Last week, Publishers Weekly published a list of the 10 most difficult books. They defined difficulty in different ways. It could mean the syntax is difficult or it’s filled with obscure references or it’s a slog to get through or the psychological ideas in the work are hard to understand. I thought this list was interesting, although I think it would have been better if they had limited it to novels. They included a philosophical work, which seems odd since I would think there are many philosophical works that would be harder than the other books on the list.
When I read the list, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of several. I was also surprised at some of the ones I’ve read! I’ve read To the Lighthouse, A Tale of a Tub and most of Clarissa (and should finish soon!). To me, it makes sense that Clarissa’s on the list. It’s just so stinking looooong and repetitive that just getting through the whole thing is an accomplishment. The article did make a few good points in it though. Clarissa is really the first novel where we get a psychological look inside characters minds. No, I don’t think Richardson handled it very well, but he was really the first novelist doing that and it made a big change in the development of the novel.
As for To the Lighthouse, I didn’t really find it that difficult, although if it was your first encounter with Woolf or works in a similar style, then I can see this making the list. I think Woolf masters the art of writing in a stream-of-consciousness style and a very artistic way without making it so convoluted her readers can’t follow along. This is what makes Joyce so much more difficult in my opinion. I think he’s similar to Woolf in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but then with Ulysses and I’m assuming with Finnegan’s Wake, he just goes too far. I would have put both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake on the list, but I suppose they wanted to limit it to one work per author.
The last book I’ve read on the list is A Tale of the Tub, and it shocked me that this one was on the list! I love Swift, and I read this in college so I had background information and notes and it just didn’t seem difficult. I then reread it when I was working on my MA in English and did a lot of research to go along with it, so I can see what they mean about it being difficult because of all the inside jokes and references that don’t mean anything to most modern readers, but there’s so much there even if you miss a lot of that, so I don’t know that I’d really consider it that difficult.
So what wasn’t on the list? I was surprised that Gravity’s Rainbow wasn’t included. I’ve never read it, but it comes up fairly often as the hardest book people have read. Personally, I would include Atlas Shrugged. There was so much philosophy in that book and so much meaning crammed into every sentence. It’s a long book, so if every sentence is full of meaning, that’s a lot of depth! I really loved the book in the end, but I had to work harder at reading that book than other book I’ve read except Ulysses.
So, what’s the hardest book you’ve ever read? Have you read any of the books on PW’s list? Any I should give a try?