Publishers Weekly has an article about The Top 10 Most Difficult Books. It’s an odd list. Some books are difficult because they’re old (Tale of the Tub). Others are difficult because they’re long and old (Clarissa). Others are difficult because they’re philosophy (The Phenomenology of the Spirit). Why don’t we throw in some books about quantum mechanics while we’re at it? Finally, I just don’t get a couple of the choices. It’s been a long time since I read To the Lighthouse, but I don’t recall it being all that difficult. And The Faerie Queene is just boring.
I think you need to compare apples to apples. Why not simply limit the list to novels? For me, the most difficult I’ve read were Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses (and both repaid the effort). But I’ve never tried Finnegan’s Wake beyond short excerpts. I also found Mason & Dixon and Against the Day (both post-Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon) to be difficult, but they were also boring and I don’t think I tried very hard to understand them. (Were they difficult because they were boring, or boring because they were difficult?) The Sound and the Fury is difficult in its own way; Faulkner doesn’t make life easy for the reader.
The article mentions The Recognitions, which I think I tried once and gave up on. Joseph McElroy, whom the authors put on their list, has escaped my notice entirely. David Foster Wallace hasn’t escaped my notice, but I don’t think I have the energy to take onThe Infinite Jest. Haruki Murakami is difficult in a weird and entertaining way; I enjoyed 1Q84 and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, for example, but I’d be hard put to explain what the heck Murakami was up to in either of those novels.
Very few “difficult” books made that top 100 list I wrote about. If part of what you’re trying to do is getting people to read great books, you’re probably going to be more successful suggesting Fitzgerald and Hemingway than Pynchon and Gaddis. The top 100 list reminded me of a lot of novels that ought to be on my personal to-read list; I’m not adding anything from the PW list.