24 Books on Everyone’s Did Not Finish List

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Some books make a lasting impact on the world, but many of them end up landing short of people's expectations. As it turns out, many acclaimed novels are notably tricky to read, making them hard to finish. If you’ve ever started a new read in anticipation, only to put the book down halfway and never finish it, you’re not alone, and chances are your DNF (did not finish) list contains one of these famous tales. 

1. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, Trilogy
Image Credit: Allen & Unwin.

The infamous fantasy trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is one of the most beloved movie series and has even been adapted into a TV show, The Rings of Power. With countless characters, mystic lands, and a complex plot, it can be a challenging read that’s difficult to finish. 

2. Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses by James Joyce
Image Credit: Shakespeare and Company.

This modernist novel is considered one of the great works of literature, and while highly regarded, it’s also notoriously tricky to read. The book follows a day in the life of three characters in Dublin using a stream-of-conscious narrative style that makes it a struggle to follow along.

3. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
Image Credit: Harper & Row.

Filled with magic realism and fantasy, One Hundred Years of Solitude explores the chronicles of the Buendía family. It delves into the family’s journey- one of conflict, greatness, trials, and the reality of solitude. The novel’s lack of consistency and exaggerated events contribute to a time-consuming read.

4. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy 

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Image Credit: The Russian Messenger.

Set in Russia during Napoleon’s invasion in 1812, War and Peace follows three characters and their unique experiences during the war. The long and complex storyline contains many Russian names that are difficult to pronounce.

5. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Image Credit: Simon & Schuster.

Catch-22 takes you back in time during World War II and looks at the story of Captain John Yossarian, an American bombardier during World War II, and his determination to survive. Since the story has a winding timeline that doesn’t follow any particular order, it makes for a challenging read.

6. Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Image Credit: A. Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Cie.

Les Misérables is one of the most popular musicals of all time and one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. The historical novel tells the story of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict desperately pursuing freedom. It is a long book, and the historical references and scattered plot are demanding for any reader.

7. Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce
Image Credit: Faber and Faber.

As one of the most exceptional works of the twentieth century, Finnegan’s Wake is as hard to finish as noteworthy. The story begins and ends in the middle of a sentence with no real beginning or end, which doesn’t make for a smooth read.

8. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Image Credit: Random House.

In this apocalyptic version of the world, a woman named Dagny Taggart struggles to run a railroad during the war and chaos of the times. The book is known for being long, with many dialogues and thoughts to follow.

9. The Whale by Herman Melville

The Whale by Herman Melville
Image Credit: Harper & Brothers.

Follow along on the adventure of a sailor’s daring quest to hunt a whale who bit off his leg on his last voyage. The novel is detailed, and some readers find it too long and strenuous to read.

10. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Image Credit: Penguin Classics.

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories that transports you to the 14th century in more ways than one. It recounts a group of pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury who pay homage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Since it’s written in Middle English, it’s tricky for many readers to understand.

11. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Image Credit: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith.

The Sound and the Fury explores the downfall of the Compson family, who were once aristocrats and struggled to deal with their reputations falling apart. With three different narrators and a timeline that doesn’t follow a linear order, we don’t blame readers for not finishing the novel.

12. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Image Credit: Little, Brown and Company.

This tragicomedy classic follows the life of the Incandenza family, a dysfunctional family in search of the pursuit of happiness. It’s a long book filled with endnotes that can be tricky to grasp.

13. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Image Credit: Random House Publishing Group.

Gravity’s Rainbow won the 1973 National Book Award and is a classic novel on several must-read lists. The novel brings you on a tricky-to-understand journey to the past at the end of World War II and explores the technology that emerged from it. 

14. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Image Credit: Francisco de Robles.

Praised for being one of the best books of all time, it’s also one many readers put down before they finish. The novel is about Alonso Quijano, who sets out on an ambitious mission to bring chivalry and knighthood back to life. Alonso’s struggle with his state of mind leads to long, complicated speeches that readers may find too demanding.

15. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Image Credit: The Russian Messenger.

The story follows Rodion Raskolnikov, a student who grapples with thoughts of guilt and anguish after a tragic incident. The story explores the reality of moral dilemmas, and it’s those complex thoughts that some readers may find challenging to follow.

16. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien
Image Credit: George Allen & Unwin.

A work of stand-out fantasy fiction, The Silmarillion is about the mythic story of Elves and Men and the war that consumes them. It occurs in regions like Middle-earth, where The Hobbit and Lord of The Rings are set.

17. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Image Credit: Penguin Classics.

For those who love a good romance, Pride and Prejudice is a must-read. The classic Regency romance is about Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a wealthy but snobbish aristocrat, and their budding relationship. It uses language from the early 19th century, which doesn’t make for a smooth read.

18. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Image Credit: Thomas Cautley Newby.

Wuthering Heights is about a young orphan, Heathcliff, who gets adopted by a wealthy gentleman and falls in love with his daughter. It’s a passionate story about heartbreak, love, and desperation. You may want to skip this novel if you’re not up for a complex and challenging read.

19. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Image Credit: Chapman & Hall.

Great Expectations takes you into the past with an inspiring story of an orphan named Pip, who achieves success and wealth despite the challenges and struggles to remain humble. Many Native English speakers struggle to understand the book since it uses complex language from 1861 when it was published.

20. The Castle by Franz Kafka

The Caslte by Franz Kafka
Image Credit: Kurt Wolff.

One of the main reasons The Castle is notoriously hard to finish is that the novel still needs to be completed. It’s about a character known as “K” who gets a job as a surveyor for the Lord of a castle and struggles to find them. The story is ambiguous and has no conclusion to satisfy the reader, which some readers struggle to get through.

21. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf 

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Image Credit: Hogarth Press.

To the Lighthouse is a brilliant piece of 20th-century literature about the Ramsay family and their summer holiday trip to the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It touches on the harsh realities of the war, and although it is not a long book, it contains symbolism that makes it challenging to understand what is going on.

22. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Image Credit: George Allen & Unwin.

J.R.R. Tolkien may be most known for his series The Lord of the Rings, but this prequel to the trilogy is just as memorable and worth the read if you’re willing to commit to the story. The Hobbit has several characters and mythical names that you’ll need to keep track of throughout the story. Notably, this book was written for children, and while it is complex, it's not as challenging as Tolkien's other works. 

23. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter By Nathaniel Hawthorne
Image Credit: Ticknor, Reed & Fields.

The Scarlet Letter is about Hester Prynne, a woman with a daughter by a man she is not married to. She struggles to regain her and has to wear the scarlet letter “A” for adultery. While it is a piece of classic literature everyone should read at least once, it was written in 1849, and the language is tricky and intimidating.

24. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher In The Rye By J.D. Salinger
Image Credit: Little, Brown and Company.

This classic novel is about a teenage boy named Holden Caulfield who spends a weekend alone wandering New York City. Holden struggles with his morality and to find meaning and connection in the world. Some readers find Holden’s excessive and chaotic thoughts challenging to understand.