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What's Your Literary Waterloo?



The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Anna Karenina.

Anything by Jane Austen.

Even librarians, we consummate book-lovers, have books we just can’t finish.

In honor of the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s infamous defeat, we asked our NYPL staff members: What’s a book you’ve never been able to conquer?

Here’s a list of our very own literary Waterloos.

The Austen Confessions

Pride and Prejudice

Many women are going to *gasp* when they read this, but I've never read an Austen or Brontë. I've owned both Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights at least once in my life but have never gotten past looking at the pretty Penguin Classic edition covers. You could say they have a permanent home at the very bottom of my TBR pile, with little hope for me falling for Mr. Darcy or that Heathcliff anytime soon.  —Anna Taylor, Children’s Programming

I'm with Anna—count me out of the Janeite club. Austen and the Brontë sisters’ work is beautiful on the screen, but a complete snooze to me on the page. This is probably terrible for a lifelong lit-lover to admit, but the 19th century in general is my Waterloo. —Nancy Aravecz, Mid-Manhattan

I'm embarrassed to say this out loud, whenever I do people audibly gasp, but I have never been able to get through Pride and Prejudice and so, alas, I have never fallen in love with Mr. Darcy. I seems to get bogged down in the beginning and cannot make myself push past it. (I'll now stand in the corner and hang my head in shame.) —Annie Lin, Mulberry Street

I feel relieved that I'm not the only one who cannot get through Jane Eyre. I own three copies. I've picked them up over the years and can never get past Chapter 6. I'm so bored, and I really don't care what happens. Sorry! —Maura Muller, Volunteer Program

Chiming in for Austen and the Brontës. I appreciate that they've inspired so many people, but ugh, all those stilted manners! Give me a talking rabbit, a zombie wedding, an exploding shoe... anything to get me out of those stifling sitting rooms.—Gwen Glazer, Readers Services

Faulkner Frustrations

Sound and the Fury

Since the book discussion group I run at the Kingsbridge Branch enjoys classics, I've assigned several of my former Waterloos, which forced me to face them head on. The most notable was The Sound and The Fury by William Faulkner, which I made it through only with the help of Cliffs Notes (and it was worth it!).—Rabecca Hoffman, Kingsbridge

As soon as the query went out, I guiltily thought of The Sound and the Fury, which sits on my bookshelf gathering dust. When I picked up the book, I had fond memories of reading As I Lay Dying in high school and the lively conversations it inspired with my classmates.  On my own, however, I could not make much headway with this book.  —Rosa Caballero-Li, AskNYPL

Ever since I had to read Absalom, Absalom in college, I have been loath to read any more Faulkner, though I know I need to give him another chance! —Ronni Krasnow, Morningside Heights

American Classics

Infinite Jest

The one that I can't, no matter how hard I've tried on my own, that is definitely my literary Waterloo, is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It's been sitting on my bookshelf, taunting me, for 15 years now. —Rebecca Hoffman, Theatre on Film and Tape Archive

If I'm being honest, my literary Waterloo is anything not written by a celebrity over the past 20 years. I've never been able to get through Infinite Jest by my beloved David Foster Wallace, though I've tried many times. (Even with the help of Infinite Summer several years ago, which I thought was a great idea.) —Leslie Tabor, East Manhattan Libraries

For me, its (gasp! shocking!) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchellmy most frequent catalog search example. I heard so much about it, and I am always planning to read it, but then other books get in the way. For now, it’s on my bucket list. —Jean Harripersaud, Bronx Library Center

Henry James? Bleh. George Eliot? Zzzzzz. No wonder the Modernists complained so much about boredom at the start of the 20th century! I just cannot get on board with the whole literary realism thing. —Nancy Aravecz, Mid-Manhattan

British Masterpieces


Middlemarch had been on my list since my freshman year in college. Though I have owned several copies (both paperback and hardcover), I conquered it through the iPhone. Honestly, reading it on my commute, on my phone, was the key to finally finishing the novel. —Virginia Bartow, Rare Books

Middlemarch by George Eliot. I was supposed to read it in college for my novels class, but I'm sure I just skimmed it. It’s had a recent resurgence after last year's hit book, My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Leslie Tabor, East Manhattan Libraries

When I was a young lad I tried to read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings tetralogy (I'm including The Hobbit). I breezed through that book, as well as The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and I was well on my way to completing The Return of the King when I stopped reading it, right when Frodo and Sam encounter Shelob the giant spider. Several years later I decided to try again. So dutifully, I started again from the beginning:  first The Hobbit, then The Fellowship... and The Two Towers, and I got through most of the last book until I got to the spider scene, and again I stopped! I just... put it down. And I haven't gone back to it since. —Wayne Roylance, Selection Team

I’ll share my secret weapon for books I know will be worth reading but am having trouble getting through: long plane trips with only the one book. Conquered Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady that way, and it was well worth it. —Danita Nichols, Inwood

As a lover of Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, and George Eliot, you'd think I'd embrace Thomas Hardy, but I tried Tess of the D'Urbervilles and it drove me bananas! I've seen all the movie versions and I keep thinking I'll try again, but I never do. —Anne Rouyer, Mulberry Street

I was able to finish The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins a couple of years ago by forcing myself to read one page a day until it was finished. I did enjoy it; it was worth reading. Next challenge: The Woman in White, also by Collins. —Lois Moore, Mid-Manhattan

Wrestling with Western Europe

Three Musketeers

I have been defeated by the sheer length of The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. It is such a heroic and interested tale. Yet I find it intimidating to read. Nonetheless, I shall conquer it sometime soon. —Lilian Calix, Hamilton Grange

My reading Waterloo is Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. One of my college friends declared it to be her favorite book, and she vowed to read it every year. To date, I have cracked the cover many times only to set it down again, unread. —Virginia Bartow, Rare Books

Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is another bananas book. I remember getting halfway through it and throwing it across the room in disgust. She has to be one of the most unsympathetic characters in literature.  —Anne Rouyer, Mulberry Street

Ah, the Classics

Paradise Lost

I've slogged through quite a few heavy tomes driven by literary peer pressure, and I've put down many others that just didn't hold my attention, but the one that would be my literary Waterloo is Milton’s Paradise Lost.  I used to keep it on my to-read list and even owned a used copy for many years that stared at me from my bookshelf through repeated moves. I bought it after getting a Dover copy of Gustave Dore's excellent illustrations and one day I decided I shouldn't read Paradise Lost just for the pictures, so I got rid of both of them.  Of course now, writing this, I can feel that needling pressure returning to just read it and be done. —Christopher Platt, Library Administration

Enter me in the guilty column when it comes to “classics.” As a child my parents bought me all the books you're “supposed to read” and I read a couple of them (Mark Twain because he was funny). As for the rest, nope. I can plow through an 800-page Harry Potter in no time but a 200-page classic... not at all. I've learned to let it go! —Dawn Zimmerer, Wakefield

I hate to confess I just can't finish Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I've tried several times over the years, but I just don't care what happens to the characters. I have never attempted War and Peace by Tolstoy, but I envision the same scenario. — Lois Moore, Mid-Manhattan

I'd like to second Anna Karenina. I've heard it's amazing, but I can never seem to get into it. Sadly, this is true for me of other Russian classics too. —Jenny Baum, Jefferson Valley

Contemporary Challenges

Girl Dragon Tattoo

A recent literary Waterloo is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I've felt guilty for years, every time I see someone reading it (on the subway, Metro North, everywhere!). I just cannot get through it. —Maura Muller, Volunteer Program

I have attempted, and failed, to read Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. When I started the book, everything seems right up my alley: authors I enjoy, satire, witches, the end of the world.... After reading about half the book, however, I simply lost interest in the story and have not found it again! —Alexandria Abenshon, Countee Cullen

Mine has to be Faith of the Fallen by Terry Goodkind. I know people swear by this series, but the repetitive plotting got to be a bit much. It was the literary equivalent of Hulk Hogan's monthly enemy in the ring. That, plus the author hitting me over the head with his political agenda was finally too much, and I left the series unfinished. —Joshua Soule, Spuyten Duyvil

If Mark Danielewski makes good on his promise to write 27 volumes of his new work, The Familiar, I know it will defeat me! However, the first volume, released last month, was spectacularbroad, witty, innovative, and psychedelic. I'm planting my literary flag on finishing the whole thing, whenever he finishes. —Charlie Radin, Inwood

Mine is definitely A Confederacy of Dunces. I didn't find it to be any of the things I was told to expect; didn't find it funny, hated the main character, just could not finish it. —Jennifer Craft, Mulberry Street

Like Napoleon before Waterloo, I've been defeated by a few Russians in my time, but the tome that's been sitting reproachfully on my bookshelf for a while is Robert Caro's The Power Broker. As a New Yorker interested in how our city works (or doesn't), I feel like it's required reading, but just not for today…In the meantime, I enjoyed the recent graphic biography, Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City, which offered fantastic illustrations of some of Moses's projects if not quite the same level of research and analysis to be found in Caro's immense biography. —Elizabeth Waters, Mid-Manhattan

Staff picks are chosen by NYPL staff members and are not intended to be comprehensive lists. Tell us: What's your literary Waterloo?  Leave a comment and let us know.


Patron-generated content represents the views and interpretations of the patron, not necessarily those of The New York Public Library. For more information see NYPL's Website Terms and Conditions.

Literary Waterloo

My Waterloo also happens to be my favorite book ever: 'Blue Highways' by William Least Heat-Moon. It's a wonderful read, but not a quick one, and I always manage to get distracted by some musician or athlete biography. 'River-Horse' by the same author is another beloved albatross.

Dearest James Joyce, I love

Dearest James Joyce, I love your short stories, but getting through the first 60 pages of ULYSSES took me 3 months. I honestly have no recollection of what I read. Sincerely, Samantha

Literary Waterloo

Under the Volcano. I used to feel bad about not being able to get into it, but every time I picked it up -- I'd put it right back down.

Under the Volcano

Cool! Same problem! I made it to this walk through the woods after the 2 guys say goodbye on the terrace. What's funny though is when I was a kid, after seeing the movie, I read it in no time.

Literary Waterloo

Most recently, Dicken's "Bleak House." I usually love Dickens but this one just isn't doing it for me. I think the changing narrator is the problem. Past crushing defeats include Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" and Thomas Mann's "Dr. Faustus".

Vanity Fair

I made myself slog through it, but it felt like they played charades for an eternity.

Bravo! I couldn't manage to get through the first few chapters

I admire your persistence. I had to read it in college. I had to by cliff notes. I felt tortured and it turned me off to Victorian style novels. By the time I finished a paragraph or a sentence even, I forgot what the subject was.

Literary Waterloo

Crime and Punishment. I found myself so depressed reading this book that I cannot get past page 76.

Shadow Country by Peter

Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen . It won the National Book Award. 890 Pages? There's a serial killer somewhere in it, so you'd think it'd be gripping. It's the most sleep-inducing book I have ever picked up.

I thought Shadow Country was

I thought Shadow Country was a great story but definitely a brutal read. I'd have to put it down every few hundred pages and read something else before getting into it again.


For me, it's definitely got to be Ulysses! I even took a class on it in college, thinking it would force me through it. I remember sitting in class, listening to the discussion, and wondering what on earth everyone was talking about!

What's Your Literary Waterloo?

Both 'Anna Karenina' and 'War and Peace' (by Leo Tolstoy) have proven to be my Literary Waterloos. In the case of AK, I've managed to read 3/4 of it twice; and Book I of W&P three or four times now. It's not the length of the books nor difficulty of the language. In each case I found the stories easier to read than I had anticipated; and a lot more boring. That's crazy-talk when you're talking about battles, grand balls, passion at cross purposes, etc; but there it is. Every time I admit this, I'm told it must be the translation that's not working for me; but really, neither books are truly compelling reads for me :-/

My literary Waterloo

THE AMBASSADORS by Henry James. Assigned in 12th grade (1980), never able to get past the first paragraph, although I liked his other shorter works. Steig Larssen-Dragon Tattoo books-"tough it out to page 237" my sister said. Auuuuuuugh. No can do. INFINITE JEST, infinitely impossible for me. Great topic, thank you!

My literary Waterloo

Unlike most the readers my literary Waterloo is not a massive novel like some of the classics mentioned. It is BELOVED by Toni Morrison. I struggled to half of the book I just can't get through it. I was turned off by the subject of slavery. I found it to be a difficult read and I anticipated a gloomy end, but I intend to start over and finish this time. Next topic I suggest is what is your literary Normandy, lol...

V by Pynchon

Tried, tried, tried. Kept wondering how long I could read and have no idea what was going on. I am adept at throwing books across the room when I despise them; this one flew well.

My Literary Waterloo

The Red and the Black by Stendahl. Couldn't stand the characters or care about their predicament, and the story dragged terribly.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym from Nantucket!

I love Poe... but the novel is almost always placed among his short stories. What invariably happens is that I'll start reading the novel, get bored, then skip to his brilliant short stories. I've read them multiple times, never tire of reading them, and always pick up some unnoticed detail upon re-reading. Don't think I'll ever get through Gordon Pym -

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

I can't get past the wordiness of this book, it reads to me too much as a textbook with only descriptions of sea life and lacking any good plot. I have an immense love for the better known classics but I just can't get more than half way through twenty thousand leagues.

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