50 tough books

A site called Flavorwire has a list of books that are rough reads. The phrase “not for the casual reader” comes up. As you might expect, it’s a funny, subjective list. It’s also a fairly accessible list, considering the subject. It’s not entirely literature-- King’s Pet Sematary is on it-- and all of it is fiction. There’s nary a 1400s technical manual on alchemy in sight.

A couple of these I read pretty young: The Painted Bird and Johnny Got His Gun. I think I was 11 or 12. That’s not meant to be a brag, incidentally. I read whatever was laying around the house, including Good Housekeeping. Apparently the editor included some bestsellers on the basis of gross subject matter or descriptions.

I think there’s an interesting question there: what makes a book tough for you?

For me, it’s not how gross it is or perverted the characters. I had no trouble with Geek Love. That sort of thing usually increases my interest. Opaque writing, now, that’s another story. And if a book takes a long time to get going, I’ll probably drop it; it’s too tough. I like a nice grabber at the start.

I’ve started and quit about as many books on that list as I’ve finished. Finnegan’s Wake, Gravity’s Rainbow, War and Peace, all too tough for me. There are more books on there that I never heard of or seen on a library or bookshop shelf than I’ve read or started. I’m not a very tough reader.

The list:


I’ve never made it through the Iliad. I’ve never made it through Paradise Lost.

It took me five tries to get through all of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Inferno is easy, but Purgatario is tough sledding, and Paradiso is even tougher. Since then, I’ve been through the whole thing several more times. It rewards persistence!

I finished Tolkien’s Silmarillion, but I confess I was skimming by the end. He lost me early, and I kept going because I felt a sense of obligation.

Woo hoo! I’ve read at least one - “The Gulag Archipelago.” It was absolutely fascinating - I had no idea the atrocities that had gone on in Russia under Stalin, Lenin, etc.

“Dhalgren” looks really familiar - I’d have to start reading it again to see if I have read it already (or started it and stopped because it was too weird).

Well, I haven’t read many of the books on that list (I haven’t heard of quite a few of them) though in some cases I have read other comparable works by the same author. I did begin Swan’s Way but never got through it. It wasn’t difficult to understand, or gross, just boring, and I certainly did not see myself reading another 11 volumes to complete the whole “novel”. To the Lighthouse is another that (I think) I never finished simply because I found it as dull as ditchwater. Actually it is possible that I did finish it, but that most of it just never stuck in my memory.)

But Heart of Darkness? Really? I may not have picked up on every aspect of the symbolism (although the main outlines were clear enough), but I did not find it a difficult read at all. The action moves right along, the language is quite transparent, and although some unpleasant things are described, you will find far worse in any cheap thriller. I am just not seeing the difficulty here. I have read other Conrad, Nostromo, for one, that was both more confusing in parts and much longer, but even that wasn’t really difficult, not like I found Ulysses or Pynchon’s V difficult. (I got through both of those, and did get something out of them - certainly I can see why people think Ulysses is a masterpiece - but both were tough sledding, and I was not inspired by the experiences to tackle Finnegan’s Wake or Gravity’s Rainbow.)

Some SF titles I’d have included.

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe
A Case of Conscience by James Blish
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Night’s Dawn by Peter F. Hamilton
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

A lot of families wasted money when they included the Great Works of the West to their usual order of Encyclopaedia Brittanica. They discovered it was all heavy reading. The toughest reads in the Great Works to me are:

  1. Critique of Pure Reason - Kant
  2. Principia Mathematica - Newton
  3. Summa Theologica - Aquinas
  4. The Wealth of Nations - Smith
  5. All works by Hume, Locke, and Freud
  6. Darwin

The easiest were:

  1. Melville
  2. Homer
  3. Gibbon
  4. Plutarch
  5. Shakespeare
  6. Marx/Engels (maybe that’s why rebels prefer Marx to Smith!!!)
  7. Milton
  8. Virgil
  9. Dickens

You must have been reading* The Communist Manifesto*. Marx wrote that as essentially a populist piece. But when he gets into his serious mode - like The Capital - it’s no light going:

And that’s a relatively good passage. I intentionally avoided one with mathematical formulas.

Joyce, Tolstoy, Chaucer and Faulkner are obvious selections.

I don’t understand the inclusion of “Pet Semetary”. The blurb below the entry explains nothing that couldn’t be inferred from the title and genre. Does it theme really make it uncomfortable to read? I suspect themes that hit closer to reality would be better. (eg Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns”)
As with the OP, it is writing styles - whether it be the vernacular (Trainspotting), invented slang (A Clockwork Orange) stream of consciousness (Ulysses) or Middle English (Canterbury tales) that make a book hard to read. Some of these books are written in an accessible style (Heart of Darkness) and are not hard to read, even if the casual reader may not grasp all of the themes or symbolism.

I included Riddley Walker because of its language. It’s set several centuries after a nuclear war and the language of the book, while still English, has changed quite a bit. Here’s an excerpt:

When I was a kid and all the way through High School, I loved to read.

I had to read Heart of Darkness as a senior in high school. It was so difficult and horrible that it turned me off of reading completely and totally for 10 years. I honestly did not pick up a book for pleasure reading for a decade, that is what a bad impression that book left on me. It make me feel all reading was as horrible as that book.

Blood Meridian? Some of the material is disturbing but it’s not a difficult book to read.

Mmm, yes… they seem to have went for a mix of “disturbing subject matter” and “bloody dense and impenetrable,” generally not in the same book. Me, I’ve got one–Battle Royale. Don’t remember it being terribly difficult in any way, honestly.

I had trouble getting through it. It’s unrelentingly bleak, almost post-apocalyptic, both with the characters and the lanscape.

War and Peace was not too tough, just overlong. It’s not that great a book, in my humble opinion. Brothers Karamazov, another lengthy Russian book, is far, far better.

Johnny Got his Gun? Not hard to read at all. :confused:

I’ve read all of Moby Dick (which I didn’t find that much of a slog) Heart of Darkness (ditto) and The Divine Comedy, which was tough for me to get through.

I’ve read many of The Canterbury Tales, all in Middle English, in high school and college.
Tough because I had to keep checking the glossary, but still very worthwhile.

I don’t usually like to shit on that oh-so-sacred cow: “Online List Designed to Drive Advertising Dollars,” but the criteria for building this list is so obviously inconsistent that it might as well have been called, “50 books selected at random from undergraduate literature majors’ reading lists.”

I’ve read six of them (if you count reading** Canterbury Tales** in a modern English translation). Of those I know, Sophie’s Choice, Gravity’s Rainbow and Dhalgren were difficult not reads in any sense (other than the fact the last two were extremely long books).

Well, of course. Any list like this without Wuthering Heights on it is obviously lacking any merit.

Read and appreciated, if not loved
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Johnny Got His Gun, Dalton Trumbo
The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer
Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady, Samuel Richardson
The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Read but did not love
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

Utterly defeated by
In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
Almanac of the Dead, Leslie Marmon Silko
The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien

Read, but huh??
Pet Sematary, Stephen King

Why is Pet Semetary on the list? Any response from the writer?

I don’t think Canterbury Tales should count as difficult since it is a language thing. In plain modern English, it’s not that bad.