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You tried, you did not conquer: When a book becomes unreadable

Stacks of books from the floor raised a few feet in the air in a book shop in Paris.
Helena de la Guardia / Getty Images
Moment RF

Most of us have books that we just can’t finish, no matter how many times we try.

This hour, a look at those books that we find unreadable, whether they’re too long, too difficult, too confusing, or too dated. What makes a book unreadable?

Plus: The Voynich Manuscript, an unreadable and undeciphered book housed at Yale University’s Beinecke Library.

We asked our listeners for their list of unreadable books. Here are those responses:

  • The Bible
  • Mansfield Park by Jane Austen
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
  • Rim by Alexander Besher
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  • Collapse by Jared Diamond
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
  • S. by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst
  • The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • anything by William Faulkner
  • Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier
  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter
  • Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
  • 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James
  • The Dubliners by James Joyce
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Wicked by Gregory Maguire
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • Faithful by Stewart O’Nan and Stephen King
  • Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
  • How to Write by Gertrude Stein
  • Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
  • Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace


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Colin McEnroe, Jonathan McNicol, and Cat Pastor contributed to this show, which originally aired September 14, 2022.

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Lily is the senior producer for The Colin McEnroe Show. She first worked at Connecticut Public as an intern in 2014. She has previously worked for WBUR, KUNC and as a producer for the New England News Collaborative's weekly show Next. Lily can be reached at ltyson@ctpublic.org.
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