World’s Most Difficult Reads

Square Peg, Round Hole?

Square Peg, Round Hole?

How better to begin the new year than with a challenge. As Randy Pausch wrote in the Last Lecture: “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.” And so we will greet 2013 with an offering of some of the literary world’s most challenging reads. The list has been compiled using personal experience and by collating various similar internet lists (viz. Ranker; !ndigo;  Amazon; The Millions; Listserve). The top five most difficult (but also phenomenally interesting) books which we might use as a literary challenge for 2013 are:

5. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot
T.S. Eliot often said that without his editor, Ezra Pound (a fine translator himself), The Waste Land would be a profoundly different work. Perhaps something to consider… The Waste Land references, to name a few, Homer, Sophocles, Petronius, Virgil, Ovid, Saint Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Chaucer, Thomas Middleton, Joseph Conrad, John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley and even Bram Stoker. Perfect for those long winter evenings…

4. Foucault’s Pendulum – Umberto Eco
By many critics regarded as Eco’s finest work, by others the most confounding and complicated of his books, Foucault’s Pendulum is a mystery wrapped in a riddle and clothed in obscure language and grandiose linguistic gymnastics. Foucault’s Pendulum also uses the trick oft-used in ‘difficult’ books by referring to and cross-referencing other works and languages. This really is Eco at his very esoteric best. A wonderful book for linguists and a monumental challenge for translators.

3. Moby-Dick – Herman Melville
“Call me Ishmael,” begins Melville in Moby Dick and so begins the world’s greatest (epic) cetacean adventure. Moby-Dick combines Biblical symbolism (Elijah, Ahab, Ishmael to name a few), Shakespearean literary devices and a wide gamut of metaphor. Depending on the edition, Moby-Dick oscillates between 500 and 600 pages long. What is more, it is one of those books that needs to be re-read. Brace yourselves! Moby-Dick is a real challenge for even the most patient readers but what a challenge!

2. The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
Referred to as a “librarian with Alzheimer’s reading Tennessee Williams” (Xilebat). Layers and layers of confusion exacerbated by the fact that the book is written from the perspective of a variety of confused characters and utilising a variety of styles. Faulkner dips his fingers into stream of consciousness which the ‘master of confusion’, James Joyce, so adeptly put to use in his works before him (see no.1). The Sound and the Fury was an attempt by Faulkner to delve into the human mind. It helped him win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1949, a year after T.S. Eliot.

1. Finnegans Wake – James Joyce
The pinnacle of linguistic aestheticism. Finnegans Wake nearly always finds its way on to lists of most ‘difficult’ or ‘confusing’ works. Joyce’s avant-garde comedic opus took him seventeen years to write and probably takes his readers just as long to labour through. Finnegans Wake cannot be ‘read’ in the normal sense, Finnegans Wake has to be felt, absorbed and… endured. This work is rife with neologisms and riddled with language that is sometimes intelligible to all but Joyce. It is the ultimate translator’s nightmare and probably the greatest literary challenge in English (if we can call it ‘English’)…

11 Responses to “World’s Most Difficult Reads”

  1. Darth Sida Says:

    Finnegans, not Finnegan’s. Finnegan’s Wake is easy (to sing).

  2. transubstantiation Says:

    Darth,
    You are quite right, of course. Thank you.

  3. Luis Romero Verdejo Says:

    I have read Foucault’s Pendulum and I have loved every word of it (I’ve read the French translation). Moby Dick was one of my prefered books in my adolescent years (I think I’ve read it 2 or 3 times). I’ve tried reading Finnegan’s Wake and I disliked it – couldn’t make it through the first 10% !!! But then, I don’t like James Joyce. The other books mentiones, I didn’t read. I found nothing difficult in them.

  4. World’s Most Difficult Reads | Metaglossia Says:

    [...] See on transubstantiation.wordpress.com [...]

  5. Kasia Mazurkiewicz Says:

    I’ve heard a lot about those books you mentioned, although didn’t have a chance to read them. I’m trying to improve my skills in transalting so I definitely have to look for them, I love your article, take care xoxo

  6. Małgorzata Says:

    It is interesting that despite enormous language knowledge that translators have, there are still so many lilerary challenges for them. It makes their work more interesting and let them develope their language skills and translating abilities all the time. Fascinating!

  7. Paweł H-J Says:

    The honest truth. A few years ago I was familiarizing with Moby-Dick and I quickly discovered that it’s not easy book to read. First of all the language that is full of complex metaphors, but also various symbolisms and ambiguities that makes the reader confused among presented themes.

  8. Beth Says:

    Moby-Dick was a favorite of mine during my college years. I agree, it was difficult at first.

  9. Ptro Says:

    Moby Dick was also my favourite book on literature classes. Wasteland in my opinion was the most difficult book to read in case of language


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