... And definitely will this year. As we enter a New Year and a time for resolution and commitment, we’re turning our attention to the stumbling blocks, the more awkward books that tend to thwart readers. We’ll look at 7 of the most beastly, examining what makes them so fiendish and yet, in spite of it all, so very worth persisting with.

Midway through 2014 mathematician Jordan Ellenberg compiled The Hawking Index, a system which uses data drawn from e-readers to provide an indication of how far into a book readers get before giving up. For example, the stats suggest that the typical reader of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch makes it an impressive 98.5% of the way through the novel.

You can scrap that hastily committed to gym membership – the sheer size of some of the entries on this list will provide enough of a weight session. And even the more slender entries will give your grey matter quite the literary spinning class.

So stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, and lend the eye a terrible aspect. Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

 

ULYSSES – JAMES JOYCE

Ulysses - James Joyce
In the spirit of full disclosure, a confession: I’ve attempted to read Ulysses so many times that I know the first line by heart. And though it is a good one, I’ve never made it beyond the first chapter.

Why it’s worth sticking with: Because (I’m reliably informed) Ulysses is the foundation of modern literature. Joyce takes the framework of Homer’s Odyssey and whittles it down into a day in the life of one man, showing how even the everyday can be epic. It’s tricky, inventive, and funny, and even though it’s massively influential, there’s never been anything else quite like it. Also, given the forensic detail of Dublin streets it provides, anyone who finishes it will essentially be a qualified tour guide. I’m going to read it this year myself. Promise.

 

INFINITE JEST – DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
With well over 1,000 pages (plus hundreds of footnotes) it’s no surprise that when taking on Infinite Jest many readers find their patience really rather finite. Equal parts demanding, hilarious, and heartbreaking, it’s also impossible to synopsize – Hollywood, addiction, tennis, and Quebec separatism are just some of the recurring the themes.

Why it’s worth sticking with: A huge proportion of those that finish Infinite Jest consider it the best book ever. In the same way that all roads proceed via Ulysses, more or less anything written by twenty-somethings over the past decade bears Infinite Jest’s thumbprint. Before reading the offshoots, it’s worth checking out the source. Read a page a day and you’ll be finished in no time! (Well, 3 years.)

 

A BRIEF HISTORY OF TIME – STEPHEN HAWKING

A Brief History of Time - Stephen Hawking

Having sold ten million copies during its twenty years in print, there’s a decent chance A Brief History of Time is both one of the most-owned and least-read books. The aforementioned Hawking Index draws its name from the author, as stats suggest that readers make it less than 7% of the way through the book’s 256 pages. The Hawking Index is, unlike its namesake, patently unscientific (having read 15% of War and Peace is, after all, a much more impressive a feat than having thrown in the towel after 15% of The Very Hungry Caterpillar), but for the average reader to stop at page 18 is testament to the challenge the book poses.

In 2005 Hawking attempted to address the problem by publishing an amended, simplified version, A Briefer History of Time, although stats suggest that this new edition has proved just as daunting. Which raises the question of how brief a history of time must be before people consistently manage to read it. After all, A Brief History of Time is as clear as a book on quantum physics can be, and it is certainly worthy of a read. Failing that, you could hang on for 2023’s 17 page Seriously Guys This Is Absolutely As Brief A History of Time That We Can Manage.

Why it’s worth sticking with: It will make you feel small and dizzy and amazed.

 

THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV – FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY

The Brothers Karamazov - Fydor Dostoevsky
The Brothers Karamazov belongs firmly to the category of novel that Henry James christened ‘the loose baggy monster’. Nineteenth century efforts, generally Russian; vast in scope and ambition, and stuffed with characters who hold forth on history, philosophy, politics, and theology, often over vodka breakfasts.  

Why it’s worth sticking with: Written during an incredibly productive period in Dostoevsky’s life, The Brothers Karamazov represents something of a greatest hits package, a writer at the peak of his creative powers. Also, buried beneath the feverish discussions of life, the universe, and everything, lurks a thrilling murder mystery.

 

MIDDLEMARCH – GEORGE ELIOT

Middlenarch - George Eliot

The bête noire of English undergraduates the land over, Eliot’s classic is an account of the fictional town of Middlemarch, a microcosm through which she discusses hugely important issues like class, gender, science, and religion. As such the ‘boring’ label was sadly inevitable.

Why it’s worth sticking with: The scope and depth of Eliot’s masterwork means it can feel like a trudge at times, but it also makes the trudge a rewarding one. It’s hard to imagine finishing Middlemarch without being a more socially aware person in the process.

Virginia Woolf, Martin Amis, and Emily Dickinson are just a few of the names who consider Middlemarch the best ever. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t dare argue with any of them.

 

ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE – GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Marquez’s generation-spanning saga of the Buendía family is indubitably hard work. As the years pass in Macondo the characters just keep on stacking up, forming a confusing pile of names that even JRR Tolkien would probably have thought a bit much. In the same way that a Nadsat glossary can help while reading A Clockwork Orange, a family tree comes in useful with this book. The literary critic Howard Bloom described the impression it leaves as ‘a kind of aesthetic battle fatigue, since every page is rammed full of life beyond the capacity of any single reader to absorb,’ and though intended as a compliment of sorts, this also serves as a great diagnosis of the book’s difficulty.

Why it’s worth sticking with: Even if you can’t remember the names of the characters, this book is home to some of the most memorable, breathtakingly magical scenes in the history of literature.

 

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW – THOMAS PYNCHON

Gravity's Rainbow - Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow, like any Pynchon novel, captures all the anarchy of the twenty first century, defying reason, categorisation, sense, structure, and taste, all on comfortably more than one occasion over the course of its hefty page count. Not necessarily one for after a hard day at the office. Its hundreds and hundreds of characters makes One Hundred Years of Solitude look as readily comprehensible as an episode of Pingu in comparison.

Why it’s worth sticking with: One wouldn’t expect a novel that depicts all the horror and chaos of the modern world to be a pun-filled screwball caper, but Gravity’s Rainbow is precisely that. Incredibly rich and rewarding, it shows Pynchon for the maestro he is. On the off chance it helps (and it probably won’t) artist Zak Smith has published a book containing a pictorial representation of what happens on each of Gravity’s Rainbow’s 700 pages.

Read more articles by Kevin Daniels here

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