Difficult Books
March 18, 2010 6:26 PM   Subscribe

What are the most difficult books you have ever read?

I'm looking for a good challenge, and I want to read some fiendishly difficult books for the hell of it. What are some of the most challenging books you have ever read? The difficulty can stem from either the material or writing, but I'm especially looking for books with complex prose and rarefied vocabulary. I would prefer non-fiction, but I'm not picky - I'll read anything challenging.

Public domain / Project Gutenberg stuff is always a plus, but again, I'll take anything. Thanks!
posted by Despondent_Monkey to Media & Arts (133 answers total) 98 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a few highly praised books I can never seem to finish:

The Crying of Lot 49 (or anything else by Pynchon)
Ulysses -- though I love James Joyce otherwise
Heart of Darkness
posted by bearwife at 6:29 PM on March 18, 2010

Anything I've read by Foucault, Bourdieu, and especially Derrida.
posted by Ashley801 at 6:31 PM on March 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger; Phenomenology of Spirit, by GWF Hegel; Process and Reality by AN Whitehead.

Those are my philosophy recommendation. Good luck!
posted by reverend cuttle at 6:33 PM on March 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure if this is what you're looking for, but are you interested in reading something in Middle-English? Surprisingly readable, but it can be rather challenging. You learn a lot about modern English language and its flexibility, not to mention English / American culture, reading it.

Try Canterbury Tales or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
posted by jabberjaw at 6:34 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past"; despite many attempts I've never been able to finish it. It's enlivened by the most beautiful writing but, for me, it's just a brutal slog of a read.
posted by Allee Katze at 6:37 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Crying of Lot 49 (or anything else by Pynchon)

Lot 49 is the easy Pynchon book. The hard one is Gravity's Rainbow. It took me 3 years and 2 false starts to finish the first time. It gets easier with each re-reading, though. Now it's positively pleasureable.
posted by muddgirl at 6:37 PM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the more taxing things I've read in the last few years. The writing itself is not difficult but the book as a whole is extremely....frustrating, I guess? I don't even know how to describe it. I have a pretty serious love-hate relationship with it and always go back and forth on whether to recommend it or not, but given your criteria I'll put it out there this time.
posted by something something at 6:39 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Decline of the West.
After opening this book and browsing a few pages, I decided the only way I'd be able to tackle it would be if I got sick with some new strain of SARS and had to be quarantined for 6 months.

War And Peace is one that I keep telling myself I have to slog through.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 6:39 PM on March 18, 2010

I found "On Liberty" to be tough sledding in certain parts, but in the end it was well worth reading. It grew on me slowly.

It took 10 years for me to really understand what I had read, but then it changed me forever.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:40 PM on March 18, 2010

Riddler Walker by Russell Hoban, written in a half-archaic, half-degraded English that becomes clearer if you read it aloud
posted by jhiggy at 6:40 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Illiad. I read it when I was 12, and perhaps it'd be easier now, but I had a hell of a time keeping all the bazillion characters straight. Plus there was a lot to learn about poetry, Greek geography, Greek myths, etc, before the whole thing made sense.
posted by Cygnet at 6:43 PM on March 18, 2010

As for difficult non-fiction, my freshman year composition professor tried to assign Arendt's The Human Condition. I think we made it through one chapter before everyone gave up.
posted by muddgirl at 6:44 PM on March 18, 2010

Anything I've read by Foucault, Bourdieu, and especially Derrida.

This. A thousand times this.
posted by The Michael The at 6:46 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce. Complex prose indeed.
posted by dacoit at 6:47 PM on March 18, 2010 [9 favorites]

I third Foucault.
posted by canadia at 6:48 PM on March 18, 2010

Critique of Pure Reason
posted by wooh at 6:48 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:49 PM on March 18, 2010

I second Riddley Walker. One version of the book comes with a glossary, but I think that's cheating.
posted by chowflap at 6:49 PM on March 18, 2010

I will 2nd Finnegan's Wake...Ulysseus a breeze..Proust: I tried three times and couldn't read. On
4th shot I could not puit it down! Could not re-read War and Peace, though I tried. But then I am getting on in years and, as Dr Johnson noted: get your reading done by age 40 because after, it is nearly impossible.
posted by Postroad at 6:50 PM on March 18, 2010

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:50 PM on March 18, 2010

I meant RIDDLEY Walker. Bad thumbing on my part, sorry.
posted by jhiggy at 6:51 PM on March 18, 2010

No apostrophe in Finnegans Wake. This bit of pedantry brought to you by my late prof, Robert Boyle, S.J.
posted by jhiggy at 6:53 PM on March 18, 2010

Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delany, I'm just not sure what this book is actually about.
posted by Max Power at 6:54 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Godel, Escher, Bach.

If you're into masochism, Atlas Shrugged. The only good that can come from it is knowing more easily how to shut your seventeen year old son or nephew up when the time comes.
posted by notsnot at 6:57 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm looking for a good challenge, and I want to read some fiendishly difficult books for the hell of it. What are some of the most challenging books you have ever read? The difficulty can stem from either the material or writing, but I'm especially looking for books with complex prose and rarefied vocabulary. I would prefer non-fiction, but I'm not picky - I'll read anything challenging.

Public domain / Project Gutenberg stuff is always a plus, but again, I'll take anything. Thanks!

Try Thucydides' History, especially an old translation like Crawley's. His Victorian prose took me forever to disentangle in places as he manages to string some sentences on for so long with clauses and parenthesis that all have to be held in the head while you read. It's also a rather long book with a heavy focus on completeness of the account - which gave Thucycdides his reputation. All that said, it's actually quite interesting and easy to enjoy; you'll learn something too.

(I think I read it when I was 14 or 15, so maybe my memory of it is warped as to difficulty.)
posted by Sova at 6:58 PM on March 18, 2010

Focault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco. Hit a brick wall many years ago trying to read. I hope that I'd be able to finish it now, but haven't tried.
posted by chookibing at 7:02 PM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Beckett's Watt drove me bonkers.

Gaddis' The Recognitions was challenging, but rewarding. This Amazon review sums it up nicely: "Long. Strange. Deep. Difficult. Tiring. Fun. Over-detailed. Likable characters. Horrible characters. Educational. Mind-numbing. Subtle."
posted by sad_otter at 7:03 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason

By the same token, I couldn't get past the first few pages of Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation, if you are interested in philosophy. Not sure if this is the whole thing, but at any rate there is a good portion of it up on Google Books so you can get the idea.
posted by wondermouse at 7:03 PM on March 18, 2010

War and Peace is not a difficult read. I have read it ten times. There are two tricks:

trick 1. There are only a few characters whose names you have to keep track of. Just skim over every name of a minor character who ain't Pierre, Natasha, Andre, Maria, Nikolai, Sonya, maybe a couple others but no more than ten others at the absolute max.

trick 2. Skim over the entirety of the winter between Andre's stonewall and Natasha's betrayal. It is boring although Tolstoy considered it essential to the background of how Natasha was earthy. Natasha is earthy in Tolstoy's mind but this means nothing to most readers. The heroine of War and Peace is Maria, not Natasha.

The entirety of the epilogue is pointless. It is a great book. Perhaps the greatest novel I have ever read. Definitely the greatest novel I have ever read ten times. The key to enjoying it is do not get bogged down in the author's excesses, which are extremely excessive.

I also have tricks for reading Ulysses and Finnegans Wake fast but I cannot admit them in public again because they are way too controversial.
posted by bukvich at 7:04 PM on March 18, 2010 [28 favorites]

The Praise of Folly by Erasmus. Nonsense right from the get-go.
posted by hiteleven at 7:06 PM on March 18, 2010

Pynchon writes complex stories with multiple layers of everything, yet his prose is compelling and his plot lines even more so. He is the most fun of the really difficult authors to me. Faulkner is similar. I think he is even better but I think those in the know would go with Pynchon. The depiction of Benjy in the "Sound and the Fury" is one of the most amazing things I have ever read. He made it possible to put yourself in the head of a mentally retarded character in such an amazing way, and that was just the easy stuff in the book.
posted by caddis at 7:06 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture. Apparently he was even awarded second place in Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing Competition for this sentence:

"If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to 'normalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality."
posted by radiomayonnaise at 7:06 PM on March 18, 2010

posted by oddman at 7:08 PM on March 18, 2010

Kant's Critique of Pure Reason is hard; to me, the writing style seemed even intentionally obscure (given how well Kant could write on less technical subjects). But at least I could tell he was trying; there was something coherent he had to say, even if it was ambiguous tortuously expressed.

That was nothing compared to Hegel. I didn't even read the Phenomenology of Spirit; his Philosophy of History, though shorter than Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, was the hardest thing I ever had to slog through.
posted by k. at 7:08 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, a fun thing to try would be Locke's First Treatise on Government or even the latter parts of Hobbes' Leviathan (parts 3 and 4). Olde style language + Biblical quotes + obscurity points = fun.
posted by Sova at 7:09 PM on March 18, 2010

I'll 2nd Leviathan as well.
posted by hiteleven at 7:11 PM on March 18, 2010

Michael Taussig's Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing is one of those brain-meltingly difficult books that makes you honestly question whether the author is sublimely brilliant or just a godawful writer. Or both. Makes Foucault and Bourdiesu seem like a walk in the park.
posted by googly at 7:13 PM on March 18, 2010

None. If it's too difficult I put it aside until it either isn't difficult or I simply forget it. If I manage to read it then it wasn't difficult after all. That said, probably the most brow-furrowing books I have ever read have been by William Olaf Stapledon and Stanislaw Lem (and it's likely that the trouble I had with Lem was more to do with the translation than anything).

Pynchon's V was a pain in the ass but I read it when I was, I dunno, fifteen or something, so maybe it wouldn't be quite so bad now.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:14 PM on March 18, 2010

Also, I wouldn't recommend either of those as a fun challenge unless you're already interested in that kind of philosophy and familiar with what came before. The same goes for most of the philosophy books mentioned here.

Try some novels. I liked Foucault's Pendulum, which was only moderately hard to read. Another really giant book that's a somewhat hard to get through, but rewarding, is Herodotus' Histories. (There were some fun parts as well as boring ones; Herodotus is supposedly much easier than Thucydides, whom I've never read.)
posted by k. at 7:15 PM on March 18, 2010

And, wait, I'd have to add Gene Wolfe New Sun books in there too. Can be a bit of a slog if you're not in the right mindset, but well worth it.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:16 PM on March 18, 2010

I found The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner and Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo particularly difficult to read, particularly due to their fragmented timelines.

Plato's Republic is tricky to read, especially if you are a) A high school freshman, and b) Get the wrong translation. My freshman World History/American Government teacher decided that the best way to combine these two topics was to actually make it just one year on the history of modern political philosophy. Whoo social contract theory.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was also phenomenally difficult for me to read. I managed to read the opening paragraph of "Young Goodman Brown" about 10 times without any of it ever actually sinking in.
posted by that girl at 7:17 PM on March 18, 2010

Judith Butler's Gender Trouble is a great book, but the prose (especially the middle part) can be very hard going. I stopped reading for a few weeks half way through and accused her of being an obscurantist.
posted by Sova at 7:17 PM on March 18, 2010

Sorry itchy post finger

Let me elaborate, Leviathan, has 300 year old English, so the grammar and style is difficult and it's philosophy, so the prose and vocab will be as arcane as you can stomach. It's pretty much exactly what you are looking for. Bonus points for being massively influential.

Also, Kant's big two works The Critique of Pure Reason and The Critique of Practical Reason. It's a shame that Project Gutenberg doesn't have the Critique of Judgment it's what very smart philosophers read when they want to feel dumb. And again, massively influential.

That's about as hard as it gets.
posted by oddman at 7:18 PM on March 18, 2010

Easily Godel, Escher, Bach and Gravity's Rainbow.

I've read lots of Pynchon and I never really had much trouble with his other stuff though.
posted by Funky Claude at 7:19 PM on March 18, 2010

I tried reading a couple Buckminster Fuller books one time, but I just couldn't get through them. I think one of them was Critical Path, and I don't remember the other one.

From what I remember it was Dymaxion this and Synergetic that. It was just not accessible to me at the time I was attempting it.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:22 PM on March 18, 2010

As for Faulkner, "The Sound and the Fury" was the easiest of his works for me, although perhaps that had something to do with it being read when I was young and had more energy for attacking difficult books.
posted by caddis at 7:24 PM on March 18, 2010

My most difficult book that I enjoyed reading anyway would definitely be McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I'm usually a fast reader, a skimming skipping humming along reader, and that book was made entirely of anchor and thick chain for me. Yet I kept reading and ended up enjoying the hell out of it.

I feel like a Philistine because I've never even tried Tolstoy or Proust or whatever, so take my recommendation with a grain of salt.
posted by komara at 7:33 PM on March 18, 2010

House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski
posted by Windigo at 7:38 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not speaking from experience, but I think Das Kapital (Marx) would be a really difficult read.

Speaking from experience, I really disliked House of Leaves.
posted by foxjacket at 7:42 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Neal Stephenson's Anathem were the two most challenging books I've ever read. Gravity's Rainbow and Eco's Foucault's Pendulum were the two most difficult books I was NOT able to complete.
posted by vito90 at 7:42 PM on March 18, 2010

The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann.
Virtually anything by Henry James.
Tess of the D'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy.
Most older translations of roman philosophers or writers - especially the writers, e.g The Aeniad.
Much German or French philosophy, especially Hegel, Heidegger, Foucalt, Lacan and Derrida.
posted by smoke at 7:43 PM on March 18, 2010

Oh yes, Foxjacket - Das Kapital is fucking horrendous. I doubt anyone alive has read all the volumes.
posted by smoke at 7:44 PM on March 18, 2010

Nthing Faulkner, Pynchon and Joyce.

Tristram Shandy is another tough one. I couldn't even get through it.

A lot of David Foster Wallace, unless your vocabulary is as insane as his, can be on the difficult spectrum as well (though not on the same plane as the above).

Ok, with regard to philosophy: there's a difference between difficult philosophies, philosophers who are difficult to read, and philosophies which are difficult to read because of their nature. For me, Kant falls into the first. The philosophy is a bit tough, especially if you aren't well versed in Kant's predecessors, but he writes fairly clearly (granted, translating anything from German is a bit of a trick...). I'd put Spinoza, Russell, maybe even Frege in this category.

The second category, philosophers who are just difficult to read and it's sometimes unclear why, are folks like Heidegger, Foucault, Sartre. I'm not saying that their philosophies are unworthy, but...these philosophers are not good writers, and it doesn't help their causes.

The final category is folks like Wittgenstein, who's difficult to read because his philosophies are tied up in difficult language and there's just no way around it. If you want some tough reads, the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations are good places to start!
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:47 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd have to go with The Legend of the 10 Elemental Masters.
posted by flod logic at 7:48 PM on March 18, 2010

Most older translations of roman philosophers or writers - especially the writers, e.g The Aeniad.

Oh god yes. I spent a great deal of time thinking I was quite stupid because I was struggling so hard with a 19th century translation of the Aeniad. If you want a real challenge, go there. but I wouldn't.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:49 PM on March 18, 2010

Marxists.org is a haven for difficult reading. Why not start with Capital?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:50 PM on March 18, 2010

Sorry one more thing.

If you really want a philosophical reading challenge, just go pick up really any contemporary academic journal or recent publication - especially in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science. Modern academic philosophers are by far the gods of esoteric, confusing and abstract to the point of nonsense prose.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:51 PM on March 18, 2010

Tolkien's The Silmarillion. There are graphs to help keep the characters straight, to no avail. When a single character can live for centuries, or be dead in a decade, or have a namesake or near-namesake pop up 100 pages later... labyrinthine.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:54 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Only Revolutions by Mark Danielewski (of House of Leaves fame). It's a poem that tells the same story in two voices that you have to spin around in circles to read. For an extra challenge, read Hailey's part first, as she's the more oblique of the two.

Also seconding Riddley Walker and Ulysses.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:58 PM on March 18, 2010

posted by melodykramer at 8:00 PM on March 18, 2010 [4 favorites]

Kant is hard, especially in bad translation.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:00 PM on March 18, 2010

2nding The Silmarillion. I've tried twice to start that book and have never been able to finish it. (and this from someone who managed to slough through The Children of Hurin...)
posted by Telpethoron at 8:06 PM on March 18, 2010

Took me forever to get through 2666...
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:09 PM on March 18, 2010

Faulkner's Go Down, Moses is probably the most difficult novel that I have absolutely admired and enjoyed. Much of it is pretty accessible, but then you hit "The Bear" and (as marvelous as the story is) Faulkner's prose gets thick as kudzu. The book also features several generations of characters whose relationships to one another are hard to figure out; I had to draw up a family tree as I read and used it as a bookmark.
posted by cirripede at 8:09 PM on March 18, 2010

Foucault's Pendulum took me 10+ years to successfully read. Of course, now with the magic of the Interwebs, it would be easier to trudge through all the esoteric references but not, I think, as fun.

I have never made it very far into Garcia Marquez' 100 Years of Solitude. I should try harder.

The Magus by John Fowles--sweet lord in heaven, is that book difficult. Fowles delights in confusing the hell out of the reader.

And, for the past 4-5 years, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver has been taunting me.
posted by gsh at 8:17 PM on March 18, 2010

Trying to read Finnegans Wake made me want to fling myself into the sea. Trying to read Ayn Rand made me want to fling both her and her poxy books into the sea and laugh as they were torn to bits by frenzied sharks. Both difficult, but for different reasons.

A lot of early 20th c. Dostoevsky translations are really badly done, which can make them irritating to read. Reading them in the original Russian is actually sometimes easier.
posted by elizardbits at 8:22 PM on March 18, 2010

Downfall is an incredibly dense history of why Truman choose to drop the atomic bomb, it covers the strategic and tactical situation in excruciating detail. It also talks extensively of the morale of the American citizens.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 8:23 PM on March 18, 2010

gsh: "And, for the past 4-5 years, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver has been taunting me."

I got through Quicksilver, but just barely. It's like the book itself has ADD. I kinda get that Stephenson was trying to write something that was fluid, but it didn't work out very well.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 8:25 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding Pynchon's V. GR was easier.

James' The Ambassadors felt like waiting in a bus terminal for something to happen, but it seems to develop like a film negative when you think you're not paying attention and that was an extremely weird experience.
posted by jet_silver at 8:26 PM on March 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you're looking for non-fiction, I'd recommend Jacques Ellul's The Technological Society.

I read an excerpt in grad school and found it quite challenging but really fascinating, focusing on the totalitarian nature of technology and how humans adapt to it.
posted by thankyouforyourconsideration at 8:27 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Some of these hard books previously mentioned I found to be not easy, but somewhat comprehensible with time and effort.

However, in terms of pure metaphoric subtlety, completely aside from technical complexity, there is The Man Without Qualities; Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften by Robert Musil.

I thought I was Ironic. This guy is so Ironic that the Irony is piled on top of the Irony. Then when I had finally slogged through the whole thing, there is a little note at the end that this book is merely part one of two or three, or something.
posted by ovvl at 8:28 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Being No One by Metzinger, although very much worth it.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 8:41 PM on March 18, 2010

Anything written by Jorge Luis Borges. Multilingualism and playfulness with language are keys to his writing style.
posted by alteredcarbon at 8:44 PM on March 18, 2010

Another non-fiction recommendation: The Art of Memory by Frances Yates. The subject of this academic study is interesting - it's all about the memory systems that people devised from the time of the Greeks through the renaissance. But the prose was very difficult, and really, you need a good memory system to hold all the names and information she packs into the book.
posted by extrabox at 8:45 PM on March 18, 2010

Anything I've read by Foucault, Bourdieu, and especially Derrida.

I haven't read any Bourdieu, but Foucalt & Derrida are clear as crystal compared to the muddled mess that Lacan can be. I remember hearing someone relate a story (I don't know how true this is) about how his style of articulation was intentionally tortuous because you somehow had to go through that process of deciphering in order to really "get" it.
posted by juv3nal at 8:46 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was going to say Atlas Shrugged as well. I didn't make it past the first page.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:47 PM on March 18, 2010

My first impulse was to give a commonplace philosophical tough nut to crack, like Of Grammatology or maybe Negative Dialectics, but I think the difficulty of reading philosophical magna opera like these is largely extrinsic — it's just a matter of having to acquire the background to understand their arguments, which entails having a passable knowledge of a lot of centuries of philosophical predecessors.

So, instead, I'll say Pearl might well be the most difficult thing I've ever read. It's surely the most abstruse, intricately constructed long poem I've ever attempted to understand (and I'm not at all sure I ever succeeded); and it's also written in a not-very-accessible Middle English dialect.
posted by RogerB at 8:57 PM on March 18, 2010

Being and Nothingness, by Sartre.
posted by hot soup girl at 9:14 PM on March 18, 2010

Anything Kant or Marx should be up your alley. Heck, for that matter, any German philosopher is incredibly difficult.

It's funny to see on here that so many of the authors listed as "difficult" fall under required reading for all students at my school!
posted by astapasta24 at 9:23 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Godel, Escher, Bach
posted by ifjuly at 9:42 PM on March 18, 2010

In the vain of German philosophy I'm surprised no one has mentioned Nietzsche.
posted by 12%juicepulp at 9:43 PM on March 18, 2010

Nthing Faulkner, pretty much any Faulkner. His prose is just unbelievably dense; sentences last pages and pages and sometimes you end up miles from where you began. The Sound and Fury wasn't so terrible, but Light In August was nearly the death of me. He's worth it in the end, though.

Also nthing DFW- I think I started Infinite Jest five times before I got more than 150 pages in and got fully engaged into it. This one meets the "rareified vocabulary" requirement particularly well. It would have been nice had this very helpful advice been around the first few go-rounds.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:45 PM on March 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sacred Games, because Mumbai is so totally different.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:55 PM on March 18, 2010

Foucault's Pendulum was rough going the first time around. But it is one of the few novels I immediately read again, once I understood where Eco was going.
posted by SPrintF at 10:20 PM on March 18, 2010

I always thought Foucault was very readable, but Felix Guattari's solo work really takes the biscuit (as compared to the work he did with Deleuze, who seems to have been something of a tempering influence. Opening a page at random from Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm i find this:
"The indicative matter of a-signifying semiotic machines constituted by "point signs"; these on the one hand belong to a semiotic and on the other intervene directly in a series of material machinic processes. Example a credit card number that operates a bank auto-teller."
posted by tallus at 10:45 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I didn't find Foucault's Pendulum so hard, but reading some of these comments makes me wonder whether I was doing it wrong. I think I treated it like a sort of European version of Illuminatus! without most of the fun parts but that may not have been the most productive approach.

If you want something truly incomprehensible, though, there is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, whose writing my old uni politics department used to remind undergrads of their intellectual inadequacy. According to Wikipedia her introduction to a book by Derrida has been described as "setting a new standard for self-reflexivity in prefaces" and if that isn't a warning I don't know what is.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 10:46 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

James Joyce and Gilles Deleuze both liked Sylvie and Bruno.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:57 PM on March 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Beevor's The Battle for Spain. The material is at once profoundly depressing, enraging, and utterly, utterly brutal.
posted by rodgerd at 11:14 PM on March 18, 2010

Michael Taussig's Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing is one of those brain-meltingly difficult books that makes you honestly question whether the author is sublimely brilliant or just a godawful writer.

He is sublimely brilliant (I know him), and a nice guy. That is perhaps his finest book, and I learned a great deal from struggling with it.

I second Derrida's Of Grammatology as perhaps the most difficult book I know that is also worth reading and actually does have something to offer a certain kind of mind.
posted by fourcheesemac at 11:54 PM on March 18, 2010

Do you want it to be in English?

Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica would be at the head of the class of "very famous books that the fewest people have actually read", but it's written in math.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:07 AM on March 19, 2010

Srednicki's Quantum Field Theory is right up there for me.
posted by Jacen Solo at 12:25 AM on March 19, 2010

Don Quixote. Long. Really long. Lots of unrelated subplots. Jokes that clearly didn't make it over the language barrier. Still, it was ultimately rewarding, if for no other reason than its historical significance.

War and Peace was an easy read. The hardest part was keeping track of all the minor characters.

Gravity's Rainbow was difficult, but thoroughly enjoyable.

Foucault's Pendulum was difficult ... and I'm still not sure it was worth it. I liked the actual story, hated the parts where they detailed 'the plan.' Probably wouldn't recommend it.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:24 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Saving the Appearances by Owen Barfield. The idea he puts forth is complicated enough to begin with, and then it doesn't lend itself easily to language so you have to reread sentences several times over. It's one of those books that gets into things like "what 'is' is" and when we say "that" what we mean by the word "that" and... all that.
posted by Nattie at 2:15 AM on March 19, 2010

The Silmarillion by Tolkien.

Perhaps it was because I was 14-15 at the time, but I found it fiendishly impossible.
posted by Xany at 2:21 AM on March 19, 2010

From a religious standpoint, the book "The Death of Death in the Death of Christ" by the puritan John Owen is impossible to get through. The author even starts his book with this warning:


If thou intendest to go any farther, I would entreat thee to stay here a little. If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatre, to go out again, — thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!"

I don't think I even made it to page 50.
posted by dealing away at 2:29 AM on March 19, 2010

Foucault's Pendulum in Italian made my eyes cross from the effort, though subsequent reads have become somewhat easier.
posted by romakimmy at 3:47 AM on March 19, 2010

I love Faulkner and generally don't find him difficult, but Absolam, Absolam was very tough sledding. It took me three times to get through it.
posted by pasici at 4:41 AM on March 19, 2010

The first time I tried to read The Illuminatus! Trilogy it was a real slog.

Then I read Naked Lunch. Now I don't complain anymore. Illuminatus! was a cakewalk after getting through Burroughs.
posted by backseatpilot at 5:16 AM on March 19, 2010

Ben Marcus' The Age of Wire & String, though short, redefines familiar words. At the end of it you're really not sure what anything means any more.

Seconding Sylvie & Bruno as "hard".
posted by scruss at 5:52 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'll nth Infinite Jest - it took me 300 pages before I had any idea what was going on, but now that I'm only 300 pages from the end it's one of the best things I've ever read.
posted by hungrybruno at 6:58 AM on March 19, 2010

I have sadly yet to complete Infinite Jest, Gravity's Rainbow, or Finnegans Wake. I don't think I will ever both with Finnegans Wake.

The only real difficulty to most philosophical texts is knowing the context and terminology. I found the Critique of Pure Reason a pretty nice read due to its organization, albeit no where near Spinoza's level.

Admittedly though, those who I've found to be the most difficult would be those who belong to the area of continental philosophy: Derrida and Zizek for example. Adorno too, though he belongs to the Frankfurt School. He probably suffers from not only inherent difficulty, but also with poor translation.
posted by SollosQ at 7:24 AM on March 19, 2010

I don't think I ever will with Finnegans Wake.*
posted by SollosQ at 7:25 AM on March 19, 2010

For novels, Finnegans Wake and Foucault's Pendulum come to mind. Both offer enough of a reward to justify their difficulty. A lot of William S. Burrough's stuff can be pretty slow going; I enjoy reading snippets of his work buffet-style.

Many philosophy texts are difficult, but the quality of the translations often has a much to do with that as the content. Previous commenters who mentioned Kant's Critique should take a look at Jonathan F. Bennett's early modern philosophy translations (where you will also find Berkley, Descartes, Hume, et cetera). Bennett's translations are somewhat controversial; he's been accused of simplifying the meaning of the texts, but my (admittedly limited) review of them leads me to believe that he renders 99.8% of the meaning in a much smoother read.
posted by paulg at 7:38 AM on March 19, 2010

I have a thing for "difficult books" so I've read and enjoyed a lot of the books other people have mentioned here (Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace, Infinite Jest, all of Pynchon, The Book of the New Sun, The Man Without Qualities, Foucault's Pendulum [didn't actually enjoy that last one]), but two I've never managed to get more than 10 pages into are Finnegans Wake (as mentioned by many others) and Darconville's Cat. If you want rarefied vocabulary I especially recommend the latter.

I also confess to not having been able to get more than halfway through Ulysses despite multiple attempts.
posted by dfan at 7:48 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Finnegan's Wake was difficult, but rewarding enough to keep me going.
Infinite Jest, otoh, was difficult and, ultimately, not rewarding enough to convince me to finish. It still sits there, and I have no interest in ever opening it up again.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:16 AM on March 19, 2010

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.
posted by torquemaniac at 8:20 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The toughest book that I never finished is Ilya Prigogine's "Order out of Chaos" (nonfiction, abstruse), followed by Gödel, Escher, Bach.

The toughest book that I have finished is Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. He makes DFW look like a piker in the obscure-vocabulary department—so much so that you think he's inventing words. He's not. Plus the whole unreliable-narrator thing, and the involuted grammar, and the symbolism, and the references to classical mythology… I've read it three times, and read Wolfe's own book about BotNS (Castle of the Otter), and a book of eschatology on it (Solar Labyrinth), and I still haven't fully figured it out.

I'm pretty sure that I would be defeated by Kant's grocery list. I read one of his works for class in college, but I don't count class reading.
posted by adamrice at 8:51 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

2nding paulg's recommendation of William S Burroughs. I could never read through Naked Lunch like a novel because its too much poop talk and not enough plot to keep me going, but have read the whole thing in small parts when I felt like being grossed out.

Similarly J.G. Ballard's Crash is totally unrelatable to me in the beginning so I never made it through. I think it starts out with semen on a dashboard as a result of a very stimulating car accident or something (literally).
posted by WeekendJen at 9:06 AM on March 19, 2010

Infinite Jest for the win (or loss - I felt that the "jest" was on me for trying to slog through that book). As a huge fan of Tolkien (his writing), The Silmarillion was like Grand Marnier soufflé for me - delicious, complex and rewarding. I LOVED Anathem but yes, it did take a while to get through it.
posted by Lynsey at 10:15 AM on March 19, 2010

I am sorry to see some of my favorite books (Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain) and authors (Faulkner) coming up here.

I have a tip for Faulkner: he is much easier if you think of his books as screenplays. He spent a fair amount of time as a screenwriter and an ability to visualize and hear as you read makes everything much more comprehensible.

And can I add that I don't think Foucault's Pendulum is worth the effort. What happened to the great Umberto Eco after Name of the Rose???
posted by bearwife at 10:28 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

These are all nonfiction.

Sexual Personae, by Camille Paglia is just dense as shit. Every chapter would get a sexual-literary-feminist student their PhD. I'll have to re-read it when I'm about ten times smarter.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes is just as dense, but no so much because of specialized knowledge. It's 500 pages of increasingly challenged assumptions about being human, what consciousness is, and what it means for human society.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art by Kandinsky is short, but hard to read because of his style. If you're interested in Modernism or Kandinsky specifically, this is a good one.
posted by cmoj at 10:44 AM on March 19, 2010

No Georges Perec yet? try "Life: A User's Manual." It's about making puzzles, and then disassembling them - both at the level of plot and that of form.

I think Absalom, Absalom is the toughest (and also most worthy) Faulkner to get through...

and for current philosophy/theory, seconding "Of Grammatology." Also "A Thousand Plateaus," which doesn't seem to have gotten enough attention...

I found Foucault's Pendulum to be totally worth the effort, but I may be in the minority.

The Da Vinci Code, however, was insanely difficult to get through, mostly because of its vocabulary and prose style.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 11:04 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco and Giles Goat-Boy by John Barth. I actually got 600 or so pages in on the Barth book before I threw it across the room in defeat, which makes it one of maybe six books in my life I didn't finish.

Part of me wants to finish it, but damn.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 11:34 AM on March 19, 2010

Agreeing with those who have said that Kant's first Critique, while hard, has the virtues of being intelligible and frakking exciting. (Side note: apparently some German-speaking philosophers prefer to read it in translation because the English translators performed the great service of breaking up Kant's longer sentences).

Post-Kantian Idealists, though, are tougher. To the Hegel recommendations, I'd add Fichte.

Also, if you want to go ancient, take a jaunt through Plato's later work, such as The Laws.
posted by Beardman at 11:38 AM on March 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I will second Zizek. Every time I have tried to read one of his books, I start off thinking I am following what he is saying, but then find myself lost and confused a little bit later.
posted by wittgenstein at 12:26 PM on March 19, 2010

Oh, and Wittgenstein. His Tractatus is amazing, but dense. I was fascinated by his relationship with Bertrand Russell; I mean, we've all wanted to go to a mentor and say, "Answer this philosophical conundrum for me or else I'm going to commit suicide!" at one point or another... right?
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 2:04 PM on March 19, 2010

Back when I was a young girl, I had this idea that I should read Faulkner. So I picked up Absalom, Absalom. I finished it as a point of principle, and didn't touch Faulkner again for, well, a very long time. A few years ago, it occurred to me that I should revisit the old boy as, after all, I knew I was missing something. The Sound and the Fury was a success as was Light in August thereafter. Alas, it is time to revisit my old enemy... any day now...
posted by SuzB at 3:18 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don Quixote and Moby Dick. Really no one's said Moby Dick? It's got just an absolutely fabulous first page but then once the voyage gets going it's a tough slog. Lots of amazing info and I'm glad I made it all the way through. But I'm not sure I ever finished Don Quixote now that I think about it.
posted by sweetmarie at 3:50 PM on March 19, 2010

Jacques Lacan: Ecrits. Anything by Derrida. That mofo is seriously impenetrable.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 4:11 PM on March 19, 2010

Infinite Jest is currently kicking my ass, but I am determined to beat it. I could not stand Ulyssues and gave up early. Tropic of Cancer also kicked my butt. Naked Lunch is challenging but certainly not horribly so. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was also difficult but mostly because I kept waiting for something to happen and was disappointed every.single.page. Shakespeare is actually harder than it looks if you don't already know the stories.

I am a lightweight, I know.
posted by chairface at 11:14 PM on March 19, 2010

Infinite Jest is wonderful.

With a bit of practice, Derrida isn't so bad. Lacan, on the other hand, consistently appears to me nonsensical.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 11:41 PM on March 19, 2010

Sphären by Peter Sloterdijk.
I find it difficult because it's the result of an associative kind of reasoning that's nonsensical to me. As such I won't read it any further. But it's very well regarded in NL.

Metapattern by Pieter Wisse.
I find it difficult because it seems that Wisse has been thinking alone for a long time (decades) and as a result has developed an idiosyncratic vocabulary. Words have a very specific meaning to him that is different than the general meaning. As such I think that his ideas would be best served by somebody slogging through his writings and explaining them in terms as used by other people.
That book is relevant to my line of work btw. So it's probably of no interest to you.
posted by joost de vries at 7:17 AM on March 20, 2010

And of course Wittgensteins writings. I find them difficult because he's trying to think about the edges of thinking and language. In language. That's obviously a challenging undertaking.
posted by joost de vries at 7:20 AM on March 20, 2010

hasn't anyone ever heard of the Urantia book? all this other stuff is a breeze compared to that
posted by Redhush at 10:46 AM on March 20, 2010

The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe

"This may be the most complete mathematical explanation of the universe yet published, and Roger Penrose richly deserves the accolades he will receive for it. That said, let us be perfectly clear: this is not an easy book to read. The number of people in the world who can understand everything in it could probably take a taxi together to Penrose's next lecture. Still, math-friendly readers looking for a substantial and possibly even thrillingly difficult intellectual experience should pick up a copy (carefully--it's over a thousand pages long and weighs nearly 4 pounds) and start at the beginning, where Penrose sets out his purpose: to describe "the search for the underlying principles that govern the behavior of our universe." Beginning with the deceptively simple geometry of Pythagoras and the Greeks, Penrose guides readers through the fundamentals--the incontrovertible bricks that hold up the fanciful mathematical structures of later chapters. From such theoretical delights as complex-number calculus, Riemann surfaces, and Clifford bundles, the tour takes us quickly on to the nature of spacetime."
posted by martinrebas at 2:23 PM on March 20, 2010

posted by jokeefe at 6:32 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

... though I'm not sure if I'd find it as difficult today as when I first started grad school.
posted by jokeefe at 6:35 PM on March 22, 2010

If you don't mind abridged versions, there's a very good audiobook of Foucault's Pendulum read by Tim Curry. He makes a point of giving characters different and distinct voices and I thoroughly enjoyed it while riding in the car.
posted by stinkycheese at 4:32 PM on March 23, 2010

I read Ulysses and most of Burroughs in high school and considered them pretty smooth-going at the time. That said, most of the books listed in this thread are on my 'to read' list & probably always will be. I do recall Judith Butler's Gender Trouble being particularly difficult to read and understand, and many of Laura Mulvey's essays were well-nigh impenetrable for me in film school.
posted by stinkycheese at 7:23 PM on March 23, 2010

I think need separate categories here. Otherwise we're basically playing books by continental philosophers off against graduate maths & physics textbooks.

I mean, is there any novel that is as difficult as Zein und Zeit, or "Big Rudin", I really doubt it.
posted by atrazine at 1:46 AM on March 24, 2010

Actually, wait. Jokeefe, do you mean Gayatri Spivak or Michael Spivak?
posted by atrazine at 2:26 AM on March 24, 2010

My money's on Gayatri.
posted by Beardman at 9:37 AM on March 25, 2010

Fiction: the Silmarillion. It's something Tolkien wrote in the same world as Lord of the Rings, except it has the scope of the Bible. The entire Lord of the Rings plotline takes up two paragraphs in the Silmarillion. It also has one of the best love stories ever written in it.

Nonfiction: Feynman's red book lectures on physics. It's the complete version of physics I. The *very* complete version.

Or, pick up something by Ann Coulter. It's hard to get through for different reasons, if you're wired like I'm betting you're wired.
posted by talldean at 8:26 PM on March 26, 2010

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