Let’s Talk Hard Books

godel escher bachI’m not talking about hard covers, but hard books, as in challenging, difficult, or books so jaw-droppingly bad that they cannot be gotten through, to put it poorly.

Not many of these made it into our book suggester conversation, besides Thomas Hardy, I think.

Not too long ago someone discarded a copy of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid under the bridge. It was not thick enough to use as a pillow, but it was big enough to make my forearms ache from holding it up to read by candlelight.

That book kicked my butt. I’m not mathy, and although I had read the Alice books enough times to know what he was referring to at times, I had to flip through the book and look for things that I could actually understand. If the book is a puzzle, as I’ve heard it described, I don’t have the picture on the box.

I’ve read Foucault’s Pendulum, Ulysses, and am one of the few people I know that actually got through Gravity’s Rainbow.

I have been thwarted more than once by Kant’s stupid (I lash out when I feel stupid) Critique of Pure Reason and I still can’t get through more than one page of Finnegan’s Wake.

So I put the question to you:

What are the hardest books you have got through, was it worth it, and which ones haven’t you been able to finish?

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5 thoughts on “Let’s Talk Hard Books

  1. Critique of Pure Reason
    not worth it
    sucked
    hated it

    If a sign of great intelligence is the ability to take vast difficult concepts and distill them into a tasty easily-understood bites, then Kant is the polar opposite- taking a simple, clear subject and obfuscating it into FUBAR-ity.
    It has been decades since I slogged through that pigsty of a book but I still get mad thinking about Kant.

    Now, if you want a real philosopher, Diogenes was the MAN.

    Best book- the Bible
    daunting size- supremely worth it.
    I was suprised when I read the things Jesus said- so different from what people said he was like. He would have put the smackdown on Kant for wasting people’s time.

  2. I am glad you accounted for both types of “hard.” Because there are books that are challenging, but good and worth the effort. And then there are books so concertedly difficult, so intentionally obscure, that they could not be more confusing if they tried. In fact, as you read, for at least as long as you can stand to, you become increasingly convinced that the author is doing just that. Trying to be difficult. Daring you to find meaning amidst the circuitous, pentasyllabic gobbledygook. Boo!

    The best “hard” book I made it through recently was David Foster Wallace’s “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.” It was good, really good. But he uses, for lack of a better term, “big words.” And it’s not just the words, but the writing. It is amazing and brilliant, but dense. And fresh. He does things with language I have never seen before. You can’t just plow through it, or take it lightly. Some sentences, even some parts of sentences, you have to read three, four, five times, then sit back, think about, and read again. And it’s not the subject matter. He writes about tennis, television, State fairs. You don’t get the feeling that he is trying to baffle or confuse. But he is, especially at his brightest moments, very nonchalant. Almost like he is dumbing it down for you, and could really blow your mind if he decided he wanted to. It took me a LONG time to finish, but I enjoyed the experience. Worth it.

    Bad experiences, there have been plenty. Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, for example, is downright unreadable (maybe I shouldn’t have attempted it in the original German).

    Kant, too, I have to agree with our friend Tim. Obfuscation? Guilty as charged.

    There is another category, perhaps a sub-category, that I seem to find myself in plenty: books-that-everyone-says-are-great-but-only-because-they-are-too-scared-to-admit-that-they-do-not-get-them-and-not-bright-enough-to-realize-they-are-“un-gettable”-and-should-be-ignored-in-their-entirety. I would add both Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina to this list. I have attempted that forced march a number of times, but to no avail.

    And I have never read beyond “[i]t was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. With a beginning like that, I figure it’s got to be all down hill from there.

    • Have you read Infinite Jest? If you can get into the wordplay, it’s like Wallace’s “Supposedly Fun Thing” times one order of magnitude. I loved that book as well. There are few things I enjoy more than someone with a brain as big as DFW talking about something like how divinely midwestern ladies can bake, the films of David Lynch, or how hard it was to find an American Flag to buy after 9/11.

      Consider The Lobster is my favorite book of essays that he has written.

      I’ve read Zarathustra a few times–meaning I’ve seen all the words. didn’t hate it, didn’t love it.

      War and Peace has kettlebells in it, so that is all you need to know to enjoy it.

      I loved Anna Karenina once I finally got through it on audio I’d been thwarted many times by the print copy, mainly because every time they mention someones’ name they mention it all. Stephan Ivan Drago Nago Akardyavich or whatever it was could appear three times in one paragraph.

      A Tale of Two Cities is awesome.

  3. Infinite Jest will be one of the next ten books I read.

    As will A Tale of Two Cities.

    But I’m not touching Grapes of Wrath, I don’t care what you say.

    And for some reason this whole discussion is reminding me of Death of a Salesman. Do you remember Death of a Salesman? There was a line from the movie that I can’t recall, but I used to shout it from the top of my lungs with great satisfaction. “A man is not a piece of fruit,” perhaps. I keep trying to find it, but I can’t. I keep coming up with “I’m the New England man. I’m vital in New England.” That wasn’t it, but I think Dustin Hoffman was perfectly cast in that role; can you picture anyone but him delivering that line?

    Have you read any Ayn Rand?

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