World Book Night USA shared a link to “The 25 Most Challenging Books You Will Ever Read”, a list of books that many have found so incomprehensible – so full of narrator jumps, stream-of-consciousness writing, seven generations’ worth of characters, existentialism, heavy, repetitive prose, and lengthy descriptions of fictional universes – that most readers quit before they make it more than a few pages in.
Can anyone honestly say that there isn’t a book out there that felled you? A book (or in my case, several) that made you throw up your hands and tear out your hair? A book that left you so clueless that you wondered why it was ever printed? To add insult to injury, is it a book that some people can’t stop talking about? A book that some people claimed “changed my life”? To continue the spirit of WBN’s link, I posted a few of my own examples below. Books that are frankly beyond me, books that I tried hard to like but didn’t. Books that are obviously over my head!
Here’s the first: James Fenimore Cooper’s classic “Last of the Mohicans”. I traveled to the area of upstate New York where much of this book takes place and after seeing Daniel Day-Lewis’ movie rendition (the book is always better than the movie, right?), I tore into it. The problem was….I couldn’t overcome the heavy, overdone language, so flowery, so redundant. The prose was so distracting, I couldn’t have described the plot if my life depended on it. After struggling through the first two chapters, I had to admit it. I’d be sticking with the move on this one.
Here’s the second, and this one has the distinction of making WBN’s “25 Most Challenging”. I was forced to read this book in high school. The book begins “It goes up, it goes down. It goes up, it goes down,” and you are supposed to get from that that the mentally-challenged narrator is riding on a swing. If you understood that without the Cliff’s Notes or without the teacher filling you in, I’ll give you a medal. Quentin jumps all over the place, particularly within the same sentence. If there is someone out there that got through this whole book and got something from it, you are a better person than I.
And here’s the last – or at least the last I’ll own up to today. Reading this book – again, in high school – was a bondage in and of itself. What I remember most about this book was Philip’s self-destructive obsession with a woman who seemed to enjoy nothing more than crunching him under her boot heel which she did again, and again, and again…. After the first several encounters, you wonder why Philip takes such wrenching pain from a woman he supposedly loves and then keeps coming back for more.
So the next time you hear someone waxing poetic about a classic work of fiction that absolutely changed their life, while you were hardly able to get through more than a chapter, confess and make up your own list of literary nemeses – it’s therapeutic. Which books do you love to hate? Which ones were far more torturous than transformational to you?