The Top 10 Most Difficult Books
Aug 03, 2012
Back in 2009, The Millions started its "Difficult Books" series--devoted to identifying the hardest and most frustrating books ever written, as well as what made them so hard and frustrating. The two curators, Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg, have selected the most difficult of the most difficult, telling us about the 10 literary Mt. Everests waiting out there for you to climb, should you be so bold. If you can somehow read all 10, you probably ascend to the being immediately above Homo sapiens. How many have you read? What books would you add? Let us know in the comments!
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes - Dylan Thomas called Nightwood "one of the three greatest prose books ever written by a woman,” but in order to behold this greatness you must master Barnes' tortuous, gothic prose style. In his introduction to the novel, T.S Eliot describedNightwood’s prose as “altogether alive” but also “demanding something of a reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.” Nightwood is a novel of ideas, a loose collection of monologues and descriptions. What will keep you going: The cross-dressing Irish-American "Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante O'Connor," who, when not wandering Paris, drinking heavily, or dressing in nighties, rouge, and wigs of cascading golden curls, is expounding great rambling sermons that fill most of the book. These are funny, dirty, absurd, despairing, resigned—even hopeful in a Becketty I-can't-go-on-I'll-go-on kind of way.
Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson - Richardson’s Clarissa is a heavyweight in more ways than one. The novel’s physical heft is part of its difficulty (she weighs in at just under three pounds in Penguin’s oversized edition), especially as her 1500 pages are light on plot (Samuel Johnson said you’d hang yourself if you read Clarissa for the plot). But what the novel lacks in plot it makes up for in psychological depth. Richardson was the first master of the psychological novel and he hasn’t been bested since. These depths are also dark and psychically wrenching: Clarissa's rejection and dehumanization by her monstrous family and the sadistic torments she undergoes at the hands of her rescuer turned torturer, the "charming sociopath" Robert Lovelace, offer some of the most emotionally harrowing reading experiences available in English.
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce -Finnegans Wake is long, dense, and linguistically knotty, yet hugely rewarding, if you're willing to learn how to read it. By this, I don't mean wallowing in the froth of scholarly exegesis the Wake churned up in its wake. Not the first time out, at least. (I take Joyce's talk about setting traps for his readers as an expression of hostility born out of years of frustration.) Rather, I mean surrendering to Joyce's music. Meaning here is more a question of effect than of decoding; in this way, this Difficult Book is paradigmatic of great literature more generally. Try reading 25 pages a day, out loud, in your best bad Irish accent. (Seriously - some of what seems like idiolectic obscurity is just a question of how you pronounce your vowels.) You'll be maddened, you'll be moved, and you'll be done in about four weeks.
Emily Colette Wilkinson is a critic living in Washington, DC. Her reviews have received commendations from The Society of Professional Journalists and The Virginia Quarterly Review.