Difficult Books

Change of angst.

I saw one of those clickbait surveys, 200 “difficult” books, that challenge you by offering titles to select and then rating your score. I took it because it’s amusing to see what the zeitgeist thinks is worthwhile literature, and this one was better than some, but several of the titles gave me pause, thinking, that’s a difficult book?

I wonder what criteria are being used, other than perhaps page count and venerable authors.  Also, what do they mean by “difficult”—conceptually challenging or just a slog?  I mean, certainly Atlas Shrugged is a “difficult” book, but not the same way Ulysses is, or even the same way Oliver Twist is.  Ulysses requires some intellectual acumen on the part of a reader, some familiarity with history and literature, a bit of theology, and an ability to recognize human foible in any of dozens of various guises.  Atlas Shrugged merely requires a strong stomach and a lot of patience. Being tone deaf to good literature would help as well. And of course what the latter has to say about the human condition vis a vis economics is meaningless drivel compared to the portrayal of class abuse in Oliver Twist.  Telling the difference and knowing why the one doesn’t stack up to the other would be a good start to determining what qualifications one is using for “difficult” reads.

But it’s a good question, what qualifies as a difficult—in this case, read a challenging—book.  And by challenging I mean a work that forces you to think about the text and risk change by having read it deeply and honestly.

Admittedly, there are some novels which are merely difficult through obscurantism. They’re hard because the writer didn’t have much to say but didn’t want to admit that.  They usually don’t last past the life of the author. Sometimes they don’t last past the initial print run.  But the difficulty of the structure and the sentences and the fog of pseudointellectual posturing is in these instances little more than a guarantee of early extinction.

The problem is, sometimes a really good work bears some resemblance to such work. It becomes easy to overlook the real virtues of such novels because audience for them is harder to find.

Take Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Disclaimer: I do not care for this novel. I find it difficult to enjoy the sentences. When someone pointed out to me that it has really funny parts, I was surprised.  The torture of the sentences prevented my ever seeing that, but I was willing to be shown. I’ve been through again, recently, and I’m prepared to admit that it is a Great Novel.  But it is seriously difficult.  And part of the difficulty is that Melville loaded his sentences with multiple meanings, subtext, and unpleasant reality.  It is difficult because what it has to say is difficult to say in such a way that the meaning will get past the innate cultural barriers to recognition.

But it survived because that recognition is to be found and eventually people found it and the impact was enormous.

It bears multiple readings.  Unpacking it takes time. Such a book demands the two things modern readers seem to lack the most:  time and patience.

But going through that list of 200 “difficult” books what I found mainly were books that are long and involved and in some instances convoluted (Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest) and books with Reputations. The latter are the kinds of books you might find on readers’ shelves, but rarely read.  They know somehow they should read them, but they just haven’t.  And may never.  Because…well, they’re hard.  They reward patience, necessitate experience, require a bit of preparation, and yield nothing to casual taste.

It put me in mind of some of our recent teacup typhoons in science fiction.  Why struggle to understand something that makes the brain sweat when all the thrills and reassurance that you are smart can be found in the shallower waters of quicker reads?

Well, the answer is unsatisfying to a particular kind of reader.  You read the hard books because they make you more.

I won’t say “better” because I don’t know quite what that means in this context (or whether that sort of judgment has any place in talking about literature), but the expansion of the psyché is a real thing and it is only achieved by constantly taking on the difficult.  Only by doing so do you reach a point where you can discern the real difference between something like Atlas Shrugged (dense but superficial, and in many ways fraudulent) and a Gravity’s Rainbow (dense but meaningful, expansive and revelatory).  But more to the point, a book like Atlas Shrugged will not change you—if you are open to its message, all it will do is pacify your doubts and reinforce your prejudices, without ever challenging you to think about people or history in a different way, while the Pynchon cannot help but call into question pat beliefs and unsettle comfortable preconceptions.

So when such lists are constructed, it’s worth asking: how will these books make me different or new?  How well do they tell the truth?  How much do they expose about self-deception, deceit, and the lies of the world?  That’s where the “difficult” part is.

A thousand pages of froth changes nothing.  It just takes a long time to get through.


  1. Sue McCormick

    I have found some of the more “difficult” books for me were very easy reading. Take Heinlein. His wasp-ness challenged my wasp-ness in ways that broadened me. I read him because it was fun. But I would argue (mentally with his views of life). Re-read the book? New arguments would arise. Take “Star-Ship Troopers.” I somewhat liked his “earning” the vote, but thought he was too restrictive. Not everyone can fight, but we should all be able to contribute.

    Just before Archon I had a discussion with my son the Jefferson city reporter. He pointed out flaws I hadn’t seen. He was right. Back to Heinlein! (I’ll have fun, but I’ll have more to think about, also.)

    I mention this because during my years of single-parenthood with full employment I wouldn’t have had time or energy to tackle Pynchon. I read Heinlein for refreshment. To brace me up for another day at two jobs. But I also learned.

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