Some lists of hard books

I asked this question in my last post, and figured it might be more fun for it to have its own thread.

Obviously “hard” is subjective.  And things are hard for lots of different reasons.  (Sometimes things are just BAD, not hard!) But I suppose there must be general consensus about at least the top ten or so.

I can’t say as I have an exact list of Really Hard Novels because I haven’t read all of the ones on my list.  So I can’t really rank them. But in general.

  1. Finnegans Wake  (So hard I won’t even bother)
  2. Ulysses
  3. Gravity’s Rainbow (I wouldn’t have thought so until the last section)
  4. JR
  5. The Recognitions (by virtue of it being so frikkin big).  I read this decades ago and I don’t remember much about it sadly, so I’ll have to try again
  6. The Sound and The Fury  (which I tried once and may have finished but if I did it was just seeing words, not really reading them)
  7. Tristram Shandy, (I’ve read this twice.  Once in college when I loved it and a second in the last few years when I found it really confusing–I think you need serious unimpeded time for it)
  8. Infinite Jest
  9. The Tunnel (man I had a hard time with this beast)
  10. Underworld (I loved the opening section but found the middle really difficult)
  11. Moby Dick (it’s not a hard book, but i can see why it’s hard to finish).
  12. Naked Lunch (if that’s even a novel)
  13. Foucault’s Pendulum (I read this ages ago (my first big book).  I wonder if I would understand more about now).
  14. The Satanic Verses (I was dying to read this and I had NO IDEA what was going on)
  15. Pale Fire (which I loved and cant wait to read again)
  16. The big Dostoevsky/Tolstoy books.  I haven’t read enough Russians, and I’m intimidated by both of them.
  17. Trainspotting (only for the accents)
  18. Ada (I’ve heard this is hard, although i haven’t tried yet.  I’m working my way through Nabokov
  19. All of the Epics in Middle English (although that doesn’t really count, right?)
  20. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (I remember being really confused by this, although it can’t have been that hard as I’m looking forward to reading it again someday.)

I know there’s a few other books that I should add.  This is based on my remembrances and some online searches.  It may not be fair to include translations (Don Quixote would be on there, although I understand the most recent translation is supposed to be wonderful).

I’m inclined to throw Tolkien’s The Simarillion on there, but I can’t say for sure as I haven’t looked at it since high school.  And my Faulkner knowledge is really limited so there could be more from him.  A number of online lists cite Gulag Archipelago, but I read that recently and didn’t find it hard at all.  Even if it is considered hard for the brutality, Elie Wiesel’s Night is much more brutal.

Anyone else have some good additions?

14 thoughts on “Some lists of hard books

  1. Chris May 10, 2012 / 5:33 pm

    I’d include Joseph McElroy’s Men and Women. I’ve been carting my copy around for years. i suggest that you tackle Murakami again because it just doesn’t belong anywhere near most of the novels here.

  2. DCN May 10, 2012 / 5:35 pm

    Books like this really strum my strings. I don’t know why, but when I am in a book store, if a spine looks vast, I am curious, and if I read something about a book and it suggests that the novel is dense and impenetrable, my curiosity is aroused. Of course, being human, there are some of these I’ve tried and not finished, and being immature, I don’t have the courage to say, “Naw, the book sucks,” so they stay on my shelves for another day.

    I love Faulkner. He was the writer that turned me, the summer before my junior year of high school, from a casual reader into an obsessive reader. “As I Lay Dying” was like nothing I’d ever read before and was the first school related activity that excited me. From the age of 16 until I was about 24, I was a Faulkner obsessive and made my way through most, but not all, of his novels.

    “The Sound and the Fury,” “As I Lay Dying,” and “Absolom, Absolom!” are his “hardest” books, as least in form. Here is what is wonderful: At the age of 24 (1999), I read Nabokov for the first time and flipped out and lost touch with Faulkner until this year when I taught “The Sound and the Fury” for a class dealing with history, law and literature. Coming back to him after so many years, I suddenly saw things in his writing that, even as a young obsessive, I never imagined. The structure and style suddenly seemed so perfect and controlled, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been rereading some of his other books this summer, and is really fun (though my attention will probably waiver enough that I won’t end up rereading all of them like I’d hoped, but that is life).

    Anyway, Faulkner is great.

    Here some other books for your list:

    Thomas Mann: Magic Mountain, Joseph and His Brothers and Dr. Faustus
    Joshua Cohen: Witz
    Evan Dara: The Lost Scrapbook, Easy Chain
    William T. Vollmann: Everything, but especially Argall and Fathers and Crows
    Samuel Beckett: Malloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable
    Gene Wolf: Book of the New Sun, Book of the Long Sun
    Herman Melville: Pierre, The Confidence-Man

    One last thing: J R by Gaddis is the only American Novel to rival Moby-Dick.

    Anyway: Kudos on finishing GR. I enjoyed reading everyone’s thoughts.

  3. Dennis May 10, 2012 / 6:52 pm

    I’ve talked to grad students who claimed up and down that Finnegan’s Wake was comprehendible if you just kept reading and adopted a Dublin accent. It helped for about 17 pages only one of which I vaguely comprehend.

    I would say that the biggest breakthrough in William Bourough’s books came when I heard him recite a passage. Having done so, I adopt the advice of the grad student above and read _The_Naked_Lunch_, usw. with the man’s voice in my head. It turns into wafting poetry not unlike the morphine dreams from _The_English_Patient_. (Loved the book; hated the movie; Saw first and read second)

    _Moby_Dick_ became, for me, more interesting with each reading. I wouldn’t say it’s hard to read, but I would say that it’s hard to understand.

    Started _Satanic_Verses_, _Midnight’s_Children_ and _The_Moor’s_Last_Sigh_, but didn’t get far. I will say that I loved Rushdie’s prose, but I didn’t develop enough momentum to carry me through the first chapter of each.

    I didn’t thinks _Foucalt’s_Pendulum _ was particularly difficult (or deep when I look back). I will say that for a medieval scholar, he sure seems to look down on the people and thoughts of the middle ages.

    Never read _Pale_Fire_, but _Lolita_ is AWESOME!

    Thinking about difficult books, I think there are different reasons for difficulty.
    Tolstoy is difficult because of the assumptions that are built into his novels (Frenchified aristocracy vs russtic (a word… I’m coining it) lower classes; arcane system of interpersonal connection codified in addresses (Alexei Patronymavitch Rotyorkokof vs. Alexei Patronymavitch vs Sasha) and it’s a long book)

    Someone like like James Michner is difficult because he includes entire histories as if that were equivalent to creating depth.

    Joyce and TS Elliot mix the hermeneutic tradition of the west with Modernist sensibilities.

    Anything by Alain Robbes-Grillet (especially _the_Erasors_) and Gide’s _The_counterfiters_ mix Modernist sensibilities with a Symbolist tradition

    In short, difficult is not sufficient to capture my attention. What really captures it is an intimation that there is more to be found than at a cursory reading, that thought has gone into its creation and my attention to it will be rewarded and that the prose itself is generally engaging with kudos to those who can make it compelling.

    I think that is what attracts me so much to Pynchon’s early work. (I could not get very far into _Vineland_, _Mason_and_Dixon_ or _Against_the_Day_). For when his prose is working for him, I think his stuff is beautiful. It’s also what brings me back again and again to Joyce, Dante, Blake and Melville.

  4. Seamus Duggan May 10, 2012 / 6:57 pm

    I would add some of John Cowper Powys’ novels (as mention in comments that birthed this post) – A Glastonbury Romance; Owen Glendower; Porius
    I’ve still to read Faulkner and after I finish Remembrance of Things Past he is my next target. I guess the Proust deserves a place on this list even if only for sheer size.
    I’ll add to these if inspiration strikes. Lots of good ones mentioned already. The satisfaction of finishing something large and difficult is special. It’s hard to fall as deeply in love with a shorter novel. You simply haven’t put enough time into the relationship.

    • Paul Debraski May 10, 2012 / 9:08 pm

      I’m willing to remove Murakami. That’s why it was 20, I wanted a round number 🙂 Although if I remember it was very weird.

      I read Foucault’s Pendulum around when it came out and have since read much harder books. I think it was hard in that I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about most of the time. If memory serves it’s something of a potboiler too, right? It’s been so long, I don’t think I remember much at all, and while I never read the Da Vinci Code, I’ve heard so many parodies of it, that i think I’m imposing details from that onto poor Umberto.

      It’s very true that long does not equal difficult. Although I will say that the first really big book I read was Stephen King’s IT (which isn’t hard at all) and I think that gave me the big for big books.

      All I’ve read of Proust is Alain De Botton’s How Reading Proust Will Change Your Life (and of course, Monty Python’s Summarize Proust competition).

      • Dennis May 11, 2012 / 12:47 am

        _The_Da_Vinci_Code_ is possibly the most poorly written book I have ever read, at least the first 20 pages or so. The rest of the book may indeed be a masterpiece. It would be good to read it in a setting like this because it would quickly devolve into a “Who can spot the inaccuracies” game much like searching for anachronism in the Italian Hercules movies of the ’60s.

  5. Stevie May 10, 2012 / 10:59 pm

    I’ve read Swann’s Way 2x & the second book, although that one kind of lost me. SW is totally worth it. I would throw House of Leaves on this pile.
    & I’ve heard the key to Finnegans Wake is to drink. And read aloud. And drink.

  6. Alexis Bencomo May 11, 2012 / 2:24 am

    Many people have said 2666 by Bolano is a hard book, not because of the verse but because of the descriptions of the dead women. I loved the book but found I couldn’t sit and read for long stretches of time, I needed constant breaks to clear my mind.

  7. Christine May 11, 2012 / 4:15 am

    Good starting point for a list of hard texts. Yes to Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow.

    Absalom, Absalom is much harder, I find, than The Sound and The Fury. As I Lay Dying is relatively easy, as Faulkner goes.

    Beloved is difficult.

    Finnegans’ Wake is crap. There. I said it. Joyce was brilliant, but that book crosses the line from experimental to unreadable. Keep it on your list of difficult texts. But lose no sleep over not conquering it.

    Don Quixote is a delightfully easy read. It’s hilarious. Read it over and over. Absolutely stunning that it still holds up, half-a-milenium old and predating novels by hundreds of years.

    Nor do I think Infinite Jest or 2666 are difficult. Just long. The former is heartwrenching and the latter is nauseating at an existential level. But they’re not hard.

    Ugh with the Middle English epics. Thank *gawd* one can get through a full literary life without getting too mired by that historically important but textually leaden stuff. Yes. Difficult. Keep ’em on the list.

    Tolstoy is probably the most difficult read for me. Dense texts full of history and depression and existential angst kill me. And long, long, long, long names that differ only by one or two letters.

    I agree with DCN on Vollman and Beckett, and with the consensus here that Rushdie is difficult. I don’t find Melville hard. He’s just not my cup of tea.

    All the canonical postmodernists, who are decidedly difficult (Vollman, Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo) can go take a flying leap off my bookshelf. A pox upon their abuses of cynicism, irony, and popular culture.

    Anyone find Poe or Henry Miller or Ezra Pound difficult?

    Heart of Darkness. It’s not Ulysses, but it’s harder for me than Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

    Are you going to specify fiction or can we go wild with all the dreadfully hard Lacan, Foucault, Heidegger…

    Most of the lists on the Interwebz of hard novels are terrible. Dreadful. Weap-for-the-future bad.

    • Dennis May 13, 2012 / 1:57 pm

      There have been periods in my life where I’ve felt the same way about Ulysses. I had come to a point where it felt like he was just having fun at the expense of his reads and critics. A long delve into Hugh Kenner cured me of that and, as a result, I’m not yet willing to write off _Finnegan’s_Wake_ with the same certainty that you exhibit… but almost.

      I kind of agree with your assessment of the Post-Modernists. Having gone to a school that immersed itself for a while in Deconstructionism to the point of hiring Derrida was enough to make me long for the days of the New Criticism. I’ve not tried the trio you mention, but I have tried Derrida, who seems deliberately arcane, and Habermaas, whose density seems to be legitimate.

      I don’t find Poe particularly difficult, but I think that he is very interesting.

      Two more nominations which I didn’t mention earlier because they were poet, TS Eliot and William Blake.

      • Christine May 16, 2012 / 9:52 pm

        Oh, dear sir, were you subject to Derrida at Irvine? I can’t imagine being forced to roil in the stews of theory unless in a department that much disparages theory. I enjoyed Deconstruction as an intellectual lark. For a semester. But as a lifework it would drive me to write (and drink) like Beckett.

        I think Eliot deserves a place on the hard list. Blake I find silly and dour all at once, but not difficult, particularly the Illuminated works which are pure theater.

  8. Dennis May 16, 2012 / 10:49 pm

    Sigh, Yes, I was at Irvine. It was strange since the dept. started out leaning heavily toward the New Critics (Frank Lentricia, Hazard Adams (who, coincidentally, taught Pynchon at Columbia)) with a sprinkling of others (Wolfgang Iser, Hillis Miller, usw) I did not take any courses from Derrida (he was a bit after my time. I had since moved on to EE) but all of those who did walked around with a perpetual question mark over their heads. For a good parody you should look into Frederick Crews’ books _The Pooh_Perplex_ and, especially, _Postmodern_Pooh_. Both are ostensibly collections of critical essays written about Winnie the Pooh.

    I can see what you mean by Blake being silly and dour, but I like twisting though the puzzle to make the prophecies one coherent unit. And I do see a lot of him showing up in GR.

    • Christine May 17, 2012 / 1:47 am

      I should clarify that I find Blake silly and dour in the way that I found my grandfather silly and dour. Adorable and intriguing and befuddling and delightfully silly and dour. I have quite a bit of Blake in my collection and enjoy revisiting him.

      Irvine has certainly earned their reputation with solid scholarship and impressive thinking, and I wouldn’t mind getting a PhD there. I just wouldn’t take any Derrida. Or Derrida-derivative. Or Derrida-adjacent. 😉

      • Christine May 17, 2012 / 1:50 am

        And since William Blake was the original comic book creator, I absolutely see him in GR. I’d like to see a reading of poor, put-upon, cartoonish Slothop as an echo of Blake’s Job.

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