6 Tough Reads That Pay Off

intro-6toughreadsYou read some things because they interest you. You read others because you don’t want to get into trouble with your boss or the law. A few things you read because… you want bragging rights? Some books make readers work hard, but the payoff is worth the effort. Here are some of those books.

War and Peace

(Image via Flickr by Jill Clardy)

Leo Tolstoy’s epic takes some serious dedication if you want to get from page one to page one million (OK, the book only has about 1,300 pages, but it might as well be a million). It takes the reader through a litany of turbulent times in Russia, featuring a host of characters who play out their lives in a series of subplots that could stand on their own as separate novels.

Like many classic works, the prose is host to sentences that go on for miles, details that no one actually cares about, and words that send you running to the nearest dictionary. Despite being one of the toughest reads ever, though, War and Peace will leave readers with a sense of accomplishment and plenty of food for thought.


This is another work from a Russian author. Fortunately, this one doesn’t rival the encyclopedia in size. The plot centers around a Russian professor living in the United States after World War II. As he adjusts to life in America, he faces a series of mishaps and tragedies. The book is supposedly a comedy, but if you ask people who’ve read it, they might tell you differently.

A writer for Vice.com wrote an article about books he couldn’t finish reading, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin made the list. The writer says, “nothing in Pnin seemed alive.” The media company he works for, co-founded by Shane Smith, focuses on modern issues and stories that don’t take a degree in literature to understand — the type of stories that most people crave. Hence, it isn’t hard to see why this writer’s unfavorable view of Pnin probably isn’t an uncommon one.

The payoff for conquering Pnin? A reviewer at compulsivereader.com writes, “Nabokov is undeniably an important writer. The central character of Pnin himself is rendered with great warmth, compassion… even love.”

So, give it a try, and you can form your own opinion of this classic.

Moby Dick

If you secretly foster an intense curiosity about whaling techniques in the early 19th century, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the book for you. The long passages about the methods used to hunt whales might capture your imagination — or they might motivate you to flip through pages until a real plot point pops up.

The themes in Moby Dick — redemption, sin, and revenge — have received so much scholarly treatment and so many pop culture adaptations over the years that you might feel like you’ve read the book many times before you even pick it up.

However, Moby Dick is worth a read solely because of its important place in the world of literature. One writer for The New York Times writes, “More capacious than ponderous, ‘Moby-Dick’ has the wild and unpredictable energy of the great white whale itself.”

If you’re in the mood for a wild adventure at sea (and if you want to brag about understanding the Moby Dick references in Star Trek: First Contact), head to the library and pick up a copy.

Foucault’s Pendulum

Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum might at first seem like the author’s way of showing you that he sacrificed his life for a few months in order to give thorough study to the subject of his book. He includes endless pages of background that could very well leave readers pulling their hair out and wishing they had opted to read The Hunger Games instead.

However, if you can persevere through the book’s beginning, you’ll find that a plot does emerge. If you make it all the way to the end of the book, you might end up feeling like you gained something deep and truthful (or like you deserve a party for trudging all the way through). Keep a pen and notebook handy as you read so you can do your own research on the book’s topics.

One Hundred Years of Solitude

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work is a family saga stretching generations. The characters make their way through a host of situations and crises, many of which have a surreal and almost magical spin on them. To understand the book, you’ll need to make liberal use of a family tree so you can keep track of all the characters, many of whom share similar names.

This is one of those challenging books that’ll either leave you satisfied and thoughtful or annoyed and wondering how it ever became so famous. Either way, it’ll give you something to talk about the next time you get together with your book-loving buddies.

The Sound and the Fury

Whether you call it a work of genius or a stream of nonsense, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury is without a doubt a tough read. Faulkner takes point of view to new levels as he lets readers see the world from the eyes of character who has trouble distinguishing past from present. It’ll take tons of mental focus to sort through the narrative and pull the plot from the soup of long sentences and shifting tenses.

You might need to read this book three or four times to truly understand what happens in it and why it’s more than a mishmash of perspectives (not a lot more, though — the book is more about the writing than the plot). Once you attain victory, you’ll see the reasons that so many regard Faulkner as a genius — and you’ll sound really smart when you attend your next high school reunion.

The above books are pillars in the literary world. They provoke deep thought, start conversations, ignite arguments, and leave readers all over the world with enormous headaches. If you’re willing to tackle them, you’ll come out on the other side with deepened perspective and more appreciation than ever for the latest YA bestseller.

emilygreenEmily Green is a freelance writer with more than six years’ experience in blogging, copywriting, content, SEO, and dissertation, technical and thesis writing. 


  1. Can you rephrase ‘crazy character’ to describe the cognitively disabled narrator of the Sound and the Fury?

  2. Dante’s Divine Comedy! The first time through I snoozed…unpacking it with help it was INCREDIBLE. So worth it. Mind blowing…

  3. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Right up there, it’s a thick book with Dickensian meandering sentences that sometimes resemble algebraic equations. But therein lies the beauty! Dickens has a wonderfully dry sense of humor and uses plot to wring the emotions of his Dear Readers. I might have to read it again.

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