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?

Children’s literature – should children read the old classics?

I listened to The Guardian Books Podcast from December 10th, 2010 today and they had a very interesting discussion about Children’s literature.

The debate was about older classics like Babar the elephant, Little Black Sambo, Tintin and more and whether these are damaging for children to read. Are they imprinting unhealthy values on our children like colonialism, prejudism and racism?

They went on talking about how we don’t know what effect Little Black Sambo and other books have on children. We don’t know to what extent we are being prejudiced by the colonialism books. We know that children learn positive things from children’s books so of course they can also learn the bad things. But a book doesn’t begin and end with the book – there are a lot of stuff before and after the actual reading. But for some children the book does stand alone – what then?

One of the important debaters was Michael Rosen who had some interesting points – for instance that you could argue that the problem of Babar is both the representation of Africa as some strangely savage Eden that needs to be civilized, that Celeste is one step below the King Babar, that hierarchies are natural etc.

Of course some books have lasted very well – and others are so horrific that children shouldn’t read them at all anymore. In all genres there are books that become outdated in one way or the other and some children’s literature have aged rather badly and for various reasons shouldn’t be read anymore (except maybe by scholars).

I’m not quite sure what I think. I have two small children, the oldest is just two years old, so she’s slowly growing old enough to start reading books like this. But should she? I knew both Babar and Little Black Sambo when I was a child but they were not among my favourites so it doesn’t mean the world for me that my daughters should read these books.

I’m in a position of being able to explain to them the not so good parts of these books and I can give them something else to read to balance these books. But not all children have parents that have the time, the inclination or the opportunity to do this. Will these children be worse off? I have no idea and I don’t think anybody know. I know I don’t think these books should be banned because I don’t believe in banning books for any reason.

But should they be censored? I remember when Tintin was censored so Captain Haddock stopped swearing and smoking and I found it so silly. But what about doing something about Babar so the African people aren’t the lowest of the low, the idea of hierarchy isn’t presented as right and true etc. Or edit Little Black Sambo so it isn’t so racist? I think there could be some good in this. Maybe. Racism in any form, the idea of some people being better than other because of anything like skin color, where you were born etc, is just plain wrong. There is so much hatred in the world today so if you can stop some children growing up hating by censoring these old classics, shouldn’t you do so?

I think – after going back and forth on this – that my answer is no. No, you shouldn’t censor. You should never censor. Who is to determine what to censor anyway? Besides, children see the whole picture. If they grow up in a world where their parents respect other people, they go to school with all kinds of children, and they are exposed to a lot of different books, movies, games etc, reading Little Black Sambo will not make them racists. And if some children do not grow up in this world, maybe they will be racists. But these books are not what will push them over.

Like so many other things, you have to look at everything that influence children. I don’t believe that small children should watch the news but the appropriate thing to do about it is that the parents make sure they don’t – not to ban the news. And it’s the same with these books. If parents let their children read them, then they must make sure to put them into context and explain what’s wrong with them – and read other books that promote multiculturalism, appreciation of different values and cultures and the idea that it’s okay to be different.

The podcast can be found here (the discussion about this subject is towards the end of the podcast).

Anybody have any thoughts on this?