50 Tough Books for Extreme Readers

Why read a ‘difficult’ book?
Emily Temple (Flavorwire) has compiled a list of ’50 Incredibly Tough Books for Extreme Readers’. Their toughness varies from the sheer bulk of the volume (eg. Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Stein’s The Making of Americans), to their stylistic virtuosity (Finnegans Wake, anyone?). But despite their daunting reputations, there can be something special about reading a ‘difficult’ book.

Alexander Deineka, 'Young Woman Reading' (1934)
Alexander Deineka, ‘Young Woman Reading’ (1934)

Such novels can prompt a unique kind of reader interaction, making us rethink the way we look at the world around us. These are often the sort of books that aim to elevate the everyday, or shed light on issues that society tends to overlook. What we find ‘tough’ or ‘challenging’ is often simply unfamiliar, or different to what we might usually expect. What turns our noses to the air in a modernist novel is often its attempt to capture life as it really is: a character speaking in a local dialect, or the disjointed structure of a daydream. In these and other cases, what is difficult is not the book itself, but our decision as readers to go with it.

There are books that we consume, and sometimes there are books that consume us – novels, poems and plays which perpetually pull us back to them. As the filmmaker David Cronenberg once said of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, ‘You find your favorite parts, like the I Ching. You look in it when you need it, and you find something there.’ Temple has charted a wonderful selection of just this kind of book.

Here are just a few of them…

Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
J R, William Gaddis
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
To The Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
2666, Roberto Bolaño
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Underworld, Don DeLillo
The Unfortunates, B.S. Johnson
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, Lydia Davis
The Tunnel, William Gass
Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
The Castle, Franz Kafka
The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

[Read the Full List]



  1. The only book I actually failed to read was Thomas Mann’s tetralogy ‘Joseph and his Brothers’. However, my husband says that after the first 50 pages it gets easier and then becomes utterly magnificent. I just couldn’t hack the first 50 pages! A project for retirement, perhaps.

    Liked by 1 person

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