The World’s Most Difficult Books

So we all love lists, right? And especially lists of books, yes? Now, the Guardian has published a list of the 10 most difficult books and asks, how many have you read? Here’s the list:

  • Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
  • A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
  • The Phenomenology of Spirit by G.F. Hegel
  • To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  • Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
  • Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
  • Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
  • The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
  • The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
  • Women and Men by Joseph McElroy

The list has been put together by Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg from the Millions, apparently after researching it for three years. As always with such lists, they immediately open up for debate and so the writer of the article, Alison Flood, speculates that she would probably have included Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and maybe The Waves by Virginia Woolf instead of To the Lighthouse.

It seems that every author is only allowed one book on the list – otherwise I think Ulysses by James Joyce also would qualify.

Now, I’ve read two of these (To the Lighthouse and Being and Time) and 70% of Clarissa as well as parts of The Phenomenology of Spirit. Most of the others I haven’t even heard of (except of course Finnegans Wake). Being and Time is definitely difficult – Heidegger talks about being and ontology and when he runs out of words, he invents them himself. It requires multiple readings and lots of thinking to get this book. The Phenomenology of Spirit is also a difficult book.

When I think of To the Lighthouse, I recall it as being very difficult and as a book I didn’t particularly like. However, when I go back and read my review, I can see I gave it 4 stars and were very impressed with the way she crafted the book – and that it made me think of Hegel! I think a lot of people find stream of consciousness difficult and that’s probably why this book is on the list, however, sometimes I think you just have to go with the flow and let the words wash over you … if that makes sense. I can see that I was very impressed with Woolf when reading this and wanted to read more books by her – and somehow I have forgotten this and have just been very intimidated by her. I need to read Woolf soon!

I don’t find Clarissa difficult – just very, very, very long, repetitive and boring at times. But not difficult.

A book I found difficult is Will Self’s How the Dead Live. I can see my review is only about 15 lines long and for everyone following this blog, you know that I don’t write short reviews! It confused me – but some parts of it has stayed with me and pop up in my thoughts from time to time so maybe I need to tackle Will Self again. His newest, Umbrella, is longlisted for the Booker so maybe now is a good time?

Now, how many of these have you read?

10 thoughts on “The World’s Most Difficult Books

  1. I’ve only read one book on this list–To the Lighthouse–and I’m not sure why it’s on the list. I can think of lots of books that are more difficult to read. Haha!

    As always, though, these lists tend to be pretty subjective. What is difficult for one, might not be difficult for another.

    • I agree, Heather – both with these lists being very subjective but also with To the Lighthouse not being that difficult. I do think, though, that we can all agree on books like Being and Time and Finnegans Wake being difficult, objectively speaking even.

  2. I thought of you when I saw that Clarissa was on the list. I was surprised because it didn’t strike me as difficult, just slow going because it was rather dull. Like you I’ve never heard of some of these titles.

  3. I can’t stand reading books that seem to be deliberately obscurantist. As such, I haven’t read any of these in the list — but I’ve heard of Finnegan’s Wake as being as near unintelligible as anything ever written. I thought of it instantly, and then saw it on the list.
    Another one that should be added to this list is Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis. And a book that I read once, supposed to be some sort of treasure — was G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Absolutely atrocious book. Another one that comes to mind is The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. Horrid book!
    Great, thoughtful posting here.

    • Thanks! If an author deliberately tries to make a book obscure and difficult, it puts me off too. However, when an author tries to explore some very difficult ideas and maybe not quite succeeding and thereby making it very difficult, I’m still intrigued. I really want to read Time’s Arrow – it sounds great, although difficult. I’ve never tried The Man Who Was Thursday or The Tin Drum …

  4. I’ve been meaning to read To The Lighthouse for some time now, although I didn’t particularly like Mrs. Dalloway. I think you are right…stream of consciousness is very, very hard to read and follow.

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