The good folks at The Broke and the Bookish host a weekly meme post they call Top Ten Tuesdays. They publish the themes well in advance, and even provide a way for TTT bloggers to share links with one another. This week’s theme is “Top Ten Books That Were Hard For Me To Read (because difficulty of book, subject matter, because it was cringeworthy– however you want to interpret).”
I’ve read a ton of difficult books in my day. Here are the first ten that come to mind.
1. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
This was the hardest book I’d ever attempted when I tried it the first time (I was 12). I didn’t get through it on the first go, but I did two years later. I’ve read this text cover to cover more times than any other, and I still don’t feel that I’ve mastered it.
2. The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
It’s the most difficult book I actually like. I’ve read it five or six times now, and “The Sicilian Expedition” is still a long slog despite its evocative title. It’s worth the effort, though. Especially if you’re a history or social science geek.
3. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
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My problem with this one was the weird time ordering, the abundance of characters, and the fact that you have to wait hundreds of pages to see how the various subplots intersect. I was also suspicious from page one that the author wasn’t telling a story so much as playing a practical joke on the audience. I almost put it down for that reason, but I decided to give it a chance. When I was done, I wished I’d put it down instead of finishing it. I felt as though the author had just played a practical joke on me instead of telling me a story.
4. Dune by Frank Herbert
I first read this one when I was in my late teens, and I came away not wanting to read another Herbert book, ever. I’ve since mended my ways and acquired the taste, but that didn’t happen until I was in my 30s. The first act of Dune is so slow it’s painful, which is quite a feat when you consider that it includes a strange psychic sect, a personal betrayal, and dynastic warfare on an epic scale carried out with sci-fi weapons. As if the pacing problem weren’t enough, Herbert’s proper names are as difficult in their own way as Tolkien’s, and there’s an added layer of techno-speak thrown in. Also, Herbert sometimes comes across as a guy who’s writing to show people how smart he is, which isn’t an attractive quality in an author of popular fiction.
5. House of Leaves By Mark Z. Danielewski
This could be the most difficult text I’ve ever encountered. It began as hypertext fiction. It’s a doorstopper of a book, and it includes things like pages printed sideways and mirror writing. It’s peppered with coded messages, and the keys are hidden in the appendices. It’s a story-within-a-story-within-a story, it’s loaded with symbolism, and it questions the nature of both authorship and audience-ship. I did not feel like the author had just played a practical joke on me when I was done, though. Nor did I get the idea at any point that he was just writing to show off his high IQ.
6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
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I’ve not studied Faulkner extensively, but I’ve read more than half a dozen of his novels. His style is disorienting. It’s easy to get so lost in his work you have to backtrack 20 pages to figure out what you just missed. This one took me three attempts, but like Thucydides, it’s totally worth the effort.
7. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
This is the text on this list I found easiest the first time around. I read it in one go, thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed it, and have read it a second time since. It took a long time, though — a couple of weeks at least. And it required the sort of intense concentration that makes you feel like you’ve had a workout when you’re done.
8. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
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Assigned reading for 9th grade literature, and I hated it. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why anyone would use such complex language to tell such a simple story, nor could I answer that all-important question, “Why the hell should I care?” This one almost soured me on Dickens forever. Fortunately, I was assigned A Tale of Two Cities the next year, and it inspired me to write poetry. It’s still one of my favorite novels. I’ve since decided that my difficulty with Great Expectations was mostly a product of my immaturity, but I’ve never re-read it and don’t plan to. It left a bad taste in my mind, and life is too short for that.
9. The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis
This one is the fourth in the Narnia series, and I’m not sure I ever actually got through it. If I did, it didn’t leave much of an impression — not even a negative one. I know I picked it up several times as an adolescent, though, and I’ve read the entire rest of the Narnia books for sure. So I suppose I can count it 30-something years later.
10. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
I may be cheating here, but I did not actually read every word of it. I read the first chapter, then skimmed the rest. This is the only book on the list that was difficult because I find it cringe-worthy. That’s all I’m saying about it, though. I totally respect the legions of people who like the Twilight series. It’s just not to my taste. I also find it problematic, but I see no need to go on about my problems with a text after I’ve just admitted I only skimmed it 😉
(Forgive me for breaking my self-imposed rule that all my book lists contain a graphic novel unless they’re too genre-specific for that to work. I’ve never actually read a graphic novel that I found difficult, and if I don’t like the subject matter or find them cringe-worthy, I always know it within the first three pages and just stop reading.)