A Treatise on The “Hard” Ones

After joining Goodreads, it did not take me long to browse (and then obsess) over the Most Difficult novels list. Full disclosure? I’ve completed 24% of the top 200, while I intend to read quite a few more. (Follow this link to List Challenges if you are curious to see where you rank.) Those 48 novels put me in the top 11% of those who have taken that quiz.

At first I thought that was pretty awesome, and then I realized that likely meant there was a pile of excellent novels that a fair majority of the population would never pick up. These are often the books that people only claim they’ve read, or read only because they were assigned.

It’s tragic.

Did you know that some of these titles have been made into movies and miniseries? The authors that have made it on this list may surprise you. Neil Gaiman (American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust) has several entries on this list, even though the series for American Gods aired for five years. Steven King, author of more than 4 million book sales worldwide even made the cut. (Whether the book was better is a whole other discussion that I may get into later. Suffice to say for now, if you’ve only watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and not read the book by Steig Larsson, then you are missing out.)

As a kid, I was the annoying trike that always asked “Why?” Are these books being avoided because they are hard, or just because someone said they’re difficult? Before 2019, I had read nine of these top 200 difficult novels, and all but one of them for school. It seemed pretty simple to reason that anything on an English syllabus was going to be challenge. If it was assigned, it was work.

Then in May 2019, I picked up Moby Dick by Herman Melville again. Melville, American novelist born August 1, 1819 and king of the run-on sentence. I decided to listen to the audio version narrated by Frank Muller instead of a paper copy. I had attempted to read a physical copy back in 1994 and just could not get around Melville’s sparse use of periods. With the help of Muller I was finished with it in about a week. Now I am more apt to stop and think about whether the things I am pursuing in life are really good for me.

There are books on this list that many people consider life-changing. Alain de Botton published a book in 1998 called How Proust Can Change your Life. There is an entire contingent of women who were sexually abused as children who claim Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov as their favorite book. Truth is, these books are challenging for different reasons, and everyone is bringing their own histories to the table. What makes a difficult book for me is not guaranteed to make a difficult book for you.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is one of my favorite novels. It isn’t hard to read. Current paperback versions have references included that offer explanations and translations to English where applicable. War and Peace is just long. This novel encompasses an immersive characterization of Russian history and culture from 1805 to 1820. It is filled with sweeping character arcs, intrigue, and detail. If you are a history buff, you would probably love it too.

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov was incredibly frustrating until I figured out that it was a satire on literary criticism nestled in a murder mystery. It is now one of my favorite novels as well. This novel is wickedly smart, and under 240 pages.

As I have time for these books, entries under their authors’ name will appear in the left side menu. I’ll include why I think they made the list. For now, I’ll mention but one exception: James Joyce’s Ulysses. I read it to the final “Yes”. I complained about reading it while I read it. I put it down to read other things and picked it back up. I researched it and listened to University lectures regarding it. I even read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before approaching it. Joyce meant for Ulysses to be difficult so that erudites would struggle with it for ages after his death. It’s hard because he meant it to be.

(For that reason, I refuse to read Finnegan’s Wake.)

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Book insights by an ex-Literature major turned smallholding farmer.