I’m not a fan of reading books for “bragging rights”. Making your way through “Infinite Jest” or “Finnegans Wake” just to say you did is silly. They don’t give out reading awards to people over the age of ten. You should be reading long or challenging books for the pleasure of reading them, not to seem cool. And reading DFW does the opposite of making you look cool.
So why read challenging books at all? Why not just read Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, YA, and John Grisham? They have easy words, easy plots, and are quick and easy to digest. But… that doesn’t sound fun to me. Or stimulating. Reading only easy books will make your mind complacent and lazy. The more “candy” you take in, the harder it will be to digest “real” material. So why not challenge yourself with a book which has difficult vocabulary or themes? How about picking a book with an uncomfortable or difficult subject matter? Maybe challenge yourself by reading a book where the author plays with form and style? If you have never asked these questions of yourself, then I’d bet you are not challenging yourself as a reader. If you don’t consider form and style when you choose a book, or you don’t think about complex themes… ask yourself why not? Reading isn’t always comfortable, nor should it be. Growth hurts. It can be painful. But challenging yourself is the only way to grow.
The following books demand something from the reader. Nothing will be spoon-fed. No silly plot twists just for the sake of it. What you will find are rich and complicated storylines, beautiful, strange, or ugly language, uncomfortable themes and characters. And hopefully some new favorite books!
*As always, my lists are made up of ONLY first-hand knowledge. That means, no books appear on this list which I haven’t read. Sorry!
- A Bloodsmoor Romance, by Joyce Carol Oates – This is the book the prompted this entire post. I have read MANY books by JCO. I adore her. I could put any of her books on this list because she is an incredible writer. But this book is different. Almost like she is showing off. JCO writes the entire book in a Gothic style, and Victorian language! At 700+ pages, it is taking me forever to read, but it is SO GOOD! It’s like… Stephen King writes Little Women. Kind of. It defies categorization (yay!) and tackles racism, feminism, the golden age of invention, cross-dressing, spiritualism and… hell… just read it. If you dare. It isn’t easy, but it sure is fun. I really want Guillermo Del Toro to read it and make a movie of it, if that helps.
- Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill – Tough girls. Tough streets. Drugs. Sex. Violence. The short story which inspired the lovely film, Secretary can be found in this slim volume of stories. Gaitskill is a master of gritty and uncomfortable, and her writing is subtle and dotted with humor. A character in the story “Connection” has this to say about careers. “I want to work at Dunkin’ Donuts when I get out of school. I want to get fat. Or be addicted to heroin. I want to be a disaster.” How can you not want to read that?
- Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron – This book wrecked me. For weeks after I couldn’t pick up another book. So painfully vivid and raw, I dare you to read it without crying.
- Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox – This novel, written in 1970, took me completely by surprise. The novel follows Sophie and Otto, early Gentrifiers of New York in the late 1960’s, long before the word was a word. They are a childless couple caught up in a changing world: Too old for the rebellion, and too young not to feel tormented by it. Otto dwells on images of filth and disease, seems to hate the young and is on the verge of rage. But it is really Sophie who pushes the novel forward in an uncomfortable progression of bad choices. A simple cat bite makes for a compelling story. Sophie and Otto would be amazed to see the world today! The prose is economical, short and worthy of Faulkner or Tolstoy. “He wasn’t a seducer. He was remote. He was like a man preceded into a room by acrobats.”
- Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad – The horror! The horror! Dense, and layered with symbolism, challenging vocabulary and extensive literary devices, this slim little book is not as easy as it looks. An unsettling look at imperialism and the horrific human consequences of such savagery.
- The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber – Mr. Faber doesn’t write the same book over and over again.He doesn’t even come close. All of his books are challenging, but The Book of Strange New Things is masterfully done. It’s a scifi book, but it is also very literary. Times reviewer Marcel Theroux calls it, “an imaginative visit to speculative realms that returns the reader more forcibly to the sad and beautiful facts of human existence.” There.
- A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess – This book has a glossary in the back even though it is written in “english”. The nasty lads in this novel have their own slang, and it takes a while to get used to it. It’s a rough and exhausting little novel, but well worth the read. I showered like.. twice after.
- Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke – This awesome book is a challenge on every level. The paperback weighs in at 1006 pages, and I’d say a hefty amount of those pages is dedicated to footnotes. This book is so much fun, but you have to put the work in. Magic has returned to London… or has it? The two magicians of the title are entwined in a battle for power (magical power!) and fairies and other magical beings are afoot.Clarke seamlessly blends fiction and reality to the point where you aren’t really sure if magic isn’t real.
- Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison – I like to be in a locked room with cushioned walls, and no distractions when I read Toni Morrison. She takes for granted that her readers are educated enough to understand the way she uses unconventional approaches to both plot and style. She mixes past and present in the form of different… persons. The narrator is present and an observer, but also able to see inside the characters. And, a cool bit of trivia about this book: The protagonist, Macon “Milkman” Dead III, was the inspiration for the band “The Dead Milkmen” to take their name. Toni Morrison thusly (partially) responsible for one of the greatest punk rock bands of all time.
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by Jon Le Carre – I still have no idea what happened in this book. I even watched the film and it just made me more confused. The book is about spies, right? And all spies have code names, right? Right. And each agency has it’s own code-names. And double agents have double, code-names. Even places have code-names. Anyway, I read it and it was really hard. Really hard. Like, don’t read it on a bus, hard. I’ve read a few of his other books and found them very enjoyable, so I gave this one a second chance. It’s well worth the read if you like intrigue, but keep a cheat sheet of code names handy. Seriously.