We all have one: that book — classic or otherwise — that just defeated us. No matter how determined we may have been to struggle through that 1,000-page tome rife with philosophical arguments, the science of tennis, or that stream-of-consciousness exercise in frustration, we finally gave up. Maybe we allowed some famously dense novel to intimidate us enough to avoid even cracking the cover. If you have that book sitting on your shelf, causing you guilt every time you spot it, consider giving it another shot, and then relapsing to a detective novel. Maybe this stay-at-home weather marks the perfect time to dust off your literary Waterloo and get reading.
The Times asked some local writers for their choice of their most challenging book.
Geraldine Brooks: “Moby-Dick”
I can relate to Ahab. I too have been undone by the great white whale. I’ve tried “Moby-Dick” several times. Once as an Australian undergrad who felt she must, absolutely must, read this Great American Novel. Couldn’t get past Chapter 3. I tried again after devouring “Ahab’s Wife,” Sena Jeter Naslund’s clever reverse-viewpoint novel told by the young bride so briefly mentioned by Melville. No dice. Then I moved to the Vineyard. Between the Whaling Church and the harpooner Tashtego, the Gay Header, I felt new motivation. Wasn’t enough. It was easier to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s clever essay “Why Read Moby-Dick” than to actually read “Moby-Dick.”
Richard North Patterson: “The Da Vinci Code”
A book I tried to read twice was “The Da Vinci Code.” I couldn’t get past about 10 pages. Not because I couldn’t penetrate it, but because the writing was so completely dreadful it made my teeth ache. If the writing is truly lacking in quality, I just can’t go on. I’d rather try to penetrate something thorny than something truly bad.
Jenny Allen: “The Snow Leopard”
I’ve never been able to finish “The Snow Leopard” by Peter Matthiessen. I have been reading “The Snow Leopard” for seven years. Once or twice a year I dust it off and pick up where I left off, hoping that soon the snow leopard will appear. But the snow leopard never appears — just more hiking, more camping, more ruminating — beautifully written, but endless, or so it seems to me. One day, when I am very old probably, I will finish the book. If you’ve read the whole book, please don’t tell me how it ends. But there better be a snow leopard in there somewhere.
Nancy Aronie: “The Goldfinch”
In the beginning, I kept reading stuff to Joel (my mate), saying, “Oh my God, listen to this! Totally brilliant!” Then I’d read some more and say, “Oh my God, listen to this … she’s amazing!” and then she pushed me too far. When the kid comes back to New York freezing and starving and he doesn’t call the rich people he knows will take him, I said, “Nope, I’m done.” And the worst thing was that I was on a waiting list at the West Concord library. They said they had 317 people ahead of me, so I bought the )^(*))& book for $29. I marched up to my precious Chilmark library and said, “Here, I’m donating this book: ‘Goldfinch.’ Read at your own emotional risk!”
Tony Horwitz: The Bible
I confess: It’s the Bible. I’ve browsed the first five books of Moses during Torah readings at temple, and scanned the New Testament during church visits. I know a lot of the characters and plot. But as many times as I’ve plucked a Gideon’s from the drawer of a motel room, I just can’t get through it. A big hole in my reading, I know, and I’m determined to fill it one of these … years.
Holly Nadler: “Gravity’s Rainbow”
The toughest book I’ve ever been able to not read was “Gravity’s Rainbow” by Thomas Pynchon. My literary paralysis was particularly galling because a copy had been given me by a guy I was dating who shared my high-lit interests, and whom I hoped to impress. But the world’s biggest crush isn’t going to make the pages of a big cinderblock of a novel easier to turn. The relationship lasted maybe another week. Long enough for him to realize I was a lighter weight of an English major than he had hitherfore believed.
Kate Feiffer: “A Hot Property”
While there are a great number of books that have defeated me for fear of trying — “Ulysses,” “The Red and the Black,” “The Brothers Karamazov” to name a few — the book that continues to defeat me is a sliver of a book, a raunchy romp titled “A Hot Property.” The book was written by my mother, Judy Feiffer, and was published in 1973. I was 9 years old. Two years earlier, the film “Carnal Knowledge,” which was written by my father, was released to widespread shock and acclaim. It took me until college to watch “Carnal Knowledge.” I still have not gotten through “A Hot Property.” However, after being asked this question, I Googled the book and found this review: “No doubt some people will find that Ms. Feiffer has a dirty mouth while others will find it a bonne bouchee as she vamps the literary scene with urban chic as well as a kind of bouncy, naive canniness — and if it all works, surely a little carnal knowledge is not such a dangerous thing.” It sounds like my type of book. I think I’ll give it another try.
And most the popular literary Waterloo — the almost undecipherable “Ulysses,” by James Joyce. Three writers picked it, including Rose Styron, who actually finished it!
I remember “Ulysses” being the hardest to get through, but I persisted because I’m such a Joyce fan. I read at least the dozen “best” Russian novels avidly — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, but on reflection, am sorry and regret I never got to “Dead Souls” or “Oblomov” or “A Hero of Our Time,” writers Gogol, Goncharov, and Lermontov. Maybe it’s too late for me to fit them into my reading schedule. Of course, there’s still always time for poets like Pushkin and Mayakovsky, Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce, which I have only read excerpts of, including all the naughty bits, of course. However, my Irish husband and I were in Dublin this summer, and saw a one-man show that was a sort of “Shakespeare for the Masses Does Ulysses,” and I now feel prepared to get back in the ring with it.
I am mostly disappointed in my failure to have read it because Alan Sherman references it in his iconic song of adolescent angst and yearning, “Camp Granada,” a.k.a. “Hello Mudda, Hello Fadda.”
John Hough Jr.
“Ulysses” by James Joyce. Hemingway said he couldn’t understand it, and I couldn’t either. I quit after 100 pages. I’ve always thought this was James’ fault, not mine.
My literary Waterloo would probably be either “The Waves” by Virginia Woolf or “Ulysses” by James Joyce. I’ve been meaning to read both of them for ages, but I just haven’t gotten round to it yet, especially now that I have so much reading to do at university. “Ulysses” is especially daunting given its sheer length … but nothing an English student can’t handle, right?
Author’s note: I borrowed the idea (and the title) for this survey from the New York Public Library Facebook page, where “Ulysses” is also the chart topper. You can check there to see which other daunting reads made the list — “The Magic Mountain,” “Infinite Jest,” and “Don Quixote,” to name a few.
And here’s my own literary Waterloo: My freshman economics textbook. I don’t think I ever cracked it open, and that pretty much sums up my entire college career.