Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The world's most difficult books

This is a guest posts by Jogo

Have any of you read the ten toughest books, as selected by The Millions?

Or even five of them?

1. Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes. I heard about this book in the 60s. If you were hip you were supposed to have read this book. I might have read 20 pages of it. But I can't remember what it's about.

2. Tale of a Tub, by Jonathan Swift. Never heard of it. Or, hmm, maybe that title is kinda slightly familiar.

3. Whatever, by GF Hegel. I have not read a word of it. I heard of it, though. Isn't this book tied in with Marx, somehow? I think "philosophy" doesn't matter, except to a minuscule soi-disant élite, that is my honest opinion. I wouldn't waste my time reading "philosophy." Before you sneer, tell me the truth: have any of YOU read a book of philosophy all the way through?

4. To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. I have never read anything by Virginia Woolf, though I hear she's a very good writer, and people I respect have read her. I'm open to reading one of her books.

5. Clarissa, etc., by Samuel Richardson. Never heard of this book, or this writer.

6. Finnegan's Wake, by James Joyce. Hasn't everyone heard of this famous book? I know I have. But has anyone -- you, or anyone you know -- read it? I doubt it.

7. Being and Time, by Martin Heidegger. I never heard of this book, but I have heard of Heidegger (Nazi lover of Hannah Arendt -- whom I haven't read, either). I have no idea what Heidegger wrote about, what his influence is supposed to be. Nor do I care. Have any of you read, say, 100 pages of this book?

8. The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spencer. I heard of this book. I love the title, and the way it's spelled. But I have no idea what it's about. I think I'll check out what the Wikipedia entry has to say.

9. The Making of Americans, by Gertrude Stein. Never read it (actually I never heard of it). Although of course I heard of GS. She is a moderately interesting person to me, but I doubt she has anything of importance to tell me. Wouldn't bother reading anything she wrote.

10. Women and Men, by Joseph McElroy. I never heard of this book or this writer? Have you?

11. Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pynchon. Now we're talkin'. Back in the 60s I read V and The Crying of Lot 49, both of which I enjoyed. But I don't think I need to read any more books by Thomas Pynchon. Have you read any of his subsequent books, or do you feel that you must read any before you die?

Finally ... 12. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. Nope. Never read one word by this guy. Am I missing something?


bob said...

I have read Nightwood, almost from start to finish (I did skip a few chunks, and skim some). Although passages are amazing, as a whole it is incomprehensible and weird. It's kind of a tale of odd, decadent, polymorphously perverse globe-trotters falling in and out of obsessional love, and has a possibly antisemitic streak in the depiction of one male character, an assimilated Jew.

I've not read Tale of a Tub, but was surprised to see this as the things I have read by him were quite accessible.

Hegel I only have second hand, via CLR James' Notes on the Dialectic, based on the reading group he was involved in in Detroit. (James' version is relatively readable, but only in comparison to Hegel - one James fan, John Page, says "James wrote many insightful and readily accessible works aimed at a broad audience. This wonderful book is however not one of those!" http://www.clrjameslegacyproject.org.uk/2012/01/clr-james-notes-on-dialectics-review-by.html ).

Woolf, nope. Richardson, nope. Joyce, nothing. Heidegger, only second hand. Spencer, nope. Stein, nothing.

McElroy I had never heard of, shamefully. Wikipedia says "McElroy's writing is often grouped with that of William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon because of the encyclopedic quality of his novels, particularly the 1191 pages of Women and Men (1987). Echoes of McElroy's work can be found in that of Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace." Which is enough for me.

David Foster Wallace terrifies me because of the size.

My only dissension is Gravity's Rainbow, which defeated me on first attempt but on second attempt I really got engaged and loved it hugely - one of my favourite books ever.

BenSix said...

I think "philosophy" doesn't matter, except to a minuscule soi-disant élite, that is my honest opinion. I wouldn't waste my time reading "philosophy." Before you sneer, tell me the truth: have any of YOU read a book of philosophy all the way through?

I think, in recent times, Marx, Hayek, Nozick, Rawls and others have mattered to millions of people - even if the bulk of them weren't conscious of it.

And I rather feel that Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant and so on have had an effect on countless others. Even if most have them had never heard their names.

Few people have read philosophers, but those few have tended to include the politicians, clerics, academics, writers and activists who go on to contribute to the shaping of societies and their attitudes.

Oh, and, yes, I have read them. (Though I don't think I'm one of those guys.)

bob said...

I agree with Ben on philosophy. There is a lot of philosophy that's completely irrelevant to anything outside itself, but political and ethical philosophy at least have had and can have important real-world outcomes, for good and bad. Marx, Hayek, Nozick, Rawls all good examples; also perhaps in more interesting off-beats ways Leo Strauss, Martin Buber, Jurgen Habermas.


I also think it is wrong (of the guys at The Millions) to put philosophy books in what is essentially a list of novels. You read novels and philosophy books for different reasons, and it is silly to place them side by side in this way. Philosophy, while it should aspire to some kind of accessibility, is essentially a academic discipline, and it is not wrong for it to use technical terms known only to those with some training.

bob said...

I would use the two philosophy slots to include Roberto Bolano and WG Sebald.

bob said...

Just saw this list of the 90 most influential philsophers: http://worldohistory.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/90-most-influential-philosophers-of-all.html

Here's the top 10:

1. Socrates - He Taught us to question.
2. Abraham - Father of Western Monotheism.
3. Confucius - Created the structure upon which China is modeled.
4. Jesus Christ - The Center Point of Christianity.
5. Mohammed - Father of Islam.
6. Buddha (Siddhartha Gatama) - He taught us about moderation.
7. Aristotle - A wonderful classifier of knowledge.
8. Plato - Author of the Republic.
9. Georg Hegel - Champion of the Dialectic.
10. Martin Luther - He galvanized the Reformation.

I might do my favourite philosophy books post next week...

Waterloo Sunset said...

Does Situationist stuff count as philosophy? And I'm never sure whether we're including Marx or not.

(Or, for that matter, the Principia Discordia).

bob said...

I would say some Marx, some Situationism, but not all of either, counts, and that Discordianism counts.

Sarah AB said...

1. Began it once!

2. I think I read it at university - I vaguely remember it being a satire on different strands within Protestantism.

3. Nope

4. That's really not so very difficult. She's not a huge favourite of mine - but it's very good.

5. Great book - reread it a few years ago.


6. Yes - I was doing a chapter about Joyce for a book about the influence of Ovid, so thought I should. It was oddly enjoyable, at least intermittently.

7. No.

8. Yes! It's not a particularly difficult read - in fact it's a pretty good read.

9. No.

10. Haven't read - haven't heard!

11. Exactly what Jogo said, replacing 60s with 80s.

12. No

Anonymous said...

wow, here's a thought. rather than a list of the 10 most difficult books (and exactly what is the criteria for difficulty here, page length? number of polysyllabic words? words obviously derived from greek or latin?), how about a list of the 10 most rewarding books you've read--books that, having once read them, forever change your worldview, or books that you come back to over and over again, or books that offer a unique experience simply in the way their written, or books that allow you to see a different set of possibilities in the world. while such a list would probably be highly subjective and more than a little idiosyncratic, it might be worthwhile to hear what books the readers of your blog found to be liberating when they first read them.


Alex Ross said...

I had the dubious pleasure of having to read Hegel's Phenomenology (alongside the Logics, the Philosophy of Right and various obscure early theological works) as part of my PhD research.

In all honesty, it's probably not worth the effort. There are plenty of decent secondary texts out there, which tend to cut to the chase and cut out the “Hegelese” jargon. It’s not that I’m opposed to technical jargon in principle, just that I think “Hegelese” tends to obscure more than it reveals.

That said, I do have a strange emotional bond with Hegel, born out of endurance, despite him being wrong about pretty much everything.

Waterloo Sunset said...

I like Les's idea.

Also, books you know aren't high quality but love anyway. I adore Last Days of Christ the Vampire but I fully admit it's trashily written pulp. And I have a strange love for those 80's 'teen' books all about the adventures of rebellious young people in Thatcher's Britain. One of them often has a mohawk.

As an aside, I find "I have read nothing by this author and can't be bothered doing so, therefore I doubt they have anything of importance to tell me" argument somewhat strange.

Hell, I never listen to jazz. But because I never listen to jazz, I simply don't have the knowledge to judge its worth either way.

TNC said...

I do not read any of the fiction on this list.

Philosophy: Have read Hegel and most of the others listed by Ben Six and Bob. The empiricists/British philosophers are more lucid—or at least easier to grasp—than most of the Continental philosophers. Hobbes, Bentham, Mill, and Locke have all had a great deal of influence. Should not forget the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers either.

Was anyone else forced to read Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”?

the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk.

bob said...

So, I started drawing up my list of favourite philosophy books. And I dug out a list I made for a post that is still in drafts of the twelve books that shaped me in my impressionable youth and the twelve books I most loved reading as an adult. And I like the idea of Books You Love Even Though You Know They Are Bad. Three separate posts/threads over next few days, or put them all here?

Ali said...

Never read Clarissa ("the longest real novel in the English language" says Wikipedia), but I loved the critically un-acclaimed late 1980s TV adaptation starring a smouldering young Sean Bean.

Have there been telly adaptations of any of the others?

Anonymous said...

as the one who initially asked the question, i think a separate post would be appropriate. there could, and probably should be a lot of room for discussion here. and i'm working on a list too, but i'll wait till you put yours up first.


Sarah AB said...

Ali - if that Clarissa adaptation wasn't acclaimed it should have been as it was very good.

I like lots of 'good bad' books - or perhaps I should say popular/genre books as I don't really think they are bad. I reread Georgette Heyer a lot and I recently particularly enjoyed Stephen King's 11.22.63.

Maybe Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier is the book which most opened up new possibilities for me - a long time ago!

Alex Ross said...


I'm not sure whether the "dusk" has come and gone or else it's something I have to await in my twilight years!!


My (very subjective) categories would be:

Philosophers that have substantially and productively altered your way of looking at the world (in my case, Theodor Adorno, David Hume, Brian Barry, Amartya Sen (ok...not quite a philosopher...but sort of). Or more simply, the ones that you tend to agree with - for all sorts of reasons.

Philosophers that you acknowledge as really important (In terms of influence and putting in the groundwork) but can’t really get on board with (in my case Kant, Hegel, Mill, Bentham, Aristotle, possibly Marx).

Philosophers that write really good prose but don’t quite do it for you in terms of ideas (in my case Nietzsche or Schiller).

Waterloo Sunset said...


I'd very much separate stuff I enjoy despite knowing the writing isn't great from genre books.

I'm utterly unabashed in my love for comics, in particular.

Bob said...

1. Threads

Right, I'm going to post my favourite philosophy books later (either today or in the morning, depending on time) and including in it the ones which inspired me and "substantially and productively altered [my] way of looking at the world".

There would be other non-fiction books which inspired me, and I listed them here: http://brockley.blogspot.co.uk/2009/08/from-bobs-archive-academic-bestsellers.html

I will probably not include "Philosophers that you acknowledge as really important (In terms of influence and putting in the groundwork) but can’t really get on board with", mainly as it would include most philosophers. But I will also include a list of my un-favourite philosophers.

Then, a day or two later, I'll post my two favourite novels list, the ones that "substantially and productively altered [my] way of looking at the world" in my teens and early twenties, and the ones I've loved as an adult.

2. Books You Love Even Though You Know They Are Bad = definitely a more specific/different category than genre fiction. I am a fan of genre fiction in general and crime in particular, but there is good and bad genre fiction, and bad genre fiction that's good to read. Stephen King is a great novelist by any standard, as are (in my genre) Elmore Leonard, George Pelicanos and Walter Mosley.

On the other hand, there are books that are technically bad in every way, but still enjoyable, like Derek Raymond's pyschokiller novels, the New English Library subculture novels of the 70s (e.g. Richard Allen's skinhead and biker books) or Staurt Home's pastiches of them. See http://www.thoseweleftbehind.co.uk/2009/04/ready-to-publish-richard-allen-new.html#!/2009/04/ready-to-publish-richard-allen-new.html

I love Sven Hassel's nihilistic anti-fascist war novels. I'm not sure if they fit into the Bad category or not.

3. The owl of minerva

Much as Hegel is generally un-readable, the owl passage is surely a good exhibit for any claim that he is worth reading. What a passage: "One more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it... When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly." Or, in other translations: "When philosophy paints its grey in grey, a shape of life has grown old, and it cannot be rejuvenated, but only recognized, by the grey in grey of philosophy; the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk."

modernity's ghost said...


Tis a pity no similar non-fiction list?

bob said...

Most unreadable non-fiction books would be a tough contest. My no.1 would be anything by Lacan. I've tried to read things by him a few times, and found it the most up its arse, convoluted bullshit imaginable.

I'd have anything by Homi Bhabha on the list. I'm interested in the topics he writes about, and I'm sure he has interesting things to say, but I've been defeated at every attempt by the pretentious, jargon-laden language.

AJ Ayer might be on the list, who Language, Truth, and Logic I had to read for A level many years ago. It's actually written with great clarity and lucidity, but is tough because ultimately it is about nothing at all and complete nonsense, so you never grasp what it is on about. That book marks a severe dark turn in British academic philosophy in my view, a further turn to introspective, even onanistic, concerns that do not relate to any real world issues or public matters at all, and speak mainly to a technical audience, although Ayer himself did attempt to engage a public audience.

(I just glanced at his Wikipedia page, to make sure I got the title of his book right, and found this charming anecdote: At a party [in 1987] held by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, then 77, confronted Mike Tyson who was forcing himself upon the (then) little-known model Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: "Do you know who the fuck I am? I'm the heavyweight champion of the world," to which Ayer replied: "And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men". Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out.)

Heidegger Being and Time and anything by Hegel should be on the list, along with Sarte's Being and Nothingness.

Judith Butler would no doubt be on lots of folks' list, as she is (in)famous for her pseuds' corner classics, like this one: ""The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power." - for which she won a Bad Writing context http://www.denisdutton.com/bad_writing.htm

However, this is not actually completely characteristic of her style and I've generally found her not too un-readable and even occasionally rewarding.

Fredric Jameson probably gets points for difficulty but is, in my view, worth some effort and can be rewarding; I enjoyed his Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism book, which is often cited by graduates who had to read it as students as un-readable. I don't think students these days have to read it anymore; his moment has passed.

Also extremely difficult (at least in English translation; I've heard he's nice in the original) is Foucault, but I think he is absolutely worth the effort.

bob said...

You want to stay here for quality debate and not go there, but Sarah has taken three of these threads (difficult, inspiring and good bad) to HP: http://hurryupharry.org/2012/08/17/books-good-bad-and-good-bad/

Anonymous said...

in a short story by borges "the shape of the sword" there is a line about "controversial and uncongenial books that are in some manner the history of the nineteenth century." i think books that are written in an obscure, stilted or even atrocious fashion are as much a part of the legacy of the twentieth century as is the automobile, and maybe are just as responsible for a certain amount of pollution as well. of course, one needs to understand the conditions of academic writing these days, where, simply in order to get noticed, one has to adopt an extreme or even outrageous position, and, since the audience is composed almost exclusively of other academics, the language itself has to be as jargon-laden as possible and marked by a high degree of "complicatedness" of expression, but not necessarily complexity of thought. and, of course, some of the worst offenders are those who teach in literature departments. so what does that tell us?


Alex Ross said...

I'd go for another Jameson - "Late Marxism: Adorno, or, The Persistence of the Dialectic". It's completely unreadable, and I'm supposed to be able to understand this sort of stuff.

If there was an award for "up its arse, convoluted bullshit ", I'd nominate a paper I wrote about 10 years ago called "Odysseus' encounter with the Sirens: Reflections on Adorno and the Violation of Nature". I didn't even understand what it was about.

Anonymous said...

by the way, this is a comment i've left over at the sauce (see--i've read enough english blogs that i've even picked up some of the insults). but i feel to clarify things, it should also be added here.

"obviously, a book is not a pill. you can’t simply consume it and then expect it to have a certain effect, or achieve a state of instant enlightenment, or anything like that. but there are certain books that have come my way at various points in my life which got me asking certain questions about things. and i think my life would have been poorer had i not read them. and so perhaps it is this combination of exposure to certain kinds of discourse or use of language coupled with real life experience that’s key here. of course, there are also certain books that offer a unique experience in and of themselves."

oh, and bob, you're right. foucault is important and should be read but very critically and even somewhat skeptically. after all, back in the 70s and early 80s, he did help legitimate the rise of neo-liberalism.


bob said...

So, here's my novel list: http://bit.ly/loved-books

Foucault was a bad influence on the world, but I think he was a good influence on me.

"Odysseus' encounter with the Sirens: Reflections on Adorno and the Violation of Nature" is a great title. I'm not surprised you'd no idea what it was about. When I was a student I wrote an essay called "Adorno and the New Age Fascists" attempting to turn the analysis in The Jargon of Authenticity against Zerzan and Green Anarchy. I dug it out recently, thinking it might be good, and my god I was embarrassed.

bob said...

Looking at answers to Sarah's requests for (a) inspiring, (b) good bad, and (c) too difficult books. I liked Kolya:

a) The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper
This taught me that it was OK to dislike Plato and Marx and why. It also taught me that in politics and science – and indeed in every activity where problem-solving is of the essence – we should construct our best theories and institutions in such a way as to make their content as easy to understand, and thus to criticise, as possible.
b) The Mote in God’s Eye, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
The most engaging “first-contact” science fiction book I know. I must have read it half a dozen times, and expect I’ll read it a few more times.
c) Anything by Immanuel Kant, whose entire opus is marred by a style that is the antithesis of that advocated by Popper – see (a) above.

Andrew Coates on (a) puts a book most people would put in (c):

I am going to be even more pretentious.
À la recherche du temps perdu.
I spent probably about five months reading the multiple volumes. They really changed the way I think, to begin with about sexuality and music. Oh, and why I hate anti-Semites.

bob said...

Les, and, yes, Foucault (at least in translation) played a major part in the terrible turn you diagnose towards "complicatedness" in academic writing around that time.

I encountered Foucault in Amok Books in LA, a wonderful place to which I was introduced by Jogo, the author of this post. (Is it still there?) I saw Foucault, who was published by Semiotext(e) as a cool, outlaw, Genet-esque anarcho-punk writer, and it was only later that I realised he had been canonised in the liberal academy.

bob said...

I encountered Foucault in Amok Books in LA. His books that is, not him himself.

Anonymous said...

frankly, bob, i feel foucault was a nietzchean, perhaps the last exponent of nietzche to walk the face of the earth. but then, in the 1980s, some bien-pensant college professors mainly here in america selectively appropriated parts of his work, combined them with the writings of a few other folks, and voila, saint foucault, the new liberator (neo-liberalator?) emerged at the end of that process, as if by sleight of hand. oy!

anyway, i'm working on my list, but it doesn't quite fit the categories you've laid down. an odd melange, all right, ranging from jack spicer to david harvey. it also has some annotations. although i'm keeping it to 12, it might be a little long, too.

Alex Ross said...


Adorno’s “The Stars Down to Earth” is a surprisingly good read – a sort of Marxist critique of authoritarian tendencies in Astrology and various other New Age trends – but tended to be met with utter bafflement by my students when I tried to teach it.

"Odysseus' encounter with the Sirens: Reflections on Adorno and the Violation of Nature" was something of a flop – partly because I presented it in front of an audience of fairly well known analytic philosophers, partly because I’d been drinking aquavit with some people from Spitsbergen until 5 in the morning but mainly because it was “up its arse, convoluted bullshit.”

bob said...

Les, when you do your list, mail it to me and I'll give it a post of its own.

Rainy said...

I have to add "Days of Ziklag" by S. Yizhar (yizhar smilansky)even if it wasn't translated from Hebrew (not that I know of)

bob said...

Been thinking of more very difficult books:

Wilson Harris' Jonestown and Juan Goytisolo's novels - I so wanted to like these, as they are about things I am fascinated by, but I found them unreadable.

Paul Auster - who I find incredibly overrated

Samuel Beckett - who I know it is deeply uncool to reveal not liking that much

kellie said...

I've very much enjoyed every Beckett play I've seen, but I couldn't make it through reading Watt, the only one of his novels I've tried. Maybe listening to it would be better - have the performer bear the weight of the repetitious variations of hell.

jams o donnell said...

Kellie, his novels are worth another go. Try Murphy for starters.

Sorry f these have been mentioned but here are two novels that I just gave up on for being to difficult and downright turgid:

The Sot Wed Factor by John Barth

The Yawning Heights by Alexander Zinoviev

kellie said...

I wouldn't want the phrase "repetitious variations of hell" to be taken the wrong way - I did enjoy it as far as I got, but it demanded more of me than I could give it at the time.

mensajes de amor said...

is a very interesting article! thanks, is very complete :)