The Most Difficult Book You've Ever Read

What is the most difficult book you've ever read? One answer here, mine follows.

I'm doing to confine my answer to fiction because no one really wants to know about Ascpects of the Dynamic Manifold in Planck Space, or even worse for sheer tedium  Advanced Igneous Petrology.

So, the most difficult piece of literary fiction I've ever read has to have been The Golden Bowl In terms of sheer technical difficulty, it blew Ulysses out of the water.  Part of the reason is that so precious little actually happens in the book and the same six or so characters float around one another endlessly.  There is no compelling narrative to sweep you through the deep complexities of the story--and so in this stark environment, James's deep insights stand out.  The book is worth every minute you put into it, but you will, in all likelihood put a great many minutes into it. 



  1. _Finian's Wake_: since I only read two or three pages I consider it the most difficult book I never finished.

    _The Golden Bowl_: I started it and gave up on it. I then saw the Masterpiece Theatre version. I picked it up again and this time I finished it with no problem.

    Proust's monster: the most difficult book I ever read. Perhaps one day I may do it again, and maybe get a better understanding of it--maybe

  2. Dear Fred,

    Hmmmm. For some reason Finnegan's Wake didn't even occur to me as the most difficult--it should have, I'm not downplaying its complexity--but I think the wordplay had me so engaged that I found less trouble.

    And I didn't find Proust at all difficult (in English--in French is another matter). I think its difficulty lies in the prospect of thousands of pages--but the prose is not particularly difficult to surmount and once you are into it the characters carry you through fairly easily.

    I think your approach on _The Golden Bowl_ may well serve many because the book is definitely worth reading. It is, however, difficult.

    Oh, and I didn't even mention the horrors of Claude Simon--but I think that's because I didn't want to give anyone the impression that conquering them was worth the time. (It may well be, but combine the fact that there's little in translation with the fact that there's precious little going on and you have the formals for a nightmare.

    Thanks for commenting.



  3. Steven,

    I don't mind "wordplay" (Russell Hoban's _Riddley Walker_ is a favorite of mine and due for another reread), but I felt F'sW was excessive. Joyce supposedly had been quoted as saying that it took him 17 years to write it and that he thought it only fair that it should take an equal amount of time to read it.

    My problem with Proust was that I kept losing track of what was going in his many long, long, long paragraphs that stretched over numerous pages, and I had to go back numerous times.

  4. Dear Fred,

    Yes, you will recall that I definitely DO NOT recommend FW to every reader--most will tire of it quickly. And the reality is that, for me, once you slip into the language it takes only a little longer than a similar length novel to finish. Do you get everything possible out of it? Probably not. But then since Joyce didn't know everything he put into it, I see that as no real problem.

    And you're right about the paragraphs--they have to be read with extraordinary attention sometimes and you certainly can't be interrupted in the middle, or it's back to the beginning for you.

    But even with those challenges, I found _The Golden Bowl_ more daunting and difficult. Perhaps, indeed, because of its relative compression with respect to Proust.

    But then every reader will find his or her challenge somewhat different. So I think your books are undoubtedly challenging--for me they just weren't, for whatever reason, the ones that stand out at the top of the heap. (Although they wouldn't be many layers down. There might be only one or two between my top and those you mentioned. Or perhaps none--I haven't thought it through enough--I just know the one that leapt to mind when asked the question.



  5. Steven,

    The same is true of me: those were the ones that I first thought of when I read the question. There were others that I gave up on for various reasons, but these were the ones that I finished.


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