50 Tough Books for Extreme Readers

Why read a 'difficult' book?
Alexander Deineka, 'Young Woman Reading' (1934)
Emily Temple (Flavorwire) has compiled a list of '50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers'. Their toughness varies from the sheer bulk of the volume (eg. Tolstoy's War and Peace and Stein's The Making of Americans), to their stylistic virtuosity (Finnegans Wake, anyone?). But despite their daunting reputations, there can be something special about reading a 'difficult' book.

Such novels can prompt a unique kind of reader interaction, making us rethink the way we look at the world around us. These are often the sort of books that aim to elevate the everyday, or shed light on issues that society tends to overlook. What we find 'tough' or 'challenging' is often simply unfamiliar, or different to what we might usually expect. What turns our noses to the air in a modernist novel is often its attempt to capture life as it really is: a character speaking in a local dialect, or the disjointed structure of a daydream. In these and other cases, what is difficult is not the book itself, but our decision as readers to go with it.

There are books that we consume, and sometimes there are books that consume us - novels, poems and plays which perpetually pull us back to them. As the filmmaker David Cronenberg once said of Burroughs' Naked Lunch, 'You find your favorite parts, like the I Ching. You look in it when you need it, and you find something there.' Temple has charted a wonderful selection of just this kind of book. Here are just a few of them:

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes (Amazon: US | UK)
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (Amazon: US | UK)
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville (Amazon: US | UK)
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (Amazon: US | UK)
J R, William Gaddis (Amazon: US | UK)
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce (Amazon: US | UK)
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (Amazon: US | UK)
In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust (Amazon: US | UK)
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs (Amazon: US | UK)
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (Amazon: US | UK)
The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein (Amazon: US | UK)
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (Amazon: US | UK)
2666, Roberto Bolaño (Amazon: US | UK)
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy (Amazon: US | UK)
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon (Amazon: US | UK)
Underworld, Don DeLillo (Amazon: US | UK)
The Unfortunates, B.S. Johnson (Amazon: US | UK)
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis (Amazon: US | UK)
The Tunnel, William Gass (Amazon: US | UK)
Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (Amazon: US | UK)
The Castle, Franz Kafka (Amazon: US | UK)
The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Amazon: US | UK)

[Read the Full List]

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