Mental Floss

15 Books That Are Basically Unreadable

Lorna Wallace
bopav // iStock via Getty Images Plus

Books are meant to be read, but there are a number of texts that defy even the most dedicated reader. Many struggle to get through esteemed classics such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) or Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), for example—and then there are the books that go beyond difficult and approach impenetrable. From disappearing ink to being written in code to needing a team to turn a page, here are 15 books that are, for one reason or another, basically unreadable.

1. Googolplex Written Out // Wolfgang H. Nitsche

Googolplex Written Out does exactly what the title suggests and is so long that it can’t actually be physically printed. A googol is 10^100 (one followed by 100 zeros); a googolplex is 1 followed by a googol zeroes, or 10^10^100. The number was popularized by Edward Kasner, who co-wrote Mathematics and the Imagination (1940) with James Newman. Kasner explained that a googolplex is so large that “there would not be enough room to write it, if you went to the farthest star, touring all the nebulae and putting down zeros every inch of the way.”

Wolfgang H. Nitsche created the online version in 2013. It consists of 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 volumes, with each volume containing a million zeroes (other than the first volume, which also includes the digit 1).

Fun fact: The name googol was invented by Kasner’s nephew, who may have gotten it from a comic strip character named Barney Google. Googol then helped inspire the name of technology giant Google.

2. Pátria Amada // Vinícios Leôncio

Vinícios Leôncio is a lawyer who protested the excessive and complex Brazilian tax laws by gathering them all into a single volume titled Pátria Amada. The result is nearly 7 feet thick and 4.5 feet wide, contains more than 41,000 pages, and weighs 7.5 tons. It takes a team of four people just to turn the pages. Leôncio had to hire almost 40 people to help him in his endeavor, which cost him a million Brazilian reals (nearly $430,000 in 2014 dollars) and took 23 years.

Leôncio completed his book in 2014, but he explained at the time that his work wasn’t finished because around 35 new tax rules were being published or changed every day.  

3. Cain’s Jawbone // Edward Powys Mathers

In 1934, Edward Powys Mathers, the pioneer of the cryptic crossword, released a book of word puzzles that ended with an Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery called Cain’s Jawbone. It contains just 100 pages, but there’s a catch: They’ve been printed out of order. By solving the exceedingly challenging literary puzzles within the pages of the story, the reader can put them in order and figure out who the victims and their murderers are. A cash prize was offered to the first person to solve it, and only two correct entries were submitted.

Cain’s Jawbone was then largely forgotten until 2019, when it was republished by Unbound. In the spirit of the original competition, £1000 was offered to the first person to crack the case (the prize was claimed by writer John Finnemore). In 2021, a paperback version was published and quickly sold out after Sarah Scannell began posting videos on TikTok documenting her attempt to solve the puzzle. Unbound is offering £250 credit for their other publications to anyone who submits the correct answer by December 31, 2022. So far, only four people are known to have ever solved the brainteaser.

4. Teeny Ted from Turnip Town // Malcolm Douglas Chaplin

A microscope shot of the nanobook Teeny Ted From Turnip Town
'Teeny Ted From Turnip Town.' / Simon Fraser University, Flickr // CC by 2.0

Teeny Ted from Turnip Town (2007) holds the Guinness World Record for the smallest reproduction of a printed book. The 30-page tale—which is etched on a microchip so small (a mere 70 by 100 micrometers) that it fits on the width of a human hair—was written by Malcolm Douglas Chaplin and “published” by his brother, Robert, who, with the aid of scientists Li Yang and Karen Kavanagh, used an ion beam at the Nano Imaging Laboratory at Canada’s Simon Fraser University to get the job done. “It’s on a scale that’s outside of our ability to experience,” Robert explained in a 2012 interview, “so it’s sort of mind-blowing.” Reading the tiny text requires a scanning electron microscope (although thanks to a Kickstarter campaign, a larger print version is now available). 

5. Levsha // Vladimir Aniskin

The Chaplins aren’t the only people who have pulled off this feat: Vladimir Aniskin, a Russian microminiaturist, is also a creator of micro-books. His first, Levsha, was related to flea shoes, and the second featured the Russian alphabet; both measure just 70 by 90 micrometers. He chose to display his books by mounting each one onto half a poppyseed, which he in turn mounted to a gold plate. The books’ pages can be turned with the aid of tiny needle. “Each page is coloring pigment covered with mylar,” Aniskin told The Moscow Times. “The letters are printed using photo-lithography. The most difficult part of the process was binding the pages together so they can be turned. I used wires with a diameter of 5 microns.”

6. El Libro que No Puede Esperar

In 2012, the Argentinean publisher Eterna Cadencia came up with a creative way to promote its anthology of new Latin American authors. The title of the project, El Libro que No Puede Esperar, translates to “the book that can’t wait,” and is quite literal: Eterna Cadencia printed the books with a special type of ink that begins to disappear when exposed to light and air; the ink only lasts two months. This sense of urgency was designed to encourage readers to actually read the book (and thus introduce them to new authors), rather than letting it sit unread on the shelf.

7. Finnegans Wake // James Joyce

James Joyce in Pensive Pose
James Joyce. / Library of Congress/GettyImages

Getting through just the first page of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) is a massive achievement; reading the full novel is a task beyond the majority of readers. Even those familiar with Joyce’s stream of consciousness style will likely find the book unreadable. It lacks a coherent plot and is written in a polyglot-language of Joyce’s invention, which blends words from different languages to create new words. Take, for instance, this sentence from the first page: “The fall (bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once wallstrait oldparr is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.”

Even Joyce’s fellow modernist writers couldn’t decipher his final work, which took 17 years to write. After reading part of the manuscript well before it was published, Ezra Pound declared that “nothing short of divine vision or a new cure for the clapp can possibly be worth all the circumambient peripherization.” Similarly, after reading early passages of Wake that were being printed in magazines, sci-fi writer H. G. Wells wrote to Joyce to ask, “Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

8. Gravity’s Rainbow // Thomas Pynchon

Much like Finnegans Wake, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is lauded in certain circles but deemed incomprehensible by many. Pynchon’s novel is a complex postmodern behemoth which, on the surface level, is about rockets and erections. In 1974, it shared the National Book Award with A Crown of Feathers and Other Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and was up for consideration for a Pulitzer Prize—but the Pulitzer Advisory Board refused to award the novel, describing it as, according to The New York Times, “‘unreadable,’ ‘turgid,’ ‘overwritten’ and in parts ‘obscene.’” In a review for the paper, critic Richard Locke called the book “bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic, grindingly dull, inspired, horrific, cold, bloated, beached and blasted.”

9. Beatrix Potter’s Journals

Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

Beatrix Potter is best known as the author of classic children’s books like The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902), but between the ages of around 14 and 30, before she embarked on a literary career, she kept private journals written in code. Towards the end of her life she asserted that they were “exasperating and absurd compositions,” which she was “now unable to read even with a magnifying glass.” Years after Potter’s death, a relation came across the journals and passed them on to Leslie Linder, one of her biggest fans, to decipher.

Linder spent five years pouring over the scribbles before having a breakthrough. The code itself wasn’t that complicated—each letter of the alphabet was represented by a symbol. It was Potter’s handwriting that posed the problem: Her notes were written in a messy and minuscule script, and were jotted down on whatever she could find nearby (including a French dictation textbook). It took Linder 13 years to decode the journals, and in 1966, they were published in a readable format as The Journal of Beatrix Potter. The originals remain as difficult to read as ever.

10. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman // Laurence Sterne

Experimental novels can be simultaneously fun and frustrating, and Tristram Shandy (1759–1767) is certainly both. The Laurence Sterne Trust website notes that upon publication, the novel “scandalised some with its bawdy humour, filled others with delight, and baffled many others.” Sterne’s unconventional novel features a narrator who comically seems to know little about the characters, as well as structural digressions which result in a jumbled non-linear narrative. The novel is also visually striking, featuring a blank page, a black page, and a marbled page. There is also an entirely missing chapter, excluded because it was “so much above the style and manner of any thing else I have been able to paint in this book” that it would have made the rest look bad.

11. Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste (and Other Poison Books)

Lurking in libraries across the world is a dangerous threat: Books with the potential to literally poison readers. The green paint and cloth used on the covers of certain old books contains a pigment loaded with arsenic, a toxin that can cause sickness—and even death—when breathed in, ingested (say, by licking your fingers to turn pages), or absorbed through the skin. The issue came to light in 2018, when three poisonous books dating to the 16th and 17th centuries were found in the library at the University of Southern Denmark.

After discovering arsenic on the binding of an 1857 edition of Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste in 2019, Dr. Melissa Tedone co-founded The Poison Book Project, which seeks to identify and catalogue the hazardous tomes in library collections—and help other researchers do the same.  Proper scientific testing is the best way to accurately identify arsenic, but Tedone created “color swatch bookmarks which can be used for visual identification of the remarkably consistent hue of emerald green bookcloth when considered in combination with other historical clues.” In cases where these books must be handled, experts recommend wearing nitrile gloves, washing hands, and reading on a hard surface that gets wiped down after reading. Conservators should work with gloves under a chemical fume hood.

12. A Pickle for the Knowing Ones // Timothy Dexter

A Pickle for the Knowing Ones (1802) perfectly matches its eccentric author. Timothy Dexter, born in Massachusetts circa 1747, was famous for, according to legend, being prickly, semiliterate, and exceedingly lucky in his business decisions. He was a self-proclaimed lord who seemed to have little common sense, yet felt compelled to write down a random collection of his thoughts. Dexter’s book is short but incomprehensible thanks to its lack of punctuation and unorthodox spelling. He gave out copies for free and the book became an amusing oddity. In the second edition, he responded to criticism about the missing punctuation by adding a page at the end that consisted of a block of punctuation marks and instructions for the reader to “peper and solt it as they plese.”

13. Gadsby // Ernest Vincent Wright

When writing Gadsby (1939), Ernest Vincent Wright set himself a very particular rule: He couldn’t use the letter E, the most common letter in the English language. Gadsby is often cited as an example of a lipogrammatic novel—a novel written without a specific letter. “The entire manuscript of this story was written with the E type-bar of the typewriter tied down,” Wright claimed (emphasis his) in the book’s introduction.

Understandably, this constraint massively impacted the style of the prose, resulting in awkward sentences and bizarre descriptions throughout. Take, for example, this passage describing a wedding cake as “an astonishing loaf of culinary art, all fancy frosting, and chuck full of raisins and citron, which is always cut upon such an auspicious occasion; and it is as hard to avoid naming it, in this story, as it is to withstand its assault upon your stomach.”

Funnily enough, in the original 1939 publication, Wright failed: There’s a reference to “patrol officers” and a few thes, so it’s not truly lipogrammatic.

14. La Disparition // Georges Perec

Georges Perec actually achieved the feat of writing a novel without the letter E, but he did so in French. La Disparition (1969) was later translated into English by Gilbert Adair, who took the liberty of retitling it A Void (1994), due to the fact that the direct translation was The Disappearance (a title that contains three Es).

15. Naked Lunch // William S. Burroughs

William Burroughs, William S Burroughs
William Burroughs / Evening Standard/GettyImages

Along with writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs was an icon of the Beat Generation literary movement. His best-known work is the controversial Naked Lunch (sometimes called The Naked Lunch), a collection of non-linear vignettes about drug addiction and sex intended to be read in any order the reader desires. Tom Vitale at NPR describes Naked Lunch as “a dark, wild ride through the terror of heroin addiction and withdrawal, filled with paranoia, erotica and drug-fueled hallucinations.” Due to its grotesquely excessive content, Naked Lunch was banned by various authorities upon its publication in the U.S. in 1962. Following an obscenity trial in Boston, the ruling was reversed in 1966, in part due to Ginsberg—who was himself familiar with literary censorship—successfully arguing that the novel held social value.