What is the most difficult modern English book to understand?

What is the most difficult to understand book, poem, or other document that is written in Modern English (yes, this includes Shakespeare and the King James Bible, but doesn’t include Chaucer)?

  1. Which is the most difficult because of fundamental language issues, such as archaic grammar or vocabulary, uncommon vocabulary (not directly inherent in the subject matter of the book, such as unnecessary use of “whereas” and “heretofore”), uncommon spellings of words, or long, complex and convoluted sentence structure?
  2. Which is most difficult not because of fundamental grammar, vocabulary, or structural issues, but because the subject matter of the book is arcane to people today, such as a book on chivalry that is difficult to understand because it presupposes that the reader is intimately familar with the nuances of social issues involving nobility and uses vocabulary related to great country estates that is unfamilar to people today?
  3. What recent (e.g. late 20th century or later) modern work is most difficult to understand because of required subject matter knowledge, such as a complex PhD dissertation or scientific journal article?

Is the answer different if you limit yourself to poetry, novels, scientific writings, commercial documents, or some other category?

Anything by James Joyce.

You can close the thread now.

Nonsense. Finnegans Wake stands head and shoulders above the rest of his work in terms of difficulty.

Riddley Walker is written in, uh, post-apocalyptic dialect, I guess? Phonetically might be a better way to describe it. I’ve tried to read it several times and when I put it down I don’t pick it back up. It’s really challenging.

Incidentally, the full text of Finnegans Wake.


As for non-fictional stuff, it is obviously going to be relative to the reader’s prior knowledge and aptitudes. Still Principia Mathematica must be up there (Russell and Whitehead, not Newton). One also hears bad things about Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.

“The Glass Bead Game”, by Hermann Hesse.

Yeah, yeah, it won the Nobel Prize, it was still a slog to get through, and I adored some of his other books!

I don’t know how a question such as this, accompanied by the parameters as it is, could lead to any kind of meaningful answers. Comprehension is determined by such a broad array of subjective and contextual factors. But it should a least result in an interesting list of “books I didn’t like.”

Well, try this. We’ll say the reader is a college educated (BS or BA) person from an English speaking country. Their degree is in something other than the immediate subject matter of the book or something closely related (e.g. if the book is an advanced treatise on tactics of the War of 1812, then their degree might be in Computer Science, or if the book is on quantum physics then they may have a degree in Journalism) They speak and read only a standard English dialect (e.g. US or British), and don’t have any specialized training in rural or nonstandard dialects that the average person doesn’t have. They have had some exposure to Shakespeare and the King James Bible but are not experts.

Who can fail to be moved by this passage from page 362 of volume 1?

I’ve never found anything more challenging than Finnegan’s Wake, and cannot now remember how far I got when reading it (or attempting to).

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Brutal…

Brings a tear to my eye. Thank you for sharing.

Finnegans Wake is not a book. It’s a joke. It’s also only arguably English, so it gets disqualified for two reasons.

I have tried to get through Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying at least twice. You know how if at first you don’t succeed you’re supposed to try, try again? Whoever said that never read Faulkner.

Infinite Jest --David Foster Wallace.

Damn compelling, though.

Not sure if it could beat out Finnegan’s Wake or Joyce…

Both of which were originally written in German. Since the OP mentioned the King James Bible, I assume that doesn’t disqualify them, but it does leave open the question of whether it’s the original work or the translation that’s being judged difficult to understand.

You know, I love, love, love Paradise Lost, but I’ll be the first to say it’s not easy going.

Another vote for Finnegan’s Wake. Every few years I

[li]Decide I should try again[/li][li]Pick it up, full of determination and enthusiasm[/li][li]Struggle manfully through a few pages (I think the record is 10)[/li][li]Give up in complete and utter bewilderment[/li][li]Whimper and swear off FW forever[/li][/ul]
It’s a book for taking to a desert island. So that you can start fires with it, and rejoice with every flaming page.

If the book wasn’t originally in English, then it’s a specific translation.

I intentionally put this question in IMHO. I’m interested in different opinions on “the most difficult”. I know that there aren’t clear, measurable criteria for this and am interested in what people think about when they think about books or other works that are difficult to understand.

Holy shit. I remember having to read The Scarlett Letter in the 11th grade and wanting to tear the fucking book to shreds the entire time. It’s been a few years since then so maybe now I could get a better handle on it, but gawddamn that book made no fucking sense to me at the time.