourselves, ones we’ve known students to struggle with time and again, ones that, more simply, “everyone knows” are hard to read—those works whose mere titles glisten with an aura of rarefied impenetrability.

covercovercovercoverThere will, doubtless, be those readers who look scornfully on our choices (“Psh. These aren’t that hard, you’re just not smart enough to read them“). Indeed, for myself, that is probably true. And to those so brilliant that not a one of these tomes challenged or vexed them more than a People magazine, we tip our hats.  This list is for the mere mortals among us—who have found themselves reading and rereading the same paragraph of James Joyce’s Ulysses to no avail, who have been reduced to tears by Faulkner’s one-line chapter, “My mother is a fish,” in As I Lay Dying, who may have spitefully broken the brittle spine of her first used copy of Tristram Shandy, who use a volume of Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a doorstop and eye it with a wary distrust when she walks past it (for it is fond of stubbing toes).

But this is also a list for those who, after breaking the spine, picked up the wounded volume, taped it back together, and finished that infuriating chapter, and another, and another… until, triumph!, it was finished at last. And, perhaps, now that we think on it again, having finished, could it be that it was worth the struggle? Could it be that in the pain of it was a tinge of pleasure, of value (not to mention pride)?

The hope is that our series will eventually be exhaustive, and because this is a series and so on-going, we welcome your suggestions. Where we can, we also offer our advice to aspiring readers of a particular difficult work. Our descriptions aim to be modest primers for those about to embark on the reading of a difficult book, as well as small, memorial essays on these (by many measures) great books. Titles will come from many eras and genres—the Renaissance, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the high Modernism of the early twentieth century, and finally our own time, and we include fiction, poetry, philosophy, and critical theory. Titles will be primarily those written in English, but in some cases we include translations. Future posts will cover works by Immanuel Kant, G.W. F. Hegel, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein,  Djuna Barnes, William Vollmann, Thomas Pynchon, Jacques Derrida, David Foster Wallace, Joseph McElroy, Donna Harraway, William H. Gass, William Gaddis, and others.

1621: The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
1667: Paradise Lost by John Milton
1704: A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
1747-8: Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
1759-67: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
1851: Moby Dick by Herman Melville
1922-62: The Cantos by Ezra Pound
1927: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
1964: The Sonnets by Ted Berrigan
1969: The Dream Songs by John Berryman
1969: Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
1974: Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

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69 Responses to “Introducing Difficult Books, A Descriptive List”

  1. Saul
    at 9:58 am on October 29, 2009

    William Gass’s The Tunnel is just brutal, but the people I know who have finished it claim that it’s one of the best things they’ve ever read. Go figure.

  2. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 12:58 pm on October 29, 2009

    I’m one of those people, Saul. I think that should be the front cover blurb: “Just brutal.”

  3. scott
    at 6:11 pm on October 29, 2009

    most frustrating and difficult book for me was Women and Men by Mcelroy, i was never able to crack the code and enter the world. Most challenging books to me are like a maze or like learning a new language, with sustained effort i can usually sort of solve it or start to understand it’s rythms and then it flows pretty well, but Women and Men just completely eluded me. Only Revolutions was a little like that for me too but i didn’t try as hard, the whole structure thing i found annoying, i don’t really want to have to put in manual labor while reading.

  4. Kati
    at 7:55 pm on October 29, 2009

    I found My Name is Red, for all its richness, an incredibly difficult book. The most brutal book I’ve ever read, however, remains the slim Narrative of Sojourner Truth.

  5. Caitlin
    at 8:02 pm on October 29, 2009

    What about something by Heidegger? Being and Time? He really makes Kant and Hegel look easy.

  6. Kirk
    at 10:53 am on October 30, 2009

    After forcing myself to read Ulysses about a dozen years ago because of all the best-book-of-the-20th-century hype I decided slogging through a long book that you are not enjoying is stupid.
    So, after about 50 pages of Infinite Jest I decided it was the new Ulysses and unceremoniously put it down.

  7. the Robot Vegetable
    at 2:03 pm on October 30, 2009

    The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch. I have read the English translation, which “unfolds” the German into a confusing hypnotic and intoxicating reading. Very difficult and quite rewarding.

  8. Jeff
    at 2:55 pm on October 30, 2009

    I found _Women and Men_ though it took a year to finish it, a novel that has grown on me over time, and it changed the way I looked at how sentences can be written. McElroy’s humanity and compassion, attributes not easily spotted amongst Usian or other post-modernists, are evident in this book as he tries to show his characters living on multiple levels, just like we do in our daily lives. Forster’s “only connect” came repeatedly to mind as I read this book, and his most recent, _Actress in the House_, which is similar but easier to understand.

    Difficult? Yes. Readable and eventually comprehensible? Also yes. It requires patience and interest. McElroy’s not for everyone, perhaps, but few writers are.

  9. DC
    at 4:20 pm on October 30, 2009

    Nice to see Gass mentioned, though if anyone ever wanted a reason to read Burton, Woolf, Gaddis, Musil, Kant, Joyce, (and authors not on the above list), Alfau, O’Brien, Elkin, Mann… ah, the list goes on, Gass’s books of loving criticism are a good place to start.

    And the Tunnel is amazing. Wish there was someone of Gass’s abilities to speak for the Tunnel.

  10. Giovanni
    at 5:10 pm on October 30, 2009

    I think Michael Brodsky is probably the most demanding novelist I’ve read, followed closely by Robbe-Grillet, Gaddis, early Beckett and Malcolm Lowry. I recommend cleansing your palate in between difficult books with Richard Yates, whose style is so limpid that it almost feels like you’re not reading.

  11. David Long
    at 5:16 pm on October 30, 2009

    Tristram Shandy is laugh aloud funny. I picked it up a few years ago with no prior knowledge–just wanted a novel from the 18th C. It’s a real treat. At one point, Sterne gets 8 pp. out of a piping hot chestnut falling into a guy’s breeches. This is lofty stuff.

    As for difficult, I nominate JR by Wm. Gaddis. Seven hundred pages, virtually all dialog with no attributions. You have to pretend you’re sitting in a dark room with headphones on, listening to unidentified voices–but soon you recognize who’s talking. There are also, on the Web, guides that will break it all down into scenes by page. This book is a hoot. You just have to let it have its way with you.

  12. Otto
    at 10:43 pm on October 30, 2009

    At Swim -Two -Birds was unscalable for me. I’ve climbed Ulysses, The Recognitions, Gravity’s Rainbow, Tristram Shandy and enjoyed them all, but O’Brien leaves me gasping.

  13. Kristin
    at 10:52 pm on October 30, 2009

    For sheer length, Richardson’s Clarissa should be a contender here. It’s supposedly the longest book ever written in English.

    And though it wasn’t difficult to read, the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell should also qualify. It took me from November 2007 until June 2009 to get through the whole thing, but I took some long breaks from it.

  14. Minerva
    at 11:18 pm on October 30, 2009

    I must second the nomination for Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. When I first started it, I thought I would never finish. It is now my favorite book and I have read it many times. For cunning, wit, pure wickedness, and above all, charm, few villains in English literature equal Robert Lovelace.

  15. Hannah
    at 7:17 am on October 31, 2009

    Add to your list (or reading list): Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus.Difficult, wonderfully bizarre.

  16. Gary
    at 1:14 pm on October 31, 2009

    Though I love all of his stuff, it will do many readers a service to take a look at The Master’s last three: The Ambassadors, The Wings of the Dove and especially, The Golden Bowl. Pages would go by and I would not have known what he was saying.

  17. marc nash
    at 4:00 am on November 2, 2009

    “Mulligan Stew” by Gilbert Sorrentino was just about worth the read with some wonderful jousts with language. The sum greater than the parts? Probably not.

  18. Helen C
    at 7:34 am on November 2, 2009

    Clarissa isn’t that challenging – it’s essentially a bodice ripper dressed up as moral improvement. But it is loooong. That’s the trouble, right there.

  19. stuart evers
    at 8:22 am on November 2, 2009

    Hands down has to be The Waves by Virginia Woolf. Utterly, totally and completely batshit crazy and baffling from start to finish.

  20. Victoria Strauss
    at 10:11 am on November 2, 2009

    Don’t forget Patrick White. Murky, baroque, and baffling, with flashes of brilliance that keep you reading in the hope that all will eventually become clear…which it never does.

  21. Eli
    at 12:15 pm on November 2, 2009

    I found Fredric Jameson “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” to still be a little out of my reach a few years back. I am getting ready to try it out again… It should be a bit more accessible in light of the understanding I have gained since my last whack at it.

  22. genevieve
    at 4:02 pm on November 2, 2009

    All books by Gerald Murnane, if you can find them, are fascinating. Obscure and fascinating. One feels as though the grit in one’s reading eye has been thoroughly cleaned out with…something. They are fictions, sometimes_about_ the act of writing, in many cases, though not always.
    He has a newie, Barley Patch, available from Giramondo Press in Australia, that opens, “Must I write?” As my kids might say, intense.

  23. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 4:54 pm on November 2, 2009

    Carlyle’s a good suggestion. And how about Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren? Still working on that one…

  24. Bites: Hemingway’s African Snows, Colson Whitehead on Your Next Novel, The Virtuousness of Swiss Prisons, and more « Vol. 1 Brooklyn
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  25. Henners
    at 10:40 am on November 3, 2009

    If we’re chucking in works of philosophy (Kant, Hegel, et al.), surely Wittgenstein’s Tractatus goes flying in at the top? Head-in-the-microwave hard.

  26. Dick
    at 12:36 pm on November 3, 2009

    During my late teens I devoured ‘Wolf Solent’ by John Cowper Powys, identifying powerfully with the author’s depiction of the protagonist’s inner world. Subsequently I choked on Cowper Powys’ magnum opus, ‘A Glastonbury Romance’ and the various other Cowper Powys doorsteps over which I attempted to clamber with increasing dispmay. I now have a modest collection of John Cowper Powys first editions, none of which I have read beyond their indigestible first few pages.

  27. EK
    at 8:55 am on November 4, 2009

    For something modern I suggest Theroux’s Darconville’s Cat.

  28. Friday Finds: November 6th | BOOK CLUB CLASSICS!
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  29. Bookmarks for 11/14/2009 — MK Anderson
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  30. tom
    at 2:39 pm on December 8, 2009

    thank god someone else mentioned the difficulty of as i lay dying! i thought I was the only one. i’d also like to nominate the man without qualities, and for something more contemporary, 2666. I read the first four books and just couldnt bring myself to finish the fifth.

  31. Eric
    at 1:11 am on December 21, 2009

    Kirk, please give Infinite Jest five or six weeks of your attention – it’s a rich, rewarding book. Just keep three bookmarks inside it (one to mark your place in the text, one for the endnotes and one for words to look up). I finished it last weekend and haven’t been able to pick up anything else since. Nothing I’ve read describes entertainment or addiction so clearly and thoroughly.

  32. Gary Bletsch
    at 1:45 pm on May 14, 2010

    May I suggest “The Decline of the West” by Oswald Spengler?

  33. Matt Cheney
    at 6:02 pm on June 29, 2010

    Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is one of the few books I’ve ever thrown across a room from frustration. I picked it up and continued, threw it across the room again, picked it up again … and now it’s my answer to anybody when they ask me my favorite American novel. As with so many “difficult” books, once you figure your way in, once you begin to get a foothold, then the magic starts.

  34. David Edelberg
    at 12:35 pm on July 4, 2010

    William Gaddis’ “JR” is indeed difficult and wonderful but even more complex, and again all dialogue with no character identification was his next one, “A Frolic of His Own,” which takes on the American’s craze for suing one another to the nth degree.
    But for sheer intensity of writing, I suggest “Miss MacIntosh, My Darling” by Marguerite Young, two volumes (Dalkey Archive Press), 1300 pages of paragraphless prose poetry and essentially plot-less. It’s that aspect that allows you decades to finish it (it took me four).
    It also happens to be one of Anne Tyler’s favorite books, which she says she dips into during episodes of writer’s block. The book even had a few seconds of fame in the film version of her “The Accidental Tourist.”

  35. Matt
    at 7:06 pm on July 20, 2010

    Looking at the list of Difficult Books covered so far, it looks like they are going in chronological order. That means Ill have to wait for my favorites: Vollmann, Gass, and DFW.

  36. Prangende vraag « Van alle markten thuis
    at 3:49 pm on July 31, 2010

    […] maakten terwijl hij met ontbloot bovenlijf lag te luisteren naar Ulysses en alle andere boeken van deze lijst, bleken helaas niet geschikt voor publicatie. Dat zou maar scheve gezichten geven. Ik geef mensen […]

  37. Andrew McIntosh
    at 2:08 am on May 27, 2011

    @Otto At Swim-Two-Birds harder than Ulysses?!? You must be joking. Without the footnotes, I never would have stood a chance with Ulysses. I never even felt the need for footnotes with O’Brien (and At Swim-Two-Birds is far and away his toughest book).

  38. Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch « Time's Flow Stemmed
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  39. Difficult Books | Progressive Geographies
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  40. Difficult Reads | DailyBookTalk
    at 1:14 pm on August 4, 2012

    […] couple of different websites have made lists of famously difficult reads. (Publishers Weekly and  The Millions) And to be honest, I haven’t heard of many them.  “Moby Dick” of course is almost always […]

  41. Joe Shile
    at 12:56 am on August 5, 2012

    ‘apologies for getting all epistemological, but “hard” is really (really) subjective in this context…..

  42. Cameren Lee
    at 2:09 am on August 5, 2012

    I read Ulysses at age 15, and I don’t regret it.
    Now I’m 16, and on to Gravity’s Rainbow.

  43. SteveRR
    at 1:15 pm on August 6, 2012

    The Cat in the Hat really blew my preconceptions away.
    What is it with that tall, anthropomorphic, mischievous cat, wearing a tall, red and white-striped hat and a red bow tie.

  44. BooksLibations
    at 2:46 pm on August 6, 2012

    I have a few white whales that I will dominate. Did I miss it in the comments? Did no one mention Proust? I’ve read Swann’s Way, but I feel uncomfortable making that statement. I just don’t feel like I paid enough attention. Oh also, Auerbach’s Mimesis. Maybe one day, I’ll figure that one out.

  45. BooksLibations
    at 2:47 pm on August 6, 2012

    Sorry I just realize my previous first sentence made no sense. (I call the books that truly challenge me white whales…usually in my best grizzly old sea captain voice.)

  46. Gaurav Sethi
    at 12:30 pm on August 7, 2012

    I’m 2/12 on that list. I’ve read both Paradise Lost & Ada. Tristram Shandy is next on that list, but not for some while. I just spent an entire summer blogging my way through Ada with a good friend: http://readingardor.tumblr.com

  47. James
    at 6:12 pm on August 7, 2012

    Have read 2/12: Moby-Dick and Paradise Lost. I have to say that, for me, both are superseded in difficulty by Bronte’s ‘Villette’. It’s long, jumps in and out of French during speeches, and has a very devious narrator — the reader has a task to work ahead of her.

  48. Anders
    at 7:47 pm on August 7, 2012

    If “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski is not on this list when its done, it cant be taken seriously…

  49. Robin
    at 9:22 pm on August 7, 2012

    Ashamed to say I’ve read not a single one on that list…BUT (I saved a lot on my car insurance) I DID make it through The Royal Family by William Vollman. I’ll choose waterboarding next time.

  50. Ben
    at 9:25 pm on August 7, 2012

    Several books by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Or Kant.

  51. jordy
    at 1:25 am on August 8, 2012

    i am surprise that the bible is not number one , very difficult to read and everybody have a different interpretation

    it have all murder ,mystery, science fiction , mass murder ,jealousy ,erotic poems ,magic.

    plus not many have read it covert to covert , one problem though no jokes !

  52. Mats
    at 10:57 am on August 8, 2012

    I’ve read (and felt I understood) quite a few difficult philosophers like Derrida, Heidegger, Hegel, Adorno, Baudrillard and even Lacan, but nothing could get me through Being and Nothingness, by Sartre.

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  56. Anders
    at 2:39 pm on August 9, 2012

    Great project, sweet feeling of investment paying off when you have suffered through some entry on the list.

    If the flood gates are opened to french philosophy, well, there are many… but Lacan and his Écrits should definitly be considered. Derrida just need a friendly explanation, but Lacan never intended something as mundane as being understood. Even Zizek admits it: unreadable.

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  60. Nemo
    at 5:57 pm on August 11, 2012

    I second two books: Darconville’s Cat-moreover, you
    reach the point of increasing returns.

    And Oswald Spengler’s Decline-the 2 volume unabridged set with fold-out
    charts will make for instant discombobulation.

    Also Laura Warholic by Theroux.

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  62. Davey
    at 12:17 am on August 15, 2012

    I loved “Moby Dick” when I read it in the 1980s, but that was because I had the now out-of-print Harold Beaver edition from Penguin with its 300 pages of notes telling you what you need to know.
    I have loved the first 3 pages of “Ulysses” each and every time I have read them.
    Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”, ugh.
    Carlyle’s “Sartor Resartus” is actually supposed to be funny, rather than impenetrable. Melville was inspired by Carlyle but lightened up the prose.
    Wright’s “Arabic Grammar” (Dover reprint) is easily the best Arabic grammar I know, but the author assumes the reader already reads Arabic, as well as German, French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic and Ethiopic, so people who had trouble with Spanish …

  63. jj
    at 3:58 pm on August 24, 2012

    My nominee is Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. Clarissa is a walk in the park compared to this.

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  65. Lauren Wills
    at 2:53 pm on March 11, 2014

    And of course the unpublished Chiliad by Simon Otius at unhappened [dot] com.

  66. Enon Sci
    at 4:12 pm on July 13, 2014

    I’d nominate Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and The Illuminatus Trilogy, by Robert Anton Wilson and Shea. The former due to its postmodern and semi-experimental semiotics; the latter due to its length. The people I’ve met who have abandoned these works far outweigh those who have completed them.

    Cloud Atlas, however, is a higher achievement. Amazing work.

  67. Literary Links | Emily Eckart
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  68. david
    at 2:15 pm on November 15, 2014

    i guess the books were too difficult to complete the list.

  69. Tackling Tough Books | Time's Flow Stemmed
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