We all remember when Lorelai Gilmore tried to return Max Medina’s copy of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way — a novel (or, if I’m to be precise, the first volume of a seven-volume work of fiction) that I myself, admittedly, still have to finish. In classic Lorelai fashion, she rattled off the excuse: “I just don't think a book whose first sentence is 20 pages long is for me.” Preach, sister. There are just some books that are impossible to finish, at least the first time you try them.
In my experience, most of those unfinishable books come by way of high school reading lists — and I don’t think this is only because from ninth to twelfth grade a noteworthy number of us were too busy concerning ourselves with things like dating, driving, and procuring substances the government didn’t recommend we consume, to complete our required reading. The fact is, some books just need to be shelved (no pun intended) until you’re ready to commit to them. And despite what some people may tell you, it’s OK to give up on a book you’re in the middle of reading. Just don’t forget that some of them may be worth trying again in the future — like the books on this list.
1. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
OK, I’ll give it to you — this book is twice as heavy as it is long. But if you abandoned it back in high school, as most of us readers probably did, I’ve got news for you: your e-reader will stay the same size and weight no matter how long a book you read on it. So, with that said, don’t you think it’s about time to give Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind a second try? After all, the novel is filled with everything that makes a great classic book: war and drama, love triangles and romantic obsessions, imperfect characters you’ll love and love to hate, and a conclusion where just about everyone gets what’s coming to them — for better or for worse.
2. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Unknown
I know what you’re thinking: “A book-length lyrical poem written in 14th-century Middle English? Give me a break here.” But I promise if you briefly brush up some undergraduate-level linguistics basics, you’re going to fall in love with this story. (Even if you still can’t get your mind around the fact that puzzling out the translations of Middle English is actually a really good time. Which it is.) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight will take you back to the magical days of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, when Sir Gawain must prove his chivalry before the Green Knight. He’s basically the Harry Potter of Middle English lit.
3. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride
This is another title that may have thrown you for a loop with language and structure upon your first attempt at reading it. But, like all great novels, once you get into the rhythm of this text you won’t be able to put it down. Even if stream-of-consciousness-style prose isn’t really your thing, there’s no denying that Eimear McBride’s literary devices place you directly into the narrator’s head, making this novel unforgettable. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing portrays the sensitive and brutal relationship between a young girl and her brother, set against the backdrop of sexual violence, family crisis, and mental and physical illness.
4. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
If you couldn’t suffer through the egregious injustices committed against Hester Prynne by her Puritan community, nor stomach the unforgivably weak male characters that pepper the pages of this novel, then I totally feel you. But the second time around, try looking at Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter from a new perspective: the one that says Hester is the ultimate feminist badass, who will do anything to protect her child, and basically tells her community, her lover, and her long-lost husband to kick rocks. Totally re-readable now, right?
5. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
This is another title that’s difficult to get through for its vivid, painful content. If you’ve already tried to read your way through Bastard Out of Carolina , then you know the novel centers around the violent, dysfunctional Boatwright family — particularly tiny Ruth Anne Boatwright, whose mother’s behavior is beyond inexcusable from the very first page. I won’t give away any spoilers here (because the ultimate climax and redemption come literally in the last 10 pages) but the ending offers the only ounce of dignity Anney Boatwright will exhibit in the entire text. Might as well try and get there.
6. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
While you may have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from beginning to end (perhaps even more than once,) apparently there’s something about even the most avid of LOTR readers skimming or skipping the many, many songs that appear throughout the text. Sure, maybe you don’t have to read them every time, but you’re definitely missing some important foreshadowing, metaphor, character insights, and just a whole lot of really entertaining writing by never reading them at all. Plus, it IS a book about wizards and hobbits, after all — get into the spirit of whimsy a little, will ya?
7. 1984 by George Orwell
There’s a classic Nirvana lyric that goes something like this: “Just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not after you.” And now that we have CITIZENFOUR and Freedom of Information Act-provided confirmation that we do, in fact, live in the exact times Orwell warned against, finishing 1984 from beginning to end won’t only make you paranoid, it’ll make you street smart. No, no matter how much you hate The Party, you’ll also probably never learn to love Winston or Julia either — who really just seem to make one misguided, disloyal, or unforgivable decision after another — but at least you’ll develop a healthy dose of skepticism against government motives.
8. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
There is something seemingly hopeless about Esther’s situation, which certainly makes Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar a difficult-to-get-through read. After all, if you’re an aspiring-anything twentysomething, you’ll probably find a lot of commonalities between yourself and the once-ambitious Esther — which makes her rapid descent into madness and depression all the more disconcerting. But the feminist commentary Plath has to offer on men and women, gender-based stereotypes, and Esther’s longings for a fulfilling career that defies the expectations of housewifery are totally worth finishing this book for.