By Misha Grunbaum

It's fun to argue about difficult books (cf. Publishers Weekly's Top 10 and the ensuing comments); it's even fun to read one every now and then. But what about unreadable books—the ones where you can't hope to get to the end, no matter how hard you try? Remember now: we're not talking about long books or simply challenging books. I'm used to those. In college, I had to read War and Peace, down to its dual epilogues, in two weeks; I readUlysses in eight days on a bet. I'm talking outright unreadable.

Here are five books that make JR look like JWOWW.

5. A Book of Memories

I love Péter Nádas, but this Hungarian master pushed his first great novel to the limits of the form, and barely made any concessions to readers. Even the brilliant bookseller Sarah McNally says reading it is “like climbing a mountain.” There are two first-person narratives—the memories of a Hungarian man in a love triangle, and his alter-ego in a lightly fictionalized memoir of the first narrator’s own life—and, near the end, a third narrator who punches holes in the first two. I’m a careful reader, but I had a hell of a time figuring out who was narrating some chapters. More than anything, though, the sentences can be downright impenetrable:

“Lovers walk around wearing each other's body, and they wear and radiate into the world their common physicality, which is in no way the mathematical sum of their two bodies but something more, something different, something barely definable, both a quantity and a quality, for the two bodies contract into one but cannot be reduced to one; this quantitative surplus and qualitative uniqueness cannot be defined in terms of, say, the bodies’ mingled scents, which is only the most easily noticeable and superficial manifestation of the separate bodies' commonality that extends to all life functions..."

4. Finnegans Wake

Okay, the PW people were right to put this on their list. Finnegans Wake(no apostrophe there!) is filled with multilingual puns from European and non-European languages. Your only hope, they suggest, is to read it out loud in your “best bad Irish accent.” I might add the suggestion to pick up Joseph Campbell’s A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake—then you’ll know that the looping sentence on page 75 boils down to, more or less, “As the lion in our zoo remembers the lotuses of his Nile, so it may be that the besieged [man] bedreamt him still.” There’s a dream-narrative, a long internal monologue, the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” section that incorporates thousands of rivers’ names, and quite a few puzzles and tricks to make any regular reading a nearly nonsensical experience. And that's not even getting into the last sentence, which begins what the first sentence ends.

3. Maze

Now we’re getting into more concrete definitions of “unreadable.” Christopher Manson's book is narrated by a strange beast who describes you, the reader, traveling through a maze of 45 rooms, but the maze in question is actually encoded in the book itself—a room on each page spread—and it’s fiendishly difficult (chew on that, House of Leaves). With Choose Your Own Adventure, you can look through all the pages and pick the story you like best. But no matter how many times you flip through these pages, there's no way to just guess your way out of the Maze. The Internet has made this challenge a mite easier, but computers can’t solve the riddles within for you. And even when a shortest path is found through the hundreds of doors between Room 1 and Room 45, there’s another riddle encoded in the random objects within each room. Why was the maze built, though? Why are there so many clues that people once lived there, or can be heard in other rooms? What other riddles remain to be found? The book has been uploaded to the Internet, so go ahead and look.

2. On Grammatology

Okay, so it probably isn’t fair to include philosophy here, but Jacques Derrida devised his writing style specifically to evade any hope of a central, compact conclusion—the premise behind his literary theory, Deconstructionism, being that there no longer exists (if ever there did) a stable organizing principle in any text or system of thought. He did a fantastic job of proving his point with his own words, which famously loop around themselves and move farther and farther away from any truly linear argument. On Grammatology is where he takes that logic to its extreme—even (like modern art writing) to the point of being nearly incomprehensible in translation:

"Let us now persist in using this opposition of nature and institution, of physis and nomos (which also means, of course, a distribution and division regulated in fact by law) which a meditation on writing should disturb although it functions everywhere as self-evident, particularly in the discourse of linguistics. We must then conclude that only the signs called natural, those that Hegel and Saussure call “symbols,” escape semiology as grammatology. But they fall a fortiori outside the field of linguistics as the region of general semiology. The thesis of the arbitrariness of the sign thus indirectly but irrevocably contests Saussure's declared proposition when he chases writing to the outer darkness of language..."

1. The Voynich Manuscript

There’s unreadable, and then there’s unreadable. A manuscript from the 1500s written in a script and language that resembles no other on earth, theVoynich manuscript has stumped amateurs and professionals alike. The pages include many strange drawings, from naked women in basins with tubes to plants that do not exist in real life. The Beinecke Library, which houses the original sheets of parchment, says that every week they receive numerous emails claiming to have broken the code, “but so far no theory has held up.” Until that changes, though, the entire manuscript is available on the Internet for codebreakers everywhere to solve.

image credit: Duncan Long,