When I was in college, I made the mistake of telling a teacher that I was never going to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. My teacher promptly assigned it as my required reading for the term. Stubborn as I can be about such things—on the other end of the cultural spectrum, I refuse, to this day, to watch Titanic—I’ve always been an obsessively good student, so I caved immediately. It took me about nine months to get through it, and I finished, entirely by coincidence, on “Bloomsday”—June 16, the date the book takes place.
I discovered, one difficult page at a time, that Joyce’s novel isn’t merely important, but also funny, raunchy, and delightfully weird. A decade later, I still remember the keen pleasure of burrowing into a story that requires that kind of close attention; it feels like intimacy.
Literature should not be something we approach out of a sense of duty. But many lengthy, complex, and well-known books really are that good. Like taking a long hike or following a tricky recipe, engaging with writing that challenges you can be deeply satisfying. Each of the books below is demanding in its own way, and reading or rereading them can be a fascinating, beautiful, and rewarding experience.