As is true of most people who pursue a career in publishing, I have always loved to read. In college one of my majors was English, and I happily spent a good portion of my college career reading novel after novel for credit. However, we have all come across at least one book that s just too difficult. My most difficult book so far has been Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, which is unfortunate, as I spent an entire semester studying it. Even having an amazing professor couldn’t salvage this book for me. It was allegory to the nth degree, it was written primarily in Middle English, and it was too darn long.
I am far from the only booklover to ever struggle with an amazing piece of literature. The Millions, an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts and culture, started a series on difficult books in 2009. The curators selected what they believe to be the ten most difficult of all. They are:
- Nightwood by Djuna Barne
- A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift
- Phenomenology of Spirit by G. W. F. Hegel
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
- Clarissa or, the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson
- Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
- Being and Time by Martin Heidegger
- The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
- The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
- Women and Men by Joseph McElroy
I, personally, felt vindicated to see my own literary struggle make the list. But, of course, this made me curious. Would others in the PSG office have similar Most Difficult Books, and would any of theirs have made the list?
There was a surprising consensus throughout the office. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner was the most popular Most Difficult Book with three votes. Herman Melville’s Moby Dick received two votes, while other honorable mentions included Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. My favorite response to the query was Ken’s explanation for why his Most Difficult Book was An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser: “846 pages to tell that story?!? Law & Order: SVU could have wrapped that up in 60 minutes (including commercials).”
While most of these are indeed classic and complex books, I was surprised to see a few on this list—some of them I had greatly enjoyed and not personally found difficult. So then what makes a book “difficult”? Is it obscure references and allusions to a time period we are no longer familiar with? Is it rich and dense prose, layers of allegory, and a disjointed stream of consciousness? Or can a book simply be difficult because for whatever reason we cannot connect to it, and without the ability to immerse ourselves in the story, we are forcing ourselves to sludge through symbols that we recognize individually but cannot comprehend collectively? Whatever it may be that makes a book difficult, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone in your struggle—none of us really knows what the one-line chapter, “My mother is a fish.” means in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.
Did You Know?
À la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust is the Guinness World Record holder for longest novel. Originally published in 1913, this 13-volume masterpiece clocks in between 1.2 and 1.3 million words! However, in terms of pages, the longest novel ever written is Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus by Madeleine de Scudéry. Published in ten volumes starting in 1649, there are 13,095 total pages!