Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Reading, Writing & Publishing ~

Are These The Most Difficult Books to Read?

It appears Paulo Coelho has said (according to The Guardian) that James Joyce’s Ulysses has no content worth reading“One of the books that caused great harm was…Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.”

Some folks would also rank Ulysses as a difficult book to read.

Two folks at the site The Millions (“an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture since 2003”) have, since 2009, been working to produce a Most Difficult To Read list

In their 2009 article, Introducing Difficult Books, A Descriptive List (which has their first list), I found these clarifying excerpts:

“There will, doubtless, be those readers who look scornfully on our choices (“Psh. These aren’t that hard, you’re just not smart enough to read them“).”

“This list is for the mere mortals among us—who have found themselves reading and rereading the same paragraph of James Joyce’s Ulysses to no avail…”

“But this is also a list for those who, after breaking the spine, picked up the wounded volume, taped it back together, and finished that infuriating chapter, and another, and another… until, triumph!, it was finished at last. And, perhaps, now that we think on it again, having finished, could it be that it was worth the struggle? Could it be that in the pain of it was a tinge of pleasure, of value (not to mention pride)?”

Publishers Weekly recently posted an updated list of the 10 Most Difficult from the curators at The Millions:

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, A Tale of A Tub by Jonathan Swift, The Phenomenology of the Spirit by G.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 & Time by Martin Heidegger, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein, and Women & Men by Joseph McElroy.

If you go to that Publishers Weekly link you can read their reasons for listing these books as “Most Difficult”

Have you read any of these books?

Did you think them exceedingly difficult?

Are there other books you think are extremely difficult to read?
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14 responses to “Are These The Most Difficult Books to Read?

  1. jacobdp August 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    Although I never finished Ulysses, found it drab, I did not find it too hard to read. The style of it is definitely different than most English novels. The trick to reading it painlessly is to read it as a conversation at the kitchen table in the morning with a still slightly drunk uncle telling you how it is.


  2. janedarntonwatson August 9, 2012 at 9:00 am

    I have read ‘Clarissa’, ‘To The Lighthouse’ and ‘Ulysses’. They were difficult in ascending order of difficulty… but why do we read or do anything..if not to try? Does everything in life have to be ‘easy”?

    Any writer who reads the 18 stage schema of allusions and symbols that Joyce provides to explain the structure of ‘Ulysses’ will feel they have looked at something perhaps fascinating, perhaps enlightening… I loved that almost more than the book itself! What Jacob says is true. This is a book to be read aloud, performed even.

    I found ‘To The Lighthouse’ really hard to read but it gave me an insight into the writing and thinking that lead Virginia to write ‘Mrs Dalloway’ which I found profoundly wonderful and delightful to read… I am not sure ‘To The Lighthouse’ works that well as a book but perhaps it showed Virginia the way to a great work – which is how I view ‘Mrs Dalloway’…

    But writing is a process and experiencing that process is what we do when we read..from that point of view I found them all fascinating.


    • Alexander M Zoltai August 9, 2012 at 10:42 am

      Yes, Jane, rather than reading to have the senses dulled or appeased by the expected, read to experience a process that educates or illuminates or, at least, makes one think or re-think, eh?

      And, “the 18 stage schema of allusions and symbols that Joyce provides to explain the structure of ‘Ulysses’” sounds fascinating—have a link??


  3. janedarntonwatson August 10, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    Here are 2 links and some words by James about actual reason for the schema:

    “…I think that in view of the enormous bulk and the more than enormous complexity of my damned monster-novel it would be better to send him a sort of summary – key – skeleton – scheme (for home use only)…I have given only “Schlagworte” [catchwords] in my scheme but I think you will understand it all the same. It is the epic of two races (Israel-Ireland) and at the same time the cycle of the human body as well as a little story of a day (life). The character of Ulysses has fascinated me ever since boyhood. I started writing a short story for Dubliners fifteen years ago but gave it up. For seven years I have been working at this book – blast it! It is also a kind of encyclopaedia. My intention is not only to render the myth sub specie temporis nostri [in the light of our own times] but also to allow each adventure (that is, every hour, every organ, every art being interconnected and interrelated in the somatic scheme of the whole) to condition and even to create its own technique. Each adventure is so to speak one person although it is composed of persons – as Aquinas relates of the heavenly hosts.”
    James Joyce, Selected Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), p. 271.


  4. janedarntonwatson August 10, 2012 at 7:48 pm

    :) the schema is slightly less obtuse and it does give an interesting insight into the way one writer uses symbols and metaphors to jump start his ideas -:) Yes I did think after I posted James monologue that it just proved how unecessarily difficult some prose can be, lol -:)


  5. Barbara Blackcinder April 2, 2013 at 1:21 am

    I struggled with both The Phenomenology of the Spirit, as well as Being and Time, and I doubt that I finished either of them. Go figure, philosophy books. I think only professors of philosophy were ever expected to finish them, much less understand them.


  6. marc April 10, 2013 at 7:38 am

    ive read Clarissa, Ulysses, and Lighthouse.
    the Woolf was the easiest by far. i greatly enjoyed it as a superior work of art but i think it was not as difficult to engage with as it is being made out to be.
    Coelho’s comment is ridiculous and impossible to take seriously and yet i find it makes me angry. i read The Alchemist and i thought it constituted a very commonplace western proverb fleshed out to a preposterous length. i have read countless far more sophisticated books intended for juvenile audiences. he must be intent on proving his foolishness to make such a remark. he must be very poorly educated, he must never have been interested in educating himself, his values are so childish.
    i found Ulysses very difficult to read. i read it in bits and pieces over about 8 or 9 months. in response to Jacob’s comment, well i think you should never trust the opinions of people on books they have not actually succeeded in reading! you can put the words in your brain but that does not actually mean you are truly reading them in the sense of comprehension. it is so filled with content and is not afraid to take on anything, even incest, it is a true microcosm of western art. we know now of course that style constitutes meaning and i think that the great purpose of the style of Ulysses is that mastery of english language is being proven from a place outside of the imperial center, but then again there is so much more to it all than that, and i could read Ulysses every year of my life and find new information in it. i think the best way to approach it is with the aid of perhaps online chapter summaries, trying to understand things in it as well as possible, but moving on when something is too difficult.
    i just finished Clarissa. it took me 3 1/2 months of reading at the pace of about 10 pages an hour (i sped up considerably towards the end). like Ulysses it is one of the most rewarding books i have ever read, and similarly it is very difficult! people seem to find it repetitious, but i believe that there are no wasted words in it, every single word has a purpose, and you have to read them all to get the full effect. after the first 1/3, the language becomes very familiar and easy to engage with, but the great difficulty of reading the book is in its emotional effect. it is harrowing! the central characters are both so charismatic that they seem to be real and complete human beings. i found Clarissa’s character so magnetically engaging that i yelled aloud over what was happening to her, and i hated Lovelace so much that i actually defaced the cover of my penguin copy, so that he is blacked out. (the only other book i have ever defaced is Twilight.) now that i have finished Clarissa, i feel devastated – it is strangely gripping, and in a way i never wanted it to end. it is so completely different to Ulysses that it is very difficult to compare the two, but in its own way, it is a very underrated, unique, shimmering work of genius.
    happy reading


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