Unreasonable Words: The Most Difficult Books

Richardson’s 1500 page epistolary novel from 1748. Not my summer reading choice.

Years back, when he was in the middle of his ““Oprah’s Book Club flap,” novelist Jonathan Franzen made this observation,

“One pretty good definition of college is that it’s a place where people are made to read difficult books.”

From an article of his about William Gaddis, among other things, that appeared in The New Yorker.

The difficult books that defined my college experience included almost the entire second half of a course in Modernism in American Fiction (once Fitzgerald and Hemingway were out of the way, the going got tough). Despite (because?) of that it was the most stimulating course I had in college, and one of three that has stayed with with me. Plato’s Theaetetus and Parmenides, on the other hand, flummoxed me categorically at age 19 and drove me from being a philosophy major. Something I should perhaps be grateful for. God knows, I’m introspective enough already.

I’m sure, however, that somebody out there loves the Parmenides, if only for coming to terms with what Wikipedia understatedly terms its challenging and enigmatic character. Books evoke intensely personal reactions–favorable or not (“This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”–Dorothy Parker). “Difficulty” is as personal as love, and, as with anything, only the individual reader can decide whether it is at some level earned and why.

That doesn’t check the irresistible impulse to make lists of the hardest books, and the literature site The Millions has been up to just that for the last few years. Publishers Weekly has the final results, all winners of the heavyweight round.

No arguments from me against the claim that these are challenging. Nightwood was one of the works I came to grief on in that Modernism course. Pretty opaque–although that was part of the point–and having a swifter student explain what was happening, particularly in the icky last scene, is not a part of the course I treasure.

However, not sure Heidegger and Hegel belong on a list that is otherwise mostly fiction. German philosophers = bad prose, it’s the brand essence. Arguably, philosophy is a species of technical writing anyway, and the ranks of turgid technical books (at least a few of which will pass the test of time) is vast.

Then there’s modernism: four of the ten are modernist novels from the first half of the 20th century, including the aforementioned Nightwood. Being hard was part of the point of modernism: hard on the idea of narrative, hard on traditions of the novel, hard on the reader’s expectations, hard on language itself. Seems like they deserve a league of their own: which Stein and Joyce would still probably win. Woolf’s sentences are so lovely that you can kind of lap it up like a cat and not notice you haven’t known what the hell was going on or who was speaking for pages.

The Millions writers, Garth and Emily, still deserve our praise. Their annotations certainly suggest they made it through the whole lot. I’d be scared to even download the 1,500 page Clarissa to my iPad. I only got the 16 gig.

My overall response: searching for lists of the best books under 200 pages!

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