Things change, literary edition
September 27, 2019 11:58 AM   Subscribe

The cult books that lost their cool.

The BBC article's selections: The Catcher in the Rye, Atlas Shrugged, The Beach, Iron John. The Outsider, The Old Man and the Sea, On the Road, The Rules, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Mao's Liddle' Red Book, and Infinite Jest.
posted by Lyme Drop (322 comments total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not often do I read a top-N list and get annoyed at how obviously correct all the selections are, but wow, these sure are annoyingly correct selections.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:07 PM on September 27 [48 favorites]


Odd. A list on the internet for which I agree with all the entries. I'd probably add Naked Lunch and A Clockwork Orange, two books people wouldn't shut about 15 years ago but which I never really hear mentioned any more. I'd even go so far as to say the film Clockwork Orange has lost its cachet.
posted by dobbs at 12:08 PM on September 27 [22 favorites]


I unironically love Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Now what?
posted by Vesihiisi at 12:10 PM on September 27 [32 favorites]


I fear this thread will end up being a place to dump on books. Instead, I'll dump on myself for once having enjoyed The World According to Garp and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
posted by sjswitzer at 12:10 PM on September 27 [24 favorites]


how obviously correct all the selections are

I dissent to Iron John, which was a laughingstock, mostly, in its day, and does not compare to many of the other books in its popularity at the time. It did have a moment, I'll admit, but nothing like Catcher or On The Road or even Seagull.
posted by thelonius at 12:12 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


I unironically love Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Now what?

We all go out for fondue?
posted by thelonius at 12:13 PM on September 27 [87 favorites]


I agree on all of these except Infinite Jest. Sorry not sorry. Just because a bunch of bronies decided to make it their own doesn't mean it isn't still a brilliant piece of work. I do understand that some might choose not to read him any due to harassment claims, if he were still alive I might feel that way myself but reading and enjoying again my tattered copy of IJ is of no benefit to him.
posted by supermedusa at 12:13 PM on September 27 [47 favorites]


I unironically love Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Now what?

You can sit over here with me, who still has a soft spot for On The Road.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:14 PM on September 27 [18 favorites]


And a question: Do I get extra cool points for always having thought some of these books were bullshit?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:15 PM on September 27 [50 favorites]


All books are bad in the dark.
posted by prize bull octorok at 12:15 PM on September 27 [43 favorites]


If I have to line up for one of these it's Salinger, but I was in the cult-within-a-cult that insisted Franny and Zooey was the correct one for truly sensitive souls.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:17 PM on September 27 [23 favorites]


Isn't Jonathan Livingston Seagull, like, 750 words? Doesn't that kind of make it flash fiction or something?

Anyway. I still love Catcher in the Rye unironically, so.
posted by holborne at 12:18 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


prize bull octorok: Which is another point against trying to read inside of a dog.
posted by SansPoint at 12:20 PM on September 27 [29 favorites]


Imagine my relief to see that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is still the classic I think it is. /whew
posted by sydnius at 12:20 PM on September 27 [11 favorites]


Perhaps a common denominator is that these books almost perfectly captured a moment that now feels very remote or alien to (most of) us?

I've had the precise opposite experience with John Updike. When I first read him as a young midwesterner I couldn't relate at all to his upper class coastal elite ennui, even while I could recognize his craft. And now, well....
posted by sjswitzer at 12:21 PM on September 27 [17 favorites]


isn't Jonathan Livingston Seagull the bird who left his wife because he thought Natalie Portman liked him?
posted by mullacc at 12:21 PM on September 27 [73 favorites]


Objection: Atlas Shrugged was never cool in any capacity or enjoyed by anyone except assholes. This isn't a joke: was there ever a point where Atlas Shrugged had cultural cachet like the other works on the list?

Also:
Don’t, for instance, rush to empty your home of anything that doesn’t ‘spark joy’ at the behest of a book that may yet turn out to be our own era’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Even if it fades into obscurity, the best thing about Kondo's book is how irrationally mad it seems to make some people.
posted by Sangermaine at 12:25 PM on September 27 [58 favorites]


Poor Holden Caulfield. Mired in a funk for more than half a century, the angst-ridden ‘everyteen’ is now regarded by the cool kids as being a bit – well, self-indulgent. His ennui is, if not exclusively a rich-white-boy problem, then certainly nothing compared with looming climate collapse and other woes weighing on the minds of his 21st-Century peers.

That's pretty much what my take was when I was forced to read it in tenth grade 1979. Growing up as a poor kid in suburban New Jersey, the last thing I was interested in was the problems of a privileged rich kid. My high school was full of those assholes; I didn't need to read a book about them.
posted by octothorpe at 12:25 PM on September 27 [38 favorites]


I unironically love Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Now what?

I have read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull! I used to work with a guy who really liked it - and he was an English major with generally pretty refined taste, so I went ahead. I think it's actually a lot more charming now that it's not the seventies anymore.

The World According to Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany are what Orwell calls "good bad books", books that have a lot of power without being aesthetically defensible. As you probably recall, one of the recurring phrases in APfOM is "I am God's hands", which I did not realize until now is a paraphrase of St. Teresa of Avila*. I read A Prayer For Owen Meany when I was, like, eighteen and even at the time recognized it as a middlebrow read, full of easy sentiment. And yet, on those occasions when I have had to do something for moral reasons that I find difficult or scary, I do still think of Owen Meany**. St. Teresa is classier, but Owen Meany goes way back in my personal history.

In any case, that's what a good bad book does. I wouldn't hold it up as an unmatched classic, but I've read some unmatched classics that did fuck all for me in moments of hardship.



*"God has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people."

**I'm not saying that these were super difficult or super scary things, but sometimes you get in a headspace where something that is not exactly keeping children from being murdered by a crazed white supremacist still seems difficult and scary.
posted by Frowner at 12:27 PM on September 27 [35 favorites]


I see what you did there with Mao, you nogoodnik’!
posted by amanda at 12:28 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


Phonies
posted by Damienmce at 12:29 PM on September 27 [57 favorites]


Maybe this falls into the "alternative readings" exemption they create, but I actually think there's more going on with The Old Man and the Sea and Hemingway in general than they give it credit for. Weirdly, I just went into this at length in an article about Achewood:

And here’s an interesting thing: throw out the “hilarious” part, and that last sentence also describes the surprisingly complicated gender politics of the novels of Ernest Hemingway. The parallels are many. Onstad and Hemingway both stand out for their skilled, off-the-beaten-path use of the English language. Like Onstad’s, Hemingway’s work on the surface is all about men doing manly things and trying to compete (with a manly fashion) with each other over who exudes more raw testosterone (also like Onstad, Hemingway often implicates genitalia, if slightly less explicitly; the hero of The Sun Also Rises spends the entire book fretting over a catastrophic wound between his legs); both literary worlds contain a whole lot of drinking. But Hemingway’s manly men are all emotionally wounded and insecure, and if you poke at the text just a little bit, it’s clear that the source of their pain is the struggle of living up to impossible codes of manhood.

Probably unintentionally, Hemingway’s books serve as vivid indictments of what we now frame as toxic masculinity (I think Hemingway knew that something was bad about what society expected from men, but was too trapped in his own time and culture to be able to formulate it in an explicit way, instead just sort of accidentally smearing a composite portrait through his entire body of work). The same thing is going on in Achewood, except with a touch more intentionality and with a little bit of progress on the problem of coming up with suggestions for alternate ways to be.

posted by COBRA! at 12:29 PM on September 27 [59 favorites]


Your favorite book sucks, MetaFilterFilter, sick transit Gloria Monday and whatnot.

I think that the thing to keep in mind about this list is that they were the books that you were supposed to read because you really weren't cool if you didn't, or couldn't appreciate their unique genius and capturing of the zeitgeist or whatever. I remember distinctly picking up the attitude that there was something missing in my psyche as a young American male because my main takeaway from The Catcher in the Rye was that I wouldn't want to spend five minutes in Holden Caulfield's presence. I liked Jonathan Livingston Seagull just fine when I read it, when I was about twelve, but not so much after that. I thought that Infinite Jest had a good running joke in the form of the footnotes, and liked most of the scenes at the halfway house, but changed my mind after Mary Karr revealed that DFW abused her, and moreover that not only were most of the people in the halfway house real people that DFW had met in rehab, and that he had kept their identifying characteristics, but that he also used their real first names. On the Road was just interminable.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:31 PM on September 27 [10 favorites]


All books are bad in the dark.

Unless you have a backlit kindle.

Anyway, no love for Sexus, Plexus, and Nexus?

Could never get into On the Road, but I'd been hitchhiking along the California coast (woo dating myself) and having this really weird more-than-deja vu familiarity with things, really spooked until I remembered Dharma Bums was set right in the area.
posted by sammyo at 12:34 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


Your favorite book sucks, MetaFilterFilter, sick transit Gloria Monday and whatnot.


Ha! That's why I don't have a favorite book!! I have MULTIPLE favorite books !! SUCK IT HATERS!!!
posted by Pendragon at 12:34 PM on September 27 [13 favorites]


Tired of many of these, also tired of opinionated internet lists, there’s a dialectic in there somewhere.
posted by The Toad at 12:35 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


This is why I make it a point to only read books with pictures of spaceships and/or dragons on the covers.
posted by Phobos the Space Potato at 12:36 PM on September 27 [94 favorites]


As long as Metafilter never makes it onto some media list of "The cult sites that lost their cool"...
posted by PhineasGage at 12:37 PM on September 27 [15 favorites]


I guess that I didn't know that Alex Garland had been a novelist. I only know him as a filmmaker.
posted by octothorpe at 12:38 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


I never thought Infinite Jest was the key to the universe or anything, but there's a lot in it that's worth keeping, including some of the most painfully accurate descriptions of depression I've ever read. Its fans are not its fault.
posted by Daily Alice at 12:38 PM on September 27 [33 favorites]


I have never liked Old Man and the Sea, I still don't even "get" what the fuck it was supposed to do besides be aggressively boring. Even looking it up right now, to explicitly see what the big deal is, it doesn't even seem like big fans of it have anything worthwhile to say about it. It seems like a historic cultural error or something.

Boring old man goes to do boring job, isn't good at it, spends 3 days doing a bad job of catching one fish, does an even worse job getting it home, gets home with only the worst parts of the one fish he barely caught, ppl cry the end.

What the fuck? Why is that a tale they have us read in school.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:43 PM on September 27 [15 favorites]


Reading The Old Man and the Sea as a suburban 12 year old girl (even one who loved the sea, old men, marine life, and reading) had me struggling more than Santiago himself.
posted by sallybrown at 12:43 PM on September 27 [13 favorites]


All books are bad in the dark.

Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:46 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


D'oh! On non-preview, SansPoint beat me to it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:48 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


The trick is liking a book and then never telling anybody about it.
posted by Fizz at 12:48 PM on September 27 [64 favorites]


Atlas Shrugged was never cool in any capacity or enjoyed by anyone except assholes.

I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged when I read it as a very young adult. I didn't love it, or like every bit of it; it was too long and certainly the "everyone who's not committed to Objectivism can starve miserably, we don't care" stuff made me uncomfortable, although I don't remember it being extremely explicit on a quick not-very-critical read.

I liked reading about competent people getting stuff done. I still do. These days, I get my competence porn from chick lit. Lots of women authors (Nora Roberts for one) write women who enjoy their work and are very good at it. I love reading stuff like that. Bonus: no icky Objectivism.

I suppose it's possible I was an asshole as a young adult, but I don't think so.

My experience:
* People's tastes change.
* Many people enjoy parts of books and dislike other parts.
* Many highly problematic works have elements that are enjoyable for lots of readers.
posted by kristi at 12:48 PM on September 27 [26 favorites]


Luckily, I was never cool, so I'll continue to enjoy my literature which is now no longer cool either.
posted by evilDoug at 12:49 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


I unironically love Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Now what?

We all go out for fondue?


Before or after the key party?
posted by thivaia at 12:50 PM on September 27 [16 favorites]


Two things that I do are write down little conversations el_lupino and I have and occasionally write extremely reductive reviews/summaries of books I've read, because I don't have the energy to think & type a real one. So:

[About Jonathan Livingston Seagull]

J: Some adolescent loves are better not revisited.
el_lupino: Yeah?
J: I loved this as a teenager, and I decided to reread it to see if it would hold up, because I remember that [my aunt] said she thought it was trite and that sort of broke my heart at the time.
el_lupino: And?
J: It's trite.
el_lupino: It was Reggie Jackson's professed favorite book. And half of the sports writers were like, "Hey, an athlete read a book!" and the other half were snickering behind their hands at his choice.
J: It is also faux-deep.
el_lupino: That's a very popular kind of deep.

[The Old Man and the Sea, in toto]

"I'll show you, fish."
posted by jocelmeow at 12:54 PM on September 27 [15 favorites]


Cool, like so many things, just doesn't age all that well. Road trips and and teen angst from the fifties, anti-war screeds from the sixties, social anxiety from the nineties, how are those things edgy and relevant today?

Who still reads Pynchon (I'm surprised Gravity's Rainbow isn't on the list)? or Hunter S. Thompson? they'll be next.

This is just the natural progression of things.

Vonnegut, though, seems prescient still.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:56 PM on September 27 [7 favorites]


Atlas Shrugged was never cool in any capacity or enjoyed by anyone except assholes.

There's a Mr. Neil Peart here who would like to (very politely, being Canadian and all) disagree with you.
posted by hanov3r at 12:56 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


I loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull when I was 8 don't feel the need to revisit it. I am a fan of his son James Bach's book "Lessons Learned in Software Testing: A Context-Driven Approach" though.
posted by octothorpe at 12:57 PM on September 27 [10 favorites]


Further thoughts:

I have not read Atlas Shrugged since I was that young adult, and I have no desire to. I could enjoy the exercise of reading it more critically now, but life's way too short and my book pile has thousands of books.

I note that another book that satisfies some of the same "people getting things done" itch for me is The Goblin Emperor, which is opposite to Atlas Shrugged in so many ways: the hero is NOT confident or competent, but he grows into his role quickly and takes pleasure in making good things happen. Also, he is full of empathy - even though that's largely frowned upon by members of his court - and that drives his choices, big and small, and informs the things he wants to get done, and that resonates with me SO much more, because I tend more toward empathy than weird meritocracy. The Goblin Emperor is much, much more satisfying to me in so many ways, compared to Atlas Shrugged, but the pleasure of the hero getting stuff done feels similar to me in both books (although the maturity I've gained over the years and the insights others have provided into Rand's philosophy would likely spoil the pleasure I once got from Dagny Taggart running her railroad).
posted by kristi at 12:58 PM on September 27 [13 favorites]


I loved, and still love, both _Jonathan Livingston Seagull_ and _Illusions_. And Bach's flying-focused books (_Stranger to the Ground_, _Nothing By Chance_) speak to the nascent barnstormer in me. But the later stuff is... meh.
posted by hanov3r at 1:00 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


What about some of the other paperback titans of the 70's, like I'm OK, You're OK or Your Erroneous Zones, or Fear Of Flying

I think Imma watch some Burt Reynolds movies this weekend.....
posted by thelonius at 1:01 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


[The Old Man and the Sea, in toto]

"I'll show you, fish."


[Money Dick, only in part]

"I'll show you, fish."
“I’ll show you fish.”
“I’ll show you, ish(mael)!”
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:02 PM on September 27 [9 favorites]


Iron John apparently spent 62 weeks on the NYT best seller list. Wow. I had no idea.

Anyway, it seems like there are sorta two kinds of books on this list—there are books that are well-written and well-crafted in a literary sense, but which no longer resonate culturally in the way they perhaps did. And then there are books that, as Frowner notes, are pretty squarely in Orwell's "good bad books" category; they are powerful if you read them at the right point in your life, but in an aesthetic/literary sense... well, they're just not that good.

Books that you read as a teen or young adult and subsequently reread, to discover they've been visited by the Suck Fairy in the meantime, are in the second camp. I don't really think this makes them bad books, though—it just means you've outgrown them for one reason or another.

I find the books that are actually well-written but now inspire a totally different reaction than they did when they were initially popular to be really interesting, though. That's where you can actually see the greater culture changing, and in some cases it's clearly for the better. Trading out Catcher for more relevant books in highschool curricula is probably the most telling indicator, IMO.

Also if I had to pick a piece of 90s fan-favorite culture that's aged... well, lets just say it provides a window into a very specific place and time, I'd pick Snow Crash.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:04 PM on September 27 [34 favorites]


Speaking of books that I liked in adolescence but not so much later: I never read Atlas Shrugged, but did read Anthem as a teen, in part because of Rush's 2112, and, as a bright underachiever, thought it was just fine.

Who still reads Pynchon (I'm surprised Gravity's Rainbow isn't on the list)? or Hunter S. Thompson? they'll be next.

Well, Inherent Vice had a movie adaptation a few years ago. HST was probably more a creature of his time than most of his fans realize; by the time he died, his best years were decades behind him.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:05 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]


As a philosopher...
Objection: I can rant about self-serving adolescent bullshit all the day long. That doesn't make me a philosopher.
posted by klanawa at 1:06 PM on September 27


Iron John apparently spent 62 weeks on the NYT best seller list.

wow, I of course did not realize this either....but I guess it wouldn't have been a punching bag for talk show comedians etc if it hadn't been more successful than I remembered
posted by thelonius at 1:07 PM on September 27


Catcher in the Rye was startling when it appeared. There just weren't many books then from the point of view of a troubled high school kid, told in the language he spoke. It might have been the first. It influenced thousands and thousands of YA books that seem more up-to-date, whose readers might not even recognize the source. Its innovations have become so pervasive it is no longer possible for a contemporary reader to experience its originality as readers once did. If it now seems out-of-date, it is because its once innovative devices have been so widely imitated they have become cliches.
posted by JonJacky at 1:07 PM on September 27 [77 favorites]


Plus, in the era of helicopter parenting and geo-tagging, not to mention hyper-vigilant mental-health awareness, the idea that a depressed teen could simply go Awol in New York City for a couple of days is increasingly hard to indulge.

What? Does this person find it hard to "indulge" why Valjean steals bread instead of using SNAP benefits?
posted by Automocar at 1:08 PM on September 27 [36 favorites]


Hemingway's "persona as a bullfighting brawler" isn't really based on reading his work. And The Sun Also Rises is the "cool" Hemingway book.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:10 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


Reading Catcher in the Rye as a teenager: Holden's so cool.

Reading Catcher in the Rye as an adult: Holden's such a jerk.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:11 PM on September 27 [16 favorites]


a troubled high school kid, told in the language he spoke. It might have been the first

Huck Finn
posted by sallybrown at 1:12 PM on September 27 [45 favorites]


COBRA!, I'd read your article about Achewood and I really liked it. Achewood taught me a lot about what it must be like to be an American guy struggling with masculinity, and I wouldn't have been receptive to that message in a literary format. Since Achewood ended, I have noticed some uglier things about it than I did at first, but I think it mostly holds up very well.

I found out who Colin Wilson is through this article, and he sounds just comically awful, like a dude Neal Pollack would pretend to be in the early 2000s.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:17 PM on September 27 [7 favorites]


Objection: Atlas Shrugged was never cool in any capacity or enjoyed by anyone except assholes. This isn't a joke: was there ever a point where Atlas Shrugged had cultural cachet like the other works on the list?

As an American I can assure you that our society is chock-full of exactly the kind of asshole who finds Atlas Shrugged meaningful and relatable.
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:17 PM on September 27 [18 favorites]


I'm just realizing that The Celestine Prophecy is not on the list, and I'm trying to figure out if it just totally slipped off everyone's radar or if the people who created this list were like "omigod that thing" and all resolved not to bring it up.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:18 PM on September 27 [31 favorites]


I was working in a chain book store when _Iron John_ came out. Fuck that shit, it was AWFUL and we couldn't keep enough in stock.
posted by hanov3r at 1:18 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


Even if it fades into obscurity, the best thing about Kondo's book is how irrationally mad it seems to make some people.

Something about the polite suggestion not to hold on to things you hate or that make your life harder gets people really angry, which, I mean, I think there might be a connection there.

This is why I make it a point to only read books with pictures of spaceships and/or dragons on the covers.

Spaceships, dragons, dragons flying spaceships, and spaceships that are dragons will always be cool.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:24 PM on September 27 [13 favorites]


On The Road has problems, granted. There are internal problems, sure, and also external ones, as an image co-opted into lesser things.

But I will not say it's lost its cool. The body of the novel may not be what it was (I haven't read the book in years, as I read it so many times I can't go near it again), but if nothing else, it all leads up to that beautiful, twinkling ending, as gorgeous and moving as literature can ever hope to be.
posted by Capt. Renault at 1:28 PM on September 27 [11 favorites]


I put down Jonathan Livingston Seagull within minutes of picking it up, but I'll still rep for the soundtrack to the film by Neil Diamond.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 1:29 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


Who still reads Pynchon (I'm surprised Gravity's Rainbow isn't on the list)? or Hunter S. Thompson? they'll be next.

I still read Pynchon, and in fact I think the "70's paranoid style" as I like to call it is almost more relevant now than it was then.
posted by thedaniel at 1:34 PM on September 27 [38 favorites]


I read and loved so much of Salinger's other work as a teenager, but even at the height of my disaffectedness I though Holden Caufield was a complete jerk.
posted by me3dia at 1:34 PM on September 27


Brautigan still hip. I can rest easily.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 1:38 PM on September 27 [18 favorites]


What? Does this person find it hard to "indulge" why Valjean steals bread instead of using SNAP benefits?

Valjean is far enough in the past that the setting is estranging so it's easy to accept that different rules apply, and/or it's easy to assume that in "the past" things were "very bad", unlike now when they're "better". Holden is enough like actual contemporary people and enough like actual contemporary YA characters that differences are striking and make him seem implausible if you don't have any kind of historical imagination.

Admittedly, at least some of the reason to read older books is to understand a bit more about the zeitgeist of the past. But when you're planning a generic high school syllabus or dealing with groups of less fluent readers, it helps to have books with relatively familiar settings so that people who are already working hard to parse the text don't have to work hard to understand the background of the book. Some of those people will also enjoy books that require some historical imagination, but even those readers will be okay with books with contemporary characters and settings.

You might quite plausibly come back to Catcher In The Rye when you've done enough reading and thinking to be curious about the pre-YA depiction of teenagers. You could read it as a sort of mid-point between, eg, What Maisie Knew and Twilight, where there's more emphasis on realistic interiority and the experience of the teenager rather than emphasis on writing about a teenager as a way of writing about society as a whole, the society of adults, etc, but the book itself is still a book for adults that teenagers can also enjoy, rather than being a book for teenagers that adults can also enjoy.

Similarly, you might come back to Hemingway because you want to think about nature writing, or mid-century writing, or mid-century depictions of masculinity.

To my mind, the reason to read is to develop greater and greater curiosity - if you haven't read much (or if you need a distraction, are tired, are ill, etc etc) you read only for what's in front of you and you need to be swept away into the book without being distracted by "this isn't realistic teenagerhood" or "man this guy is an asshole". As you read more and have time to think about reading, it's possible to read a book as part of a larger project of understanding more about books - whether that's understanding more about pulp science fiction of the sixties, understanding more about the ways that first person narration works, understanding more about how "serious" writing influences "popular" writing, whatever. When you're able to read that way, even a dull or bad book can be helpful and interesting, and it's much easier to pick the helpful and interesting out of a book that may seem dull or bad.

For this reason, I think it's a bit tricky to be totally sure what is irretrievably dead and useless in the fiction of the past.
posted by Frowner at 1:44 PM on September 27 [38 favorites]


However you come down on On the Road as a book, its primary use these days is as a source of quotes that the worst people in the world can post on Facebook or Twitter or in their online dating profiles.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:44 PM on September 27 [11 favorites]


its primary use these days is as a source of quotes that the worst people in the world can post on Facebook or Twitter or in their online dating profiles.

Rod McKuen poetry or Paul Simon lyrics are another option if they're going for the tortured-and-sensitive approach.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:47 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


Actually a book about the books that are despised by each era would be interesting. One generation we're all "tortured and sensitive - so real! so true!" and the next "normcore! stop pretending you're special!"
posted by Frowner at 1:49 PM on September 27 [10 favorites]


it all leads up to that beautiful, twinkling ending

I memorized this passage, and Kerouac's intonations during this reading, as a young man and recited it often. However, whenever I tried to actually read the book, I'd get bored.

Last year I bought this version of the audiobook (read by Artie Buco from Sopranos). I think he really nailed it.
posted by dobbs at 1:50 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


Yeah, The Old Man and the Sea was Hemingway's attempt to go mano a mano with Melville for the Heavyweight Championship of the Great American Novel, and is silly and contemptible for that alone.

I scorned Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the faux profundity of its 'philosophy' when it came out, but now I see it as a vastly melancholy and affecting narrative of a brilliant schizophrenic's tragic and ultimately futile attempt to rebuild his own mind in the teeth of that awful affliction.

It's heroic and there's nothing like it. Now I can't think of it without tearing up.
posted by jamjam at 1:53 PM on September 27 [21 favorites]


Maybe it is the tiny screen of my phone but I read the first half of this thread confusing On The Road with The Road and working out (a) when Cormac McCarthy became uncool and (b) figuring out his many mefites I was going to have to fight
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:54 PM on September 27 [18 favorites]


I scorned Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the faux profundity of its 'philosophy' when it came out,

For more years than I care to recount, I taught and administered a quality management system. Pirsig’s issue with his (and everyone’s) inability to define what quality is was always in the back of my mind.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:57 PM on September 27 [15 favorites]


My father read On the Road in college in the late '50s and was inspired to hitchhike across the country. At his recommendation, I read it in college 30ish years later. My reaction: "It's pretty boring. It's just about some guys driving around aimlessly." Him: "Exactly!" What was revolutionary and radical during the Eisenhower administration wasn't quite so daring during the first Bush administration.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 2:04 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


They ought to give a free copy of Big Sur with every purchase of On The Road so readers can fast-forward to the endgame of Kerouac's life - depressed, a prisoner of his own persona, dying of alcoholism.

Pirsig’s issue with his (and everyone’s) inability to define what quality is was always in the back of my mind.
Pirsig seems to think that philosophy stopped with Aristotle; he should have read some Wittgenstein or J.L Austin.
posted by thelonius at 2:08 PM on September 27 [11 favorites]


Be.
posted by pracowity at 2:11 PM on September 27


"On The Road Again" > On the Road
posted by kirkaracha at 2:13 PM on September 27 [7 favorites]


I loved The Old Man and the Sea.

I have almost no memory of the plot and didn't notice the gender politics. But I thought it had absolutely perfect descriptions of the sea - the stark, hostile, glaring sea - and the language was perfect.

Maybe that just shows I'm not very deep: for me, it was the Sea who was the main character.
posted by jb at 2:13 PM on September 27 [17 favorites]


Pirsig seems to think that philosophy stopped with Aristotle

he did study philosophy at the University of Chicago, so it’s understandable.
posted by sjswitzer at 2:17 PM on September 27 [25 favorites]


Thing is, any work that really touches on and **GETS** the zeitgeist is going to wind up on a list like this one day precisely because of how well it speaks to that particular place and time. Places and times move on.

That doesn't make any of the works bad (except for Atlas Shrugged, it was always bad), just suffering from the problem of being extremely speaking to an era that no longer exists.

They're good books bront (except for Atlas Shrugged), they're just no longer much use to anyone except geeks and historians. If a future historian wants to know the feel of middle class white America in the 1970's, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is essential reading.
posted by sotonohito at 2:20 PM on September 27 [17 favorites]


Infinite Jest had too many passages that were based on well known comedy idioms (the barrel, the rope and the pulley) or well trodden urban myths (the toothbrush and the undeveloped film). I mean some of them were footnotes or whatever but the book is riddled with them. You could get away with that sort of thing in '96 but not now. And also, you know, Infinite Just just ends. Don't try and tell me that was the plan. He clearly shrugged and published.
posted by memebake at 2:22 PM on September 27 [7 favorites]


I wasted months slogging through The Outsider by Colin Wilson because someone said I should read it and that it tied so many things together.
posted by memebake at 2:24 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


No Generation X? No Still Life With Woodpecker? No Bell Jar? No Siddhartha?

No The Monster at the End of This Book?
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 2:25 PM on September 27 [27 favorites]


In my school district instead of Catcher in the Rye they had us read A Separate Peace, which I hated. Along with Lord of the Flies and Shakespeare's tragedies (but no comedies) it was a curriculum designed to make you associate Approved Literature with The Problems of Whiny White Dudes. Which I guess was accurate for the time, but a real turnoff.

Also, it was all so effing depressing, I longed for something that wasn't a tragedy or stuffed with ennui. I was 15! I had plenty of my own ennui!
posted by emjaybee at 2:26 PM on September 27 [13 favorites]


No Generation X?

Aw, I still kinda like his stuff, but in a guilty sort of way. I wanted so much for that book to tell me something useful and it never did.
posted by emjaybee at 2:27 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


It’s funny because I originally misread this and thought she included The Road and The Outsiders, both of which would also qualify.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 2:28 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


My life intersects this list in two interesting ways:

* I wrote a newspaper column on The Rules when it came out (my review, in a nutshell: It was trash) and because of it was invited to appear on the Oprah show to rebut the authors. I rode in the limo from the hotel to the studio with the two of them. They were... unpleasant.

* I wrote a review of Atlas Shrugged in which I pointed out that John Galt was a genocidal sociopath, a fact that would be more obvious if, instead of being human, he were, oh, a cup of yogurt ("My God! That cup of yogurt wants to kill off millions in a snit! Quick! Someone eat it!"). This observation then inspired me to write a short story about yogurt taking over the world... which was made into an episode of the Netflix series Love Death & Robots earlier this year. Thanks, Ayn!

Otherwise, yeah, most of these books haven't aged especially well.

Also, I've always hated Catcher in the Rye. Goddamned Holden Caulfield, spoiled as fuck.
posted by jscalzi at 2:30 PM on September 27 [107 favorites]


You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow...
posted by clavdivs at 2:34 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


Even cowgirls get the blues.
posted by anshuman at 2:35 PM on September 27 [12 favorites]


No Generation X? No Still Life With Woodpecker? No Bell Jar? No Siddhartha?

No The Monster at the End of This Book?


Oh! I loved Still Life with Woodpecker! Even to this day, if you gave me a pack of Camel cigarettes, I wouldn't open it - I would keep it sealed and stare at it to discover the secrets of the universe. I don't know if it would have the same meaning for me now, but Tom Robinson has too much humour and heart to ever be truly passe.

As for The Monster at the End of this Book, that is a classic piece of literature and as timeless as Gilgamesh or Hamlet. I will NOT hear otherwise. (I do find the many imitators a bit annoying - same idea, but still not quite as good as the original).
posted by jb at 2:36 PM on September 27 [17 favorites]


Who still reads Pynchon (I'm surprised Gravity's Rainbow isn't on the list)?

Right here. Every single one.

(I've read Gravity's Rainbow twice)
posted by thivaia at 2:37 PM on September 27 [13 favorites]


They ought to give a free copy of Big Sur with every purchase of On The Road so readers can fast-forward to the endgame of Kerouac's life - depressed, a prisoner of his own persona, dying of alcoholism.

and then they should get a free copy of visions of gerard and realize there was so much more to him than on the road, which is pretty far down the list of novels he wrote

kerouac was an asshole, but a great writer - unfortunately, on the road is more asshole than great writer
posted by pyramid termite at 2:40 PM on September 27 [10 favorites]


No The Monster at the End of This Book?

The... Little Golden book featuring Grover?

Am I missing something?
posted by Automocar at 2:52 PM on September 27 [9 favorites]


Not often do I read a top-N list and get annoyed at how obviously correct all the selections are, but wow, these sure are annoyingly correct selections.

That's one way to put it. I have to say I felt like it was among the lazier iterations of this list I've seen, except for reminding me of some truly silly stuff like Iron John.
posted by atoxyl at 2:58 PM on September 27


I have many literary sins to atone for, but the greatest may be my PKD VALIS phase. Or maybe even Heinlein.
posted by loquacious at 2:58 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


I can understand disliking Catcher because it’s dated and a product of its time, but I’m not really understanding the whole “just a whiny rich white kid” criticism. He’s seriously depressed and probably suffering from what we would now characterize as PTSD because his brother died and he’s neither offered nor getting any help from the adults in his life. In fact they mostly seem like assholes. Plus, you could make a strong case that at some point in his life he’s been sexually assaulted, or at the very least has had to endure unwanted attention from adult males. Hardly what I’d call “self-indulgent” behaviour. And - I can’t believe I’m defending rich white kids - but last I checked they’re allowed to have problems too.
posted by trigger at 2:59 PM on September 27 [65 favorites]


Catcher in the Rye was startling when it appeared. There just weren't many books then from the point of view of a troubled high school kid, told in the language he spoke. It might have been the first. It influenced thousands and thousands of YA books that seem more up-to-date, whose readers might not even recognize the source. Its innovations have become so pervasive it is no longer possible for a contemporary reader to experience its originality as readers once did. If it now seems out-of-date, it is because its once innovative devices have been so widely imitated they have become cliches.

This is the same flavor of argument I present to people who love modern sitcoms but think I Love Lucy is derivative and only worthy of scorn.
posted by palomar at 3:03 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


Zen and the Art was the first book I can recall where the protagonist had suffered a breakdown. Still can read it.

On the Road? Cassidy

Catcher in the Rye? Read at 15, Woah, Unreliable Narrator!!?!
posted by Windopaene at 3:04 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]



I have many literary sins to atone for, but the greatest may be my PKD VALIS phase. Or maybe even Heinlein.


it could be worse. perhaps like you went through your teenage heinlein phase right when you joined your Favorite Website. and now you re-live the shame about 5361 times per day
posted by lazaruslong at 3:05 PM on September 27 [84 favorites]


Read Fear And Loathing '72 to feel how far we have fallen...

Just saying
posted by Windopaene at 3:05 PM on September 27 [12 favorites]


(also, I still have a soft spot for Catcher in the Rye even though adult me sees through the unreliable narration that drew in a disaffected, lonely teenage me. it's okay to let people like things sometimes.)
posted by palomar at 3:05 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


Yeah I’m surprised no Tom Robbins on there.

I never knew The Sun Also Rises is the cool Hemingway book but I’m glad to know my favorite is cool. I’ve got a scribner & sons edition from the 50s or something. I’d go look but I’m in bed.

I like Atlas Shrugged because when I read it in the early 2000s there were not books by women about women that showed them as powerful and having men adore them for their brains and ambition. Dagny Taggart was amazing. I remember how different she was in her relations with Hank and Francisco compared to what I read, saw, or experienced about intimate relationships... she didn’t let them undermine or reduce her. She didn’t let them make her less. I had never seen that before in such detail. Not in real life, not in books, not in media very often. I mean, of course there was Leia but who can compare themselves to a space princess?!

There are many stories in Atlas Shrugged but Dagny getting shit done and riding around in her awesome train car and just being smart and amazing is my favorite part. She started out giving some fucks but quickly gave none. And I hadn’t realized that was possible. I thought you either started out a badass like Leia or were forever doomed to be some kind of wishy washy girl no one took seriously.

Maybe this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny but it’s what I got out of it at in a time in my life when things were very very bad. Dagny gave me hope about myself.
posted by affectionateborg at 3:12 PM on September 27 [18 favorites]


The Beach--IIRC it's about a group of young people who are shipwrecked on the titular beach? Well anyway, when I read it my main takeaway was how are they having all that sex and nobody gets pregnant, and also did the women just go around dripping when they got their periods? Because they were on The Beach for at least a few months, right?
posted by scratch at 3:14 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


Gravity's Rainbow has dated very badly indeed in my opinion. It's current popularity I put down to Neal Stephenson fans having their minds blown on reading the Source.
Mason and Dixon may actually be a genuine masterpiece but no-one seems to have read it.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 3:15 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


[Marginalia in a small college library copy of A Catcher in the Rye, about halfway through the book]
Handwritten: Holden is the phony
Handwritten below that: You just figured this out?!
posted by jocelmeow at 3:16 PM on September 27 [45 favorites]


Genuinely surprised The Secret History didn't make this list. And I'm saying that as someone who reread it, and basically enjoyed rereading it, earlier this year.

I don't think the issue is that these books capture the zeitgeist too, too perfectly and therefore can't be appreciated once the moment is gone. After all, we read plenty of books for their ability to evoke a historical moment. It's that they do capture at least some aspect of the zeitgeist, which hypnotized a lot of people into thinking that they were good books, but are not otherwise particularly good, and once the zeitgeist is gone, they look awfully embarrassing. It's like Mme. Merle said, "You are young and fresh, and of to-day; you have the great thing—you have actuality. I once had it—we all have it for an hour." But what happens afterwards?
posted by praemunire at 3:18 PM on September 27 [10 favorites]


trigger- when I read Catcher in high school it was around the time the Catholic Church abuse scandals broke. I remember that while I was a bit bookish and not really connected with events around, I too felt some kind of similarity in stories. I couldn’t put words to it then but I can see in retrospect now the reason for the unexplained uneasiness I had around the book that was never resolved in the class discussions. I felt we never really talked about the book, just around it, and I didn’t know how to say “I think there’s more here....”
posted by affectionateborg at 3:18 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


No Siddhartha?

My wife was reading Steppenwolf last week and exhausted her face with eyerolling exercises. Her feeling was that it was a leftover of Boomer culture where it appealed to a specific set of alienated young men who were bored by the comforts of urban/suburban existence, and that it's overall message of pining for a primal existence has been eclipsed by books like Fight Club, which also prompted us to consider how Fight Club or, to a degree, Into The Wild as the concept of a comfortable suburban existence may prove to itself be a sign of exceptional privilege in our post ecological collapse, extreme social inequality future.
posted by bl1nk at 3:18 PM on September 27 [12 favorites]


I will make a prediction: Catcher in the Rye is going to come back. Holden is only a uniquely terrible person if you expect a depressed fifteen year old to be a fantastic role model who expresses only the most appropriate sentiments and has a great variety of complex experience. If you see him as just one variety of kid, he's really not especially terrible, to the best of my recollection, even if he's not an activist or a gifted musician or something. For that matter, if you were zapped back through time to deal with a bunch of rich, self-centered white people in the early fifties, maybe "you're all a bunch of phonies" would be a relatively healthy response?

I predict that in the nearish future, "the problems of straight white men are the most important way to understand Humanity" will no longer be the truism we have to fight, and at that point, some of these books are going to have some value again on their own terms.
posted by Frowner at 3:18 PM on September 27 [52 favorites]


I've reread it a few times, and I'm still not sure if Douglas Coupland intended the characters in Generation X to be insufferable or not. Testament to the writing, or my own literary stupidity?
posted by ominous_paws at 3:20 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]


Also, I don't think Holden is a phony, exactly - he's just wrong about the world and his ability to taxonomize it. For a kid in his particular situation that isn't surprising.
posted by Frowner at 3:21 PM on September 27 [11 favorites]


The priest who married my parents refused to quote from Johnathan Livinston Seagull in the ceremony. When my mom told me this I was like, "you mean he refused to use material from a shallow roman à clef about escaping from responsibilities in your private plane as your wife stays on the ground and deals with your back taxes and her loneliness? Huh, I wonder why?"
posted by Horkus at 3:22 PM on September 27 [12 favorites]


This is the same flavor of argument I present to people who love modern sitcoms but think I Love Lucy is derivative and only worthy of scorn.

I have a story in my head of a critic with degrees in english literature and media studies and decades of experience writing about modern literature, film, and TV who somehow, throughout their entire education and professional life, never ended up hearing about shakespeare and one day picks up his stuff and declares him to be the worlds greatest hack because everything he's written is a story that's been told a million times already. "Taming of the Shrew? Total 10 Things I Hate About You ripoff. Lame." "Romeo and Juliet? Have you even heard of West Side Story, bro?"
posted by stet at 3:22 PM on September 27 [7 favorites]


shakespeare
I actually heard a man say once "The Bible says, 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be'"
posted by thelonius at 3:27 PM on September 27 [11 favorites]


I guess that I didn't know that Alex Garland had been a novelist.

I enjoyed The Beach when I read it (magnitudes better than the movie) probably ten years ago now, probably ten years after it may have been some big deal cult item, because I seem to have missed that. I'm guessing that was more of a British thing -- the cult part.

Perhaps the same applies to Mao's red book. I've seen a few copies in my time, but never anyone actually reading it ... in over fifty years of paying attention to such stuff.

As for the seagull book -- at least it gave us some of Neil Diamond's last necessary music
posted by philip-random at 3:27 PM on September 27


Reading Catcher in the Rye as a teenager: Holden's so cool.

Reading Catcher in the Rye as an adult: Holden's such a jerk.


This seems to be the consensus and I genuinely don't understand how one gets either reading from it. He's way too whiny and shat-on by everyone but his sister to be "cool," and the stuff we know he's working through (death of his brother, past sexual molestation, on top of raging puberty) makes it feel really harsh to call him a "jerk" either. Probably very much because I was a privileged white boy growing up, and didn't read Catcher until college, when I read it one afternoon while sitting in Washington Square Park, basically the place most made for reading that specific book, it still holds a lot of appeal to me. It didn't change my life or even my outlook, even.

Like, to me, Jim Halpert comes off as cool when you're young and a jerk when you're older. But Holden isn't Jim. He's a younger Michael Scott, desperately lonely, whom we cringe at/with because his situation is sympathetic but he's also embarrassing himself to us.

Just my 2¢.
posted by Navelgazer at 3:28 PM on September 27 [21 favorites]


Vonnegut, though, seems prescient still.

Eh. Read Player Piano back to back with Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.
posted by eviemath at 3:28 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


Aww, c’mon. No Carlos Castaneda on this list?

Or am I just that old?

“Brautigan still hip. I can rest easily.” Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon

Damn straight!
posted by shorstenbach at 3:29 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


The Beach--IIRC it's about a group of young people who are shipwrecked on the titular beach?
Less Lost or Robinson Crusoe. One half Trancendentalist Walden with more self-absorption, hallucinogens, and banana pancakes and one half Lord of the Flies. Bourgeois backpacker kids discover a secret beach and strive to turn it into their own secret cool kids club / slice of paradise, but then it gets ruined because humans are terrible.
posted by bl1nk at 3:29 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


Genuinely surprised The Secret History didn't make this list. And I'm saying that as someone who reread it, and basically enjoyed rereading it, earlier this year.

I kind of expected it too. It's a young person's book, even an adolescent book, with a large element of escapist fantasy (the reader identifying with the young, rich, brilliant Classics cult, and with the narrator's unrequited love for Camilla) but it held up really well for me also. It's just so goddamn well done, with some really unforgettable passages.
posted by thelonius at 3:31 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


This isn't supposed to be a list of bad books or books that don't stand up to scrutiny through a modern, progressive moral lens, it's just books that no longer have a cult status. Saying that Atlas Shrugged didn't have a huge cult like following is ahistorical and a bit "no true cult book." I think cult status is more than just very popular books, maybe it has more to do with the insistence of the recommender. I agree that the Celestine Prophecy belongs on the list , as does Siddhartha and would also suggest Stranger In a Strange Land. People don't grok nearly as much as they used to.

I think Old Man and the Sea is a strange choice, but I think the list needs something by Hemingway on it. The Sun Also Rises is the one that I read in high school and kicked off my Hemingway phase. For Whom the Bell Tolls had me obscenity in the milk of people's mother for years.

My grandmother lent me her copy of Owen Meany and we loved to yell "Merciful Heavens!" at everything. But is seems to be one of the more polarizing Irvine books.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 3:32 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


I actually heard a man say once "The Bible says, 'Neither a borrower nor a lender be'"

Sure: that is Polonius 2:9.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:34 PM on September 27 [23 favorites]


Vonnegut, though, seems prescient still.

a writer I grew allergic to at some point. Actually, I can remember exactly the point. About fifty pages into Cat's Cradle (after binging on about a dozen of his novels), I just couldn't ... anymore. The whimsy suddenly turned rancid. The pessimism was too enthusiastic ... and God, I got tired of his prose.

I imagine Slaughterhouse Five is still a great work ... as long as it's not the tenth book of his you read in a row.
posted by philip-random at 3:38 PM on September 27 [13 favorites]


To be fair, I've walled off Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in a part of my mind that I don't want to visit. I was reading it at a time in my life when I was particularly susceptible to its themes and I very nearly dropped out of school as a result.

I can sympathize with the view that it had a pretty "shallow" take on philosophy. But that, I think, misses the point. To me it reads as an extended argument with Mortimer Adler, albeit in absentia. Pirsig was fighting the good fight with the tools he had at his disposal and in the spirit of the times in which he lived.

I have complicated feelings about the book, but I will not be re-reading it.
posted by sjswitzer at 3:40 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


"Holden Caulfield is a jerk and Catcher in the Rye sucks" seems to have become the popular thing to say, but I don't see it. I recently read it again when my daughter was reading it and if anything I like it more now than I did when I was younger. I doubt most of the people who think Holden is a jerk could name a specific instance from the book to back that up.

I was never a Hemingway fan so I was surprised to like The Old Man and the Sea when I read it a few years ago. I suspect people who say they dislike it mainly just dislike the view of masculinity they associate with Hemingway. Or they had to read it in high school and they found it boring because they couldn't relate to it.
posted by Redstart at 3:45 PM on September 27 [14 favorites]


That the author chooses The Dice Man as a counterexample convinces me I don't actually understand this piece at all.

Personally, I'm glad I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at a time when I found value in it. I will go to great lengths to avoid spoiling my vague and vaguely fond memories of it by reading it again.
posted by eotvos at 3:46 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


Ctrl-F Gaddis.

Whew.

Still cool.
posted by chavenet at 3:47 PM on September 27 [7 favorites]


I can sympathize with the view that it had a pretty "shallow" take on philosophy

Well the quality thing is interesting, but it breaks my heart to see him take it so seriously that he loses his mind because of it. It's been a long time since I read it, but, as I recall, what bothers him is something like this. These bricks that I bought to redo my patio are high quality, because I want the job to really last. And that singer we saw perform last night was very good: a quality singer. So what it is that she has in common with the bricks? What is this mysterious "quality" that they both have? If we can't define it, then how can we say that both have it? I mean that is a really interesting way to try to sort of think yourself back into Plato's intellectual world, but I don't remember him even considering the possibility that there need be no shared metaphysical essence underpinning how the same concept is applied to different objects, except as a sort of nihilistic disaster: there is "no such thing" as "quality". I'm sure that there was a lot more going on with him when he had his breakdown, and, like I said, I haven't read it in a long time and maybe my paraphrase doesn't do him justice. But you just want to grab him and tell him, has it not occurred to you that the elenchus is a reduction to absurdity of the idea of knowledge as a system of definitions? Did the philosophy professor not ever talk about Socratic irony?
posted by thelonius at 3:52 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


lazaruslong: "now you re-live the shame about 5361 times per day"

plus you're going to live forever
posted by chavenet at 3:55 PM on September 27 [14 favorites]


BUKOWSKI

*clicks link*

Really? No Bukowski?
posted by betweenthebars at 4:06 PM on September 27 [24 favorites]


Okay as somebody who has been in the Cult of DFW since the turn of the century (I was on the wallace-l maillist the night we learned about his death and it was one of the most harrowing and worst nights of my life) I have some thoughts about the inclusion of Infinite Jest.

1. Infinite Jest as a sort of cultural signifier has turned it into a joke and there's a sense of hero worship that has emerged after his death has I think has reduced him.

2. It's definitely colored by the more unsavory aspects of his life that I think necessarily cover the perspective of his work. It's important not to overshadow them.

3. It's extremely tied to the era where it's written. It doesn't handle race very well all and it's treatment of characters outside of the gender binary always rubbed me the wrong way even back when first reading it back in 2000 and seem ugly now.

4. Weirdly the postmodern comedy of it has dated only because it doesn't seem too ridiculous in the weight of 2019. In fact, I thought at the time the story of Brands taking over the very notion and time and the madness of President Gentle were over-the-top and seemed too silly and implausible. Re-reading it now, where we've entered a post-satire world where reality has surpassed any attempts at exaggeration, it falls a little flat.

5. The fundamental emotional core, despite all of these flaws, holds up and I think will stand the test of the time despite these flaws. That's just my opinion and I'm obviously extremely biased because it saved my life. And I know I'm not alone.
posted by HunterFelt at 4:06 PM on September 27 [19 favorites]


For Vonnegut, I still really enjoy his works and think Hocus Pocus is an undervalued masterpiece, however, Welcome to the Monkey House (the short story, not the collection) left a bad taste in my mouth the first time I read it. It continues to do so today and shows a profound lack of empathy from someone I had expected to have that. (For those who are curious, there's a rape that is not described, but somehow liberates the woman from the sexually oppressed society that she lives in. The only way to do this was for the character to rape her.)

As for Pynchon, I can read about 750 pages of his writing before the book gets put away. For some of his novels, that's enough. For others, I'll just never finish.

I appreciate how original Catcher in the Rye was at the time. I remember reading it in middle school and coming away just profoundly bored. Maybe I would have gotten something out of it as a high school student.

I don't get why everyone goes on and on about The Old Man and the Sea. The great Hemingway Novel is The Sun Also Rises. It's not the great American novel, he never wrote that. It's still a great novel though.
posted by Hactar at 4:09 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


Came here for Bulowski (and Fight Club), leaving slightly confused.
posted by captain afab at 4:11 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


After posting: I have a book of Bukowski poetry given to me by a friend (well he lent it and vanished before I could return it, he was totally cool with me keeping it though). His poetry (the poems that I have read- I tend to read a poem or two, put it down and not pick it up for months) is white man angsty, but decent, kind of reminds me of Dickey. I have never read his prose. Is this something I should have on my shelf?
posted by Hactar at 4:12 PM on September 27


Previously, on the topic of lit-bro machismo people once thought was cool and profound.
posted by acb at 4:12 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


That the author chooses The Dice Man as a counterexample convinces me I don't actually understand this piece at all.

Indeed, The Dice Man is the quintessential example.

I really wish The Alchemist was on this list. It's a terrible book on so many levels yet still a great seller and unironically loved by so many.

More recently The Life of Pi and The Bride Stripped Bare are both terrible novels that have faded into the obscurity they deserve.

Tom Wolfe's books have likewise faded from popular memory (The Right Stuff is still persistent the rest forgotten). Of course the fracturing of mass media has meant the phenomenon of book as cultural touchstone, especially middle brow touchstone, has almost completely died out.
posted by smoke at 4:28 PM on September 27 [14 favorites]


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was something I read at a particular time in my life. I appreciated the narrative and particular details about the nature of quality (the argument between Pirsig and fellow rider about shimming the handlebar clamp with a piece of beer can or authorized handlebar shim for example) but the extended meditations about quality frequently sounded kind of incoherent or grasping at straws and it took a long time for me to realize that that might have unironically been the point, albeit maybe inadvertently.

I read Siddhartha around the same time and it seemed kind of silly at the time and hasn’t improved in recollection.

It’s kind of amazing to see Jonathan Livingston Seagull called a cult classic. How many millions of copies does a book have to sell to get beyond cult status? Why not nominate something like The Illuminatus! trilogy, which is one of those books that actually does get recommended by word of mouth beneath the radars of popular culture and literary establishments. And as a bonus has actual cults. Or, for something with more literary merit, A Confederacy of Dunces, though that probably doesn’t qualify as being past its use date yet.
posted by ardgedee at 4:35 PM on September 27 [9 favorites]


I never thought Infinite Jest was the key to the universe or anything, but there's a lot in it that's worth keeping, including some of the most painfully accurate descriptions of depression I've ever read. Its fans are not its fault.

Was the experience of depression meta-encoded in the mental strain of having to parse multi-page run-on sentences? The book was essentially a reading gym, which may explain some of it's do-you-even-lift? quality.
posted by acb at 4:36 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


Is this the thread where we confess the books we used to love that we're really embarrassed about now? Because for me it's Piers Anthony's Xanth books. There was a while in my teens where he was my absolute favorite author. And looking back at it now... those books are terrible. I mean, seriously godawful. After about the fourth one in the series, every book was basically cobbled together from mediocre-to-bad puns that his young fans sent him. Like, the plots were literally written around the puns. And as I recall there are a bunch of creepy-weird defenses of pedophilia in the subtext, maybe not even the subtext in some cases.

I doubt anyone would place Piers Anthony in the "cult novel" category. But after my terrible-taste-in-fantasy phase as a teenager came my terrible-taste-in-sci-fi, which included, yes, Heinlein. (Yeah, I hear you, lazaruslong. And you managed to pick a doozy from his oevre. I remember reading Time Enough for Love and mostly enjoying it, but the end with the weird auto-erotic-incest-clone-threesome-wtf was so out there that even my Xanth-loving dumbass teenage self was like "woah, that took a strange turn." I still like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, though.)

And I think there's one book from the syllabus of that period of my life that probably does meet the level of "cult novel that has aged poorly," which would be Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. I loved that book when I read it, and reread it multiple times over the next few years. I even met Card at a book signing and had a great lesson in "never meet your heroes" when he spent a long time ranting about how children of single mothers (like I was) are doomed to all kinds of problems and would never be normal. And yeah, the premise and message of that book have not aged well.
posted by biogeo at 4:40 PM on September 27 [28 favorites]


Also if I had to pick a piece of 90s fan-favorite culture that's aged... well, lets just say it provides a window into a very specific place and time, I'd pick Snow Crash.

There's probably a whole category for books whose sexual content has become quite self-evidently rancid in the post-MeToo era. A lot of it would be “liberated” books written by dudes in the wake of the sixeventies' “sexual revolution”, though Snow Crash carries the flag for cyberpunk nerd-lit.
posted by acb at 4:41 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


Vonnegut, though, seems prescient still.

Amen. Slaughterhouse Five, especially.

side note: There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another. Reading doesn't work that way.
posted by kestralwing at 4:43 PM on September 27 [10 favorites]


No Generation X?

“Use Jets While You Still Can” are probably the six words that date it the most.
posted by acb at 4:48 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another. Reading doesn't work that way.

It is known.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:49 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


I can believe that I might like Catcher a lot more now than I did as a teenager, for some of the reasons stated above; as a teenager, I just couldn't see some of these things.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:50 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


John Fowles
No one should have to read 'The Magus' twice.

posted by clavdivs at 4:51 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another. Reading doesn't work that way.
Counterpoint: Terry Pratchett.
posted by Horkus at 5:01 PM on September 27 [62 favorites]


This article reminds me of a recent Slate piece ("We're Much, Much Funnier Than We Used to Be") that ragged on a bunch of classic comedy shows (many of which I happen to like), and then extolled modern shows as being far funnier. I kind of feel like the authors just enjoy making themselves feel superior to the squares.
posted by alex1965 at 5:03 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


I dunno man, you gotta get around Interesting Times sooner or later, and that one, uh--
posted by Countess Elena at 5:03 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


Anything by Walter Pater; The Sorrows of Young Werther; Epipsychidion. (Which last has a reasonably entertaining plot, unexpectedly.) Byron.

Books that inspire real-life imitation of the characters or authors, and then derivative works written from inside the imitative milieu, get lost behind that fug of vanity. Especially if it was the vanity of my own foolish youth.
posted by clew at 5:05 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


I think Tom Robbins doesn't catch nearly enough crap, so if anyone has links to biting feminist take-downs of that dude, I would be so excited.

This article reminds me of a podcast I've been enjoying lately - Fuckbois of Literature. So far, however, Jonathan L. Seagull has escaped their gimlet eye.
posted by See you tomorrow, saguaro at 5:10 PM on September 27 [12 favorites]


I don't remember Catcher too well but remember thinking Holden a stupid cock I wouldn't tolerate in real life. I remember telling an english teacher (though not my english teacher) this and saying something like, 'the only thing I found interesting was the possibility that Holden was lying to the reader when he gave his side of the prostitute story". Teacher said I clearly didn't understand the book as there's no way Holden would lie to the reader as then the book would be worthless and pointless.

***

Fight Club should definitely be on the list. Plus, it's a stupid book. Palahniuk in general should be on the list. Every time I'm in a used book store the shelves are overflowing with his books.

Bukowski? I don't think so. I don't think most people could even name a book by him -- maybe Post Office, but it still holds up. Ham On Rye, and Women, are his two best, however. I reread them last year for the first time since their publications and thought they were just as good as I did initially.

My favorite "cult book" that I hope never goes out of style? Jesus' Son. Holy fuck do I love that book.
posted by dobbs at 5:15 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


Halloween Jack: "I remember distinctly picking up the attitude that there was something missing in my psyche as a young American male because my main takeaway from The Catcher in the Rye was that I wouldn't want to spend five minutes in Holden Caulfield's presence."

YES YES YES YES
posted by Chrysostom at 5:18 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


but I’m not really understanding the whole “just a whiny rich white kid” criticism.

oh, I understand it. a reader who apprehends characters in books either as instruments of aspirational wish fulfillment or as teaching tools for moral development will not care for any books that are about people who are neither flattering reflections of them, nor unrealistic cartoon figures they can imagine being with some pleasure, nor terrible warnings who get what's coming to them. this reading tendency is at its very worst with books about younger people, since the publication trends of recent decades have caused us all to have some difficulty distinguishing books about teens from books for teens, while books for teens have at the same time gotten much more simplistic and much worse.

personally, I would like Catcher in the Rye much better if it were about a girl, for sure. if it weren't by Salinger, I'd like it even more. even so, it's got a quality.

I fully respect those who don't like the writing or who hate Salinger too much to try to be in sympathy with the writing. I hate him and I've got good reasons. but a good amount of hatred for that particular book is about evenly split between 'I'm in this picture and I don't like it' and 'I'm not in this picture and I don't like it.'
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:21 PM on September 27 [16 favorites]


I think Tom Robbins doesn't catch nearly enough crap, so if anyone has links to biting feminist take-downs of that dude, I would be so excited.


Ok, kinda, at least.
posted by COBRA! at 5:24 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]




I went down by a different staircase, and I saw another "Fuck you" on the wall. I tried to rub it off with my hand again, but this one was scratched on, with a knife or something. It wouldn't come off. It's hopeless, anyway. If you had a million years to do it in, you couldn't rub out even half the "Fuck you" signs in the world. It's impossible.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:58 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


I suppose a cult book is almost by definition likely to lose its cool and fall off everybody's list and fail to achieve classic status.

But here's one that never became a cult book, but should be on everybody's list as a masterpiece: Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.

(Keep in mind that Moby-Dick was forgotten for 50 years. Time to revive Under the Volcano.)
posted by beagle at 5:58 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


(scans list) Look here, old sport...

[The missing "B" name is Burroughs, not Bukowski.]
posted by Iris Gambol at 5:59 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


Also if I had to pick a piece of 90s fan-favorite culture that's aged... well, lets just say it provides a window into a very specific place and time, I'd pick Snow Crash.

excerpt from a party two years ago, where I ran into a Vietnamese American friend of mine.

V: "so, I've been reading Cryptonomicon"

me: "first time?"

V: "yeah, never got around to it. Still in the middle of it .. but I've been meaning to ask you ..."

me: "the Filipino characters and depiction of the Philippines?"

V: "yeah ..."

me: "look it was a different time then. I was glad to have any representation at all! Even from a white man's eyes. It was ... just nice to be seen."

V: "oh, believe me, I understand."

me: "It really didn't age well did it?"

V: "oh, god, no."
posted by bl1nk at 6:05 PM on September 27 [22 favorites]


In my hippie, New Age phase, I really ate up Robert Anton Wilson's The Cosmic Trigger Vol. 1. I really felt I had found something profound, and I wonder if I'll have the same reaction if I read it again now.

Same with Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan books. Even when I found out years later that Castaneda a) basically made the whole thing up, and b) it seems he was a kind of manipulative cult leader. Which would certainly affect my enjoyment of those books now.
posted by zardoz at 6:10 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


I wrote a newspaper column on The Rules when it came out (my review, in a nutshell: It was trash) and because of it was invited to appear on the Oprah show to rebut the authors.

Look what I found....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:14 PM on September 27 [9 favorites]


There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another. Reading doesn't work that way.

Counterpoint: Terry Pratchett.


Beaten to the punch but I honestly was about to post THE VERY SAME response.
posted by cooker girl at 6:22 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


But here's one that never became a cult book, but should be on everybody's list as a masterpiece: Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.

It gets the occasional reverential essay in The New Yorker or The Guardian and appears on 100 Best (or 99 Best, in the case of Burgess) lists. That's a pretty good showing for mid-century literary fiction.
posted by betweenthebars at 6:26 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


When I had to read Catcher in the Rye in highschool, it was just so overwhelmingly negative and masculine, I went to the library, discovered Tamora Pierce, and binge read a ton of her books on sheer instinct just to balance it all out.

I think toxic masculinity was definitely the phrase I didn't know I needed back then - reading Catcher in the Rye is inhabiting the mind of a youngman as toxic masculinity makes his mind go crunch.

At least that's how I remember it at any rate. I ... don't really think I need to reread that story.
posted by Zalzidrax at 6:26 PM on September 27 [9 favorites]


biogeo I'd argue that Heinlein fits into that very dated because he totally got a specific place and time category.

Heinlein had a very through understanding of middle class white American men in the post-war era, and the society they created. He had that down perfectly. So well that he could easily write what such people and culture would be like if you added [insert SF element here] in a believable way.

The problem is exactly the same as with all the books on the list. He really got it well, but it was so narrow and specific that it just doesn't really appeal much now that the era has passed and frankly it never did much appeal to anyone outside the white, male, middle class, and American category even back then.

I mean, sure in his later books he also mixed in a bunch of his fetishes as well as a lot of right wing libertarian preaching, but the fundamental core of his books is middle class white American men from the late 1940's and early 1950's **IN SPACE**!

But damn, if you want to get a really good feel for how the world looked to a middle class white American guy born in the mid to late 1920's Heinlein was spot on.
posted by sotonohito at 6:29 PM on September 27 [15 favorites]


I feel like Catcher in the Rye is sort of unnecessary in a world where books like Oreo exist.
posted by thivaia at 6:33 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another.

The only back to back author reading experiences that worked out well for me were Toni Morrison’s, Jane Austen’s (I wish there were a dozen), and Larry McMurtry’s.

If you read too many John Irvings together, the constant references to bears, hotels, pervy older women, and high school wrestling get weird.
posted by sallybrown at 6:44 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


Yeah, Heinlein is basically "what if one of my dad's golfing buddies was also writing surprisingly good sci-fi between business meetings?"
posted by Navelgazer at 6:46 PM on September 27 [17 favorites]


I liked a lot of those books, and still do. I shouldn't have read that article. I feel like I've just undergone the literary equivalent of fat-shaming.
posted by JD Sockinger at 6:46 PM on September 27 [10 favorites]


Mao's Little Red Book doesn't seem like any of the other books. The idea of it being "a must-have accessory for every blissed-out fellow traveller" in the West seems way overblown. In the 60s, kinda admiring Mao from afar was one thing; actually reading him was another.

I've read it. I think it's really interesting if you want to know how to run a peasant revolution in a very feudal developing country. It has approximately zilch to say to a blissed-out hippie.

(Probably it was read by actual communists, but they weren't either hippies or blissed-out.)
posted by zompist at 6:47 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another.

Pratchett is an excellent counterpoint. His early stuff is fantasy-satire ("The Colour of Magic") and is OK. But, woo boy!, when he found his true voice (I call "Guards! Guards!"), the guy just took off, woosh! DEATH! Vimes (of the cobblestone boots) and "NO MORE KINGS"! Granny Weatherwax! Ponder Stibbons! The Librarian (ook)! Carrot Ironfounderson, a six-foot dwarf (adopted). Moist Von Pelt! LORD VETINARI! And my personal hero, Tiffany Aching!

I'll suggest another: Ian Banks. There is nothing Banks has written, with either initial, that I have not found less than thoughtful and excellent. Just his Culture novels alone exhibited a strength of humor and appreciation of the human condition that I have found inspiring.
posted by SPrintF at 6:49 PM on September 27 [15 favorites]


Search long enough at any thrift store, library surplus sale or rummage sale, and you are guaranteed to find two books: Future Shock, Wild Animus, and The Immoralist.
posted by aws17576 at 6:49 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


Wild Animus

what the

I don't remember putting that in my comment
posted by aws17576 at 6:50 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


John Fowles
No one should have to read 'The Magus' twice
.

Maybe that is a part of it - to qualify for the list there needs to be a profound / philosophical/ deeply psychological slant to the work. I can't imagine anyone trying to put Fowles' The Collector on the list. Though to be fair, i haven't read it in close to fifty yers.
posted by rtimmel at 7:01 PM on September 27


Yeah, I agree that Pratchett is the most binge-worthy author with a super-deep catalogue. Also that Guards! Guards! is when Discworld becomes what it is (though Equal Rites has a lot of those elements that later bloom.)

Also, the Moist von Lipwig books are the best anti-Rand books I've ever found. Not only is Moist a con-man pressed into the service of creating faith in public institutions such that they are maintained as necessary public institutions, but Going Postal has him essentially facing down John Galt while doing so, and also they're both funny and reasonably short. So basically the opposite of Rand.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:03 PM on September 27 [11 favorites]


I dunno re: bingeing Pterry. Love his Discworld novels, but with a half-dozen(-ish?) exceptions they're essentially the same thing(s) over and over. Plus latter books (for me this means maybe post-Soul Music, I read and re-read them in pseudorandom found order like a what a good fan do) there was a noticeable shift from multi-stranded plots to "one idea per book". Not literally the same, but a bit reminiscent of reading recently-departed Terrence Dicks' Doctor Who novelisations with his comfy re-used phrases and hitting the target page count.

That said, I'll definitely re-read a few good ones/certain faves when the mood is upon me.
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 7:31 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


Being born in 1962 and educated by the latter baby boomers I read most of these books. I desperately tried to pass them on to my son who was an avid reader in his formative years but was strangely resistant to much of what I would suggest. He resisted, for example, reading Catcher for years and finally got around to it when he was a senior in high school. He was not impressed. He was, though, impressed with Atlas Shrugged when I directed him there last year.
posted by lester at 7:39 PM on September 27


Plus, in the era of helicopter parenting and geo-tagging, not to mention hyper-vigilant mental-health awareness, the idea that a depressed teen could simply go Awol in New York City for a couple of days is increasingly hard to indulge.

What? Does this person find it hard to "indulge" why Valjean steals bread instead of using SNAP benefits?
The article suffers somewhat from the problem that I no longer care much what books people tell me I should like. Funny how many reviewers seem to operate on the principle that everything they review was written last week.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 7:44 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]


Everybody owned Be Here Now, I'm not sure anyone read it.
I could not finish The Alchemist, but it seems inoffensive, albeit shallow, from my brief exposure.
posted by theora55 at 7:46 PM on September 27


I feel like I've just undergone the literary equivalent of fat-shaming.

as far as I'm concerned, the majority of people are almost always wrong about pretty much everything. And that probably includes me.

Books like On The Road and Catcher In The Rye -- I can understand where the hate comes from, but it's still WRONG from where I'm sitting. They're not bad; just overexposed. As with music where sometimes you just get tired of a song. You've heard it too many times, you've heard too many people proclaiming it an untouchable masterpiece or whatever ... you end up kind of hating it. I do anyway. It's happened to me with Stairway To Heaven and the entirety of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon album. I'd never say either was bad. But I do sort of HATE them.

I do wish sometimes that people could learn, really learn, the difference between something being a favorite, and something being THE BEST. I mean, I'm not going to argue that Stairway To Heaven isn't one of the BEST songs of its time (and maybe all time) but that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Atlas Shrugged on the other is merely awful. Hilariously so.
posted by philip-random at 7:54 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another. Reading doesn't work that way.

My first thought was Terry Pratchett, but I don't know if I've ever read that many of his books in one go.

But I do know that I've done a full Vokosigan series (by Lois McMaster Bujold) read-through a couple of times - sometimes right before or after reading one of her other series. So that's one author who stands up to more than a dozen novels in a row.
posted by jb at 8:04 PM on September 27 [12 favorites]


All I remember about JL Seagull is that it made flight sound so beautiful, which it is. And it must have been written well enough to make that impression on me.

I live in Maine, near the coast. Seagulls are filthy but they fly beautifully.
posted by theora55 at 8:04 PM on September 27 [7 favorites]


Don't know if it says more about my fading memory or the book itself that, X decades after reading it for AP English, I can't remember a thing about Catcher in the Rye. (As opposed to, say, Brave New World).

Also, have to wonder if the writer is confusing "cult" with "trendy", since JL Seagull (and Mao's Red Book for that matter) seemed to have been more the latter than the former.
posted by gtrwolf at 8:04 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


I see people remarking on the brevity of Jonathan Livingstone Seagull.

People, you know nothing. Reader’s Digest published an edited version...
posted by fallingbadgers at 8:04 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


Also, have to wonder if the writer is confusing "cult" with "trendy", since JL Seagull (and Mao's Red Book for that matter) seemed to have been more the latter than the former.

I think for the purposes of this list, it means "seemed important or made people feel an epiphany for a short period of time." And again, I'm not sure that Catcher or On the Road really fit that bill, but the former isn't nearly as well-received as it once was and the latter has parts that are aging badly and was such a flashpoint that its relevance may well have faded by now.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:10 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]


affectionateborg: “Dagny Taggart was amazing. I remember how different she was in her relations with Hank and Francisco compared to what I read, saw, or experienced about intimate relationships... she didn’t let them undermine or reduce her. She didn’t let them make her less.”

Hunh, you remember those relationships rather differently than I do. Hank verbally abuses her early on in their relationship, calls her a whore and physically hurts her demanding to know how many men she’s had sex with. Francisco slaps her hard enough to draw blood and their first time having sex (her first time having sex with anyone ever) he physically forces her, explicitly not getting consent, and the only reason it isn’t rape is because she secretly inside her head actually wants it.
”She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his, that he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit.”
I’ve forgotten a lot of plot points from that book, but I’ve never forgotten my teenage emotional reaction to Rand’s sexual politics.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 8:32 PM on September 27 [17 favorites]


phillip-random: I'm not going to argue that Stairway To Heaven isn't one of the BEST songs of its time (and maybe all time)

Whenever anybody says "of all time", I think, "We have no idea what sweet tunes they were banging out in ancient Sumeria or in the many millennia before anything was written down. Of all time?"
posted by clawsoon at 8:34 PM on September 27 [9 favorites]


Another good reference point for Holden Caulfield is probably Peridot, from Steven Universe. Peridot is whiny and annoying and mostly frustrating, and her habit of calling everyone "clods" is a lot like Holden's of calling everyone "phonies," but it's also easy to see through Peridot to why she is the way she is. Her arc is basically adjustment struggles, like Holden's is. And she's super-cherished within the SU fanverse not in spite of her flaws, but because of them. I think Holden (and Catcher) is too frozen in its time to have the same effect it once did, but I also think the reaction of "I wouldn't want to spend five minutes with that kid" is exactly the point. NOBODY wants to spend five minutes with him, which is why he's wandering around NYC looking for anyone who will listen to him.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:48 PM on September 27 [12 favorites]


in terms of women being respected for being smart and strong - I am so glad that I found the Alanna books when I was about 9, and had my bar set nice and high. Also, they do great modelling on consent.
posted by jb at 8:48 PM on September 27 [6 favorites]


Oooooh, I love bagging on Great Literature That Is Actually Terrible!

I don't have a hate-on for Catcher in the Rye, EXCEPT if someone tells me it's the best book they've ever read, in which case I'm pretty sure they quit reading in 10th grade and love it because it has swear words. I am willing to be proven wrong! Maybe they read it at the right psychological moment and they recognize its weaknesses but it remains their problematic fave! But for someone who got as far as Catcher in the Rye, and no farther, and that is their favorite ... they might be fine people, but we're not going to be good friends.

"The World According to Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany are what Orwell calls "good bad books", books that have a lot of power without being aesthetically defensible."

THIS IS THE TRUEST FUCKING THING IN THE UNIVERSE and I now want to be Frowner's best friend. I read Owen Meany in junior year of high school and my whole class LOVED it and I could tell in the first 15 pages how it was going to end and then it was just 400 fucking pages of maudlin sentimentality and symbolism that BEATS YOU OVER THE HEAD BECAUSE JOHN IRVING THINKS YOU'RE TOO DUMB TO GET IT. Plus John Irving is a 14-year-old boy who thinks marginally illicit sex is HILARIOUS and SUPER TRANSGRESSIVE and that being slightly transgressive about sex makes him Serious Literature. Everyone was like "Okay so you didn't like Owen Meany, read Garp!" GARP IS WORSE. SO SO SO MUCH WORSE. I was glad when that one guy got his dick bitten off because JESUS CHRIST THAT BOOK SUCKED, at least someone other than me suffered.

I do not understand why Danielle Steel is considered trash but he is considered Serious Literature. It's fine for a fun beach read! But it's FUNDAMENTALLY GARBAGE, and the fact that John Irving is considered Serious Literature while Danielle Steel is considered disposable is basically the purest expression of sexism and misogyny available in American life.

(Side note: Irving finds women "easy to write," which is largely because HE SUCKS ASS AT IT but doesn't know he sucks ass because he considers women purely accessorial and there for the sex, SO WHAT'S HARD?)

On a lighter, more optimistic note, my long-time book club, in our 10th year together, did a year of reading books where each of us chose the book that meant the most to us as adolescents, and it was SO INTERESTING. A lot of them weren't the books we would pick today as adults, but talking together about what was so moving about them in that crucial point in life was really interesting and illuminating, and reading them together as adults was just lovely. If people want to read Catcher in the Rye that way, I am 100% there for it, and I would find it really interesting! Among the choices we read as a group were The Crucible, A Separate Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird, Forever (Judy Blume), The Handmaid's Tale, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B, A Doll's House, and Anne of Green Gables (that was me, how did you know?).

(In fact I'm sort-of tempted to make that the metatalktail for this week!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:49 PM on September 27 [31 favorites]


"I could tell in the first 15 pages how it was going to end"

Like I told my BFF, "Ugh, this is super-tiresome, why is it so long when we know how it's going to end?" And she was like, "What do you mean? How is it going to end?" And I was like, "He's going to get blown up with his arms spread out like Jesus while they do that stupid basketball shooting thing, and something to do with Vietnam, and the other guy will be there and have PTSD about seeing Owen die and that why he's fucking narrating this shit while tamping his pipe down with his stump finger" and she was like, "How do you know that?" and I was like, "I'VE READ LIKE TWO OTHER BOOKS IN THE WESTERN CANON AND RECOGNIZE A WEAK-ASS JESUS ANALOGUE WHEN I SEE IT, plus this is the most heavy-handed foreshadowing I've ever seen in my entire LIFE."

I was correct on all points, particularly the super-maudlin 400 pages it took to get to the weaksauce ending.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:58 PM on September 27 [14 favorites]


Whenever anybody says "of all time", I think, "We have no idea what sweet tunes they were banging out in ancient Sumeria or in the many millennia before anything was written down. Of all time?"

best record then. We've only had records for about 150 years.
posted by philip-random at 8:59 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]


> Cool, like so many things, just doesn't age all that well.

Very true. I think this is why William Gibson's early books all seem to be missing something when I reread them today. Cool has always been such an essential part of his style.
posted by mbrubeck at 9:12 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


There's probably a whole category for books whose sexual content has become quite self-evidently rancid in the post-MeToo era. A lot of it would be “liberated” books written by dudes in the wake of the sixeventies' “sexual revolution”, though Snow Crash carries the flag for cyberpunk nerd-lit.

Reading SF as a young adolescent (much of it on the older side but I mean something like Snow Crash wasn't that old at the time) it was pretty much a given that any given novel would have at least one sex part that I knew was terribly embarrassing even then. But in most (by my recollection including Snow Crash) it would at least be rather brief, as if the writer had some awareness that this sort of thing was a bit out of their grasp.
posted by atoxyl at 9:15 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]


Very true. I think this is why William Gibson's early books all seem to be missing something when I reread them today. Cool has always been such an essential part of his style.

The story "Burning Chrome" along with some of the other early ones in the collection of the same name, will always be Peak Gibson to me. There are things that can become dated in a such a particular way that they actually become timeless, and "Burning Chrome" is like that because it's a perfect mapping of hardboiled crime fiction onto a specific 80s-vintage futurism - it has every inherent flaw of both of those genres but it doesn't matter because it could not possibly achieve what it aspires to more effectively.

Neuromancer always felt like a more rickety realization of its ideas to me.

(also "Hinterlands" is one of the best horror story concepts ever)
posted by atoxyl at 9:33 PM on September 27 [8 favorites]


My cult fave that has not aged well: The Illuminatus! Trilogy.

It did at least manage to inoculate my smart nerd boy self against Telemachus SneezesAtlas Shrugged so there’s that to be glad for. But even reading it in the eighties I could kinda tell that it’s handling of women was... not good. I have not read a single book written by a man in the sixties that handled women as anything but objects, really.
posted by egypturnash at 10:01 PM on September 27 [13 favorites]


I cant believe they left Will Self off this list.

If a future historian wants to know the feel of middle class white America in the 1970's, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is essential reading.

Isn't that kind of the whole point of books though? I want to immerse myself in other times and places ans people. I dont want to read about people like me, I'm surrounded by them every day. I want to know how other people think, or thought. Not that id ever probably read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance but I dont think a book strongly being of a time and place is a negative.
posted by fshgrl at 10:05 PM on September 27 [7 favorites]


I'm pretty unapologetic about my respect for Infinite Jest. It has its flaws, but the number of people with strong negative opinions about it far outnumber those who actually read it. Worse, most of those who did read it didn't seem to take much away from it (which probably explains the size of the first group.) If you have the time, check out Leslie Jameson's discussion of Infinite Jest in her memoir The Recovering. She's one of the few people I felt really understood the emotional core of the novel.

Ultimately, if Infinite Jest has outlived its cool, I imagine this is just a point in time. I'd expect this to be a book people rediscover.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:06 PM on September 27 [5 favorites]


I would like Catcher in the Rye much better if it were about a girl ...

That's a very interesting idea! I suppose Judy Blume's books are the most obvious candidates, but they are 20+ years later and are set in a very different environment. What about Mary McCarthy -- she was a near contemporary to Salinger and worked in the same New York literary scene. She wrote the memoirs Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and How I Grew , and the semi-autobiographical novels The Company She Keeps and The Oasis, all set in about the same era as Catcher . Twenty years later her big novel The Group was quite popular in the 1960s --- but never became a cult book like the others discussed here. (I haven't read any of these, but they seem like they might be pertinent to this discussion.)
posted by JonJacky at 10:16 PM on September 27 [3 favorites]


My wife was reading Steppenwolf last week and exhausted her face with eyerolling exercises. Her feeling was that it was a leftover of Boomer culture

it's a vastly misunderstood book - it's about a middle aged man going through a mid-life crisis in a culture that seems to have no place for him - it's not something that the young people of the 60s and 70s, myself included, saw for what it is - and it has nothing to do with boomer culture, but weimar culture - the longing for the primal was something that hesse was much more conflicted about, for reasons that would become obvious in a few years
posted by pyramid termite at 10:28 PM on September 27 [16 favorites]


I've said it before, I'll say it again: Forget the philosophical gaucherie, Atlas Shrugged is still the bestest Harlequin romance novel ever written!
posted by fairmettle at 11:06 PM on September 27 [4 favorites]


This is really a weird list—The Little Red Book next to Infinite Jest?

That’s all, there are generations between the generations that counted those books as revolutionary or counter-cultural or important. And everyone has bagged on “On the Road” as undeserving since it was published. (I, a no one, think it’s undeserving, and I enjoyed it. )

Iron John? That was important for two seconds when that guy was running the paid camp outs.

Nobody has ever confused Atlas Shrugged with important in any way whatsoever.

The others require more than a sneer, but dang, this is an ill thought list.
posted by notyou at 11:41 PM on September 27 [2 favorites]


> I've said it before, I'll say it again: Forget the philosophical gaucherie, Atlas Shrugged is still the bestest Harlequin romance novel ever written!

yeah rand was really in touch with how the ravishment fantasy works. she presented herself as a fanatic for rationalism and super fetishized the concept of the hard powerful man... but the main thing she got 100% right was her depiction of a set of libidinal desires that in her time (and to a lesser but real extent today) was/is understood as a type of distinctively feminine irrationality.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:58 PM on September 27 [1 favorite]


w/r/t infinite jest, i recall very much liking it when it first came out. wallace did a fine job, i thought, of continuing the 20th century weird boy tradition that joyce started and that i picked up.

but i’m afraid to revisit it now, because i suspect the grand guignol violence against women that occurs in parts of the book — i’m thinking specifically about the bits with the incestuous rape — will seem like they were written by too gleeful a pen.

one reason why we absolutely must smash the patriarchy is to provide a space for weird boys like me and wallace to grow into our weirdness without also growing into toxic masculinity. i wonder if wallace would have grown up a little if he had lived longer, if he had not offed himself, or if he would have doubled down on his toxic masculinity.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:05 AM on September 28 [10 favorites]


I don't remember where I first saw this:
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to live with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
posted by Marky at 12:39 AM on September 28 [25 favorites]


Mason and Dixon may actually be a genuine masterpiece but no-one seems to have read it.

My dad did. But he approached it as something he was going to either overcome or die in the attempt. This is a man who recently read the entire Pentagon Papers straight though.
posted by sideshow at 12:41 AM on September 28 [8 favorites]


The books you liked in college weren’t all that great, film at 11 yadda yadda yadda

Seriously though are there still like grown adults somewhere who go all gaga over Catcher in the Rye or On the Road?

Those books are your training wheels. No i wouldn’t have the patience to read naked lunch right now. But if I’d never read Burroughs, I may not have gotten into bolaño, delillo, barthelme or Pynchon.

I mean if someone is in their 30s and still going on about Vonnegut, I’d be like, literally what have you done with the last 10 years? But as a starting point? Perfectly fine.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong giving credit to our early influences. But I also think it’s equally important to move on and go deep and learn more about how literature can enrich your life.
posted by panama joe at 1:18 AM on September 28 [12 favorites]


Infinite Jest will always have merit for me because more than anything else it gave me an understanding what it is like to be addicted to drugs. No small feat. That's the core of the book for me.
posted by nnethercote at 1:44 AM on September 28


In my hippie, New Age phase, I really ate up Robert Anton Wilson's The Cosmic Trigger Vol. 1. I really felt I had found something profound, and I wonder if I'll have the same reaction if I read it again now.


Is Robert Anton Wilson still considered OK (other than a woolly-headed 1960s irrationalism that hasn't aged well), or has he been found out to have been horrifically racist/a sexual predator/something?
posted by acb at 2:00 AM on September 28


The story "Burning Chrome" along with some of the other early ones in the collection of the same name, will always be Peak Gibson to me. There are things that can become dated in a such a particular way that they actually become timeless, and "Burning Chrome" is like that because it's a perfect mapping of hardboiled crime fiction onto a specific 80s-vintage futurism

The more Gibson knew about his setting, the less compelling his books were. Cyberpunk futurism written on a typewriter after watching kids in a video arcade worked because it was pure impressionism; works set in the near future, with the usual grizzled tech-merc and sassy teenage girl with a weird name and far-out futuristic pop star, written by someone who owned a computer with a web browser, not so much.

(Recent Gibson, from The Peripheral onward, had become a bit more compelling, because there's more to it than a vaguelly Gladwellian romp in the eddy currents of neoliberal globalisation where the McGuffin is a mysterious line of denim or something.)
posted by acb at 2:08 AM on September 28 [12 favorites]


rand was really in touch with how the ravishment fantasy works... but the main thing she got 100% right was her depiction of a set of libidinal desires that in her time (and to a lesser but real extent today) was/is understood as a type of distinctively feminine irrationality.

When she became a political thought-leader, the world lost a great pornographer.
posted by acb at 2:11 AM on September 28 [8 favorites]


Cult books that have lost their cool:

The Pnakotic Manuscripts
Unaussprechlichen Kulten
The King In Yellow
De Vermis Mysteriis
Cultes des Goules
The Book of Eibon
The Necronomicon
Atlas Shrugged
posted by kyrademon at 2:12 AM on September 28 [32 favorites]


In one of John Irving’s later books the large-breasted female protagonist takes a shower and then wraps a towel around her waist and sits down at the dinner table like that with the guy she’s just had sex with. That’s the last John Irving I ever read. I don’t know if I’ve ever read any other author whose own personal weird sex stuff is so blatantly on display in his work. NO LARGE-BREASTED WOMAN IS GOING TO SIT DOWN TO DINNER TOPLESS WITH A TOWEL WRAPPED AROUND HER WAIST. I was actually shocked after that book that he kept cranking out even more of them about wrestling and bears and the woods in New Hampshire. Hang it up, grossface.

Anyway, I still enjoy reading snippets of Atlas Shrugged sometimes. She was just so crazy and that she considered her fiction philosophy is hilarious.
posted by something something at 2:21 AM on September 28 [14 favorites]


I fully accept the Owen Meany criticisms, but the opening paragraph is still a grabber:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
posted by praemunire at 2:43 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


Even if it fades into obscurity, the best thing about Kondo's book is how irrationally mad it seems to make some people.

It's a

* wildy popular book
* about keeping house
* and respecting your feelings
* and then acting on them
* written by a woman
* who is young
* who isn't an American
* who has her own business
* and whose clients are mostly other women

Kondo's book is the nuclear football of all triggers.
posted by springo at 3:52 AM on September 28 [47 favorites]


the extended meditations about quality frequently sounded kind of incoherent or grasping at straws and it took a long time for me to realize that that might have unironically been the point, albeit maybe inadvertently.

I don't believe that anybody who has ever experienced psychosis would ever think for an instant that anything about ZatAoMM was inadvertent. Pirsig knew exactly what he was doing and why, every step of the way, one hundred percent.

I fucking love that book.

Also, how are The Celestine Puffery, The DaVinci Plod and Fifty Shades of Laboured Beige Porn not on that list?
posted by flabdablet at 4:08 AM on September 28 [6 favorites]


> Everybody owned Be Here Now, I'm not sure anyone read it.

I read it, and it was a decent book to read during a point in my life when I was feeling conflicted about spiritual matters. There are three parts, the first two at least worth skimming since they put you in the author’s headspace; maybe other people find them more rewarding than I did. It’s the last, with a plain-talk discussion about meditation and contemplation, that’s worth spending time in, at least for someone who hasn’t grown up in an environment where a diversity of spiritual practices were accessible. Being told it’s OK to explore yoga and meditation and church(es) (and, implicitly, to find that if there’s more peace to be found in none-of-the-above, that’s also OK), with exercises you can try at home, was refreshing. (Oh yeah, there’s also an annotated bibliography that’s also worth a skim but you probably won’t read any of the references anyway.) Also the book is self-aware about its own ephemerality, which is also refreshing since the author could easily have spun it into a holy book instead.

People who don’t go through a spiritual phase in their late teens/early twenties, or who find the topic tiresome or annoying, or are offended to see it discussed in terms of mechanics and practices rather than in terms of belief and revelation, won’t have much use for it. Which is OK too.
posted by ardgedee at 4:10 AM on September 28 [6 favorites]


Also, how are The Celestine Puffery, The DaVinci Plod and Fifty Shades of Laboured Beige Porn not on that list?

They were too mainstream to be “cult literature”. They took things (new-age/hippy mysticism, occult conspiracy histories and BDSM) that were more obscure, used them as flavourings for mass-market literature written to well-established and proven formulas, and made bank with that, eventually ending up occupying entire shelves of charity shops.
posted by acb at 4:22 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]


[Marginalia in a small college library copy of A Catcher in the Rye, about halfway through the book]
Handwritten: Holden is the phony
Handwritten below that: You just figured this out?!


If this isn't the intended point of the novel, it's a powerful argument for the correctness of reader response theory. Holden Caufield was an obnoxiously unrelatable shitnose even as a privileged preteen boy in the mid-90s, an economic and political period during which when he should've been more relatable than today's gallery of doom.

I'm not sure most of these are "cult" novels. They're too prominent for that. More like the central texts of an overthrown dynasty.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:43 AM on September 28 [4 favorites]


Worse, most of those who did read it didn't seem to take much away from it (which probably explains the size of the first group.)

Maybe if DFW gave a shit about the reader, that would be less of an issue?

I have a really visceral negative reaction to Infinite Jest because it was a book that made me honestly feel ashamed for a long time. I am a lifelong avid reader of fiction and nonfiction, and it was really highly recommended to me, and I just could not fucking get through it. I tried repeatedly. I felt like the author was trying to make me stop reading, but for the longest time I basically thought of it as an indication that maybe I was a shitty reader who apparently couldn't actually read "real" literature.

And then at some point I realized: fuck that, this is just a bad book written by someone trying so hard to be clever that he forgot to be interesting or have a fucking point.

Fuck Infinite Jest.
posted by tocts at 5:01 AM on September 28 [9 favorites]


What I mostly remember about Jonathan Livingston Seagull is I read it basically in one sitting, after buying at one of the bookstores in the local Mall, before I left the Mall, waiting for my mom to finish trying on shoes.

I wanted my money back.
posted by lordrunningclam at 5:09 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


I have a really visceral negative reaction to Infinite Jest because it was a book that made me honestly feel ashamed for a long time. I am a lifelong avid reader of fiction and nonfiction, and it was really highly recommended to me, and I just could not fucking get through it. I tried repeatedly. I felt like the author was trying to make me stop reading, but for the longest time I basically thought of it as an indication that maybe I was a shitty reader who apparently couldn't actually read "real" literature.

The value that I was able to extract from IJ (mostly the stuff about addiction and depression), I was able to extract because I have no shame about skimming and skipping. All the stuff about the Quebecois secret agents? Skipped it. Most of the footnotes? Skipped. Tennis-academy Eschaton? Skipperoo. I figure I can always go back and read the parts I missed, it's not going anywhere.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:26 AM on September 28 [3 favorites]


They were too mainstream to be “cult literature”.

But Catcher In The Rye and Atlas Shrugged and On The Road were somehow not?

The original US cover price printed on my tatty AU$6 op-shop paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged is 95 cents. That's not a niche-lit price, that's solidly mass-market.
posted by flabdablet at 5:34 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]


I felt like the author was trying to make me stop reading

How did you like 2666?
posted by thelonius at 5:38 AM on September 28 [4 favorites]


I can barely stomach the things-you-must-[read, hear, do, experience for yourself, achieve, check off your bucket list, et cetera] impetus in Western culture, because it all adds up to the tiresome trope, leaked to us from hoary religion like gore festering from a corpse, that we are all perpetually in a state of incompleteness and can never be fully actualized as worthy beings unless we pass all these defined milestones like someone working their way through the grueling stages of a video game. If books are must-reads, are the people who never did, or who made it twenty pages in and put the thing down, lesser by definition? It’s such an odd way of promoting literacy.

I tend to see incompleteness as a feature, not a bug. Life is endless and we aren’t.
posted by sonascope at 5:52 AM on September 28 [20 favorites]


Over the years, I’ve read a bunch of Vonnegut, and have generally enjoyed all of it.

Earlier this year, I finally got around to reading Cat’s Cradle, and I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that has been so bad that it completely tarnished the rest of the author’s works in the way that Cat’s Cradle did for me.

My most charitable read is that there’s a level of irony present in the narration that hasn’t translated at all to a modern context. The narrator has such a lack of self-awareness that it has to have been intentional, and yet, like Hunter S Thompson’s works, I got the distinct impression that it was more than a little autobiographical.
posted by schmod at 5:52 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


we are all perpetually in a state of incompleteness and can never be fully actualized as worthy beings unless we pass all these defined milestones like someone working their way through the grueling stages of a video game

Anybody else who hasn't seen ET is welcome any time for drinkies at mine.
posted by flabdablet at 5:58 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


Late to the party.

I also credit Infinite Jest with teaching me empathy for substance abusers, depressives and the mentally unwell, generally. That you could not get through it doesn't make a bad reader or a bad book.

The Glass Bead Game i picked up recently. Adored Steppenwolf and Demian in my 20s but i just could not get through it.
posted by Evstar at 6:01 AM on September 28 [7 favorites]


That's weird. I love Cat's Cradle the most. Granted, I've only read Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast of Champions, none of his other books. But his voice is so "I'm an asshole and I know it" that you can admire his work without loving it exactly. As a kid growing up in the 80's, books about the end of the world really resonated for me. Absurdity and escapism were defense mechanisms.
posted by rikschell at 6:02 AM on September 28


I don't remember where I first saw this:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to live with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.


That's a quote by writer John Rogers, best known (well, liked - he's written some hot garbage) currently for the TV series Leverage.

Also if I had to pick a piece of 90s fan-favorite culture that's aged... well, lets just say it provides a window into a very specific place and time, I'd pick Snow Crash.

I re-read Snow Crash recently, and boy, that was an experience. The creepy sex stuff, and how YT is written like no actual young teenager, isn't the half of it. It no longer can be mistaken for a parody of cyberpunk; we know now that Neal Stephenson meant every goddamn word. It also doesn't feel quite as ridiculous as it did then, because honestly the world is cyberpunk dystopia right now.
posted by Merus at 6:04 AM on September 28 [8 favorites]


Not even a word about Thoreau and his book about glamping?
posted by kadmilos at 6:06 AM on September 28 [21 favorites]


> Seriously though are there still like grown adults somewhere who go all gaga over Catcher in the Rye

That'd be me. I'm in my 50s, and Catcher has lost none of its relevance to me. My career (such as it is) has landed me in a soul-crushing workplace with distinct parallels to Pencey Prep. I don't care what the cognoscenti say (I was never one of the cool kids, anyway) – Salinger was a genius.
posted by akk2014 at 6:08 AM on September 28 [6 favorites]


Just stopped by to upvote any positive comments about Catcher.

Carry on.
posted by freakazoid at 6:08 AM on September 28 [9 favorites]


The original US cover price printed on my tatty AU$6 op-shop paperback copy of Atlas Shrugged is 95 cents.

How did you manage to find a copy of Atlas Shrugged in a charity shop of all places? Who donates Ayn Rand books to charity?
posted by acb at 6:12 AM on September 28 [12 favorites]


Vonnegut is very much a mid-twentieth century US author - the voice of most of his books is one that mixes a toxically sweet sentimentality with boiling, viscous cynicism and then tries to disguise the results with a pose of smiling, wide-eyed disingenuousness.
He may have been on the right side socially and politically but that way of looking at the world is one I could imagine is the same as your average CIA operative in early seventies Chile.
He's also almost cosmically patronising.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:13 AM on September 28 [6 favorites]


I think this is why William Gibson's early books all seem to be missing something when I reread them today.

Oooh, I know this one! And so does Gibson. He did a web chat with Guardian readers five years ago:

“If I were a smart 12-year-old reading Neuromancer for the first time, I would decide that the mystery must hinge on where all the cellphones have gone. Why are there payphones in the background?”
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:30 AM on September 28 [13 favorites]


I mean, I like reading Infinite Jest in bursts, much like all of Wallace’s works, but I will never understand why it is considered a literary masterpiefe and not just compelling neurotic rambling. I understand why a lot of these books were as they were very subversive and rebellious at the time. They don’t age well and that’s ok. Probably the reason is society evolved with their messages in mind. I mean, a cross country road trip is something every college student does now, not just beatniks.
posted by Young Kullervo at 6:53 AM on September 28 [4 favorites]


Who donates Ayn Rand books to charity?

The same kind of person who dumps rotting food waste into the clothing collection boxes.

The cruelty is the point.
posted by flabdablet at 7:11 AM on September 28 [10 favorites]


Earlier this year, I finally got around to reading Cat’s Cradle, and I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that has been so bad that it completely tarnished the rest of the author’s works in the way that Cat’s Cradle did for me.

I loved Cradle when I read it as a 13 year old, he was such a better writer than the SF writers I had been reading but I just re-read it while traveling last Christmas and found it pretty gross. The portrayal of the islanders is pretty horribly racist and I don't think that male gazeiness of the narrator is even slightly ironic.
posted by octothorpe at 7:25 AM on September 28 [3 favorites]


SPrintF: "There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another.

...Patrick O'Brian, Edward St. Aubyn, Anthony Powell, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, James Ellroy...

posted by chavenet at 7:37 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile, I just finished re-reading Atlas Shrugged. I had read it as a teenager and probably skimmed many, many of the pages. I had no memory of it. It is truly a terrible, terribly-written book. Laughably terrible. For extra yucks my copy was a special edition printed up by Saxo Bank, with a suitably ludicrous fantroduction written by the Saxo Bank CEO of the time.
posted by chavenet at 7:42 AM on September 28 [3 favorites]


It is truly a terrible, terribly-written book.

Never mind the quality, feel the width
posted by flabdablet at 8:05 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]



Is Robert Anton Wilson still considered OK (other than a woolly-headed 1960s irrationalism that hasn't aged well), or has he been found out to have been horrifically racist/a sexual predator/something?

can't say I've been going out of my way to keep abreast of things but no, I haven't heard anything deeply discouraging about him. Though I suppose if he were a bigger, brighter cultural touchstone, his legacy would be attracting deeper investigation, and he did obviously delve into some weird shit back in the day, and he was white, he was male, there would not have been a great crowd holding him back from pursuing his obsessions ...

And speaking of Mr. Wilson (and his partner in weirdness, Robert Shea) somebody more or less dismissed Illuminatus! earlier in this thread. I thought to engage but elected not to. But now, having slept on it, I'm reminded of something a friend said recently -- that anybody (white males in particular) who messes up going down a big deal CONSPIRACY wormhole, part of their penance if they wish to be accepted back into sane/rational society should be a required deep read of Illuminatus! (all three volumes) and then some kind of tribunal wherein they are compelled to explain their previous actions in the context of having foolishly fallen for a what amounts to a big fat joke with perilous consequences.

Or put it this way. My introduction to CONSPIRACY thinking was Illuminatus. In other words -- it's ridiculous and hilarious. To take it seriously is to announce to any and all that you deserve ridicule. Somebody should turn it into a TV series. Somebody with a complex grasp of the absurd. Probably not an American.
posted by philip-random at 8:23 AM on September 28 [14 favorites]


SPrintF: "There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another.

...Patrick O'Brian, Edward St. Aubyn, Anthony Powell, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, James Ellroy...


...John McPhee, Stanislaw Lem, Gene Wolf, Flann O'Brien (cheating cuz only 2), Margaret Atwood...
posted by Golem XIV at 8:27 AM on September 28 [7 favorites]


I liked Catcher in the Rye and Infinite Jest.

(I didn't Like On the Road. There's a reasonable chance I might get around to reading The Old Man and the Sea at some point. The rest are generally things I'm not likely to read.)

I do, however, understand the rage it's possible to feel when something you really hate is very, very popular. As a writer, I find it in some way offensive that something as badly written (both on a prose and structural level) as e.g. 50 Shades of Gray is widely beloved.

But... I'm trying to get over it. I don't mean I want to avoid talking about the things in books that are problematic -- both in books I like and books I don't. That's a useful conversation. But I feel like there has to be a point where I have to throw up my hands and say, "OK. I don't get it, but so what?"
posted by kyrademon at 8:28 AM on September 28 [6 favorites]



SPrintF: "There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another.

...Patrick O'Brian, Edward St. Aubyn, Anthony Powell, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, James Ellroy...

...John McPhee, Stanislaw Lem, Gene Wolf, Flann O'Brien (cheating cuz only 2), Margaret Atwood...


MeFi's own cstross.
posted by acb at 8:50 AM on September 28 [3 favorites]


Regarding the numerous problems with Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, it should also be noted that the motherfucker thinks its real cute to not write endings. Fuck that!
posted by Ber at 8:51 AM on September 28 [6 favorites]


> Mason and Dixon may actually be a genuine masterpiece but no-one seems to have read it.

ouch.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:51 AM on September 28 [19 favorites]


> Regarding the numerous problems with Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, it should also be noted that the motherfucker thinks its real cute to not write endings. Fuck that!

i thought it was cute when wallace didn’t write an ending to infinite jest. 1) because he telegraphed the absence of an ending quite nicely with the material on hal’s father’s theory of anticonfluentialism, 2) because it places an emphasis on the novel’s (admittedly flawed) focus on representing every character as fully as possible, rather than on the plot (insofar as there’s a plot). it’s an interestingly static novel, i think — all these little figure drawings, some successful, some not, of a broad range of characters linked only by their living in the roughly same geographical area.

that said, if that effect is what you’re into you’re probably better served by reading ulysses instead. the only reason to recommend infinite jest over joyce is that you don’t have to bone up on late 19th century/early 20th century irish politics in order to understand what’s going on... and as wallace’s very 1990s moment fades farther into the past, his writing too will require extensive research to understand.

stephenson, on the other hand, just can’t write an ending. he’s not a good writer.

(though the end of the baroque cycle was interesting just because of the last-twenty-pages reveal that the whole thing wasn’t in the genre you thought it was in.)
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:59 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]


Who donates Ayn Rand books to charity?

One of the reasons I find the ubiquity of those awful little book swap boxes that stand around pretending to be diminutive libraries (despite serving none of the functions or needs of actual libraries and risking a cease-and-desist from the organization that trademarks them) so atrocious is that there are actually right-wing creeps that troll those boxes, extracting liberal-identified texts, and inserting Rand, Hannity, and books by the current president’s ghostwriters, hoping to “trigger” the “libs.”

I, of course, pick out those books to take on camping trips, because nothing solves the problem of dampened kindling better than a nice layer of dry Galt.
posted by sonascope at 8:59 AM on September 28 [30 favorites]


I didn’t finish Infinite Jest, but I love DFW’s nonfiction collections, and I think his style works a lot better there, or at least traces the way my brain works when I’m reading a nonfiction piece and picking up all kinds of random factoids.

That being said, hold the best of DFW up against John McPhee’s work and it’s like comparing a rhinestone to a diamond.

I still so wish I could have read DFW on POTUS Trump, though. But I also wish I could read Mark Twain’s take.
posted by sallybrown at 9:07 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]


okay here’s a sacred cow from my earlier days that it hurts to kill:

phillip k. dick.

his deep ontological skepticism was something i found so compelling when i read him so long ago, but i’m loathe to revisit him now because of how so much of his work was devoted to his misogynistic obsession with “dark haired girls” far too young for him, and his tendency to blame everything wrong in the world on these like sinister lolitas or whatever. his desires were fucked up and he blamed those desires on the objects of the desires rather than on his own personal issues.

the only ones i’m really curious about going back to are the very late ones, the ones written after his psychotic break / theological epiphany.
it’s kind of fascinating how this dude who spent his life honing his skills as a paranoid pulp sci-fi writer had something happen inside his brain that forced him to redirect his talents toward a type of autobiography that’s more associated with outsider art than with commercial writing.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:10 AM on September 28 [8 favorites]


There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another.

I’m pretty sure I did this with John Hawkes back in the day. Not sure I could now.

Counterpoint: I could probably do this with Iris Murdoch right now and I’ve already read most of them
posted by thivaia at 9:24 AM on September 28


Oh that sounds tedious. Morality is fine, but enough is enough.
posted by thelonius at 9:42 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


Who donates Ayn Rand books to charity?

I worked in a used book shop in a college town for the length of 2018. (It had numerous copies of all these books, except Infinite Jest which was harder to keep in stock.) One guy bought a slew of Rand and said it would be nice of me to give him a discount, and I resisted pointing out the irony. One undergrad was getting it for her boyfriend, and I resisted giving her relationship advice. One guy bought Atlas Shrugged, the Fountainhead, AND Sun-Tzu's Art of War in a single go, and I resisted making any derogatory comments.

But once I had an undergrad come in, put Atlas Shrugged on the counter, and ask me, "What do you think of this book?"

Him: So, what do you think of this author?
Me: Really? [beat.] To be honest, I think she was both a terrible writer and a terrible person.
Him: Wow.
Me: Sorry.
Him: No, I appreciate your honesty.
My Deadpan Coworker: Well, you chose the slightly better one, the one about the architects. The one about trains is worse.
Him: But why do you dislike her so much?
Me: [Something like, "I don't know what your politics are, but I'm on the left and she is...very much against that." Not very articulate.]
Him: I guess that makes sense that would be a Republican sort of thing.
Me: Yes.
Him: I just heard that it was a good thing to read if you are trying to figure out what you want to do with your life.
Me: I understand that and I think that's a very important question to ask oneself, but I think there are probably better books for that. [None of which I could name at the time.]
Him: I've heard it's a thing that sometimes people read when they're young and then they kinda get over it?
Me: Yes....but hey, don't let me stop you. Read it and think about it.
Him: Thanks.
[cordial goodbyes.]

I got a better job before I ever had a chance to talk to this kid again.
posted by HeroZero at 9:50 AM on September 28 [11 favorites]


Regarding the numerous problems with Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon, it should also be noted that the motherfucker thinks its real cute to not write endings. Fuck that!

When I was in welding college, I would listen to audiobooks during class.* Now I wasn't paying the most attention on account of managing a 200 amp arc takes a certain amount of concentration, but I'd somehow only managed to download half of the audiobook of Snow Crash onto my Ipod and, despite being a fan of the book and having read it multiple times, I didn't noticed. It just kind of stopped mid-narrative and I was, like, "Yeah, this is pretty much how I remember the ending."

*For the record, class in welding college is roughly, "Make a 4"x4" X-shaped piece of steel about a foot long. Good. Now run beads until you've turned it into a rectangle. See you in eight hours. Stay in this 6'x6' metal box with your hearing protection in the entire time." Not interactive.
posted by stet at 10:09 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]


I'm finally reading The Diamond Age right now, and enjoying it, but I went in smart this time and fully don't expect a real ending out of it. What I'd somehow forgotten, though, is that no matter how well Stephenson writes, he takes his Big Idea for the novel (in this case nanotechnology) and then seemingly every single sentence needs to incorporate that. Having noticed that is making getting through the book take a little longer now.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:20 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


Who donates Ayn Rand books to charity?

Disappointed mothers and relieved widows.

There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another.

Nthing Patrick O'Brian. That's all one big book in my head (Though I think I stopped 3 or 4 short of the end).
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:21 AM on September 28 [9 favorites]


What's wild is that Snow Crash is probably the one of Neal Stephenson's books that has the closest thing to an actual ending. There's an actual climax there, a definitive stopping point, and the book's main plot is resolved. All the elements are there, and he just doesn't quite put it together. It's very instructive.

I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a few years ago, having known it by reputation, and it was a very interesting process as I went from being on-board, to being fascinated, to having to work pretty hard to follow the arguments, to being horrified as I realised that I was literally trying to decipher the work of a crazy person. I do still think the distinction between people who want to take things apart and people who need things to be whole that he talks about in the first couple of chapters is useful, even though it does also sound a little too pat to be real.
posted by Merus at 10:21 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: more to it than a vaguelly Gladwellian romp in the eddy currents of neoliberal globalisation where the McGuffin is a mysterious line of denim or something
posted by theora55 at 10:47 AM on September 28 [2 favorites]


> ardgedee Thank you, next time it crosses my path, I'll try again.
posted by theora55 at 10:52 AM on September 28


> I'm finally reading The Diamond Age right now, and enjoying it, but I went in smart this time and fully don't expect a real ending out of it. What I'd somehow forgotten, though, is that no matter how well Stephenson writes, he takes his Big Idea for the novel (in this case nanotechnology) and then seemingly every single sentence needs to incorporate that. Having noticed that is making getting through the book take a little longer now.

the thing that it's best not to think about wrt diamond age is how the orientalist techno-fetishist plot inspired pretty much every person who worked on the deeply misguided "one laptop per child" campaign, which at best was a total waste of everyone's time.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:29 AM on September 28 [10 favorites]


> Or put it this way. My introduction to CONSPIRACY thinking was Illuminatus. In other words -- it's ridiculous and hilarious. To take it seriously is to announce to any and all that you deserve ridicule.

That's more or less how the book functioned for me, too, and I'd add that Gravity's Rainbow (another book mentioned earlier in the thread as having passed its sell-by date) makes a similar point, albeit more elliptically. The whole bit that runs through the narrative about the Preterite and the Elect didn't click for me until I closed the book and processed my sense of irresolution (among other things, the main character basically disappears down a rabbit hole and is not present for the ending). Turns out Slothrop has been on a wild goose chase for the whole novel and we hope you enjoyed his madcap adventures for their own sake because the actual history being made around him is something entirely separate, unmysterious and dismal, and no one has less insight into or influence over it than conspiracy theorists.

[NB: I read GR almost 20 years ago so I can't be sure I'd process it this way today, or even that I've remembered the facts right...]
posted by aws17576 at 11:32 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]


perhaps like you went through your teenage heinlein phase right when you joined your Favorite Website.

Look, I can empathize ok? We can get through this you and I.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:34 AM on September 28 [10 favorites]


Internet 2030: "10 Lit-Shaming Listicles That Haven't Aged Well"
posted by Crane Shot at 11:56 AM on September 28 [15 favorites]


My Deadpan Coworker: Well, you chose the slightly better one, the one about the architects. The one about trains is worse.

The one about the trains is Atlas Shrugged. The one about the architects is The Fountainhead. Unless the coworker was making a joke. The Fountainhead seemed more novely if that’s a word. And I think it’s shorter. Although I did skip over most speechifying in Atlas .
posted by affectionateborg at 11:56 AM on September 28 [1 favorite]


When I read The Illuminatus! trilogy I took it to be a fantastic long-form joke of sorts. Sort of in line with the Church of the Sub-Genius. It was only later did I learn there were (are?) people that read it seriously, which I found to be alarming at best.

Another "cult" author who did not age well (at all) would be Hakim Bey. I loved TAZ when I was couch surfing at various anarchist collectives (ie poorly maintained rented houses in bad neighborhoods where we experimented with drugs, punk rock and veganism while wearing black Carhartt overalls.) But as I grew up I started to realize some of his examples betrayed motivations I wasn't down with.
posted by elwoodwiles at 11:57 AM on September 28 [5 favorites]


>[NB: I read GR almost 20 years ago so I can't be sure I'd process it this way today, or even that I've remembered the facts right...]

nah your reading is cool. but it is important to note where exactly the missile lands in the very final scene...
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:31 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


Ctrl-f "American Psycho"
posted by benzenedream at 12:35 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]


Jordan Peterson has completely tainted this angle, but I think there's an argument to be made that as long as you don't fall down the rabbithole, the nonconformity presented in The Fountainhead is a healthier and more constructive example than On The Road.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:49 PM on September 28


> But Catcher In The Rye and Atlas Shrugged and On The Road were somehow not?

I was trying to make a point by example. Nearly all the books in the OP’s article were bestsellers at some point (On the Road has been in print more or less continuously for decades but I don’t know if it ever sold large numbers at any specific time). I’d counterargue that Atlas Shrugged, at least, has become a text of what can legitimately be considered a cult of belief; the rest are supposed to be cult books in the sense of having a small but fiercely devoted fandom, seemingly inclusive of million-sellers but exclusive of small-press authors like Brautigan.
posted by ardgedee at 12:51 PM on September 28


Ctrl-f "American Psycho"

Actually I'm surprised that Less Than Zero didn't make the list.
posted by gtrwolf at 1:00 PM on September 28 [6 favorites]


I still have a lingering resentment towards an ex-boyfriend who, in a tit-for-tat move, proposed I read the whole of Miller’s Rosy Crucifixion and he’d read Gaiman’s Sandman series (he sneered at graphic novels). I spent a few hours on a Saturday morning with Sexus. Then broke up with said boyfriend.
posted by lemon_icing at 1:14 PM on September 28 [6 favorites]


> My introduction to CONSPIRACY thinking was Illuminatus. In other words -- it's ridiculous and hilarious. To take it seriously is to announce to any and all that you deserve ridicule.

It wasn’t my introduction to conspiracy thinking, but it was the book that helped put a lid on my interest in it. It’s screamingly, obviously, a novel length farce with no lessons to impart, except by making a point that if there can be a conspiracy, there is consequentially the probability of so many conspiracies as to have the same significance as the complete absence of conspiracies, in which case it really doesn’t matter, carry on. I agree that people who take it any more seriously than that fail to get the joke or are wishing a little too hard to live in that fantasy wonderland.

This is I suspect where Shea and Wilson complemented each other. Wilson fell deep down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, basing the remainder of his literary career on them. In contrast, Shea seemed bemused by the subject for a while before getting bored, and he later moved on to comparatively conventional historical fiction. It feels like Wilson hadn’t learned the point of the trilogy he coauthored. He tended to write and speak on conspiracies with a sense of humor, but his dedication to the subject belies his belief in them.
posted by ardgedee at 1:27 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]


Wilson fell deep down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, basing the remainder of his literary career on them.

this isn't my take at all.

It's true that he stayed interested in the idea of conspiracy theories (it was kind of his bread and butter), and wasn't afraid to go exploring in said realms. But when I saw him speak (late 90s sometime), when asked what he thought of X-Files, he sort of shrugged and said that he preferred Repo Man, because it was funnier, playing it all for laughs.
posted by philip-random at 1:58 PM on September 28 [4 favorites]


When I was a teenager in the 80s I put a fair amount of time into making a piece of art around a Vonnegut quote:
You want to know something? We are still in the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages - they haven't ended yet.
I stand by the relevance of that quote to our lives.
posted by medusa at 3:32 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]


"bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnk onnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarr hounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk."

-Joyce, 'Finnegans Wake'.

K. The carriage return at '...amm...'
posted by clavdivs at 3:39 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


I like On the Road for its depiction of narcissism; that combination of fascinating and destructive. Later, when a Neal Cassady appeared in my life, I knew exactly where it would lead.
posted by Tom-B at 3:54 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]


I think Wilson's deal was less "conspiracies are neat!" or "you can't tell whether there are zero conspiracies or a squillion!" — it was more like "in general you can choose what to accept as true or real, and the conspiracy thing is a fun example of that."

(I don't think this is true. But it's at least interesting-even-if-false in a way that "conspiracies are neat!" isn't.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:56 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


As for Stephenson, I find his artistic choice to leave out the denouement refreshing. I love Pratchett with a burning passion, but dang that man can drag an ending out for bloody ever. Stephenson takes you to the point where what happens next is obvious and stops instead of writing even a short denouement and while I can see that being a bit frustrating sometimes I think it's not at all a bad decision from a literary standpoint.
posted by sotonohito at 4:29 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


Also I have to agree that Mason & Dixon is a stunning piece of work. It took me a hundred pages to slide into the language but then i was transported. I should read it again.
posted by Evstar at 4:45 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]


> Also I have to agree that Mason & Dixon is a stunning piece of work. It took me a hundred pages to slide into the language but then i was transported. I should read it again.

< img src="thumb_up.gif" alt="a thumb pointing upward to indicate approval"/>.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:05 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]


Stephenson takes you to the point where what happens next is obvious and stops

I think Stephenson's said this is what he's doing, but I disagree with him (and with you, but you seem nice): this might be true for the plot but it's certainly not true for the characters. There's no obvious return to some kind of normalcy there. It's not even clear what normalcy looks like now for these characters. It makes the book feel unfulfilling because the book collapsing when it runs out of plot reminds us that his characters don't have any inner lives outside of the plot.

There's a minor character in The Diamond Age who can be interpreted to be an older YT from Snow Crash - but what's striking about it is it's impossible to imagine what kind of a life YT must have had to lead her to being this character in Diamond Age, because it's impossible to imagine what YT would have done with the events of Snow Crash even two months out.

Of course, most stories only gesture at some kind of return to normalcy, but Stephenson is notable in that he doesn't even try.
posted by Merus at 6:50 PM on September 28 [9 favorites]


Neal Stephenson gets a kind of free dramatic tension out of being so unaware of narrative structure. I wouldn't quite say I hate-read him, but I'd be disappointed if he wrote proper endings, or middles.

I liked Infinite Jest a lot. I liked the theme of destructive captivation, which was a great fit for DWF's writing style. There is no end, no escape, one has to keep living/processing the horrible idea and living in the damaged world. By the time I found out about DWF's RL horribleness, I was out of the phase where that book was powerful to me, so it was easy to jettison it.
posted by fleacircus at 7:37 PM on September 28 [2 favorites]


WRT Stephenson in general, and the criticism above about how "he takes his Big Idea for the novel ... and then seemingly every single sentence needs to incorporate that", he assumes that the exploration of that Big Idea--nanotech, ancient Sumerian being the key to history and religion and neurolinguistic hacking and everything, the moon breaking up and ending life on Earth, whatever--will paper over whatever problems he has with the narrative, including an ending or the lack thereof. WRT Snow Crash in particular, it helps to remember that he originally intended it as a videogame, which explains both some of the really pretty good action scenes and the seeming indifference to the eventual fate of at least one of the big bads, who has some pretty impressive plot armor that gets ignored in the end.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:34 PM on September 28 [1 favorite]


What, no hate for Turgenev's Fathers and Sons?!
posted by onesidys at 8:42 PM on September 28 [3 favorites]


What, no hate for Turgenev's Fathers and Sons?!

Are you, or were you ever, a... nihilist?
posted by clawsoon at 9:05 PM on September 28 [4 favorites]


Golem XIV: "Flann O'Brien (cheating cuz only 2)"

The Everyman Complete Novels of Flann O'Brien has five. Although I will admit that The Third Policeman and At Swim-Two-Birds are the good ones.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:04 PM on September 28 [5 favorites]


There is no author on earth who can stand up to having a dozen of their books read one after another.

Having recently binged my entire Discworld collection and ended up wishing there were more, I beg to differ.
posted by flabdablet at 12:58 AM on September 29 [3 favorites]


the thing that it's best not to think about wrt diamond age is how the orientalist techno-fetishist plot inspired pretty much every person who worked on the deeply misguided "one laptop per child" campaign, which at best was a total waste of everyone's time.

When the day comes, soon, when the MIT Media Lab is bulldozed into a concrete sarcophagus with THIS IS NOT A PLACE OF HONOR inscribed upon it, Neal Stephenson's oeuvre may end up as collateral damage.
posted by acb at 4:06 AM on September 29 [4 favorites]


I just came here to say that For Whom the Bell Tolls contains one of the worst, and (unintentionally) funniest, sex scenes ever written.
posted by sugar and confetti at 4:19 AM on September 29


From the linked article -- which is tidy and entertaining as far as it goes -- I can't tell the difference between a "cult book that lost its cool" versus any bestseller of 30 or 40 years ago that no one reads anymore. There are thousands of them. When's the last time any of us picked up a copy of Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth, or Robert Ringer's Winning Through Intimidation? And I was a bit surprised that the article didn't conclude with a ref to some obvious current candidates, like the 50 Shades books which have clearly passed their pull date.
posted by Seaweed Shark at 6:57 AM on September 29 [1 favorite]


I've enjoyed most of what I've read from Neal Stephenson, though I wouldn't for a second argue that he knows how to end a book, or that his stuff ages particularly well (which perhaps speaks to an underlying issue for a lot of so-called "cult" books -- that their power and import is how they speak to their particular "now" as opposed to "all time", rather how some songs and bands are perfect for their moment, yet lose their luster over time, this doesn't discredit them, it's just in their nature and the culture is richer for it).

Anyway, my most recent Stephenson deep dive was the Baroque Cycle which was far from perfect (the definition of skim-able in many places), but was nevertheless far more reward than punishment, particularly in terms of delivering what I'd call a slow motion crash course on the history, fashions, passions, EVERYTHING of the period in question. And it was fun. In an interview, he referred to it as science fiction like all his other stuff, except this time it was an historical fiction concerning the birth of modern science ... and how EVERYTHING flowed from there (ie: this so-called modern world and all of its problems and promises), with my main takeaway a hint of hope that we (humanity) are not all doomed to some horrific apocalypse, that we've dealt with great Confusions before, we've rolled with changes and their chaos ... somehow.
posted by philip-random at 8:28 AM on September 29 [2 favorites]


> In an interview, he referred to it as science fiction like all his other stuff, except this time it was an historical fiction concerning the birth of modern science ... and how EVERYTHING flowed from there (ie: this so-called modern world and all of its problems and promises)

yes but also there's that thing that happens in the last 20 pages of a 3000 page trilogy that indicates that it is not "science fiction" under stephenson's dodgy definition of science fiction as fiction about science, but is instead speculative fiction done up in 17th century trappings.

life's too short to reread anything that long that's only okay, but if i were secretly an immortal entity that would generation by generation maintain my cover story by passing myself off as my own descendants, i'd reread that series to see how well the last-second twist was foreshadowed.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:44 AM on September 29 [2 favorites]


Infinite Jest, like most anti-drug books, destroys its own credibility by failing to portray even one functioning drug user, even though functioning users make up the majority of any drug scene. This is a pet peeve that never fails to pull me out of the action of a story. Why do writers do this? Do they think they’d be encouraging drug use if they showed a character whose life was merely impaired, as opposed to completely falling apart?

This literary tic basically ruins a lot of drug-oriented stories for me. It makes me feel like I’m reading Go Ask Alice again. And why are we so unwilling to accept the idea of functioning drug users to begin with? Especially when we’re perfectly willing to accept the idea of “heavy drinkers” in our midst. I mean, everybody knows a heavy drinker, right? And don’t most of them have jobs and semi-normal (if miserable) lives?

I think this notion — that all drug users should present as degenerate basket cases — actually blinds us to the very real struggles faced by drug addicts and “heavy drinkers.” It’s one of the reasons why the opioid epidemic was allowed to fester so long. After all, these functioning addicts all had normal lives and jobs. And since they all didn’t go around acting like Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen, clearly they couldn’t be addicts, right? Right? Because addicts are “those people,” certainly not the kind of people you or I would know.
posted by panama joe at 9:05 AM on September 29 [14 favorites]


Stephenson’s The Big U was his best book. He went downhill from there when he decided he had Something to say. The time I met him, I told him how much I liked The Big U. I felt like he wanted to punch me.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:21 AM on September 29 [6 favorites]


sugar and confetti: "I just came here to say that For Whom the Bell Tolls contains one of the worst, and (unintentionally) funniest, sex scenes ever written."

I personally find hilarious the scene from Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night where it takes Rosemary a bizarrely long time to notice the dead man on her bed:

She opened the door of her room and went directly to her desk where she had suddenly remembered leaving her wristwatch. It was there; slipping it on she glanced down at the daily letter to her mother, finishing the last sentence in her mind. Then, rather gradually, she realized without turning about that she was not alone in the room. ... In an inhabited room there are refracting objects only half noticed: varnished wood, more or less polished brass, silver and ivory, and beyond these a thousand conveyers of light and shadow so mild that one scarcely thinks of them as that, the tops of picture-frames, the edges of pencils or ash-trays, of crystal or china ornaments; the totality of this refraction--appealing to equally subtle reflexes of the vision as well as to those associational fragments in the subconscious that we seem to hang on to, as a glass-fitter keeps the irregularly shaped pieces that may do some time--this fact might account for what Rosemary afterward mystically described as "realizing" that there was some one in the room, before she could determine it. But when she did realize it she turned swift in a sort of ballet step and saw that a dead Negro was stretched upon her bed.
posted by chavenet at 9:21 AM on September 29 [3 favorites]


yes but also there's that thing that happens in the last 20 pages of a 3000 page trilogy that indicates that it is not "science fiction"

on the Enoch Root tip ...
posted by philip-random at 9:22 AM on September 29


About the "no author on earth" bit:

It depends on how deeply the writer works out their themes and how much they develop.

Like, you could read all the Sarah Schulman novels in a row with no problem (and I have read most of them in order). She doesn't change too much as a writer, and IMO some of the changes she tries to make are not successful - her most ambitious ensemble novel, Shimmer, is her weakest - but she is steadily documenting queer city lives under capitalism and the fate of bohemia from the eighties through the present. She has a project.

Or you could read all the Doris Lessing, I think, because she makes several political turns over her long career and it keeps energizing her work.

Or, god knows, you could read all the Samuel Delany because he is a genius who is perpetually experimenting with language and genre, and it pays to be able to read his books against each other.

Writers who are driven to re-work and re-work themes without much change - they're more difficult to read. Like, I wouldn't want to read all the Robertson Davies or even all the Margaret Atwood, even though they've both written some really good books, because both seem to get stuck in certain circuits, certain kinds of characterization repeat and repeat, certain concerns are worked out again and again with relatively little change. Or all the Ursula Le Guin - her style doesn't change too much and while her great books are great, there's a lot of pleasant books that don't stand out from each other as much.

Pratchett, I gather (since I really only like the three about the witches) stands up to sustained reading because he's always developing and expanding his world - not so much because he changes dramatically as a writer.
posted by Frowner at 9:48 AM on September 29 [5 favorites]


>> yes but also there's that thing that happens in the last 20 pages of a 3000 page trilogy that indicates that it is not "science fiction"

> on the Enoch Root tip ...


well but also the thing that isaac newton does is an interesting thing to drop on us right at the very end. i'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's an interesting thing. i think someone from the current generation of scifi writers could take that concept and make something really fascinating about it.

hey — has anyone from the current generation of scifi writers written an alt-history story about isaac newton actually managing to do the thing?
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:11 AM on September 29


Infinite Jest, like most anti-drug books, destroys its own credibility by failing to portray even one functioning drug user, even though functioning users make up the majority of any drug scene.

Numerous peers of Hal at the tennis academy probably fit your idea of a functioning drug user.
posted by thelonius at 11:18 AM on September 29 [4 favorites]


This is why I make it a point to only read books with pictures of spaceships and/or dragons on the covers.

Instantly reminded me of this.
posted by and for no one at 11:32 AM on September 29


the best thing about Kondo's book is how irrationally mad it seems to make some people.

90% of the marital conflicts re "one partner hoards, the other one is desperately trying to prevent them both from drowning in household clutter" that I have seen, involve a female partner trying to get her male partner to get rid of his stuff. It's usually the women trying to get the house un-fucked, and the men insisting that every piece of their trash is sacred. There are exceptions. It's 90%, not 100%. But not a lot.

There are other reasons Kondo gets the hate. The idea that we should throw away our stuff offends virtuous notions of austerity and efficiency. It has a decadence about it. But the sex politics are central.

also: physically squirming in disgust at (1) the notion of sitting down to breakfast with a towel around the waist, boobs hanging out and (2) a man writing that, and his editor ok'ing it, and his publisher publishing it, and other people buying it, and everyone lauding the author instead of hitting him hard with a 2x4.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:49 AM on September 29 [9 favorites]


yes but also there's that thing that happens in the last 20 pages of a 3000 page trilogy that indicates that it is not "science fiction" under stephenson's dodgy definition of science fiction as fiction about science, but is instead speculative fiction done up in 17th century trappings.
Fucking hell. I was delighted to discover thousands of pages of new Stephenson, paid absurd foreign bookshop prices for them, and literally carried them to the ends of the Earth, excited to read them. I was even more delighted to discover that it was possible to give up on a book and stop reading it somewhere near the end of the second one. (A valuable lesson that could have come 1800 pages earlier.) Now you're telling me there's a genuinely interesting bit at the end?
posted by eotvos at 2:12 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]


newton succeeds at a thing he didn’t succeed at in reality. it happens like right at the end, though. the novel i would have liked to read is the one that started where the whole trilogy ended...
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:38 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]


I read all 100,000 pages of that stupid trilogy and don't actually remember anything about Newton at the end.
posted by octothorpe at 3:12 PM on September 29 [3 favorites]


I binge-reread Gibson ever two or three years. His writing holds up for me primarily because of his style. Near-future SF is always in danger of being overtaken, and has to be appreciated as a product of its time. I think the Blue Ant books are my favorites because they capture the post 9/11 world better than most. Gibson has always been good at portraying alienation, from Case to Cayce.

The only book on this list I’ve read is Jonathan Livingston Seagull; I was in high school when it came out, I liked it, and I’ve never felt any need to reread it (or see the movie, though the soundtrack is wonderful). I feel profoundly fortunate to have avoided all the rest.
posted by lhauser at 6:20 PM on September 29 [4 favorites]


If you actually want to read Mason & Dixon, this wiki looks very helpful.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:21 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]


Stephenson’s The Big U was his best book. He went downhill from there when he decided he had Something to say. The time I met him, I told him how much I liked The Big U. I felt like he wanted to punch me.

He once described the book as "juvenalia", which is peculiar since it has many of the strengths and weaknesses of his other books, and since its message--that institutions of higher learning have become largely irrelevant to their original purpose, the higher education of mostly young people, in pursuit of other goals--has become increasingly relevant, not less so as with some of his other work. Maybe he dislikes it because it actually has a solid ending.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:27 PM on September 29 [2 favorites]


Infinite Jest, like most anti-drug books, destroys its own credibility

IJ is an anti-drug book like Catch-22 is an anti-air-travel book.
posted by fleacircus at 7:27 PM on September 29 [3 favorites]


guess i'm a monster cause i kinda liked snow crash and reamde, and i really liked seveneves. like that shit was dope af as far as i'm concerned. i read it twice in one year, then my wife read it twice. that book is sick.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:45 PM on September 29 [6 favorites]


I'm sure I've read Snow Crash more than twice, and still take it down every once in a while to thumb through it. That doesn't necessarily mean that it holds up as well as, say, any random Pratchett book (at least from Guards! Guards! onward).
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:51 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]


i hear ya. i'm in love with Pratchett. i tried to do a read through all of the pratchett book club here on Fanfare (pub order) a while ago but I ran out of spoons and couldn't keep making the posts. if anyone in this thread wants to continue it, i would be eternally grateful. we left off on Wyrd Sisters, book 6. god i suck at sustaining things i am interested in.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:17 PM on September 29 [1 favorite]


It's very sad what happened with Pratchett, but I feel the last several books were impacted by his cognitive issues. Not that they are wholly without interest, but he seemed to have lost the ability to really create depth. Also, I feel the characterization of Vetinari went off-track.
posted by Chrysostom at 10:42 PM on September 29 [4 favorites]


I fully accept the Owen Meany criticisms, but the opening paragraph is still a grabber:

"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."


Your mileage may vary. I read that and I expect that reading the book is going to be waiting for the next anvil to drop every couple of dozen pages. Meaning that for me it's an anti-grabber.
posted by Francis at 7:23 AM on September 30


Stephenson’s The Big U was his best book. He went downhill from there when he decided he had Something to say. The time I met him, I told him how much I liked The Big U. I felt like he wanted to punch me.
He once described the book as "juvenalia", which is peculiar since it has many of the strengths and weaknesses of his other books,
Yeah, and unfortunately that includes it being horrifyingly weird and hangup-y about women instead of just mildly weird and hangup-y. Everything else about the book is a delight, but the graphic psychedelic clown rape sequence, the ongoing airhead-girls-love-being-sexually-assaulted-by-frat-guys background hijinks, and the business about how lesbians are there to friendzone and humiliate nice nerdy guys make it totally unrecommendable for me.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:31 AM on September 30 [3 favorites]


guess i'm a monster cause i kinda liked snow crash and reamde, and i really liked seveneves.

I still like Snow Crash as well, but the underage rape scene near the end makes it very, very hard. Even at the age when I read it, which was somewhere in my late teens, that still struck me as a really fucked up thing to put in a book. If I read it for the first time now, I don't think I could get past that at all. As it stands, it's one of those books that I keep in my house and still read once every few years but will never, ever recommend to anybody else.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:08 AM on September 30 [4 favorites]


I binge-reread Gibson ever two or three years. His writing holds up for me primarily because of his style.

This is also extremely true. It's somewhat the opposite of PKD, who was full of crazy ideas but rose only about to the level of a competent prose stylist and that took him until A Scanner Darkly.
posted by atoxyl at 12:39 PM on September 30 [1 favorite]


Even at the age when I read it, which was somewhere in my late teens, that still struck me as a really fucked up thing to put in a book.

Yup. I already commented on this but I was 15 or 16 when I read that book and I felt - really I think mostly deeply embarrassed for the author at the time.

As I said though I was also pretty used to seeing that sort of thing show up in SF/fantasy.
posted by atoxyl at 12:43 PM on September 30 [2 favorites]


Gibson can actually get so far up his own ass with style that he forgets to tell the story but I still like him anyway. Stephenson I could have fun with but never really took "seriously."
posted by atoxyl at 12:45 PM on September 30 [1 favorite]


The Beach [...] when I read it my main takeaway was how are they having all that sex and nobody gets pregnant

They were using plotraception.

It's 100% reliable—perfect for when you want to write a steamy sex scene but have unfortunately put your characters into a situation where reliable birth control isn't available / hasn't been invented yet / would be a major plot point to acquire and use and you're too lazy to include it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:39 PM on September 30 [4 favorites]


Interesting comments. I really can't deal with Gibson. The ideas are great. The prose makes me want to punch a wall in frustration. Gibson is like Kerouac at his very worst, but all the time and at novel length, over and over and over again.

I'm glad he exists and makes people I love and respect happy. I'm never going to make the mistake of reading another of his books, no matter how much people I care about tell me I should do so.
posted by eotvos at 7:55 AM on October 2


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