Just can’t finish…

Ulysses by James JoyceI’ve read books.  Let’s say hundreds.  Maybe more. (That’s not to brag, the point is coming.)  Rather than focus on the wonderful books that I’ve read and the vast amounts of information, learning and pleasure that I’ve derived from this pastime, I spend an inordinate amount of time dwelling on the less than 1% of the books that I haven’t finished.  The incomplete.  My inability to finish.

Resting firmly on top of this list is Ulysses by James Joyce.  That’s the cover on the right.  The book, the same hideous cover, has been sitting next to my desk for eight years.  It stares me down.  It torments me.  Here come the low guttural whispers:  Quitter.  Not capable.  Not good enough.  Over your head.  Farm boy.  Loser!  Public school project.

I happened to come across a recent article in Publishers Weekly titled “The Top 10 Most Difficult Books” and the festering sore opens wide again.

“…The “Difficult Books” series is devoted to identifying the hardest and most frustrating books ever written, as well as what made them so hard and frustrating…If you can somehow read all 10, you probably ascend to the being immediately above Homo sapiens…”

Here we go.  Intelligentsia slapping me around again.  You want to hit nerve – – hit me here.  Hit me.  Neanderthal man immediately surfaces.

So, I immediately surf Google (the paragon of all knowledge and things) and search for “Most Difficult Books.”  And bang – – up comes Good Reads list of the Most Difficult Novels as rated by readers who finished the books and deemed them as the “Novels that made you work the hardest.”  And voila…lookie, lookie at what was #1 on the list.  Now let’s set aside the sample size and the minor fact that I didn’t finish Ulysses.  (I’m begging you not to ask me how many pages I read before setting it down.  And I’m begging you not to ask me how many times I picked it up, only to set it down again.  And again.  And again.)

So, for a moment, I took some comfort that I wasn’t alone.   Of course, I couldn’t leave it there.  No sir.  I took a gander at the top 100 Most Difficult Books and how I fared.  The good news is that I somehow managed to avoid 90% of the Most Difficult Books to read.  The bad news is that of the 10% that I did read, 50% went unfinished.   And then I paused and asked myself…Self:  Why is it good news that you are avoiding 90% of the classics?  Avoiding what’s difficult – that’s why.  THAT’S SIMPLY UNACCEPTABLE.   So, it’s back to getting after this or it’s off to therapy.  Mimi/Kristin, where are you when I need you?


  1. great post David; it really speaks to both me and my bookshelf!

    i just couldn’t resist going and looking at these lists and grinned at seeing some favourite hates featured there and was equally surprised at other titles that i enjoyed and didn’t think of as difficult at all.

    maybe we could simply do the mature thing and give these mocking tomes away at the next charity fair? in addition to getting these monkeys off our backs we would open up bookspace for new colourful and interesting (and easy) stories to occupy 😉


  2. I have to say that I don’t feel the least bit bad about not reading the so called “great” books or “difficult” books that are supposed to make you feel/be more intellectual. Like most things, reading is a personal choice. Kudos should go to those who read, not to what they read.


  3. It looks to me as if Darlene means that the important thing is that people read – not what they read. So we should read what we enjoy reading. Seems to me you’ve done that.


  4. David,

    I also wouldn’t feel bad at all about not finishing this book. I think people should do what inspires them in life to the best of their ability. Therefore, if a book doesn’t inspire somebody enough to read it (and it’s not required for a class, work, etc.!), then I don’t see why the person should read it.

    If it were me, I’d take the book to a used book store and trade it for credit or cash. Then, somebody who is inspired to read the book might buy it. And maybe you can buy a book you really want to read with the store credit or cash.

    I imagine this would also remove the negative energy from your life that comes from looking at the book and not feeling good because you haven’t read it.

    Also, sometimes I wonder how some books and movies become labeled as “classics.” Perhaps individuals should just determine what the “classics” are for themselves.

    Just my two cents.


    • Hi Greg. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have thought of donating the book to charity so at least some good will come from these mental gymnastics. My heart says your recommendations are squarely on point. My head hasn’t arrived their yet. Thanks again for dropping by.


  5. LaDona's Music Studio says:

    When I turned 40 I had a mid-life crisis and stressed about all the books I hadn’t read yet. So I picked up The Brothers Karamazov and managed to SLOG through the entire thing. Satisfaction, knowledge gained, pleasure derived – minimal.
    Kudos for having read War and Peace! It’s been sitting on the shelf (not desk) for about 30 years and realistically, I’ll probably never read it.
    My current policy is to give a book 25-50 pages. This probably makes me shallower than I like to think I am.
    Great post, btw.


    • Smiling. Thanks LaDona. I have arrived at the 25-50 page standard (closer to 25 actually) so I feel like I’ve made progress. Yet, there is a exclusion to my protocol here – anything deemed to be a classic. (I didn’t say it was right or made sense – just sayin’ where my head is at)


  6. Len Waldron says:

    Ha! I had the same conversation with my brother the English major. He explained it to me this way: “Joyce is a lot like Bob Dylan, obscure and sometimes hard to understand but a genius who is most properly viewed by the impact he had on those that came after.” Hope that helps. If not, I failed to finish the book as well and also failed a second attempt at an audio book, an experience that I would liken to getting a tooth drilled.


  7. As an honorary farm boy and public (high school, undergrad, and MBA) school project, I resemble that remark. Seriously, I agree with LaDona. If the author can’t grab onto me in 50 pages, then I guess the book isn’t much of a classic. Reading these tomes falls in line with activities such as swimming with sharks, bungee jumping, and watching American Idol. Just because you can does not mean you should.


  8. Difficult books??? I thought you read for pleasure. Sorry to say I have not read one of these books, but I have read at least 50+ books this year. 🙂


    • Did I say that? OMG, I need to check my old posts. You have read 50+ books this year. That, now, is incredible. That’s a clip of almost 2 per week. We MUST hear more about this from you in an upcoming post.


  9. If it didn’t grab you then move on to more meaningful reads.:)
    It took me nearly a year to read Anna Karenina but I did it! I loved the book and its layered characters. I am a slow reader and tend to savor details. The reading was dense but I WANTED to finish it.
    Ulysses would take me at least 2 years, provided I found it engaging.;)


  10. Really Dave?! 1-800-HelpMe. It’s a lame book give it away.


  11. Hello Dave,
    Hmmm interesting! I appreciate your determination that at least you have *Tried* no matter how many times to finish this book. Point is you have with you one of the most difficult books of time and you have read it (again no of pages doesn’t make any difference) because if you don’t feel like to finish that book this means its still not the right time to finish it =)


  12. See? I let you down – late to the party and kicking myself for not being one of the first to respond…Let’s put the Iliad up there, and Canterbury Tales, I have slogged through books I have hated because I get so neurotic about not finishing something once I’ve started it. But – if I don’t like what I’m eating I don’t finish it. If I’m sitting in a really bad movie, I’ve walked out. God knows there are art exhibits that are so over my head I don’t understand what I’m looking at or why…And I don’t beat myself up over those occurrences. Reading is supposed to delight, amaze, intrigue, surprise, inform…I don’t think it’s intent is to bore. My grandmother used to say ‘an owl to one is a nightingale to another’. One can applaud Dostoevsky for his contribution to Russian literature without needing to slog through novels that are so heavy with drama and characters that a jog through mud would be easier. You’re no quitter David – by a long shot.


  13. I, too, am late to this party, but concur with others’ comments. I read for pleasure and edification–if a book’s not grabbing me after 50 pages or so, I’m movin’ on–time is too precious. I, too, used to feel guilty because I hadn’t read all the classics, but then I decided it was a matter of personal taste, so why beat myself up? Many of the movies that “the critics” laud leave me cold as well, and as Mimi said, why subject yourself to it? You should feel proud that you read, period, as so many don’t. As Oscar Wilde said, “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” 🙂


  14. Oh, yes, the “Ulysses” Syndrome. I tried this novel a long time ago and seem to remember the first few pages were about a man doing something gross by a wall. Am I remembering it right? It wasn’t that the long-winded account shocked me, but it was so boring, I might as well have walked into a wall of a literary kind, not worth climbing over.

    I found “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel hard work, but one-hundred percent worth the effort.

    My rule of thumb these days is that life is too short to burden oneself with reading something unengaging out of literary snobbery. If you’re genuinely getting something out of one of these so-called great novels, then read on, as you’re probably more intelligent than me and can understand what the writer is going on about.

    I’m not even going to admit what I’m reading just now. My daughter lent it to me and insisted. Worse still, I feel guilty at admitting that I find it compelling, though I do have certain qualms about it. I’m reading another novel at the same time, so as not to list my guilty secret but keep up with my promised quota of 25 books in a year on http://www.goodreads.com


  15. The way I see it Dave, it is all about letting go. Pick a cool night, start a fire, get a nice brandy or glass of red wine, whatever you prefer, invite some good company over and burn it. If you really have the desire to finish it some day, download it to your Ipad. In the meantime, let it go.


    • Laughing. You are so right. It is about letting go and being able to let go. Not something I have been particularly good at. Thanks Michele. (Not sure I’ll be able to burn the book or any book though!)


  16. Can’t say I’ve done even as well as you. Lots of good advice from others already — from sage to hilarious. But if you really have to read it, how about swallowing 1-2 pages a day — and then read something else you’d enjoy. Kind of like taking medicine and washing it down with something that tastes better. 🙂


    • Curious, did you have to take Cod Liver Oil when you were young? I did. Your comment reminded me of that. Perhaps I need to take your approach. I’m a serial reader – need to chop through pages to gain momentum. Maybe it IS time for a new approach. Thanks for sharing Sandy.


      • Yes, I had to take Cod Liver Oil, too — blech. I try not to remember very much about it or my stomach starts to feel weird. 😕

        I’m happy the idea might be useful. After I wrote the comment, I remembered a book I have that was lent to me by an acquaintance. I’ve had it for, well, I won’t say how long I’ve had it. At this point it feels too embarrassing to return it without having actually finished it. Especially since it’s not even that big of a book! So, I’ve decided to try out this “remedy,” work my way through, and hopefully return it soon.

        I thought about saying, “Race ya!” but Ulysses is probably at least 3 times as long. Not exactly fair.


      • Sandy, I won’t take that bet. I haven’t gotten beyond 25 pages on Ulysses. No, you’ll have to place your wager on another… 🙂


  17. Alex Jones says:

    On the subject of books, your mention of Eckhart Tolle in a past comment motivated me to buy one of his books: “The Power of Now”.


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