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November 5, 2013 9:03 AM   Subscribe

50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers. The Internet has provided us with yet another list. How many have you conquered?
posted by Pyrogenesis (263 comments total) 108 users marked this as a favorite

 
Having been told that I was a bad person for not loving some of these books, I feel vindicated.
posted by Melismata at 9:06 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why on earth would they choose Trainspotting over Filth for Irvine Welsh, though.
posted by elizardbits at 9:06 AM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wow, I've actually read five of these. Was not expecting that.
posted by trunk muffins at 9:09 AM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


1! And pretty happy that it was the divine comedy. It was almost 0, which also would have been cool too.
posted by Carillon at 9:09 AM on November 5, 2013


Pet Sematary? Seriously?
posted by mittens at 9:10 AM on November 5, 2013 [40 favorites]


Also this list vexes me for its silly combination of books that are difficult to read because of the subject matter, and books which are difficult to read because the writing is so nonlinear and impenetrable and just fucking bad, in some cases.
posted by elizardbits at 9:11 AM on November 5, 2013 [40 favorites]


Wow this book list is uneven.
posted by beefetish at 9:11 AM on November 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


Three
posted by Windopaene at 9:12 AM on November 5, 2013


I didnt find it a hard read at all - once you settle into the phonetic bits it flows really well. In terms of content I thn k Maribou Stork Nightmare MIGHT be a bit more appropriate, but really Welsh seems oddly placed on the list.

Naked Lunch is likewise a fun easy read if you can deal with its episodic occasionally prose-poemy nature.

House of Leaves is faux-Literary pretentious rubbish.

And how does King end up on this list? Few people are more compulsively readable.

So, there is a list on the internets and I have complaints.
posted by Artw at 9:12 AM on November 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


like seriously who the fuck puts finnegans wake on the same list as sophie's choice
posted by elizardbits at 9:12 AM on November 5, 2013 [22 favorites]


House of Leaves is faux-Literary pretentious rubbish.

Seriously that book was horrible IMO.
posted by sweetkid at 9:13 AM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


It's such a subjective thing. There are several on the list that I did not find tough at all because they hooked me and I cared and therefore they were "easy," in that sense. Others bored the fuck out of me and I gave up. Heart of Darkness? Bored me. Nightwood? To the Lighthouse? Loved 'em.
posted by rtha at 9:14 AM on November 5, 2013


To be more clear re: Welsh comment, I don't think any of his books are difficult to read because of his writing style, I think they are difficult to read because they exult in being repulsive and there is only so much repulsiveness I can take in one go.
posted by elizardbits at 9:14 AM on November 5, 2013


for Extreme Readers

...or for English majors. Or at least this English major.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 9:15 AM on November 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


Yeah, Heart of Darkness, you keep waiting for it to get to the part that makes it this utter classic that people talk about, and then suddenly it's over and you flip back to make sure the good pages didn't accidentally fall out.
posted by mittens at 9:15 AM on November 5, 2013 [40 favorites]


Heh, five. Pleased to see House of Leaves on there, which is how I learned the term ergodic literature.
posted by figurant at 9:15 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Heart of Darkness is better if you have not watched Apocalypse Now beforehand, and also if you spend a lot of time being cranky about colonialism.
posted by elizardbits at 9:17 AM on November 5, 2013 [14 favorites]


See, I was cranky about colonialism and yet, Conrad could not hook me! I started it thinking I would love it and had to force myself to read as far as I did. That was years ago though so maybe I'd like it better now?
posted by rtha at 9:19 AM on November 5, 2013


Thirteen for me, but I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff. My mind starts to wander easily when I'm reading, I need something to concentrate on.

There are some obvious ones missing, of course (it's a list on the internet after all), such as Alain Robbe-Grillet: you make a list of tough reads and you don't include the attempted murder of the novel-as-such? Or The Tin Drum by Günter Grass or The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell for your next hit of hatred for mankind.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:21 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Geek Love? Really? it's not that hard.

i have to agree. half the books on the list are just too boring to read.

i'm surprised Women in Love isn't on there because i've been reading that book for over a decade and each time have to start over and get a little bit futher before i just don't care anymore. (and i swear it's a different story each time.)
posted by sio42 at 9:21 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


You have to be MORE MAD about colonialism and also feel a terrible guilt about enjoying belgian chocolate.
posted by elizardbits at 9:22 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Heart of Darkness is just flat out great, a guy on a boat told me. Well, I think he heard it from someone.
posted by Artw at 9:22 AM on November 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


Geek Love isn't hard, but it's gross. I didn't finish it. I also quit Naked Lunch because of the grossness. What this list has taught me is that I have a weak stomach.
posted by something something at 9:23 AM on November 5, 2013


Needs more Voyage to Arcturus.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:23 AM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


House of Leaves is excellent, but it is also a total page-turner. It's "difficult" for marketing purposes, but it's a pretty tightly-plotted horror story—several pretty tightly-plotted horror stories, in fact, which each keep you in suspense as the other horror stories develop. It is a pretty damn easy read.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:23 AM on November 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


Also: War and Peace, but no Dostoevsky? For real?

rtha: Maybe try reading The Secret Agent before rereading Heart of Darkness.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:24 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ten, and Didion just recently. I would not have been able to read "The Year of Magical Thinking" before losing someone I loved; now, after, I recognize and salute it. Thank you, Joan Didion.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:24 AM on November 5, 2013


Thirty.

I guess I have a type.
posted by penduluum at 9:24 AM on November 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


How can I make fun of this list when they don't even rank the books? An unordered list in this modern age is insulting. Your internet pass will be revoked if the wishy-washy continues!
posted by antonymous at 9:25 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Twelve for me.
posted by jquinby at 9:25 AM on November 5, 2013


What, no The Wasp Factory?
posted by asterix at 9:25 AM on November 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


I had 8. Need to get a hold of Dalhgren one of these days.
posted by thecaddy at 9:26 AM on November 5, 2013


And I'd also recommend The Secret Agent over HoD. Nostromo and The Nigger of the Narcissus too.
posted by jquinby at 9:27 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know. If you don't like reading about the same gloomy African landscape described in the same gloomy, repetitious, not especially detailed way for an entire book, I don't think getting even more mad about colonialism will help you along.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:27 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


argh the wasp factory
posted by elizardbits at 9:27 AM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also this list vexes me for its silly combination of books that are difficult to read because of the subject matter, and books which are difficult to read because the writing is so nonlinear and impenetrable and just fucking bad, in some cases.

Yeah, I didn't even finish with the list having found a few of the selections utter page turners with others among the easiest things to put down ever. Extreme is obviously a vague adjective. Were this an academic situation, I'd throw this list back at Emily Temple and say, "You need to put more thought into your overall framing."



but everybody should read The Painted Bird
posted by philip-random at 9:29 AM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I've read 7…or 8, maybe? Sometimes it's best to try to forget.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:29 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Underworld, Don DeLillo

I put this down not so much because of it was a "nonlinear, character-happy tome," but because I got tired of DeLillo carping on about what a perfect utopia 1950s Brooklyn was. I felt like I was listening to an elderly man waxing nostalgic for particularly treacly version of Americana, which is of course what I was doing.
posted by Panjandrum at 9:30 AM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Pet Sematary? Seriously?

Yeah, any list of "difficult" books that includes Stephen King is setting the bar pretty low.

And if you think The Year of Magical thinking is a tearjerker, then you might want to pass on Blue Nights.
posted by TedW at 9:30 AM on November 5, 2013


As kind of a (recovering?) Burroughs nerd, I'd recommend you don't read Naked Lunch. At least, not at first. Cities of the Red Night is a much better, equally weird and challenging but more coherent introduction to Burroughs. From there, either proceed to Place of Dead Roads and The Western Lands, (or Ghost of Chance) or the Nova Trilogy (doesn't really matter what order--there kind of is a linear narrative, but presented very nonlinearly--but Nova Express is my favorite). Reality Studio is (or at least used to be) a good companion reference for Burroughs, also.

The thing with Naked Lunch is that Burroughs was still only just beginning to develop as an artist, so it's worth visiting for the historical context (the obscenity trial) and to see the seeds of his vision starting to bud, but it's not as fully-formed a work as he would produce later.

I kind of like this list overall, I guess; I'd like to see more stuff I didn't expect at all, but I've read and enjoyed a lot of these. Rereading House of Leaves now, actually. 2666 is one I put down without ever finishing, more because of the subject matter than anything else.
posted by byanyothername at 9:30 AM on November 5, 2013 [10 favorites]


List fails without the Voynich Manuscript
posted by Renoroc at 9:31 AM on November 5, 2013 [20 favorites]


This list needs to include Nick Cave's And The Ass Saw The Angel.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 9:32 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


like seriously who the fuck puts finnegans wake on the same list as sophie's choice

The Modern Library Board, when compiling the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, which I've been reading from #100 to #1 for about three years. Great books, both of them. I've been stuck on Finnegans Wake for a year, but I'll finish it eventually.
posted by ed at 9:32 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Rayuela (Hopscotch) has long been a favorite...
posted by matematichica at 9:32 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


The Codex Seraphinianus

The stone upon which break all the hearts of Tough Readers.
posted by byanyothername at 9:32 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


i am surprised that 1Q84 by murakami isn't on there. its not a "tough" read i suppose but dear god, how he does go on....

and this for sure:
any list of "difficult" books that includes Stephen King is setting the bar pretty low.
posted by chasles at 9:33 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think five or so (although I quite enjoyed harder to stomach books like the wasp factory). I tried to read Canterbury tales in old english, but have only finished the modern translation.

Seriously though, most well written fiction isn't that hard if you've ever tried to make yourself wade through Michel Foucault or such.

I'm pretty sure I could fly through every book on this list in the time it would take me to force myself through the Twilight trilogy.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:33 AM on November 5, 2013


House of Leaves rather than Only Revolutions (by the same author) is an odd choice; the latter is by far the more 'extreme' novel, though also by equal measure the less enjoyable of the two.

If House of Leaves is a horror story with odd structural bits bolted on for emphasis and interest, Only Revolutions feels like it started from a set of formal constraints and worked the narrative back to fit -- it has exactly 180 words per page, split in groups of 90, each group covering a different narrative and upside-down in relation to the other...so that you have to flip the book 180 degrees [SYMBOLISM] to read them. Oh, and if I recall correctly each narrative starts from a different end of the book, requiring the reader to maintain two different bookmarks (or a particularly dexterous set of fingers).

Which is all to say that House of Leaves strikes a far better balance between novelty and novel, but it's not all that tough or 'extreme' of a book.
posted by cjelli at 9:33 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Gravity's Rainbow is currently kicking my ass. I've had to take a break to recharge before jumping in again.
posted by tommasz at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

There’s only so much discussion of whaling techniques and classifications that most readers can take. To those who sail through these chapters, the rest of the reading world salutes you.


I was on a kick a few years ago to read as many of the "classics" that hadn't been included in my undergraduate English major curriculum as possible. I was going along at a great pace until I got to Moby Dick which I eventually gave up on after my unsuccessful attempts to slog through the parts described in this piece.
posted by The Gooch at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


11 wooo Fuck yeah!!! I read 11 of those fuckin books bro! pre-kindle too! Extreme !!

Someone should do a mashup of those alcohol/workout posters and these book covers.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2013


I must say though, of all the lists on internet, this is rather okay. They lay out their principles, and then put together a list that corresponds. There are fewer obvious oddities and omissions than one would usually expect.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


A top 100 list is very very different from a SUPER!! EXTREME!! DIFFICULTY!! reading list, though.
posted by elizardbits at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2013


Not just terrible, also a predictable list: Finnegans Wake? Infinite Jest? Really, how incredibly interesting.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:34 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


My point being that though the list fits the stated criteria, the stated criteria are stupid and bad.
posted by elizardbits at 9:35 AM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


List fails without the Voynich Manuscript

Stated criteria was fiction, so...
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:35 AM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Really, any list of hard-to-read books should include at least one by Dan Brown.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:36 AM on November 5, 2013 [17 favorites]


My point being that though the list fits the stated criteria, the stated criteria are stupid and bad.

There should be an internet list of stupid lists and of bad lists, so that we would all know once and for all.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 9:37 AM on November 5, 2013


don't worry i will let everyone know as soon as i see one
posted by elizardbits at 9:38 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pet Sematary. Really?

Canterbury Tales? High school.

Dhalgren. I agree with Harlan Ellison. I'm not sure why I fought my way to the end.

The Silmarillion, have read several times. It does get kind of dry and crusty a few times.


There was some fantasy book written entirely in a heavy dialect -- "flaycraw" being one of the easiest words to deal with -- and I have no idea what actually happened in it. That one would go on my list if I hadn't forgotten the title.
posted by Foosnark at 9:40 AM on November 5, 2013


Reading Dorothy Dunnett's 6 & 8 volume series without a working knowledge of French and Latin, and neither of the companion volumes I&II is moderately difficult.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:40 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


There should be an internet list of stupid lists and of bad lists, so that we would all know once and for all.

Good idea, but would that list itself be on the list of bad lists? Bertrand Russell wants to know.
posted by TedW at 9:41 AM on November 5, 2013 [11 favorites]


Also, how did neither Lolita nor Ada make the list when the former is narrated by a too-clever-by-half child rapist and the latter describes, through trilingual puns, the world from The Golden Compass?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:43 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I kind of want to make a machine that generates completely random numbered lists just to see MeFites calling tomatoes the most rubbish vegetable, it's a bleeding fruit anyway why is it even on this list WHERE ARE THE CHARDS AND MOTH BEANS WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU GOD
posted by byanyothername at 9:45 AM on November 5, 2013 [21 favorites]


Gulag Archipelago
"Oof. This novel is based on the author’s own experiences as a prisoner in a gulag labor camp. You may think the reading is tough, but you probably shouldn’t be complaining.'

It's not a novel.

++wtf for Pet Cemetery. Another really tough read, if you find this challenging, is "Splinter Of The Mind's Eye".
posted by thelonius at 9:46 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


would that list itself be on the list of bad lists?

It wouldn't be a good list of bad lists if it weren't on it!
posted by hat_eater at 9:46 AM on November 5, 2013


List fails without the Voynich Manuscript

Stated criteria was fiction, so...


How would you know?
posted by leotrotsky at 9:48 AM on November 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


For Heart of Darkness read King Leopold's Ghost first this is required. Then listen to David Kirkwood & Tom Franks (LoudLit 2007) free online, they bring it alive like no other (if you have just read Ghost).

Other books I read Painted Bird, christ almighty should have a warning sticker. Moby-Dick, can't even remember once they go to sea a fever dream. 2666, a bunch of unfinished books under one cover. The dead girls in book 3 (?) permanent PTSD. Kafka, alienated bleakness now a part of my soul. Divine Comedy.. couple levels struck too close to home. Read around age 40, in media res, as should everyone.
posted by stbalbach at 9:49 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Came for the Wittgenstein's Mistress. Was not disappointed.
posted by nushustu at 9:49 AM on November 5, 2013


For me, high on the "tough reads" list is The Alphabet Man, by Richard Grossman.
For the past two decades Grossman has been concentrating on a trilogy of novels entitled American Letters, intended to redefine the nature of writing. Its first two volumes, The Alphabet Man, describing hell, and The Book of Lazarus, describing purgatory, were published by FC2 in 1993 and 1997 respectively. The trilogy’s final installment, The Interstate Bingo, describing heaven, is forthcoming in 2014. The trilogy is among the 39 elements in Breeze Avenue, a 3,000,000-page work conceived by Grossman as a literary analog of cosmic consciousness. This project, whose ambition is to redefine the nature of literature, will be launched online in its comprehensive digital form in 2015 and then installed in a reading room as a set of 5,000 unique printed volumes. An abridged 6,000-page version of American Letters, presented in eight printed volumes, will follow. Additionally, 14 individual books from the trilogy are being published between 2011 and 2015. Works of art in a variety of media including sculptures, installations, videos, photographs, music, and theatrical performances are being produced by Grossman as part of the project.
So... yeah. I really enjoyed it, both in the literary and in the "Achievement Unlocked" sense. Somehow I don't think I'll be reading the rest of "Breeze Avenue", though I do admire his apparent commitment.
posted by the painkiller at 9:50 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm shocked that Dennis Cooper made the list. When one of our professors made us read the George Miles Cycle, I had to bail after the, uh, manual disembowelment in Closer.
posted by pxe2000 at 9:52 AM on November 5, 2013


It's not a novel.

The joy of compiling a list of unreadable books is that you don't actually have to read them.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:53 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I read Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible and then King Leopold's Ghost back to back and that was great, so maybe now I don't feel much of a need to read Heart of Darkness.
posted by rtha at 9:55 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Came for the Wittgenstein's Mistress. Was not disappointed.

And another thing! Where the hell is Beckett?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:56 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Nine read, but another nine that I started and never got through.

I guess at least some of these are tough reads.
posted by kyrademon at 9:59 AM on November 5, 2013


I've never really thought of reading as a challenge sport.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 10:00 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


This list made me check to see whether 2666 (which I WANT to read, but has been sitting next to my bed for forever because it's so thick I can't physically hold it up to read it) has been released in e-book form yet - it has! Finally!

E-readers definitely have made reading some of those long difficult reads a bit easier.
posted by urbanlenny at 10:01 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


My now-fiance used "You haven't read Finnegans Wake. Nobody has read Finnegans Wake" to move from friendly-guy-at-the-gym to boyfriend-material. The list gets me all misty-eyed. (19 outta 50 here).
posted by gone2croatan at 10:01 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


you guys, Pet Semetary was pretty damn scary
posted by bitteroldman at 10:04 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I still periodically check under the couch for murderous scalpel-wielding reanimated babies.
posted by elizardbits at 10:07 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've read one, Heart of Darkness. I'm not sure why it's on this list, I'm a pretty lazy reader and I read through it in one sitting.
posted by octothorpe at 10:08 AM on November 5, 2013


If we're talking about difficult books in general (that's what the list claims to cover) Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason have got to be up there in the top 10, don't they? (I hear tell; I don't pretend to have even cracked them. Hell, I once stupidly tried to read Terry Pinkard's biography of Hegel and gave up after about 40 pages.)
posted by blucevalo at 10:09 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is such a "ha ha, made ya click!" list. As for my suggested missing item(s), how about Anatomy of Melancholy and, hey, maybe Tale of Genji? Since the list is like, "OMG this one is pretty weird" mixed with "OMG this is long" and "OMG this is heavy" I figure Famous Jewish Sports Legends is equally glaring in its absence.
posted by rhizome at 10:14 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Five
posted by fuse theorem at 10:15 AM on November 5, 2013


I'm glad someone above recommended the right way to read Joseph Conrad, because hoo boy I can tell you the wrong way: whatever audio version existed on Librivox about three years ago.
posted by hearthpig at 10:16 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the most astounding part of this list is they didn't spread it across 5 pages. Kudos.

Also, I feel like I breezed through Moby Dick, and got hung up on a lot of others on this list. The "too much whale shit" excuse seems a bit weak though, as honestly you can skim/skip over the whale history parts and not miss too much.
posted by DynamiteToast at 10:18 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Since "hard to read" can apparently mean "heavy to carry around" the list is fine.
posted by The Bellman at 10:19 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Blucevalo, just fiction, although that reminds me of the time I saw a bookplate with a teddy bear in pajamas in the front of Spinoza's ethics.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:23 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I humbly submit The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus
posted by gwint at 10:23 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think the most astounding part of this list is they didn't spread it across 5 pages.

Would've made for some tasty irony.
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:24 AM on November 5, 2013


There Are No Difficult Books, Only Difficult Readers...

...is the title of my new nonology, the first volume of which is due out in stores this December. The $650 MRSP includes a paper knife, a handsome magnifying glass, and the 16 pairs of colored spectacles necessary to isolate the variously-hued narratives overlain on every page. A scant fifty bucks more gets you the Premium-Plus edition, which appends grammars and lexicons for the untranslated conlangs I used to render the novel's streams of consciousness.

Unfortunately, my Kickstarter's already wrapped up, so it's too late to pick up the six bonus prequels, in which the ghosts of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, Witold Gombrowicz, Samuel Beckett, and Mervyn Peake narrate crucial backstory.
posted by Iridic at 10:25 AM on November 5, 2013 [13 favorites]


I had a hard time just reading through this list.
posted by jenkinsEar at 10:26 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Dhalgren did take me a year or so to finish (with other things sprinkled in between)

I know it's less "classic" than most things on this list, but Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell took forever, the constant footnotes really make linear reading difficult.
posted by JauntyFedora at 10:28 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Started 11, finished 6 (though I read Infinite Jest twice).

If you want truly revolting, the Turner Diaries should be on that list.
posted by slogger at 10:28 AM on November 5, 2013


The most difficult book I've ever read in terms of subject matter was Billy Dead by Lisa Reardon. That book hooked me so hard that I actually sat down in the bus tunnel to finish it and was late to work as a result, and left me chokingly aghast. It's kind of a literary masterpiece, which I can't in good conscience recommend to anyone. The best way I can describe it is "stunning." Like a mountain sunset, or the kill hammer in a slaughterhouse.
posted by KathrynT at 10:29 AM on November 5, 2013


I have read a bunch on this list, mostly when I was in high school and college working on my pedigree as well-read and worldly. The most important thing I learned from all of that is that it is okay to not finish a book. Just because the divine comedy is a classic, doesn't mean you have to limp through the last two joyless books.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:31 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I tried Finnegans Wake over the summer (along with some other MeFites on Goodreads)... the group kinda petered out. I know I just had to put it aside and move on to other things. I think of myself as a highly intelligent reader, but I guess even I have my limits.

Also, Gravity's Rainbow - I did finish it but man I can't say I understood any of it. Kept thinking something would happen to make all the pieces fall into place, and it just never did.
posted by dnash at 10:31 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]



Gulag Archipelago
"Oof. This novel is based on the author’s own experiences as a prisoner in a gulag labor camp. You may think the reading is tough, but you probably shouldn’t be complaining.'

It's not a novel.


Good point; also true of Joan Didion's book.

Although I have to say despite my snarky criticisms of the list, it did make me curious enough to want to read some the books on it, so in that regard it is successful.
posted by TedW at 10:32 AM on November 5, 2013


If we're talking about difficult books in general (that's what the list claims to cover) Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason have got to be up there in the top 10, don't they?

"This list is limited to works of fiction, so straightforward philosophy is out" says the very first paragraph of the text, but I guess every thread like this one must necessarily have that one person barging in...
posted by Pyrogenesis at 10:36 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not a novel.

And then there's The Painted Bird which originally wasn't a novel, and now is.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:37 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Just because something is hard to read does not mean that it's worth reading.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:39 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


*whistles Lillibulero*
posted by comealongpole at 10:40 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is extreme reading an extreme sport?
posted by ChuckRamone at 10:43 AM on November 5, 2013


Is extreme reading an extreme sport?

I bet it would be a good match for Slow TV two posts above.
posted by TedW at 10:45 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


What if there was an extreme sports show, and they had skateboarders, BMXers, bungee jumpers, and people reading tough books. They could zoom in on their faces when they get to particularly tough passages. "Oh, look at the anguish on that reader's face. The furrowed brow. Extreeeeeeeeme!"
posted by ChuckRamone at 10:46 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I humbly submit The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Just seconding that this book is wildly amazing, more weird than hard.
posted by escabeche at 10:48 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I ended up with six.

I'm wondering where Dictionary Of The Khazars is on that list.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:50 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


ChuckRamone, could we tell which was the agony and the ecstacy?
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:52 AM on November 5, 2013


To be fair, the article does open with a definition of what it considers a "tough" book:
So for those of you who count yourself tough, here’s a list of books for you: some absurdly long, some notoriously difficult, some with intense or upsetting subject matter but blindingly brilliant prose, some packed into formations that require extra effort or mind expansion, and some that fit into none of those categories, but are definitely for tough girls (or guys) only.
although like everyone else above it seems to me that this is so broad as to be ridiculous.

(And "long" isn't necessarily tough, no? It's "long and dull" that becomes a problem.)
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 10:54 AM on November 5, 2013


I, for one, like the recognition that difficulty has many mothers, and does not just mean "book they told me was a classic but which I didn't enjoy."

Missing book for me was Martin Amis's The Information: a beautifully written book, not at all "difficult" in the William Gass sense of the word, but all that beauty and precision and power is in the service of making the case that human existence is irredeemably awful and wicked and every one of us would be better off dead. Thus: difficult.
posted by escabeche at 10:54 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I third Ben Marcus' "The Age of Wire & String". Incredible book, but not for the faint-of-heart.

Also, Tristram Shandy is one of the funniest books ever and shouldn't be on this damn list.
posted by kariebookish at 10:54 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The list needs more Herman Hesse - or perhaps I'm confusing "tough" with a numb death.

Nietzsche would be appropriate as well. Freud may not belong categorically but I failed spectacularly both times I tried [though I was reading during lunch break which is nearly useless for anything other than entertainment]. Chomsky likewise, read during daylight hours, reduces me to a blankly staring fool.

So 4. The Year of Magical Thinking, To the Lighthouse, Heart of Darkness, Johnny Got His Gun.

I gave a friend "Gravity's Rainbow" for christmas many years ago and he loved it. Does that count? Judges?
posted by vapidave at 10:54 AM on November 5, 2013


ChuckRamone, could we tell which was the agony and the ecstacy?

Maybe the announcers would be able to tell. They could be told what part of the book the reader is at.
posted by ChuckRamone at 10:55 AM on November 5, 2013


tl;dr
posted by clvrmnky at 10:55 AM on November 5, 2013


I rather liked that the list was 50 books that are difficult to read, but for very different reasons. "50 books that are difficult because of their dense impenetrable text" would have been less interesting.

Although I would add Chuck Pahlaniuk's Haunted in the "difficult to read because it turns your stomach" group. I listened to the audiobook while driving. It was only after the first interior story had ended and it popped back out to the framing story that I realized just how very tightly I was gripping the steering wheel.

And good on those calling out The Gulag Archipelago as nonfiction. I read it (the abridged version—normally I'd eschew abridged versions, but this abridgement came well-recommended, and I understand Solzhenitsyn himself endorsed the abridgement for non-Russian readers) not too long ago, and felt foolish that I had once thought the worst dystopias in literature were to be found in fiction. 1984? Brave New World? These are nothing compared to the Gulags.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:59 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I challenge thee to read Internet Routing Architectures by Sam Halabi.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:59 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read four, own seven and was sad to see Life: A User's Manual missing. Since part of my score is due to Pet Sematary, I'll just swap that one in, because.
posted by grumpybear69 at 11:00 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well I got a dozen. Strange list though. For instance, Tristram Shandy was one of hardest books I ever read - as in hardest to put down. God, I love that book. Will definitely read it again.
posted by charlesminus at 11:03 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Read 5 of these. For me, the great white buffalo of unfinished books is Lawrence Darrell's Avignon Quintet. Started umpteen times and each time, just put it down and start something new.
posted by arcticseal at 11:07 AM on November 5, 2013


I've read five (though I'm not proud to have Pet Sematary on that list), and I can honestly say that three (Moby-Dick, Silmarillion, House of Leaves) are among my favorites. Especially House of Leaves -- do NOT let its inclusion on this list put you off from trying it, it's fantastic.
posted by kikaider01 at 11:07 AM on November 5, 2013


I keep thinking of "challenging" books in terms of gross-ness as opposed to literary qualities, but even with that subgroup Riddley Walker seems to be missing here.
posted by pxe2000 at 11:12 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.
posted by Kabanos at 11:12 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've read some of these, but the book I have yet to conquer is Stanislaw Lem's "Fiasco", even though I attempt it regularly.
posted by nerdler at 11:17 AM on November 5, 2013


I feel like we've discussed this before, previously. Upon retrospection, the list in the OP appears to be a bastardization of that other one. (And why do we always reserve tough reading for one season or another?)
posted by Apocryphon at 11:20 AM on November 5, 2013


Infinite Jest, To the Lighthouse, Finnegan's Wake, the Sound and the Fury, Moby Dick...

Oh, so this is basically the list of every book I tried to read and gave up on because [reasons]. Happy to be an extreme Television-Watcher or Cat-Petter instead.
posted by likeatoaster at 11:21 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Joyce's Ulysses has kicked my ass nine times. I will finish it one day, I swear. Finnegan's Wake made the list and I did get through that. Basically, YMMV.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:21 AM on November 5, 2013


Nothing by Morrison? Nabokov? Barthes?

FAIL
posted by mistersquid at 11:23 AM on November 5, 2013


Read 8; enjoyed? Maybe 2.....

The whole thing comes off as pretentious: "let's see how many books we can come up with the average non-English-major never heard of --- oh and just for the heck of it, toss in one or two they might have read, like Moby Dick or Pet Semetary, just so our readers don't feel like the complete idiots we think they are".
posted by easily confused at 11:23 AM on November 5, 2013


Oh boy, that 100 Best Novels List. There's the Board list -- Joyce, Fitzgerald, Nabakov, etc -- and then there's the 'reader's list', yeah.

Rand and Hubbard take 7 out of 10 of the top spots, To Kill a Mockingbird was fondly remembered from middle school, Tolkein and the outlier in #6 Orwell, 1984.

The reader's list.
posted by bumpkin at 11:24 AM on November 5, 2013


WAR AND PEACE is pretty easy to read, it's just very very long. Skip everything involving Pierre, God, and Freemasonry and you're good.

Actually, it's really really good. It's crying out for a massively abridged quality translation, and then you'd read it with your Jane Austen. Love! Drama! Betrayal! Incest! Ruin! Everything.
posted by alasdair at 11:25 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Missing book for me was Martin Amis's The Information

I loved The Information, flew through it, but for me Amis becomes a difficult author just after that. I didn't try Night Train, but Yellow Dog was so unrelentingly bitter and nasty, at the price of depth, that I had to give it up.
posted by mittens at 11:26 AM on November 5, 2013


I didn't find Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko exactly hard to read -- just somehow unsatisfying. It was going somewhere, then it just stopped.

Steven King? Really? Really?

I devoured Heart of Darkness, in, like, 3 days, then tore off into King Leoplold's Ghost & ‎The Poisonwood Bible. I only stopped the tangent because there's so little accessible English writing about the Belgian Congo.

Moby Dick? Meandering, sure. It's pretty plain English, though florid at times, like the sermon at the Whaler's Chapel. Lovely book, overall.

13 was probably too young to try The Gulag Archipelago, but I should have another crack at it.

Missing from the list: My Life In The Bush of Ghosts -- that's an odd one. Under The Volcano. Difficult sure, but 10 X worth the effort. Astounding in its scope. Where's any Günter Grass? Tin Drum maybe no, but The Rat was pretty far out there, & Dog Years is surely more difficult than Proust?

I'll give him The Naked Lunch, though. I slogged through, but man, why?
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:26 AM on November 5, 2013


Odd list. I've read, and mostly enjoyed, seven of these and would say that To the Lighthouse and Moby Dick are my favorites.

Chaucer is in a class of its own. Reading Chaucer in the original is like being let in on a huge secret joke. My college Chaucer course, with five English majors and an enthusiastic professor, was by far the most raucous, hysterical class of my college career. Difficult? I suppose, given that to really enjoy the stuff you've got to dip your toe in some pretty obscure language. Having done that, however, Chaucer is pure saucy delight with a wonderful bawdy sense of humor and I cannot recommend it enough.
posted by kinnakeet at 11:27 AM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Reading Chaucer in the original is like being let in on a huge secret joke.
...namely, that Adam Sandler existed in 12th-century Europe.
posted by pxe2000 at 11:30 AM on November 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Yeah, many of these are more "difficult" because of subject matter than for density of language or complexity of ideas. Most of the list is right up my alley, though. Not sure what that says about me.
posted by Rykey at 11:32 AM on November 5, 2013


There’s only so much discussion of whaling techniques and classifications that most readers can take.

I love Moby Dick with a passion -- to the point that I read it on my phone in the grocery line on Sunday mornings, but my favorite book review ever on Library Thing was the six-word, one-star "Too much information about the whales."
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:34 AM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Nine read, but another nine that I started and never got through.

Pretty much the same for me. There are also a set where I recognize the covers (like Silko and Cortazar) but can't for the life of me remember if I started them, much less finished.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:37 AM on November 5, 2013


Oh! I pretended to have read some of these. Still didn't get the girl.

I pretended not to have read some of these (guess one) as well. Didn't get that girl either.
posted by gentilknight at 11:38 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Johnny Got His Gun? It ain't beach reading, but we read that in my 10th grade English class. Seems like this ought to be split into several lists:

1. Books which deal with disgusting or horrific subjects
2. Books which are written in a clever/precious narrative voice or structure
3. Books which describe difficult-to-understand, intricate topics
4. Books that are physically heavy
5. Books that are very boring
posted by echo target at 11:41 AM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


The Castle. Moby-Dick (The bits about whaling were absorbing. Just pretend it's Neil Stephenson interrupting his narrative to explain something at length.) Proust. Dante. (Twice now, different translations. I am right in the middle of building myself an interlinear pony, one verse in Italian, the same verse in English twice, Hollander translation and Ciardi translation. Idiosyncratic in that I want the English first so I already know what the Italian says and can focus on what it sounds like.) Heart of Darkness. Silmarillion (and the part expanded as the tale of the Children of Hurin, which is the saddest and darkest thing Ive ever gotten to the end of.) Tristam Shandy (I love not getting to the point!) Canterbury Tales (It was just OK.)

Defeated by The Fairy Queen. Defeated by Dahlgren.
posted by jfuller at 11:41 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Reading TO THE X-TREME!!!!!
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:48 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh man, I LOVE Geek Love. I stumbled upon it in high school browsing the public library racks when its bright orange cover leaped out at me. Such a good book.
posted by Windigo at 11:48 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Where's Dostoevsky's The Idiot?!?

It is a most enjoyably complex novel that had me jotting a character chart on the blank pages at the back to keep track of them all and enough thematic intricacy to reflect upon for a lifetime.
posted by fairmettle at 11:51 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm slightly embarrassed that I own more of these books than I've read. But then, I'm something of a book buying addict.
posted by Saxon Kane at 11:58 AM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I like how the list isn't really a list. It doesn't try to group like books in a banal way. It uses a rather vauge meaning of "hard" and then uses the comments to say something, the comments could be strung together into an essay, forget the numbers and list format.
posted by stbalbach at 11:59 AM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah, this seems a good thread to mention this: if anybody bogged down early while trying to read the Life of Samuel Johnson, you must just plod-and-plow through the first part, about Johnson's life before Boswell met him. It's not very long, and when Johnson himself steps into the book it's like the difference between Kansas in black and white and Oz in widescreen Technicolor.
posted by jfuller at 12:00 PM on November 5, 2013


1. Books which deal with disgusting or horrific subjects
2. Books which are written in a clever/precious narrative voice or structure
3. Books which describe difficult-to-understand, intricate topics
4. Books that are physically heavy
5. Books that are very boring


Pretty much describes Dalkey Archive's catalog.
That's not a slam on Dalkey, though-- some of my favorite books are put out by them (and some of their authors are on this list). But they do have their enigmatic, impenetrable stuff.
posted by Rykey at 12:13 PM on November 5, 2013


Defeated by Dahlgren.

I've read most of Dhalgren by skipping around. But this summer, a friend and I were totally both planning to read it straight though and we charged along well enough until one day, when we each confessed that we'd stopped at the [really depressing and horrible part in the apartment building with the family and the violence] and just couldn't bring ourselves to go on.

It's funny, the [really depressing and horrible part] was much easier to read when I'd been skipping around in the book before. When I experienced it as part of this sort of cumulative thing, a deep non-enthusiasm filled me even though I love Samuel Delany.

Infinite Jest isn't difficult either, just queasy-making and very long. I should pick it up again, the last time I read it was before I got prescribed migraine meds and I think that some of my queasiness comes from having read part of it while a migraine was coming on [while lying in the sunshine on my bed in my otherwise dimly-lit apartment in Beijing].

I was thinking the other day about, like, how bleak? The bleakest. Bleakness conflated with difficulty in literature, bleakness conflated with truth content. I was reading a review of what is probably a fairly difficult book of short stories and started to wonder - is it just that I am so much happier than almost everyone else in the world? I mean, all the classy modern books are all about wandering around in a miserable, lonely stupor making terrible mistakes due to your own blindnesses and moral failings and then being reduced to even greater abject misery (or else they're about a little of the old ultraviolence crossed with a lot of autopsies) - and I've been pretty miserable, and I've done dumb shit, and I've made things worse for myself through my own weakness and failings, and I'm sure that a god's eye view of me would be all about the self-delusion and failure...and yet I have never really felt that this was a truth of the world, that it was any truer than anything else. And also, I'm happy a reasonable percentage of the time. So actually, I've been worrying about this - am I happy sometimes because I'm so much shallower than everyone else? Or because I'm just too stupid to realize how dreadful existence is? I always used to consider myself a cynic and a misanthrope, but the whole "books with lots of Very Serious Gore With Moral Implications" plus "books where People Would Have Grave Doubts Except They Are Too Stupid" has made me feel like I must not be understanding the world correctly.
posted by Frowner at 12:19 PM on November 5, 2013 [7 favorites]


They are conflating two different kinds of "hard to read": books with dense or obtuse or confusing prose and books whose subject matter is disturbing.

For the latter, I was blown away by God is a Bullet by Boston Teran.
posted by zardoz at 12:20 PM on November 5, 2013


If the criterion is that it's hard to read, or hard to read while keeping your lunch down, why isn't The Da Vinci Code in here? I find that one incredibly hard to read. You've heard of can't put it down? I've never even been able to pick it up.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:21 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


The other thing I worry about is that what if, when I'm sitting around in a group with people and basically either having a good time or having my loneliness assuaged at least, they are all quivering in existential agony that they are bravely concealing, and the normal state of humanity is 100% more miserable than I am and I just don't communicate with others well enough to realize it.
posted by Frowner at 12:21 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just pretend it's Neil Stephenson interrupting his narrative to explain something at length.

Funny you should mention that. I'm reading System of the World right now, and seriously questioning whether to finish it. I'd almost say his problem is the opposite of Melville's--the non-whale-explanatory parts of Moby-Dick are often funny, mysterious or suspenseful, and keep you reading. Meanwhile, for Stephenson, I just want to beg him to lay off the adventure and keep telling interesting little stories about technology, because he simply can't keep me absorbed with the labyrinthine detail of what his characters are up to. This was especially bad in REAMDE, which makes me wonder why I picked up System after all these years to try to finish it.
posted by mittens at 12:23 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


You're just trying to make me feel old by juxtaposing The System of the World and "after all these years", aren't you.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:24 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


For the latter, I was blown away by God is a Bullet by Boston Teran.

Amazing book. Felt stunned after I read it. I kept wanting to stop reading it and I couldn't.
posted by rtha at 12:25 PM on November 5, 2013


Alphabetical Africa is a fun little exercise. The only difficult part of it is catching the two places where he fucked up.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:25 PM on November 5, 2013


This is a ridiculous list for all the reasons people have cited and more but I am going to say anyhow that I have read 23 of these books, and about half a dozen of them twice or more. (Lifelong difficult book fan.)

The list loses serious credibility for not including Rock Moody, Donald Barthelme, Kathy Acker, Samuel Beckett, or Michael Brodsky. Or Nabokov's Ada. Or any Oulipo books.
posted by aught at 12:25 PM on November 5, 2013


Gonna Have to add Neonomicon on account of the time I tried reading it on the bus then shut it very fast. Also other reasons.
posted by Artw at 12:25 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ten finished - half of those in high school - and four half-read.

I like the idea of a "tough" list, but don't really understand this one. I agree with a few:

Swann's Way - It's so easy to get lost in the flowing language. Tough at first for the dream state it can induce, tougher later the microscopic analysis of every second of one man's jealous infatuation. So worth it. Although my personal theory is that any reviewer who only mentions the "madeleine episode" hasn't actually read the book - as this occurs in the frikkin' prologue.

2666 - Loved it at first, later hated it, had a mefi post deleted about it (too much editorializing on my part), never finished it, and was never tempted by another Bolano novel again.

Dhalgren - Read it in high school, hoping that it would all make sense at the end. It didn't. And I still think: what the hell was that all about? The first book that really belongs on the list.

Others don't belong on any respectable "tough list" at all:

War and Peace - This is only hard with one of the older, drier translations. The modern translations are fantastic, and the story is riveting.

Geek Love, Pet Semetary, Almanac of the Dead - I liked them, but don't recall anything challenging about any of these. This makes me question the whole list.
posted by kanewai at 12:25 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've taken down House of Leaves, Heart of Darkness, The Silmarillion, and Underworld, which is one of my favorite books ever. Heart of Darkness I need to re-read (and it's pretty short, so that's not really a problem - I have the Norton Critical Edition, and the essays that come with it amount to a longer read than the actual story), House of Leaves was not really worth the effort for me, and I barely remember a damn thing about the Silmarillion. Infinite Jest and 2666 are sitting on my shelf, waiting.
posted by LionIndex at 12:28 PM on November 5, 2013


Four. And two of them I've read twice. I'm not sure what that says about me.
posted by Aznable at 12:29 PM on November 5, 2013


This was especially bad in REAMDE, which makes me wonder why I picked up System after all these years to try to finish it.

Honestly I don't think I've enjoyed anything of his after Cryptonomicon, which was in fact fantastic, but it's sort of the point after which his newly developed "I'm writing a fugue not a hymn" style becomes completely intolerable.
posted by atbash at 12:31 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I third Ben Marcus' "The Age of Wire & String". Incredible book, but not for the faint-of-heart.

Yes, as well as The Flame Alphabet. Intense and confusing and very disturbing. (But worth it, imo.)
posted by aught at 12:34 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Finnegan's Wake made the list and I did get through that.

The trick with FW is to read it like listening to music rather than reading for plot and surface meaning. (I've sometimes wondered if there's a correlation between people who like it and those who also like 12 tone classical music or bebop jazz.) It is to reading like some kind of advanced impossible haut cuisine cooking technique is to cooking.
posted by aught at 12:46 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


"I'm writing a fugue not a hymn"

I've never heard this before but I think that fits well in comparing Gravity's Rainbow to, say, The Crying of Lot 49. Of which I think the fugue GR is the better, but one could disagree.

I guess maybe I'm also saying Pynchon is the better version of Stephenson
posted by kiltedtaco at 12:46 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Or any Oulipo books.

Alphabetical Africa is considered at least Oulipo adjacent. It's covered in Atlas Press's Oulipo Compendium.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 12:53 PM on November 5, 2013


My secret test for whether or not people are loathsome wannabe intellectuals is if they reference War and Peace as if it were at all challenging.

Jesus people it's long but it's not that much longer than Gone With the Wind (which cribs from it shamelessly) and once you figure out the names it's all downhill from there, screaming at Pierre to get over the MPDG the whole way.
posted by winna at 12:56 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Kinda surprised "Les Mis" and "The Bible" aren't on there. One's full of endless asides describing tedious historical details that no one cares about and the other has a bunch of French people (ba-dum-ching!).

But seriously, "War and Peace" but no "Les Miserables?" I've read W&P multiple times but listening to the audio version of Les Mis filled my commute with many "I'd rather listen to road sounds now" days.

(also, "The Wasp Factory"? I didn't think there was much 'tough' about it, but maybe I read a different wasp factory)
posted by ghostiger at 1:00 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wasp Factory II: Fight of the Bumblebee
posted by mittens at 1:01 PM on November 5, 2013


Yeah, if you're gonna put Iain Banks in there, The Bridge might be closer in the nonlinear narrative sense, and Feersum Endgin in the actual work to get from one page to the next sense. But he's so compulsively readable that no one who's susceptible to his books is going to call him difficult. The Wasp Factory isn't even his most awful book in terms of, y'know, the stuff that happens it. Complicity comes to mind as well, and plenty of his SF, though the exoticism of the settings has a way of softening the blow in those.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:06 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don't let this list scare you off Moby Dick. Moby Dick is the best book. I think it has so many passionate backers because we are scared that we might have accidentally missed reading it.
posted by velebita at 1:07 PM on November 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


What does it mean that a book is "difficult" anyway?

Honestly, Dhalgren isn't "difficult" the way my accounting book is difficult - I can sit down and read any section of it easily, get a lot of pleasure from many sequences...if anything, it is so rich a textual experience that I don't gallop through it the way I might something else. It's your classic "single square of Vosges dark chocolate versus Cadbury bar". Now, as often as not I am happy with a Cadbury bar, or at least a Green and Black, but I wouldn't say that Vosges is "difficult" and Green and Black is "easy".

Although seriously, those of us who grew up reading fluently can way overestimate how easily others read and how accessible various books are. I did a class recently where we read "Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones", which, okay, the crime plot combined with the loopy-sixties-campy style means that you're not always 100% sure exactly who is committing what infraction, but to me it's easy to read and find interesting even if you're not getting all the details. And there was a perfectly lovely woman in the class who just....hadn't read that much. She had lots to say, she was a great addition to the class, she had cool life experience which she brought to bear on the text - but that story ranked as really quite difficult for her. No notion what she would have made of War and Peace.

But anyway, my point being that the more fluent you are, the less you experience books as "difficult" versus "non-difficult", and this really has almost nothing to do with how smart or insightful you are.
posted by Frowner at 1:09 PM on November 5, 2013


Reading James Fenimore Cooper can certainly be a slog.
posted by detachd at 1:09 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Freakin' Dahlgren . . . not even my Doors-obsessed teenage self couldn't get to the end of that.
posted by Camofrog at 1:13 PM on November 5, 2013


I agree, Moby Dick doesn't belong here. It's long, but it's funny, it's a page turner, it's exciting. Tristam Shandy is funny, too. Take them both out and add more Virginia Woolf.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:22 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, I had gone back to doing work here when I realized, no Flann O'Brien on that list either. (Though someone did mention literary publisher Dalkey Archive, which is named for one of his books.)

Alphabetical Africa is considered at least Oulipo adjacent. It's covered in Atlas Press's Oulipo Compendium.

Hm. I've never seen Abish mentioned as an Oulipo writer before. Harry Mathews is the only American I can think of actually associated with the group. The technique is similar, however, I agree.
posted by aught at 1:30 PM on November 5, 2013


If they're going to go ahead and include short story collections, why not Borges or Calvino, who could also get in for If on a Winter's night a traveller...
posted by LionIndex at 1:31 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I've read a dozen, started and dropped half a dozen more (and boy do i hate to 'not finish' a book).
I'm surprised JR is on the list..does anyone even attempt JR without having first conquered The Recognitions, which absolutely belongs on this list?
Also, was surprised not to see Zeno's Conscience
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:31 PM on November 5, 2013


I haven't read most of these and am not especially broadly educated in litritchur, so I am not too well calibrated to what's on this list. Have read (or at least had my eyes in front of) Heart of Darkness and Pet Sematary (which, what the hell? are they joking? I mean, if you want to include a King Slog, how about the unabridged Stand? or IT? Anyway, not a huge king fan but he seems to have no reasonable place on this list...)

puff, pant

where was I? Hm. Read about half of the DeLillo, about 5 pages of the silmarillion, and once tried to get through a DFW book on Calculus that was tooooo horrifically boring and footnoted to finish even though it was only about 100 very small pages.

Where does The Illuminatus! trilogy rate on this list? Or Eco's Foucault's Pendulum?
posted by hearthpig at 1:35 PM on November 5, 2013


Looking at the Dalkey Archive catalogue reminded me of John Barth and Carole Maso, both of whose books I have wrestled with and loved, but it's been more than a decade since I've read anything by either.
posted by aught at 1:38 PM on November 5, 2013


Scarlet Letter. FUCK SCARLET LETTER!
posted by symbioid at 1:38 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


FUCK SCARLET LETTER!

What we did had a consecration all it's own.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:43 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Scarlet Letter. FUCK SCARLET LETTER!

No, the set of difficult novels and the set of novels that fucking literally spell out their own symbolism for the chuckleheads in the back row do not fucking overlap
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:46 PM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


Disappointed that the very ancient version An Introduction to Electronic Engineering didn't make this list as the title was decidedly fictional.
posted by Slackermagee at 1:48 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


So droll and boring as fuck do not count as challenging. Ah, I see. A more erudite and refined sense of the word "challenging".
posted by symbioid at 1:49 PM on November 5, 2013


I'm surprised JR is on the list..does anyone even attempt JR without having first conquered The Recognitions, which absolutely belongs on this list?

Yes. JR is one of my favorite novels. I read it several times, years before starting The Recognitions, which I tired of and shelved for later when I'm more interested in art fraud. By which measure, The Recognitions may indeed be more deserving of inclusion.

Gaddis is incredible.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 1:49 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I would add Diary of an Innocent to the list, due to its subject matter. It didn't particularly bother me (thanks, Internet, for desensitizing me!), but I suspect descriptions of sex with children and attempted bestiality would be "challenging" to a fair amount of people. (And that's just within the first twenty pages!)
posted by kethonna at 1:49 PM on November 5, 2013


Blood Meridian is certainly tough to read, but not for the reasons this list author specifies. Geek Love I picked up on an AskMe recommendation and it was just okay. The excerpt from Coin Locker Babies makes it sound like a joke. The Painted Bird is quite vile. The Demon is another one of those "rough" books that is actually just shit. Cancer Ward is a better book by the Solz. And I've come away with two books to check out: The Tunnel, and the Lydia Davis collection.

In summary then: breezes.
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:50 PM on November 5, 2013


I haven't read any of these which makes me feel weirdly relieved. Like yup, I'm still lazy.

But then I tore through, and loved all of, Anathem which lots of people thought was a slog in places. I also loved loved the Alexandria Quartet, couldn't put it down, and the Wasp Factory is one of my all time favs (also Feersum Endgin). So I'm not always reading fluff or whatever.

The book I keep getting hung up on is Anna Karenina. I keep getting a certain amount in and just giving up under the weight of despair and lethargy from the characters. I've seen the movie and love the writing so I want to finish it, but just thinking about starting again makes me sigh and feel weary.
posted by shelleycat at 1:53 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Underworld, Don DeLillo- I put this down not so much because of it was a "nonlinear, character-happy tome," but because I got tired of DeLillo carping on about what a perfect utopia 1950s Brooklyn was.

Oh, Christ, Don DeLillo, man. What a toolbelt.
posted by turbid dahlia at 1:54 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've had a weird trouble with Bolaño where I'm skipping right along, enjoying the book, and then just...stop and have no desire to finish. It happened to me on two attempts at trying to read The Savage Detectives and then again with 2666.
posted by ghharr at 2:01 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some tough books that are better than the ones on this list: Story Of The Eye and Blue of Noon by Georges Bataille (both blood-hot sexy), The Songs Of Maldoror by A. Frenchman (actually quite terrible, but hilariously sick), Moravagine by Cendrars, A Handbook On Hanging by Charles Duff, The Anatomy Of Melancholy by Robert Burton, anything Flann O'Brien before James Joyce, A Prayer For The Dying by Stewart O'Nan, and for something lighter and trashier, One by Conrad Williams. Enjoy my superior, space-saving list.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:03 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've had a weird trouble with Bolaño where I'm skipping right along, enjoying the book, and then just...stop and have no desire to finish.
Did you have this problem before or after it completely switched gears?
posted by pxe2000 at 2:07 PM on November 5, 2013


Started: 14, finished: 7, own basically unopened: 2
posted by Slothrup at 2:09 PM on November 5, 2013


Eco's Foucault's Pendulum

I wouldn't put Foucault's Pendulum on a list of difficult books (maybe The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, although I'd love to hear anyone else's thought on that one. I might just not have been in the mood at the time, although I'm excited to have The Prague Cemetery coming up soon on my list). It's everything historical conspiracy thrillers would like to be--intelligent, surprising, gripping, emotionally deep--but that they fail at consistently. Others have mentioned Dan Brown's difficulty here, and it's not really a joke--I tried to read "The Lost Symbol" recently, and though I did manage to finish it, out of a sense of duty since a friend loaned it to me, but his Shocking Historical Facts are about as deep as your average Wikipedia article, and the writing is just so painfully clumsy, it hardly feels like a book at all.

I'm not even sure why someone would bother with Brown without a social obligation, since if Historically Allusive Thriller is your genre, there are so many better writers. Probably the closest in...texture?...to Foucault's Pendulum would be Perez-Reverte's The Club Dumas. (And then I'd jump to Iain Pears, at least his longer books, and by that time I'd be so far into this derail I'd lost track of what we were supposed to be talking about.)

I'm a little surprised no one mentioned Cynthia Ozick as a difficult writer...or am I the only one who finds her books soulless husks? I couldn't make much headway there at all before giving up and wondering what everyone sees in her.
posted by mittens at 2:11 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pendulum is Eco's last good novel.
posted by turbid dahlia at 2:15 PM on November 5, 2013


Ten for me.
posted by incster at 2:27 PM on November 5, 2013


I have read 13, and have to admit there are books on that list I have never heard of. So plenty of material to go look for now.

While I agree that everyone differs, that's why we are all so interesting etc. etc. (for example, I didn't find The Sound and the Fury or Moby Dick at all tough, and the Woolf was only tough because it was so. bloody. boring.) the whole inclusion of War and Peace, and the lack of some other obvious contenders, sets of alarm bells of the 'is this serious, or just phoning it in for a listicle?' variety.
posted by Megami at 2:30 PM on November 5, 2013


This reminds me there were several decades when I would read anything.
posted by Anitanola at 2:38 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


6 for me. The sixth (as one scrolls down) being Lydia Davis's collected stories. I may have stifled a joyful shriek when its cover rolled into view. That glorious unmistakable life-jacket orange. Davis has undoubtedly and deeply changed the way I think about stories, both as a reader and a writer.
posted by erlking at 2:47 PM on November 5, 2013


I actually would have agreed with Age of Wire and String until I actually went to a reading where Ben Marcus read from it. Once I heard how he reads it, it was a breeze for me. To me, he's a serious genius. He created his own really slanted world and then operated totally within it. It's sort of a one trick pony, but it's a seriously great fucking trick.
posted by nevercalm at 2:48 PM on November 5, 2013


I've had a weird trouble with Bolaño where I'm skipping right along, enjoying the book, and then just...stop and have no desire to finish.
Did you have this problem before or after it completely switched gears?


2666 seems like it switches gears a lot, but it's actually in "death gear, a gear spinning without a word in the desert, a distinctively Latin American gear"
posted by serif at 2:48 PM on November 5, 2013


Heck, throw 1982 Janine (or possibly 1982, Janine) by Alasdair Gray in there. Lovely, lovely but people get easily frightened by typographical trickery judging by the inclusion of House of Leaves. Incidentally, this marks the point where I'm starting to worry about my own reading list.

Am I weird?
posted by kariebookish at 2:50 PM on November 5, 2013


2666 seems like it switches gears a lot, but it's actually in "death gear, a gear spinning without a word in the desert, a distinctively Latin American gear"
Sorry, should have been more specific: I meant The Savage Detectives.
posted by pxe2000 at 3:04 PM on November 5, 2013


Lovely, lovely but people get easily frightened by typographical trickery judging by the inclusion of House of Leaves.

There's the typographical stuff, then there's the three (four?) narratives running simultaneously, and then chapter 9, where as referenced in the list, parts are more easily read with a mirror. So, compared to a regular linearly plotted book, there's quite a few added levels of difficulty. You've got the Navidson Record at the base, Zampano's write-up of that, Johnny's comments on Zampano, and then the editor's comments on Johnny, and that's before you get into all the appendices. Then there's all the little easter eggs hidden through the whole thing with hidden messages and references to Danielewski's sister's band, most of which are interesting little gimmicks but add nothing to the story. So, to really "read" that book, you'd have to read every word, letter, clause, phrase, conjunction, adverb, exclamation, imperative, verb, adjective, preposition, noun, declarative sentence, exclamatory sentence, interjection, expository sentence, list, flavoring particle, pronoun, name, participle, gerund, suffix, prefix, greeting, salutation, epistle, number, footnote, subheading, superscript, acknowledgement, dedication, table, figure, and ain't nobody got time for that.
posted by LionIndex at 3:17 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Huh. I've read 19 of these and I'm a complete fucking idiot, so this list must really suck.

And where's The Magic Mountain? Mann gets no love these days. Almost as if we have a horror of squinting too closely at modernity or something.

Or Dos Passos? My god but those were some boring books. Speaking of, no Henry James? Seriously, no one has read Henry James. No one. Even Henry James scholars don't read Heny James. Because it's more fun to hammer nails into your own skull.

Oh oh oh wait I've got it!

WASHINGTON. IRVING. Unreadable. Just unreadable. Natty Bumppo my ass. Important as a piece of American cultural history, screamingly awful to read.

(Though I've never understood the conflation of length of book and difficulty. I read Tolstoy at a precocious age because at first carrying around War and Peace made me feel all scholarly and stuff but then I got sucked into the story and devoured it -- it's not difficult to read at all! It's just long. And has a million characters to keep track of, but if you let yourself marinate in it for a bit it all slides into place.)
posted by BitterOldPunk at 3:18 PM on November 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


Did you mean James Fenimore Cooper? Washington Irving is often quite funny, but I found The Deerslayer almost impossible to get through.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:26 PM on November 5, 2013


Seriously, no one has read Henry James. No one. Even Henry James scholars don't read Heny James. Because it's more fun to hammer nails into your own skull.

*raises uneasy hand, a fearful counter-example*
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:29 PM on November 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


Seriously, no one has read Henry James. No one.

At risk of being the guy who has exactly one insight into an author and who brings it up every time the author is mentioned....

The problem with James is that his reputation is that of The Master. The keen intellect, drily anatomizing the introspection of the brash young American versus the sinister and aged European. For page after page, novel after lengthy novel.

Which is incorrect. The way to read James is in the voice your best gossipy friend, who is going to breathlessly tell you everything that just went wrong with these friends of his, and you would not believe what happened, and it just goes to show that straight people shouldn't even bother with relationships, because look, just look would you? It gives an amazing energy to his writing, and makes you realize that by the time he got around to writing the prefaces of the revised works, he had forgotten the secret engine at the heart of the stories; he had grown old, had accepted the mantle of Master, and forgotten the excitement of the gossip.
posted by mittens at 3:39 PM on November 5, 2013 [17 favorites]


Also, his short stories/novellas (he is Henry James, they are often the same thing) are pretty great when they play ambiguous head games.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:49 PM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


So I have a complicated relationship to this list. Because: Moby-Dick, Gravity's Rainbow, Infinite Jest, hell, the Silmarillion even. All books I enjoy greatly, all books that fall under the "Great Weird Boy Book" rubric. And, look, they're fantastic, really, really, really great, the whaling stuff and the long descriptions of tennis strategy and the really disturbingly accurate math and engineeering and detailed comic book references and paranoid/anti-paranoid plotting (and the elaborate linguistics-driven pseudo history, for that matter), all totally brilliant and immensely readable.

But the thing is, I went through a phase, a long, long phase, where the only stuff I cared to read was written by Great Weird Boys, and so almost unconsciously I started thinking of Great Weird Boys as being the only people capable of writing Srs Ltrtr.

Which, is, like, problematic. I've been trying to broaden my horizons.

Nevertheless, I do love me a good Weird Boy book...
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 3:59 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


Heck, throw 1982 Janine (or possibly 1982, Janine) by Alasdair Gray in there.

YAY YAY YAY YAY

I had like fifteen different comments ready to type, approximately 4 anecdotal about stuff in the list I've read, 5 thoughtful about stuff in the list I'd like to read, 3 oblique dumb jokes, 3 wrathful about comments in the thread,

BUT

Now they have ALL CLEARED OUT so that I can express my UTTER JOY at seeing 1982, Janine mentioned! I LOVE THAT BOOK EVER SO MUCH

YAY

THANK YOU
posted by Greg Nog at 4:07 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wow, I topped the list.
posted by nightwood at 4:18 PM on November 5, 2013 [4 favorites]


I did mean Cooper.

I blame Sleepy Hollow for foregrounding Washington Irving in my thoughts recently.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 4:35 PM on November 5, 2013


those of us who grew up reading fluently

What do you mean by reading fluently? Is the ability to track all of the pieces an author wants to put in flight?
posted by smidgen at 4:40 PM on November 5, 2013


I'm currently making my way through the last one hundred pages of Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

I initially picked it up nearly five years ago when I was in college. I have put the (two? four?) book(s) down so many times between now and then for reasons that seem to fall over the entire spectrum of this book. For starters, Wolfe's writing falls somewhere between being beautifully baroque and HP Lovecraft-esque purple prose. Secondly, you begin the story thinking that it is a clever telling of a far future science fiction story as a medieval fantasy story only to realize, as you venture through it, that it is in fact a discussion of how we, humans....beings also exist as stories that by telling each other stories we create a new self and force it into the existence of the listener, making them into a third, new person.

This is all to get to the final "difficult" thing about Wolfe's story. Severian, the tales main character, is such a bastard and such a misogynist and yet as the story continues you realize how much of that is due to world he comes from and as his tale spins out he shows decency and has his psyche enmeshed with a woman that he victimized. And throughout all of this Wolfe does such a good job of working with the first person perspective while enforcing his "we are all the stories we tell and listen to" that one cannot help but fear that, by reading Severian's story, you are becoming more like him.

Oh, and the world and character's misogyny, repugnance, decency, and desolation? The setting's barren, apocalyptic setting? It all turns out to be so clearly, purposefully, a creation of our past and present in what seems like a cruel, holy joke on the reader.

I hate and love Gene Wolfe for writing this book. It has been my tough read and I am going to miss Severian when I am done reading these next 95 pages.

So, yeah, I think a tough read is one that won't wash off when you finish it, that won't stop being part of you no matter how much you wish it would. The Book of the New Sun is that and is about that.
posted by sendai sleep master at 4:43 PM on November 5, 2013 [8 favorites]


Since that's the most enthusiastic anyone's been about any book in this thread so far, or possibly even today, I guess I'll go read 1982, Janine.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:44 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've read a lot of Henry James.
posted by sweetkid at 5:07 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Do not read Nightwood. Ugh.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 5:13 PM on November 5, 2013


The Painted Bird kind of broke me when I read it as a boy, but in a way that I am grateful to have been broken.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:19 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read and enjoyed Moby-Dick, and I have really fucking severe ADHD. It ain't that hard.

The beginning is boring, though; you have my full permission to skip right over it. All you need to know about the first part is that it's basically sort of just the book the narrator is researching when the actual story happens later on. Ahab comes away with what Ahab comes away with, and Ishmael comes away with that boring-ass book about types of whales. Summary: Ishmael is a nerd, y'all.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:29 PM on November 5, 2013


23

to correct someone up there somewhere, chaucer is not high school, chaucer is life - a modern translation will give you very good stories

the original gives you great poetry

(next on your list - piers plowman - in the original, of course)

the royal family by william vollman was a very difficult book for me to read as the last 100 pages described something much like i'd actually gone through - after all the strange and horrifying things, that was really hard to take

when reading james joyce, it is always helpful to remember that he can be a downright hilarious writer

i'll have to reread the divine comedy sometime, but i think inferno is a much more mean-spirited book than the other two - dante was a bitter and vindictive man and it kind of spoils things

i gave up on proust partway through the 4th book - i just couldn't care about these people

i couldn't care about henry james' people, either

i think hermann hesse's steppenwolf belongs on this list - it must be a difficult novel because so many misunderstand it as some kind of countercultural "youth" book - at least it was marketed this way

i didn't get it until i was middle aged and divorced - then it really made sense to me

t r pearson's a short history of a small place and the two novels written after it are quite difficult, as the narrator rambles and skips all over the place in long, plainspoken meandering sentences - and quite rewarding, as the results are hysterically funny
posted by pyramid termite at 5:36 PM on November 5, 2013


The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Oof. This novel is based on the author’s own experiences as a prisoner in a gulag labor camp. You may think the reading is tough, but you probably shouldn’t be complaining.


The Gulag book is actually kinda funny. It's dark humour. Solzhenitsyn has this sort of odd giddy glee tone as he describes all of these horrible things happening.
posted by ovvl at 5:41 PM on November 5, 2013


Everyone should read Dhalgren. And while I know people have a hard time keeping track of what's going on, I never understood it. It does get a little confusing in the middle, but it's supposed to do that, and it starts to make sense again pretty soon afterwards. And it really is an amazing book.

If you wanted to add a Delany book to that list it really should have been That Mad Man. That was a hard one to finish.
posted by aspo at 5:41 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh and 14, most of which I don't think were difficult reads, this list seems to confuse long + well written with hard.

(Oh and you also should read Coin Locker Babies. Much more interesting than that other Murakami.)
posted by aspo at 5:43 PM on November 5, 2013


The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil.
posted by ovvl at 5:46 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


> The beginning is boring, though

You mean the bit where Ishmael goes to sleep in an inn and wakes up to find a heavily tattooed cannibal getting into bed with him? That's boring?
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:47 PM on November 5, 2013 [9 favorites]


10

Saramago? (Blindness, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, All the Names, The Cave, etc.) If you don't hear the dialogue in these, it's cryptic as hell to read it. Kind of fun when you get it though (especially The Cave).
posted by kneecapped at 5:50 PM on November 5, 2013


I downloaded a sample chapter of Tampa and started reading it on the el a few weeks ago. About ten pages in I realized I couldn't read that thing in close quarters with strangers. Hoe. Lee. Cow.
posted by MarvinTheCat at 5:59 PM on November 5, 2013


chaucer is not high school, chaucer is life

These are not mutually exclusive! Chaucer in high school was great fun for my English class - we had one of those original language on one page modern translation on the facing page editions, we spent a lot of time reading the tales out loud and acting them out, and we wrote our own, and it was hilarious and a great introduction to the notion that classics do not have to be boring or irrelevant. Bless our English teacher.
posted by rtha at 6:07 PM on November 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's a shame that Proust and Joyce can only get one novel each.

Moby Dick is fine if you can allow yourself to skim past the whaling digressions.

I'm halfway surprised that there aren't a variety of books that are basically unreadable due to the views espoused being nearly antithetical to people of an opposing viewpoint such as Fountainhead to anyone that isn't a libertarian in their 20s.

I felt like the book list was also long on books with the ick factor but was kinda surprised American Psycho wasn't listed.
posted by vuron at 6:11 PM on November 5, 2013


Chaucer in high school was great fun for my English class - we had one of those original language on one page modern translation on the facing page editions, we spent a lot of time reading the tales out loud and acting them out
I feel badly for the actor who had to play Absolon.
posted by pxe2000 at 6:23 PM on November 5, 2013


As dnash noted upthread, this summer I had the stoopid/brilliant idea of getting MeFites together to read Finnegans Wake in a group. It totally did peter out and the regular contributors all mutually stopped around the same time, around the 200 page mark I believe. I don't regret it at all, though! It was a very edifying read in the first 100 pages in particular, my mind constantly being blown and reblown by disparate connections and details that fit together in beautiful, moving ways. Above all the system of references and symbols in the book is like a set of constellations, and each star in each constellation is evolving throughout, being modulated by other references and symbols, everything morphing and gaining resonance and meaning. It's really quite something when you're in the zone. Unfortunately, for me it was diminishing returns once I got the lay of the land and the fireworks stopped firing as often. I hope to return when I get some more free time and motivation. Or maybe I'll hit up Gene Wolfe or Dhalgren instead.
posted by naju at 6:25 PM on November 5, 2013


You mean the bit where Ishmael goes to sleep in an inn and wakes up to find a heavily tattooed cannibal getting into bed with him? That's boring?

No, I mean the part where it goes on and on and on about how to (so very wrongly) classify whales. That's boring.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:31 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Coin Locker Babies is difficult? I read it in Japanese, and even that wasn't very difficult. The Painted Bird? You gotta be kidding me. I read every god damned page of Gulag Archipelago. I think it was about Russia. I can't remember.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:34 PM on November 5, 2013


The Book of the New Sun! I have a weird relationship with those books. Every year or two, I sit down with them intending to do what I've always meant to do - read it carefully, take notes, cross-reference characters, index the whole damn thing. Then I surface days later, completely dazed, and sad to see I'm at the end.

Add me to the list of Natty Bumppo haters, because how on earth do ten grown adults hide in one little tree? Logistics, Fenimore, logistics!
posted by cmyk at 7:15 PM on November 5, 2013


To my surprise I've read about 21 of these, but nothing more recent than Gravity's Rainbow.

Of the ones I've read or am familiar with, the Gertrude Stein stands out above the others because the rhythmic, recursive repetitiveness of the prose tends to drain individual words, sentences and paragraphs of meaning, and force any real grasp to arise impalpably from the whole and condense in the understanding like a fog.
posted by jamjam at 7:16 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ladies and gentlemen, help me welcome to the stage a most exciting new pop combo from Austin Texas... Please put your hands together for: The Whaling Digressions!
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:34 PM on November 5, 2013 [2 favorites]


You Can't Tip a Buick, and anyone else looking for great weird novels written by women, allow me to direct you to Miss Macintosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young. I've been reading it in fits and starts but I have always enjoyed doing so.
Personally I'd add something by Elfreide Jelinek to this list, probably Lust or the Piano Teacher but really anything would do. The writing is good enough (all bitter, vicious humor) to keep you reading the most poisonously bleak depiction of humanity imaginable.
posted by velebita at 9:55 PM on November 5, 2013


Read at least five; loved and enjoyed Underworld, which doesn't seem that hard; gave up on The Sound And The Fury; think that Invisible Cities by Calvino and The Name Of The Rose by Eco should be contenders, and definitely Barth's The Sotweed Factor should be on it for being too long, too complicated, scatological, just...an exercise in masochism to finish.
posted by blue shadows at 10:05 PM on November 5, 2013


Amazing how some people in this thread are unable to finish books I read voraciously and enjoyed tremendously — and vice versa. There's really a huge variety in our reading personalities, isn't there?
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:42 PM on November 5, 2013 [6 favorites]


This is a fun list and a fun thread! 14 for me plus The Sillmarillion and Gravity's Rainbow, neither of which I managed to finish. Loved all of the ones I've read except for Moby-Dick which bored me to tears and Heart of Darkness which bored me to tears.

Foucoult's Pendulum is the only book I've ever stopped reading by throwing it across the room. I found it super pretentious. Never use a one syllable word when you can make do with nine syllables!

I'd add Aztec by Gary Jennings based on the list criteria. Every page I was like, "right, that's officially the most perverse thing I've ever read!". And then I'd read the next page... I loved the book but wow, ick!

Two classics I found hard going were Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Don Quixote. Both of them seemed like one-trick ponies that kept repeating the trick long after I'd stopped appreciating its cleverness.

Someone mentioned Norrel and Strange earlier. I *adored* that book, to the point I actually read most of it aloud to someone!
posted by smeger at 12:12 AM on November 6, 2013


seventeen.
posted by mwhybark at 12:15 AM on November 6, 2013


Needs more nonfiction. Start with Kant.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 12:45 AM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


32/50. Most of the remainder seem to fall into the "not difficult just badly-written" or "why would I subject myself to this level of torture?" piles.
posted by jet_manifesto at 4:43 AM on November 6, 2013


The four Book of the New Sun books are not Gene Wolfe's most difficult (I hate to break it to the folks struggling through The Shadow of the Torturer). The sequel to the quartet, The Urth of the New Sun, is much rougher sledding by any measure. (Honestly, I really didn't know what was going on half the time in that one.) In terms of plot trickery and important information hidden as throwaway detail or casual seeming dialogue, a couple other Wolfe novels, like There Are Doors and Free Live Free are quite a bit harder to follow than the any of the New Sun books, I think.

Re: Delany, Dhalgren is most difficult of his books in terms of stylistic experimentation, though really those who have encountered Ulysses or other modernist and post-modern novels in high school or college shouldn't have that big a problem with it. The difficult-for-some sexual subject matter that Delany began to explore in Dhalgren - which has at its core the explicitly-deplicted polyamorous relationship of Kid, Lanya, and Denny, as well as other explicit sex, drug, and violence scenes among the Scorpion gang - is much more intense in Delany's "pornographic" novels, Hogg and Equinox, and in his later literary novels that incorporate explicitly pornographic and fetishistic gay sex scenes, particularly The Mad Man and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders.

Delany has always been interested in genre writing as a phenomenon, and sees gay porn as a genre that he's as interested in exploring as he was pushing the limits of the science fiction and science fiction genres in the 70s and 80s in Triton, Dhalgren, Stars in My Pocket... and the Nevèrÿon books, and his later books reflect the shift. (Much to the dismay of many of his science fiction fans who liked his earlier books but have not been interested in following him into adventures in kinky gay pornography.)
posted by aught at 6:22 AM on November 6, 2013


Not a bad list. I have read 15 of those books and only one of them was a struggle. (Finnegans Wake--on the second try I figured out a cheat code.) I have tried and failed to read two of those books--Swann's Way and Infinite Jest. There are a couple of books in the unread portion that I intend to get to--2666 and Year of Magical Thinking. I will never pick up another book by Tolkein. The hundred or so pages of his that I endured was an overdose.
posted by bukvich at 6:59 AM on November 6, 2013


Finished eleven, started and gave up on maybe six more? The give ups included Infinite Jest - life is short, that book is annoying - and House of Leaves which I loathed. No font changes in mid book, no, not allowed. Dhalgren, though, is one of my favorite books of all time; I've read it about four times now and am planning on rereading it again next year. If I had to pick a Stephen King for this list (and I agree, what? Why? Was it some kind of strange requirement?) it wouldn't have been Pet Sematary but Cujo, horrible moments of which occasionally still surface in my brain thirty odd years later.

On preview, ah, Gene Wolfe. I have tried and tried, y'all, people I respect and like really adore him but I can't do it. I can't read Gene Wolfe. He is beyond me. I can't get through Shadow of the Torturer and I hated the Knight's Tale.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:04 AM on November 6, 2013


Try some of his short stories. Endangered Species is an excellent collection.
posted by Chrysostom at 7:15 AM on November 6, 2013


Severian, the tales main character, is such a bastard and such a misogynist and yet as the story continues you realize how much of that is due to world he comes from and as his tale spins out he shows decency and has his psyche enmeshed with a woman that he victimized.

After going through the flimsy female 'characters' in Shadow & Claw I'll be damned if I read another 1000 pages for Severian to reach his realisation. Ars longa, vita brevis and all that.

Regarding Inferno, my advice is to read Pinsky's translation and before or after each Canto, read the notes of another translation in order to get the context. Pinsky makes that poem sing (sorry, Longfellow).
posted by ersatz at 7:58 AM on November 6, 2013


Hm. I've never seen Abish mentioned as an Oulipo writer before.

It's true, he wasn't actually a group member like Matthews or Perec. And Alphabetical Africa isn't really a representative book for him (though it's his most read, IIRC).
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:10 AM on November 6, 2013


Finnegan's wake!

Kicks my ass every time. Anybody want to start a Finnegan's Wake reading club? Anyone? I tried three times, and I got an audio CD of it from the library, and I tried listening to it while falling asleep. I don't know why I want to master it so much, but I do. I'm guessing it's the literary version of ASMR, or a love letter from the subconscious, or something.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:42 AM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


The give ups included Infinite Jest - life is short, that book is annoying -

That's my take on way too much of the list (which I finally finished looking at last night). I think I've actually finished maybe five titles total, started maybe twenty more. I won't say which is which because that would just fuel arguments which I'm not interested in having. What I do find interesting is how the very titles that drove me to drop them like poison stones lodged in the middle of my life have delighted others. And vice versa. Which in the end makes me glad they all exist, because they're clearly nourishing somebody. Even Pet Semetary. Which lowbrow as it may seem, does transgress in all manner of nasty ways. It leaves a wound, and thus is remembered, continues to inform one's take on life-the-universe-everything. Which is more than can be said, I'm sure, than the vast majority of stuff on pretty much any current (or past) best sellers list ...
posted by philip-random at 9:02 AM on November 6, 2013


> "Which in the end makes me glad they all exist, because they're clearly nourishing somebody."

Yeah. I mean, of the books on this list, I loved the hell out of Infinite Jest, Naked Lunch, Trainspotting, Battle Royale, House of Leaves, Out, The Divine Comedy, and The Castle. But I simply couldn't get through Blood Meridian, Finnegan's Wake, Dhalgren, or The Silmarillion. And I know there are people who *hate* some of the books I listed first and *adore* some of the books I listed second.

Just because I don't like it doesn't mean it's bad. It's an important thing to be aware of.
posted by kyrademon at 9:58 AM on November 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


After going through the flimsy female 'characters' in Shadow & Claw I'll be damned if I read another 1000 pages for Severian to reach his realisation. Ars longa, vita brevis and all that.

Honestly, I think Wolfe actually is a misogynist who can't write women - the women characters in Book of the New Sun aren't any different from the women characters in some of his other really sexist stories, like "The Tree Is My Hat" or the one about the witch mother or the one that starts out with the couple who live just a few hours outside of Hell. Virtually all his human women characters are either Good naives like Dorcas or bad autonomous yet sexy women like Agia (in his less fantastic stories, these women usually want divorces or resist marriage). Occasionally they're Good-But-Confused, either because they are primitive (the woman in that one with the sledge and the snow and the crashed spaceship) or because they've been Mistreated By Life, like the girl in the house-near-hell story or the prostitute in Cerberus. Only women who Wolfe does not write as sexually interesting escape this - there isn't a way to be a sexually viable woman and a full human being in Wolfe's stories.

The reasons to read Wolfe are, to me, much more about his interesting and baroque use of language and his ability to create instantly memorable images, often moral landscapes like the carved cliff that Severian climbs down or the jumble broken things and once-cryonically-frozen bodies that he passes.

Wolfe is really important to read if you are broadly interested in fantasy or science fiction (you can certainly have a focused interest in a particular theme/school/subgenre and avoid him, of course). He's also interesting because he is really fucking conservative - he's like Orson Scott Card without the monstrosity, abjection and lack of self control. He's not "conservative" the way the usual fantasy dudebro writers are, where it reads like conservatism because they mostly care about having sex, making money and getting no lip from women or people of color but fundamentally they still like porn, want their girlfriends to be able to get abortions so they don't have to raise children, want to be able to buy drugs, etc. Wolfe is actually a full-on conservative where he places certain strictures on his own behavior and has some beliefs that are not purely about having the most fun/money/sex as possible. He's a real weirdo.

I do remember that when I was eighteen I did find Book of the New Sun kind of difficult - its plot is comparatively complex and has lots of little twiddles, the worldbuilding is very skilled and the themes are unusual for fantasy. (At the time I'd read Anna Karenina and Moby Dick just for fun, so it's not like I was incapable of reading grown-up books.)
posted by Frowner at 12:59 PM on November 6, 2013 [7 favorites]


The thing is that his baroque use of language also often falls flat for me because many of the weirder words he uses have Greek roots. Knowing their meaning doesn't necessarily enhance the experience compared to the loss of the mystique whereas, for instance, in Finnegans Wake the more languages you know, the more rewarding the text becomes. I do like Wolfe's worldbuilding and sometimes his scenes come alive in a way that reminds me of R.E. Howard, but there are always other good books to read. Admittedly though, The Book of the New Sun has given rise to some very interesting articles.
posted by ersatz at 7:59 AM on November 7, 2013


The thing is that his baroque use of language also often falls flat for me because many of the weirder words he uses have Greek roots.

Yeah, Wolfe isn't Joyce. I mean, no one is Joyce, but if anyone is, it's Delany.

I don't think that Book of the New Sun is "difficult" in the way that a lot of canonically difficult books are - let's say, books that require unusual mental effort from a fluent and well-read reader and that do not become comprehensible by mere translation - the kind of translation that occurs when Wolfe describes the Order of the Pelerines or the pelagic argosy, etc, you basically get what you need by realizing that "pelerine" is a kind of cloak and the Order of the Pelerines are readily identifiable by their cloaks, or that "pelagic" refers to a particular zone of deep water. The effect comes from the sense of future-archaicism and from the pleasure of difference in scale - you contemplate the vast abyss of time that separates us from this future, the changes needed to create the kind of language drift described, etc.

Also, Wolfe has a very different idea about human subjectivity than Joyce, obviously - a more social and more optimistic one, much less classically modernist/Freudian.

I think we tend to assume that reading "difficult" books ipso facto makes us better people. Reading difficult books generally leads us to be more fluent readers, which is worth something, and there's a whole web of knowledge spun around the classics/modernism/high-culture literature that contains its own pleasures. But I mean, you can gnaw through Finnegans Wake or Dhalgren and even get lots of the modernist/post-modernist ideas about narrative and subjectivity out of them and still be unable to apply those ideas in any creative or analytical way - I certainly know people who've read a ton of Very Difficult Books who don't seem to have taken anything into themselves from the reading even if they can tell you all about the symbolism.
posted by Frowner at 8:51 AM on November 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah. My thing with Wolfe, at least with New Sun Wolfe, is that the world he builds is like a series of dioramas with some story happening in a little corner. I wind up with a very strong sense of place and only vague ideas about how the personal plot has progressed, because Severian is intensely unlikeable and I try to tune him out.

Really love that worldbuilding, though.
posted by cmyk at 9:34 AM on November 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


So I got Tampa because I recently read Lolita and thought it would be an interesting counterpoint, and holy crap that book is just porn. I'm halfway through and I really can't tell the difference between it and anything on my erotica shelf. Not that I have anything against porn or think it can't be literary, but what on earth is it doing on this list? What makes it anything more than just a random piece of porn that happens to be about a taboo subject?
posted by rhiannonstone at 12:21 PM on November 7, 2013


Has this thread been added to the list yet?
posted by Eideteker at 1:06 PM on November 7, 2013


The effect comes from the sense of future-archaicism and from the pleasure of difference in scale - you contemplate the vast abyss of time that separates us from this future, the changes needed to create the kind of language drift described, etc.

Every reader brings their own experiences to the text though. For instance, I've seen the word pelerine in fashion magazines and pelagic is in heavy use in Greek media e.g. the Aegean sea is a pelagos (πέλαγος). Language does play an important part - I first read Blood Meridian in Spanish years ago and fighting to understand the language made the setting appear more distant compared to reading the original.

Lists that emphasise the challenge of 'difficult' books are missing the point in my opinion. Reading difficult books isn't self-mortification; if the book is worth it, it will give you back more than what it demands in terms of time or comprehension. You're absolutely right that getting through a difficult book doesn't mean that the reader got much from it (and there's an infamous example in history).
posted by ersatz at 7:57 AM on November 8, 2013


One of my favorite stories about Finnegan's Wake concerns the guy who translated Ulysses into Mandarin Chinese a few years back - itself a feat of strength (okay, YOU try translating an English text that uses that many puns into a language win which sound and intonation is pivotal to meaning). There were a lot of articles about the guy and his translation I saw in things like Time Magazine or People or things like that. And a couple of them ended with the reporter asking the guy if Finnegan's Wake was going to be his next effort - and in both those articles, his response was, "Are you KIDDING me?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:23 AM on November 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don't worry, Ms. Dai Congrong has got this translation project covered! And it's apparently selling like hotcakes. She's committed to working 8+ years to finish the rest.

My favorite part: "To re-create some of the sounds of the novel, Ms. Dai had to create new Chinese characters—a notable hoop to jump through considering Chinese already has tens of thousands of characters."
posted by naju at 10:01 AM on November 8, 2013


OK I finished Tampa and get its literary merit. Mostly. But geez.
posted by rhiannonstone at 4:28 PM on November 8, 2013


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