Seven Incredibly Tough Books To Read: Parth Khare

Ever decided to read a book belonging to the hall of fame of literature, ordered it in a jiffy, opened it and then, well, sighed? We know the feeling of reading tough books. So does Parth Khare, our guest blogger for today:

While there might be plenty of Twilight and such stories catering to the those with simpler tastes, there are books for the connoisseurs, for the hardcore, for those erudite enough to fathom its prolixity and obfuscation (see what I did there?). Here are the literature hall of famers who make your science major paper seem easier than Archies.


Finnegans Wake – James JoycE

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James Joyce, take a bow. No book in the history of English literature has exacted a consensus out of scholars and people, except probably Finnegans Wake. It is hard. Hard in the way that comprehending the entirety of the universe is, and you are more likely to do that than to get through the labyrinth that this book represents. A strange style, stranger language, Irish babble, portmanteau words, neological puns and onomatopoeia of the toughest kind (use of sounds in words), here’s a quote that sums everything up: ‘The gracehopper was always jigging ajog, hoppy on akkant of his joyicity.‘ No joy there, Joyce.


Nightwood – Djuna Barnes

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T.S Eliot wrote some knotty, tough books himself (more on that later) but he described this one as ‘altogether alive but demanding something of a reader that an ordinary novel reader isn’t prepared to give.’ High praise indeed from the father of modern English poetry, but here’s the catch, we can’t give what we don’t have, we just can’t. This book is awash with prose that is both torturous and tortuous to the untrained (sometimes even trained) mind with its Gothic prose style, its discursive and rambling nature and philosophical musings by a character who in his spare time likes to dress himself up in nighties and curls of blonde hair (why didn’t our philosophy teacher try that in those boring classes?). It is essentially a collection of monologues and ideas from the different characters which make you want to say, ‘Mate, you’ve got some unresolved issues there’. From the book itself, ‘you pound the liver out of a goose to get a pate, you pound the muscles of a man’s cardia to get a philosopher.‘ And you pound your mind out to understand this book, despite its greatness.


The Wasteland – T. S. Eliot

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Go ahead, say it out loud. You have heard of this book. There are a lot of allusions to this book abound in popular culture (ever heard of ‘death by water’, or ‘dead man’s alley’? Yes, right). Released in 1922, this book encompasses the apprehensions of one of the most respected poet, critic and dramatist, Thomas Stearns Eliot. He was worried about the degradation of culture in the world and that the younger generation no longer pays due importance to the classics and old school greatness. He believed that modern poetry should come from reading old legendary books, and boy, did the wasteland come from them and smack you right in your (progressive) head. Here’s something unique. The lines in this poem change languages. That’s right, you heard me. So one time you are skiing in some mountains and next, you have a German line on your hands, followed by French and even (yes!) Sanskrit. It is chock full of allusions and it is a deliberate attempt to make you go back and read proper literature. A collection of 5 poems, it is sure to make you cry out your eyes. In Eliot’s own learned words “I will show you fear in a handful of dust”. Quiver.


The Critique of Pure Reason – Immanuel Kant

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The old fox of Konigsberg as Kant was known in his hey days, comes the book of all philosophy books. The Critique of Pure Reason did many things in the philosophical world. It solved metaphysical riddles, it aligned God with reason (yes, strange as it sounds), it answered or attempted to answer the mind vs. body debate; but mostly, it increased the already alarming levels of confusion in philosophy. It is full of specific terminology being originally in German, and even after you seem to have understood it, you can never be sure that’s what Kant wanted to tell you. However, it is one of the most respected books in philosophy and its theories like priory knowledge, transcendence, et al actually answered age old questions. Also known as the grand old man of philosophy he wrote, ‘thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.’ You without Kant are ignorant (and happy).


Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

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And you will shrug too when you see the size of this one. Atlas Shrugged is big. Like, Charles Dickens level big and can be categorised as philosophic fiction. It is the story of a dystopian world in which government tries to control all the business and trade of America and the entrepreneurs who struggle against the order and then simply disappear into hiding. It has larger than life characters like a playboy billionaire who destroys his own business to prevent government seizing it, a genius who is a philosopher during the day, a pirate at night, and a guy whose name everyone keeps asking and we come to know about halfway in the book. With its immortal query (Who is John Galt?), it asks questions from everyone and is deeply philosophical at many levels. Full of flashbacks, parallel story lines and other worlds created by perfect individuals, it aims to contradict the futility of dystopia by creating a utopian society under its nose. It makes you feel the world’s weight on your shoulders when you sift through its monologues and doesn’t want you to shrug.


Being and Time – Martin Heidegger

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Martin Heidegger was a German philosopher and one of the most influential ones of this century. His Magnum Opus ‘Being and Time’ is one of the hardest books I have ever encountered, because of innate difficulties pervading it. The first is that literary meaning and philosophical meaning are very distinct and Heidegger really flirts with that line in it. It does not induce a dream like stupor with its obtrusiveness, like Finnegans Wake, rather, it is like getting punched in the face. It has intentionally added difficulty in the form of new words and old words turned new. It is philosophical, but propounds a way of thinking, questioning and tries to give a basic premise for a new science. Phew! Here’s a quote to make you understand (and confuse): ‘Temporality temporalizes future which makes present in the process of having been.


War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

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With attributes that make its introduction as a professional wrestler feasible, in this corner comes the book that most people lie about reading, and those that have actually read it, did so to impress others. That’s sad because Tolstoy was a brilliant writer. However, the book borders on whimsy as its plot meanders through different sub plots and at the end makes us realize that there was no central plot. To be taken only by prescription, not more than 100 pages a day, under supervision. As suggested by the author himself ‘The strongest of all warriors are these two – time and patience.‘ Yes, you will need a lot of both in this battle.


About the guest blogger: Parth Khare is an electronics undergrad and an avid reader. Apart from dealing with circuits and turning pages, he’s a die hard soccer fan with a great sense of humor.

Featured Image Courtesy: Robert Berry

95 Comments

  1. I am surprised you didn’t include “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski on your list….

      • Says someone who has clearly never read it & only picked it up off the shelf in a bookstore, took a look at it, then put it back down and decided to read “The Twilight Saga” instead!

        • Don’t be so quick to judge. I love “House of Leaves”; it might be my favorite book, actually. But not a single one of my friends can stomach it, and they are every bit as literate as I am. Danielewski uses font and page layout, just as much as he uses actual grammar and verbiage, to tell a story. I love the visual aspect of it, but I get that others may not like it.

        • He’s right though. It’s not a difficult read. It wasn’t that good of a book either. It’s just different. That’s why most people read it. If you think it’s difficult, maybe YOU should be the one reading Twilight.

      • Three things wrong with your comment: The list is difficult books, not difficult and good books. Whether or not the book is good is very subjective. And compared to some titles on this list, it is quite a challenging read in its own right, even if not in a “traditional sense”, whatever that means.

      • Wow, what a toxic comments section. If you disagree, try explaining instead of insulting. What about that novel makes it so clearly idiotic to suggest for this list?

    • I hope you’re joking. I’m a big fan of House of Leaves but it isn’t even close to being as complex as the work of someone like Joyce. It’s comparatively a very accessible book for most modern readers, just very stylish and flashy.

    • My thoughts exactly. Took over a year of giving up and starting again on that title.

    • HoL is one of my favorite novels, but it is not a work of philosophical weight.

      To compare the pulp nature of the book to anything in this list is absurd, and does neither HoL nor philosophy itself any benefit.

  2. I would not characterize Atlas Shrugged as difficult to read. It’s big, yes but the prose is simple enough and the themes are as obvious as it gets. She might as well smack you in the face with them from the first chapter.

  3. Why is Atlas Shrugged on this list? The book is hardly difficult, just long and poorly written.

    • Nah, just long. It’s first chapters are pretty tough to get into because there’s a lot to introduce and you aren’t invested in the story at that point, but once it kicks off the book is pretty gripping. After the first few chapters I’d be knocking out 50-75 pages a day without even trying.

    • I would agree with this, any Pynchon but specifically Gravity’s Rainbow

      • Yes, definitely Gass’ The Tunnel, which reputedly took him about 30 years to write. It’s a meandering character study that, like the title subject, ends where it begins after 652 pages of philosophical rambling, dark jokes, exquisite absurdities and (dare I say it) gaseous wordplay.

  4. If you found Atlas Shrugged hard to read, I doubt you ever finished Finnegan’s wake.

  5. It’s been said here already, but Atlas Shrugged is no where close to a difficult read. And how did any list of difficult works skip Ulysses?

    • YES. I’ve studied computer science and music and still have a hard time with that book.

    • I was sure Godel, Escher, Bach would show here at some point. A classic.

    • Glad I’m not the only one. Perhaps I’m not much for magical realism.

  6. How about Infinite Jest? Just as long as some of these with entire passages written in pseudo-slang nonsense.

    Also Tolstoy is long, but it’s not considered difficult by Russians. He mostly wrote to entertain. Not that I’ve read it.

    • An excerpt of Finnegans Wake for you. It breaks souls.

      “While that Mooksius with preprocession and with proprecession, duplicitly and diplussedly, was promulgating ipsofacts
      and sadcontras this raskolly Gripos he had allbust seceded inmonophysicking his illsobordunates. But asawfulas he had
      caught his base semenoyous sarchnaktiers to combuccinate upon the silipses of his aspillouts and the acheporeoozers of his haggy-own pneumax to synerethetise with the breadchestviousness of his sweeatovular ducose sofarfully the loggerthuds of his sakellaries were fond at variance with the synodals of his somepooliom and his babskissed nepogreasymost got the hoof from his philioquus.”

      IJ is a breeze in comparison.

  7. I read both Atlas Shrugged and War and Peace, and was impressed with both in that I felt I gained a better understanding of people and their behaviors. I did try to read all of the others, but was not then, nor now, impressed with the use of words to confuse rather than to clarify issues or ideas.

    • “…was not then, nor now, impressed with the use of words to confuse rather than to clarify issues or ideas.”

      Brilliant!

      This concept can also be applied to a lot of 20th Century art – including classical music and “Modern Art”. A lot of it is just junk, but because it is confusing and poorly done, the “elites” define it as genius to hide their own ignorance.

      • Friedrich Nietzsche said it perfectly: “They muddy the water, to make it seem deep.”

  8. Works in translation shouldn’t count, unless the original text is considered difficult. Perhaps Heidegger is easier to read for a native German

    • Nope, tough read in German, too. It’s like: I know those words but what is he saying?

    • An old joke among Heidegger scholars about translations of Being and Time: A German professor of philosophy overhears two American scholars debating the merits of different editions of the English version. He walks up and quips, “You English speakers are so lucky that you have people willing to translate Heidegger for you into your own language. No one has yet bothered to translate him into German!”

  9. Came here to find Robert M Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Left disappointed.

    • Having the mind of an engineer helps when reading Zen, I really liked it and thought it made sense. However, many people I know who organize their thoughts differently have responded that it was hard for them to understand.

  10. Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. I enjoyed it like I enjoy a walk through untrodden forest pathways. Yeah, you can do it and in the end it can be rewarding, but holy heck is it hard work to finish!

  11. Infinite Jest is one that has to be included. Any Rand book is easily read and understood by a teenager, it was her target audience 🙂

    I don’t agree with the inclusion of Kant or Heidegger being part of the list, neither are novels, as the rest were and are fairly easy to understand and read if you studied Philosophy at University since both are basic texts.

  12. I think it’s a bit unfair to allow philosophical work in this list – slippery slope, indeed. Proclus’ Elements of Theology was harder than Kant’s Critique, for me at least, though without a doubt many haven’t come across that particular text. Wittgenstein can be tough to crack, though more contemporary than Kant and Proclus. I’m sure some of the Russian literature could make a case, too. Naked Lunch was difficult to swallow.

    ‘Shrug’ at the thought Ayn Rand is included, though a lot of the others are great examples. I haven’t much interest in Game of Thrones, but I hear the complexity is difficult to keep up with, or so say my mum.

  13. I might also point out the absurdism piece The Rebel by Albert Camus as a difficult, yet rewarding read. (Particularly if you find existentialism interesting on a philisophical or personal level).

  14. you aren’t kidding about war and peace. I TRIED, SO HARD to do this book. It is simply awful. 1,000 pages and 500 characters. I made it about 300 pages in and just had to give up. Even Cliff’s notes didn’t help me keep is straight.

    • I have got to be nuts. Read it for the second time about a year ago, because I had just bought an electronic reader.

  15. Nothing by Faulkner? “The Sound and the Fury” is just a walk in the park?

  16. Describing Finnegans Wake as….
    “Hard in the way that comprehending the entirety of the universe is, and you are more likely to do that than to get through the labyrinth that this book represents.”
    …misses the point that reading Finnegans Wake isn’t about uncovering the true idea of what Joyce intended. Its not about comprehending everything. Rather, its about joyously losing yourself in whatever psychedelic interpretation and imagery your mind conjures up for you, even if its just from the basic level of the sounds and rhythms of the words. There really isn’t anyway to incorrectly interpret it, just maybe interpretations that are closer to Joyce’s.
    That’s why its so good, it refuses to acknowledge even a basic desire for finding a singularly correct interpretation.
    And the fact that so many of us (including myself before I read it) interpret the above statement to mean Finnegans Wake is meaningless is an indicator that the lesson of this book has still yet to be learned!

  17. Infinite Jest! On the opposite end, just finished Sundown In Odessa, good junk food.

  18. Seriously? You’re putting Ayn Rand in the same category as these other writers?

  19. Dude its like totally subjective bro, like get over yourselves i’m super serious, the sound and the fury is like way totally harder to read then any of these liberal, elitist pop novels.

  20. Metaphysics by Aristotle is one hell of a read that I have yet to finish to this day!

  21. How about Nabokov’s Pale Fire? That book was so difficult to get through!

  22. I’ve read a few on that list and disagree. I would instead add Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

  23. Richard Powers’ books anyone? Love them all, but especially the Gold Bug Variations.

  24. ”In Search of Lost Time’ definitely belongs here. Even the unabridged version of ‘Les Miserables’ is a challenging, yet emotionally profound read.

  25. Great and interesting list! I would add ancient Greeks like Plato and Aristotle.

  26. Dunnett. Dorothy Dunnett. Particularly the Lymond chronicles.

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