The Ultimate Reading Challenge

Diana Ross once told me (well, not directly to my face, you understand) that “there ain’t no mountain high enough.” She further mentioned a valley that wasn’t low enough or a river that wasn’t wide enough. She was able to overcome such trivial geographical obstacles. Alas, she was incorrect.

In a lifetime of reading, I have come to accept that there are some books that are simply too much for me. There are not many, mind you, but they are out there, taunting me. I offer you this short list of what I considered unreadable books.

Now, as you might expect, I conducted the usual Internet search for “unreadable classics” before I made this list. Like Miss Ross, these lists are also incorrect, at least mostly incorrect. I’ve climbed a high percentage of these so-called unreadable literary mountains. Here I give you five that have defeated me, all but one of them on multiple occasions. Consider the list an ultimate reading challenge. If you can manage to complete even one of them, you’re a more dedicated reader than I am.

  1. The newest item on the list, indeed the immediate inspiration for it, is called Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. It sits on our shelves at Dillsburg Area Public Library. This 1000 page monster (All these hard books tend to be long, but length is not all that important when considering overall difficulty.) received nigh euphoric praise from numerous critics. But get this: the 1000 pages are presented in a single sentence. Worse, it is an angry sentence, a rant to end all rants. Even worse, it is annoyingly repetitive using one particular phrase over and over again. All in all, I found my attempt at reading it akin to sitting through a rambling lecture from an extremely upset Significant Other. I lacked both the patience and the emotional strength to tolerate so much as a tenth of the book.
  2. There is one book on this list that I genuinely like but still can’t manage to finish: The Recognitions by William Gaddis. This book has everything, loaded with smart interesting characters doing smart and interesting things. All these characters are book lovers and so the author is also giving us a reading list, a plus for this avid reader. Alas, I have made a minimum of three attempts on it and have never managed to get more than halfway. Twice, as though my efforts were cursed, the book was lost, left on a bus one time and lost in a fire another time. The third effort was abandoned based on nothing more than exhaustion. The problem, I’ve come to understand, is that the book does indeed have everything, like an encyclopedia with a plot. It is too much of a good thing.
  3. I’ve read several books by the notoriously difficult Thomas Pynchon, but I’ve never finished Gravity’s Rainbow. The biggest challenge is that the book has too many characters, about 400. There is no keeping track of the comings and goings. The plot, such as it is, involves the V-2 rockets of World War Two. However, the expected drama of war takes a backseat to Pynchon’s prose which is hard to grasp under the best of conditions. With 400 characters, this is not the best of conditions.
  4. I doubt that anyone has ever read, cover-to-cover, Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. You will see the author’s Ulysses on lists of unreadable books, but Finnegan’s Wake is the prize winner by a long shot. I often think Joyce is playing a joke on us with this novel. He blends several languages and often seems to be making up a new language. It is so deeply incomprehensible that I cannot describe it here. Instead, I invite you to select any page at random and dive in. If you can work your way through so much as five pages with any level of understanding, then I tip my hat to you.
  5. John Gower is a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer. That is, he lived and worked in 14th-Century England. Chaucer gets studied all the time; even in high school you may have been assigned at least part of The Canterbury Tales. You may have even encountered him recently since The Canterbury Tales uses storytelling as a distraction from a pandemic. Gower, on the other hand, is almost completely unknown. Chaucer’s old-timey Middle English frequently gets modernized; to the best of my knowledge Gower has never been translated. Yet time and again I have taken a stab at his Confessio Amantis. Glutton for punishment, perhaps? Sure, but historically there was once a time when Gower, at least as much as Chaucer, was considered one of the founders of English literature, a veritable poetic giant. Well, what happened to his reputation? I don’t know. If the answer is to be found in this multivolume epic poem, I may never know.

These five mountains were very much high enough for me. I could not climb them, and at this point in my reading career I might not make another attempt. I offer them here if you want to try some truly difficult books.

Craig Magee