Most Difficult Books

Last week two lists were released. Both are fascinating and both should provoke discussion. The first list is BFI’s 50 Greatest Films of All Time that is revised every ten years. The list was compiled from 846 top ten lists. It is an interesting list full of surprises like the inclusion of Jeanne Dielman and dethronement of Citizen Kane. The new #1 film of all time? Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. While technically Citizen Kane ranks among the best films ever made, it never has been one of my personal favorites. Narrative wise it remains cold and distant. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be on the list, but I’m rather happy to see the fantastic and endlessly rewarding Vertigo take its place.

But really BFI only one Bergman film? And Persona? Anyways…

The second list released last week that is also very intriguing (though not as monumental) is Publishers Weekly’s list of the Top Ten Most Difficult Books. By difficult it is not speaking of a brutal Jack Ketchum horror story or horribly written soft-core porn romance novel. They define difficult as “books that are hard to read for their length, or their syntax and style, or their structural and generic strangeness, or their odd experimental techniques, or their abstraction”.

Here is their list.

And here is mine own. Based on my own limited knowledge of course.

      As I Lay Dying– I’ve yet to finish a Faulkner novel. His extremely fragmented style is absolutely unforgiving and  downright confusing. Traditional chronology and the traditional introductory set up (who, what, when, where, and why) are thrown out the window. The book just begins in one of the minds of the characters leaving it up to the reader to discern who is who and when events are actually taking place.

To the Lighthouse–  Another stream of consciousness novel that requires very attentive reading and the ability to push through despite momentary confusion. Yet this is one of my favorite novels of all time. Woolf’s masterpiece is full of emotion, truth, and beauty. Much like Faulkner she doesn’t let the reader know when she switches consciousness, which can be confusing. Especially when the setting is at a dinner with twelve characters at the table.

      Naked Lunch– Perhaps the most difficult book I’ve ever picked up.  The hardest aspect of Burroughs text is that it is difficult to create a mental picture of what is going on. Naked Lunch is about a man living in a bizarre world, very different from our own. The setting constantly switches suddenly, there is talk about creatures in tunnels, random descriptions of fantastical drugs, sensory accounts of sex (I think), and all the while you still don’t know who the main character is. Difficult doesn’t seem like an adequate description for Naked Lunch. More like impossible.

Moby Dick– Herman Melville’s American epic is a huge challenge. Yet that is the beauty of it. Melville experiments with so many types of writing forms creating difficult reading, but brave writing. There are sections written like a play, sections in 1st person narrative, others in 3rd person narrative, a couple of soliloquies, and very long descriptions of the dissection of a whale. Tedious, moving, confusing, weird, and overwhelming all at once Moby Dick is one of those novels I’m glad I read, but am uncertain if I’ll ever pick up again.

The Fall– In Moby Dick Melville experiments with 1st and 3rd person narrative. In The Fall, Albert Camus experiments with 2nd person narrative for the entire novel. We, the reader, are in a bar located in the depths of seedy Paris talking to Jean-Bastiste Clamence, an ex-Parisian lawyer. He tells you his story as a form of confession. It becomes difficult when about mid-way through when it verges on turning into a dense philosophical treaty. But just as you think Camus is using a narrative format to only explain his existentialist worldview the ending brings everything full circle in a stunning conclusion. The climax gets to the heart of human imperfection, human existence, and all of humanities inner desire to find forgiveness in an increasingly hellish world.

What books have you found to be the most difficult?


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