Monday, August 06, 2012

The Most Difficult Book You've Read


I saw a pretty good movie last week (LIBERAL ARTS) and in it there is a discussion of INFINITE JEST without its title ever being mentioned. (In fact, there is a lot of discussion about books--what a treat). Not sure why they never gave the title but it must be to either 1) make it more universal or 2) legal reasons.

This is a book I have tried and failed in reading. Number one turnoff-the length.

I finally succeeded in reading ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, which was a trudgefest for me.

PW has a list of the most difficult books right here. I have only read one or two of them.

What is the most difficult book you have ever read leaving aside works of philosophy and that sort of thing? What have you tried to read and failed?

28 comments:

Walker Martin said...

The most difficult book I ever encountered was James Joyce's novel FINNEGAN'S WAKE. I tried to read it several times and even read several books about it. Joyce once said that it took him 18 years to write it and the reader should invest the same amount of time to properly understand it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

The only Joyce I have been able to get through is THE DUBLINERS, which was pure bliss. ULYSSES sits dusty on the shelf.

Anonymous said...

I've read Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Would not even try Finnegan's Wake.

Jeff M.

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Edward Abbey's novels are so hard to read for me. Major, major work...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, THE MONKEYWRENCH GANG defeated me years ago.

Loren Eaton said...

Joyce's Ulysses, most definitely. It seems to come from that school of literary thought which holds that the more impenitrable a work, the better.

Anonymous said...

I read Abbey's non fiction DESERT SOLITAIRE a long time ago.

Proust is one I can't get into at all.

Jeff M.

Thomas Pluck said...

Ulysses was written, like T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," to speak to a generation who were taught the English canon in schools. All the bizarre references and pastiches refer to Samuel Pepys and other authors we are rarely taught today (except for the obvious allegory to the story of Ulysses). It's a tough read, but the underlying story is still interesting and enjoyable. However, I'd say Dubliners was his best work.

I tried reading Infinite Jest and found it needlessly obscure, but at times very funny and entertaining. The book is intentionally difficult- levels of footnotes that make you bookmark with six fingers, tissue paper thin pages, minuscule text- and I rebelled against it. I'm told the footnoting mimics hypertext and how with web pages, we follow one story or page and wind up twenty websites away before remembering the original article we were reading, so perhaps IJ would work better as *gasp* an e-book.

Al Tucher said...

Confession time. I have never had the slightest interest in trying any of the books on the PW list, and I would add an eleventh: Paradise Lost. That probably says more about me than about the list.

Back when A Brief History of Time was the rage, I didn't even consider trying it. The topic is fascinating, but two years of high school physics taught me my limitations.

My most inspiring literature teacher once told us that the secret to reading Ulysses is to open it at random and start reading. Even that explicit permission didn't help.

Deb said...

I read a lot at a relatively-young age (early teens) that I was not mature enough (intellectually or emotionally) to fully understand. Of that group, I think Hesse's STEPPENWOLF was the most difficult--although I'm sure if I read it today, it would be far more accessible. FINNEGAN'S WAKE is the most inpenetrable novel I've ever attempted--someone told me it's better to just let the words flow over you rather than attempting to understand it, which rather defeats the purpose, I should think. Some of Nabokov's work seems needlessly dense--I suspect that's on purpose.

Ron Scheer said...

My apologies to any Melville fans or scholars here...I could never get through MOBY DICK. As for difficult books I've actually finished, probably SWANN'S WAY. But I remember really loving 100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE.

pattinase (abbott) said...

No Proust or Melville for me. In my book group, one woman loved ONE HUNDRED YEARS, the rest of us fell short.

Charles Gramlich said...

I loved the Monkey Wrench Gang. One of my favorite books. I have three hard ones to mention. Moby Dick was a long, long sludgefest. the sound and the fury was about as bad but mercifully shorter. The metamorphosis was really short but I hated every moment wasted on that book. It still remains to me perhaps the silliest book ever written.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Three that have eluded me as well. S & F I have tried many times especially.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

I was sixteen when I first read ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE and didn't follow it one bit. It's deeper meaning eluded me. It's still sitting on my shelf but I have never gone back to it again. maybe someday...

Richard R. said...

I've read none on that list, nor have any intention of trying to. Joyce was beyond me, I tried PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST and didn't finish, ULYSSES was a stumper after only a few pages. I only read MOBY DICK because it was assigned in my sophomore high school English class and we had to read a chapter or two each week and then write it up for discussion. I didn't like it. BEOWULF was no picnic either.

I had trouble with THE MILL ON THE FLOSS, just didn't find it of the least interest, but did finish it. That was a time when I read a lot of books "because I should". HISTORY OF TIME was another. I finished it, but didn't understand most of it.

George said...

I have no interest in decoding books like FINNEGANS WAKE. I find the most difficult books I've read are philosophy books. Heidegger's BEING & TIME and Hegel's PHILOSOPHY OF RIGHT are brain-busters. But I suspect they are purposely obscure. And I'm with Jeff: Proust bores me to tears.

George said...

I also loved the ad for Megan's new book in yesterday's NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW!

Erik Donald France said...

Cocincidentally, I just quoted a paragraph from Martin Heidegger -- read it while an admin asst., one of the dullest jobs I've ever had.

I found Virginia W. a bit maddening, as if I myself was going mad while reading her. And Finnegan's Wake drove me batty, too. Too weird even for me. Also, some Wm S. Burroughs -- as little sample goes a long way.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks, George. You are the first to see it.
And Phil agrees with you about Being and Time although he has read enough Hegel after 40 years of it to get him.
Oh Burroughs is very hard indeed. And I never got any of those post modern writers like Barth.

Anonymous said...

I saw it too, Patti. Good one.

Rick, I disliked THE MILL ON THE FLOSS too, as well as SILAS MARNER but I did read both (not by choice). I was in an "advanced" English class in high school where we had to read the Joyce as well as DEATH IN VENICE and others I haven't revisited since. I preferred Dickens to any of them.

As for Barth, a good friend swore by him - he claimed to love GILES GOAT-BOY and THE SOT-WEED FACTOR - but the only one I could ever get through was THE END OF THE ROAD. I still remember that one, and not just from the movie version, though that would make a good forgotten movie as it starred Stacy Keach, Harris Yulin, Dorothy Tristan and James Earl Jones.

Jeff M.
Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Here we stand a college or more educated bunch who find reading difficult novels a task.
Is it us or the novels?

John said...

I, too, never finished Infinite Jest. I think I made it the two thirds mark before I finally threw in the towel. I tried to ignore the footnotes, but sometimes they were like short stories and were better than the main narrative. But it all got to be way too much of a headache after a while. RINGU basically tells the same story, is far more entertaining and it takes up only 90 mihnbutes of yoru life. I like Wallace's essays and magazine writing more than his fiction. What a bitter and troubled man. I suspected he would probably have a short life, but never thought he'd do himself in.

Oh, I also tried to read THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND by Allan Bloom when it first came out. I was 27 then. I never finished it and I never understood what BLoom was so angry about. None of the studnets I went to college with (1979-1982) were anything like the people he was attacking. After that I only read books I wanted to read and never again picked up a book simply because it was controversial and or was "hot" or "trendy" or "the one you had to read."

pattinase (abbott) said...

Sound behavior after the college years. Still I wonder if I am too easy on myself.

Todd Mason said...

I think there are rewards one can overlook in a complex text, but not getting very far with Finnegans Wake is nothing to beat one's self up over. Fabulists, surfiction and academic fantasists such as Barth are probably best first encountered at the short story level, where something like "Night Sea Journey" is pretty straightforward, unless (like my college class full of sloughing sophs) you don't actually read it (I was the only one in the class to have read it and understood it, apparently).

Cap'n Bob said...

I steer clear of anything I don't expect to like, but had to read Fathers and Sons in school. I hated every word on every page. I think I tried Portrait of the Artist and stopped before the third page. Art with a capital F.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Nearly all of the books mentioned so far I've read and love--all except INFINITE JEST--but my love was the result of study and of many returns to the text as well as to the critical literature.

They need to re-edit INFINITE JEST with paragraph breaks to get more people to read it. Either that or else break the text with subtitles and illustrations. It's an eye thing, at least for this reader.

I at first found Megan Abbott's THE END OF EVERYTHING difficult to read because, quite simply, it was about child abuse, something we get too much of on the news.

I came to it only after it was critically acclaimed and had won several genre awards.

I found it compelling if, a couple of times, needlessly too graphic. But after I finished it I went back and at depth found an interpretation which was both sound at the level of noir parable and ultimately positive. It then worked for me, on different levels.

I presented my analysis on my blog, but if anyone at all read it and perhaps felt the same way, they left no comment.

I'm a seasonal reader and sort my to-be-read shelves by the month: shark week and dog day reads for August, campus novels for September, ghost stories and October surprises for harvest time, fall and hunting dog stories for the first part of November, Thanksgiving mysteries and secular spiritual stories for the last of the month--until Christmas reads occupy my attention.

The year ends and I start all over again.

Anonymous said...

Lord Jim
Gravity's Rainbow
Ulyssess
The Magu