10 Most Intellectually Challenging Books To Read

Written by Arpan Ghosh

As we slowly ease our way into summer, it's time to plan out your reading list, and it is an especially perfect opportunity to read those dense tomes that really draw you into their pages - though we must warn you, these are not exactly breezy reads to enjoy while lazing on the beach. Whether through a clever (and perhaps tricky) use of language, or thought-provoking subject matter, they will stimulate your grey cells even as they keep you turning the pages. Here are 10 challenging reads that can add an extra edge to your summer.

1. Summer World: A Season of Bounty by Bernd Heinrich

Summer World: A Season of Bounty by Bernd Heinrich

Noted biologist and Professor Emeritus at University of Vermont, Bernd Heinrich takes a deeper look at the world of nature, exploring its many different facets and complexities. In Summer World, his focus is on New England over the warmer months, and how the various flora and fauna that inhabit it deal with climbing temperatures. Whether he is discussing wars among different ant colonies or the growth patterns of indigineous plant species, Heinrich approaches it with a sense of curiosity that is infectious and could redefine your own relationship with nature. The companion piece to this is Winter World, which performs a similar examination during the other half of the year.

2. The Mirror & The Light

The Mirror & The Light

In her Wolf Hall trilogy, Hillary Mantel has been charting the life of Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister of England’s King Henry VIII and a key figure in the English Reformation during the 16th century. The final part of the trilogy, The Mirror & The Light, spans the final four years of the statesman’s life, up to his execution on the king’s orders. The trilogy masterfully blends historical fact with a healthy dose of fiction to produce a gripping tale of political intrigue.

3. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs

An autobiography written under the pseudonym Linda Brent, this book chronicles the life of Jacobs as a slave in early 19th century America, and how she was able to free herself and her children. The book deals with several emotionally difficult issues, including the realities of life and motherhood in a culture of slavery. While the subject may seem like it would draw controversy at the time, it was critically praised during its publication, and spearheaded a literary movement that gave African-American writers a stronger voice.

4. The Resisters by Gish Jen

The Resisters by Gish Jen

Released earlier this year, The Resisters looks at a fictional version of America in the not-too-distant future where class and racial divides have created a neatly (and rather uncomfortably) divided society. In this vision of the future, nearly every job is automated and a terrifying amalgamation of the internet and artificial intelligence controls all technology and nearly every aspect of everyday life. The story centers on a family of Surplus (the name given to the ‘have nots’ of society) who have a daughter with a particular gift for baseball. Sport is one of the few endeavours that cannot really be automated, and thus an Olympic-level baseball game becomes the setting of the climax, showcasing human spirit and will in a technological world.

5. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Though it is often associated with the practice of yoga and Eastern cultures, the word meditation has its roots in Latin, and refers to the act of contemplation or thinking to oneself. In this case, it refers to the personal thoughts of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, originally written across 12 books and later collected together into one volume. The books were never intended to be published for a wide audience and thus, are not written in a typical ‘literary’ style. There is no formality or sense of regality that one would expect from the writings of royalty - they are simply the innermost thoughts of a man about his life and about his place in a larger world, making them relatable on some level to everyone.

1. The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

Touted as a thriller and a mystery, The Couple Next Door has a simple premise - a couple goes to a party next door while leaving their six-month old at home for a couple of hours, only to return to an empty crib. While there is a genuine sense of mystery to who took the child and why, the real horror of the story comes from the constant anxiety felt by the couple and the slow unraveling of their marriage as darker secrets come tumbling out. While the story’s finale does elicit mixed responses, there’s no denying that Shari Lapena has crafted a genuinely unnerving tale of a family going to pieces.

2. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Also known as The Evening Redness in the West, Blood Meridian is the fifth novel by Cormac McCarthy. If you are familiar with his work, then you know that McCarthy has a penchant for exploring the gritter side of American life, penning Westerns that don’t have your typical cowboy riding off into the sunset. Blood Meridian, as its name implies, is a story soaked in blood and violence, taking an unflinching look at life in the Old West. The fact that the story is centred on a 14-year old boy known simply as ‘the kid’ only underscores the brutality of the story.

3. The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

The Birds by Tarjei Vesaas

Considered to be one of the most important novels to come out of Norway, The Birds tells the story of a middle-aged man who lives with his sister and suffers from a disability that makes him unable to communicate effectively with others. He also struggles to understand what other people are thinking and feeling, making him somewhat isolated from those around him. It is a particularly relevant book for our times, yet it hasn’t been a mainstay in English literary circles until quite recently.

4. War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy

One of the ultimate challenging reads, War & Peace is one of those books that everybody knows about, yet perhaps only a handful have actually read cover to cover. Tolstoy famously refused to call it a novel, as it didn’t hew to any specific literary conventions or narratives. Indeed, while the story itself concerns the invasion of Russia by Napoleon-led France and the impact it has on Russia’s aristocracy, it doesn’t always function as a narrative. Several chapters are dedicated to philosophical and political discussions between characters, and the end result is a masterful blend of history and fiction.

5. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Describing Cloud Atlas can be almost as much of a challenge as reading it is. The book consists of six stories that are interwoven in such a way that the main character of the next story is in fact reading or observing the one before it, with each story getting interrupted at a key moment to progress on to the next. With a time period that ranges from the 19th century to the distant dystopian future, the book juggles several different genres including mystery and science fiction, to tell an overarching tale about humanity reincarnation. It can be tricky to navigate the various time jumps, but it is well worth it.

Summer World, The Mirror & The Light, The Couple Next Door images courtesy of Goodreads. The Resisters, Meditations, The Birds, Blood Meridian, War & Peace, Cloud Atlas images courtesy of Amazon. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl image courtesy of Kobo Books.