My Most Challenging Book

When I was in ninth or tenth grade I decided that I would read the hardest book I could find. I settled on Kant’s “Prologomena to any Future Metaphysics.” I didn’t get much out of it—no surprise there—but afterwards I felt like a climber who has just conquered K-2. From then on, I decided I could read absolutely anything, that the sky was the limit. I remember going on to a prose version of The Divine Comedy.

Again, I make no claims that I got very much from reading Dante at 15. But at least I left eyetracks across the pages of the Charles Eliot Norton’s translation. Since then, I’ve read the Commedia three or four more times and studied the commentaries and scholarship enough so that, half dozen years ago, I was able to write a long introduction to Erich Auerbach’s “Dante: Poet of the Secular World.” I wasn’t afraid of the poem. We were old friends, we went way back.

People sometimes complain that books are hard. I can’t say that I feel that very often, except with older scholarly books that don’t translate their Latin and Greek extracts or with a few distinctly alien classics like Langland’s “Piers Plowman” (which, to begin with, is written in a difficult dialect of middle English and exists in three significantly different versions, known as the A, B and C texts). I did take a semester grad school course on old Piers and it made me realize I wasn’t cut out to be a medievalist after all.

From time to time, I do find that certain books are dull, or sophomoric, or poorly written—and any of these reactions will cause me to grow bored with the text, so that it will become a slog. But that’s not quite the same as a book being “hard.” Bear in mind that I’m excluding books in math and science—I revere Martin Gardner but his mathematical recreations are usually far too sophisticated for me.

So let me ask the Reading Room: What is the most challenging book you’ve ever read? Why did you read it? And when? What made it hard? How long did it take to read? Have you gone back to it? How did you fel when you’d finished? Share some of your stories with the rest of us.

Michael Dirda

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