Difficult Books: Richardson, Sterne, Melville

November 2, 2009 | 6 books mentioned 15 4 min read

coverSamuel Richardson, Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady (1747-8): The difficulty of Richardson’s masterpiece lies almost exclusively in its length: the outsized Penguin Classics edition (9×5.5×3) is 1,500 pages and weights nearly three pounds. I’m not sure it’s the longest novel in English; Richardson’s own Sir Charles Grandison might be longer, and surely the likes of Pynchon, Wallace, and Bolaño have overtaken Clarissa by now—but she is certainly among the longest. Other possible sources of difficulty: the eighteenth-century diction and syntax of Richardson’s masterpiece may seem a little strange or prim at first, as may the social mores of eighteenth-century England, and some readers find the plot insufficient to the length of the book (“if you were to read Richardson for the story,” Samuel Johnson noted,  “your impatience would be so much fretted that you would hang yourself.”) Many readers, however, are ultimately drawn in by Richardson’s hero and heroine and the incredible psychological depth with which he draws them (Johnson again: “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart”). The nature of the relationship between the beautiful, virtuous, otherworldly Clarissa Harlowe and her lover/tormenter, the aristocratic libertine Robert Lovelace is entrancing. For emotional and psychological complexity, you will not find a more impressive novel in English.

coverLaurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-1767): In the words of Steve Coogan (playing himself playing Tristram Shandy in Michael Winterbottom‘s film version of Sterne’s seemingly unfilmable novel), Tristram Shandy is “a post-modern classic before there was any modernism to be post- about.” Sterne’s 1759 masterpiece is an anachronism—a case of modern, even post-modern, literary sensibility springing up almost two hundred years before either aesthetic became widespread.  The difficulty of the book is primarily structural: the novel’s jumbled, non-linear chronology is frequently interrupted by hero/narrator Tristram’s taste for digressions, pre-history, and recounting the doings of minor characters instead of his own life story (he does not get around to narrating his own birth until the third volume of the novel). Tristram patches into his text seemingly unrelated tales, letters, and images as he pleases, and (maddeningly) begins recounting events only to stop short of their denouement (a sort of writerly/readerly coitus interruptus). Some readers just don’t enjoy the novel’s intense consciousness of the chaos of real “life and opinions” and the near-impossibility of representing them accurately in literary form (Samuel Johnson, for one: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”). Sterne’s artful literary approximation of the associative, digressive messiness that is the real mode of human thinking and life plots, his attention to the difference between real time and narrative time, and his constant attention to the author’s determinative and problematic role in the story he tells, are not for everyone. But for those willing to mount their hobbyhorses and give TS a go, I recommend watching Winterbottom’s film (a movie about making a movie about a book about writing a book) as a warm-up.  Also, as one of our readers testified in the introductory post for this series, “Tristram Shandy is laugh aloud funny. I picked it up a few years ago with no prior knowledge–just wanted a novel from the eighteenth century. 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.”

coverHerman Melville, Moby Dick; Or, The Whale (1851): This is one of my favorite books and my choice for the great American novel, but I know others to have found it tough sledding (which, in a Shandian vein, reminds me of Moby Dick‘s Nantucket sleigh rides…). The trouble with Moby Dick, as I’ve gathered, is twofold: First, it’s structurally odd, an anatomy more than a novel: a mix of novelistic narration and plot, reverie and essay, a quasi-scientific treatise on whether the whale is a fish (the dreaded ceatology chapter—which I recommend skipping altogether the first time through), dramatic monologues and dialogues, technical descriptions of the craft of whaling, a miscellany of quotations. Second, I have a feeling with Melville (as with his sometime friend and contemporary Nathanial Hawthorne) that the allegory at work in the novel is a little out of my league as a contemporary person (the allegorical habit of mind is rarely evident in contemporary culture—perhaps in Lars von Trier‘s Dogville), that I might not have the wherewithal to construe properly: What does the counterpane represent? The whiteness of the whale? The doubloon? Unlike, say, Pilgrim’s Progress whose allegory is totally transparent (Obsinate, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman…), Melville’s symbols have an indissoluble ambiguity, a lingering feeling of disparate possible meanings. But this is how it’s supposed to be, I think, and speaks more to Melville’s genius and his slightly mystical taste for signifiers with multiple signifieds. As with Milton, I recommend hearing this book. Moby Dick is really funny—occasionally verging into slapstick (Ah, the meeting between Queequeq and Ishmael! Oh, the shark sermon!)—and its prose is magnificent from start to finish (though heavy on dialect speech, which can be hard to read). With a recording, someone else (I recommend Frank Muller at Recorded Books) has the trouble of doing the dialect and you just have the pleasure and the beauty. For those averse to audiobooks, I am particularly fond of the Norton edition with illustrations by Warren Chappell and notes and commentary by Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker.

More Difficult Books

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Virginia. She is a winner of the Virginia Quarterly's Young Reviewers Contest and has a doctorate from Stanford. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Times, In Character, VQR, Arts & Letters Daily, and The Daily Dish.


  1. I don’t know whether or not you are kidding, but Clarissa, if 1,500 pages, is still longer than any work by Pynchon, Wallace, or Bolaño. Love this series though. Moby-dick is almost underrated in my view. Hope to Darconville’s Cat perhaps make this list.

  2. I didn’t know that Tristram Shandy was supposed to be difficult until years after I read it. This is not to show off (I confess I’ve never been able to finish Ulysses, so there you go), but to say that if you go into it without expectations you’ll very likely enjoy it. I thought it hilarious.

  3. I was entranced by the beginning of Moby Dick in middle school (weird kid) but was completely derailed by the ceatology chapter. I think I’ll try again and skip that part as you suggest, Emily. Good call. Great series!

  4. A professor in undergrad gave me that advice about Moby Dick–and I think taking it changes the whole reading experience. That chapter’s a slough of despond.

    And to Giovanni: So many people find TS delightful and unproblematic from the start but I found it hell the first time through. I suspect that TS is easier for those light-hearted and easy going; I was something of a control freak when I first gave it a shot and I did not find Sterne’s playfulness and his dashing of conventional readerly expectations charming at all. I found him enraging. So glad I’m past that now.

  5. I don’t get people’s hatred of the cetology chapter. It’s like… 20 pages at most. You can’t read something slightly boring for 20 pages? I like it because it reinforces the primary theme of the novel – the impossibility of rationalizing life.

  6. Clarissa wasn’t that difficult to read, but I’d argue that aside from Lovelace, the characters are fairly one-dimensional.

    Agree that TS is probably one of the funniest books ever written, though.

  7. Moby Dick has long been one of my favorite books. It is also one of the strangest and most difficult books I have ever encountered. I finally finished one summer, after several attempts, when I was in nursing school. I would get home from my shift, near midnight, and read it until the wee hours of the morining. It was somehow comforting. And I think one appreciates it more when the journey is done, and one can see the whole span of the novel.

    I have long thought that Moby Dick is essentially about Christianity, and especially about the Puritan form of Christianity that was practised here, in North America. (Hawthorne, of course, was also concerned with this type of Christianity–The Scarlet Letter, House of the Seven Gables, Young Goodman Brown, etc.). I found this rather confirmed when reading Robert Hughes’ American Visions. Writing of the painting Watson and the Shark: “He had been snatched, literally, from the jaws of death, thus enacting one of the commonest tropes in the literature of religious salvation. He was an errant soul saved from the Devil; he was Jonah, delivered from the whale.” Watson’s leg had been bitten off by the shark, just like Ahab. But Watson takes this as a sign, changed his life, and became successful, unlike Ahab, who turns morose and decides to confront the instrument of God. But this is my theory. And theory only.

  8. Another vote for Moby Dick on the all-time favorites list. I like the whaling detail because it holds out the promise that if you understand the whale you will then understand the allegory. The characters are wonderful and the final chapters reward the effort you have made.

  9. Thanks for highlighting 2 of my favorite books (the Sterne and the Melville).
    And for pointing out that they are actually really funny. In fact, a lot of “difficult books” are like that. People look at me funny when I tell them that I think Dostoevsky is hilarious.

    Re: von Trier — his latest (Antichrist) is definitely allegory. I won’t recommend it though for fear of reprisal….

  10. I’m about to read Moby Dick for the first time. Amazingly, I went through high school and college and never read the book nor have I seen any screen adaptation. Of course I know the basic plot from various sources along the way.

    Any background info that might be helpful to understand or appreciate the novel? At my age and with as many classics as I’d like to read, I think one read may be all I get on this one.

  11. There are very few novels in English longer than Clarissa. Sir Charles Grandison is one; Madison Cooper’s Sironia, Texas is another. Beyond that, one may have to go to serial works that appeared as more than one novel.

    It’s so good to see all the love for Tristram Shandy here; I had classmates in college who hated it like a sickness.

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