Back in 2009, The Millions started its "Difficult Books" series--devoted to identifying the hardest and most frustrating books ever written, as well as what made them so hard and frustrating. The two curators, Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg, have selected the most difficult of the most difficult, telling us about the 10 literary Mt. Everests waiting out there for you to climb, should you be so bold. If you can somehow read all 10, you probably ascend to the being immediately above Homo sapiens. How many have you read? What books would you add?Let us know in the comments!
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes - Dylan Thomas called Nightwood "one of the three greatest prose books ever written by a woman,” but in order to behold this greatness you must master Barnes' tortuous, gothic prose style. In his introduction to the novel, T.S Eliot described Nightwood’s prose as “altogether alive” but also “demanding something of a reader that the ordinary novel-reader is not prepared to give.” Nightwood is a novel of ideas, a loose collection of monologues and descriptions. What will keep you going: The cross-dressing Irish-American "Dr. Matthew-Mighty-grain-of-salt-Dante O'Connor," who, when not wandering Paris, drinking heavily, or dressing in nighties, rouge, and wigs of cascading golden curls, is expounding great rambling sermons that fill most of the book. These are funny, dirty, absurd, despairing, resigned—even hopeful in a Becketty I-can't-go-on-I'll-go-on kind of way.
A Tale of A Tub by Jonathan Swift - The first difficulty: The superabundant references to obsolete cultural squabbles (some obscure even in Swift’s eighteenth-century England) and then there’s the narratorial persona: an impoverished, syphilitic madman who cuts pieces out of his manuscript and his fellow citizens remorselessly. His compulsive digressiveness is deliberately baffling, but more baffling still is that this satire, aimed at “the Abuses and Corruptions in Learning and Religion” and written by a conservative, Anglican clergyman, ends finding nothing sacred. If you can bear it (and the 100s of footnotes you’ll need to understand its historical context), it’s the ultimate expression of cultural alienation and despair.
The Phenomenology of the Spirit by G.F. Hegel - Do you enjoy a good intellectual gobsmack every now and again? If so, Hegel’s your man and this book, a classic of German idealism and unquestionably one of the most important works of modern philosophy, is a fine place to start. Hegel’s refutation of Kantian idealism, history of consciousness, and quintessential explanation of the process of the dialectic is hard to understand and harder still to retain (“goes through you like lentils,” as one Stanford professor described it to me), due first and foremost to the breadth of its subject and its terminology. The book’s nearly impenetrable without a good edition and guide or two: The Oxford UP edition is widely considered the best (and don’t skip the notes and foreward) and the Routledge Philosophy Guidebook’s commentary by Robert Stern makes good warm-up reading; also good (and free) are J.M. Bernstein’s lecture notes for his UC Berkeley graduate course on the Phenomenology, available at BernsteinTapes.com.
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf - In its intermingling of separate consciousnesses, Virginia Woolf’s fiction is both intellectually and psychically difficult. Not only is it hard to tell who’s who and who’s saying or thinking what, it is also disconcerting—even queasy-making—to be set adrift in other minds, with their private rhythms and associative patterns. It feels, at times, like being occupied by an alien consciousness. Some readers don’t ever find their sea-legs with Woolf. The trick is to surrender yourself (true with other high modernists too), to let the prose wash over you and take you where it will—not to worry too much about understanding a dogmatic way.