If I had to do it again, I wouldn't read Beowulf
May 25, 2003 4:51 AM   Subscribe

The Worst Book I Ever ReadFinnegan’s Wake is the best example of modernism disappearing up its own fundament.” A Brief History of Time and Iris Murdoch show up twice. Mein Kampf is as interesting as a bus timetable and “JK Rowling is the sub-literary analogue of Tony Blair.” Tolkien appears most foten, making him the most hated of this little group.
posted by raaka (140 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The US Cpnsitujtion. I dislike fantasy literature.
posted by Postroad at 5:14 AM on May 25, 2003

Yes, there's a big anti-Tolkien faction out there. That's why the parody, "Bored of the Rings" can be found in any largish bookstore. And it's so refreshing to hear someone criticize the Harry Potter books!!! Rowling's imagination is terrific, but she can't write. But no one ever says this.

My last year in high school one of my English teachers handed out a list of 100 books high school students ought to read. I probably had already read a third of them. I pinned it up on my wall at home and tried to read the rest, checking them off as I went. After trying to read James Joyce I came to my senses and threw the list out. Unless a novel is specifically required for a course, there's no reason to read it if I don't like it .

My selections? Hard to pick just one, but off the top of my head, "The Vicar of Wakefield" by Oliver Goldsmith and "Silas Marner" by George Eliot are the silliest, most vapid little potboilers - can't understand why they're still in print. Oh, and "The Horse Whisperer" and "Message in a Bottle" also have that focus group feel to them - they are romance novels (read: women's novels) written by a condescending jackass of a male hack.
posted by orange swan at 5:25 AM on May 25, 2003

The book which got the most vitriolic reaction out of me was "The Old Man and the" fucking "Sea." I was fourteen. What teacher would assign that shiznit to a class of fourteen-year-olds? Mine, of course. Maybe it's actually a good book. But at 14, all I could think was, "Christ, did I really just read fifty goddamned pages about a guy wishing he had a fish?"
posted by kaibutsu at 5:31 AM on May 25, 2003

Schools should never assign books for class reading. It's a sweeping statement, but the agony treated upon students must be stopped. I remember reading 'Passage To India' at school; it was the dullest thing I'd ever laid eyes upon. Maybe it's a good book - I don't know. But after having been forced to read it over a period of two months (as opposed to the usual two days in which I read books) and write essays on symbolism and significance of characters in the book, I was fully prepared to travel back in time and chop off EM Forster's hands. Having to read books in school sucks all the fun out of it.
posted by adrianhon at 5:37 AM on May 25, 2003

So far, I haven't been able to deal with Ulysses, and I've tried four times. However, I read Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" when I was 21 or 22 and it was incomprehensible, then a few years later, I tried again; the light came on and I loved it. So, I still hold out hope for Ulysses, though the way it's shaping up I might only be able to enjoy it as a senior citizen...

Also haven't been able to plow through anything I've picked up so far by Ayn Rand (but then I haven't really felt compelled to give it another shot). I thought the description of Anaïs Nin as "pretentious" was sort of funny, because from what I've read so far, her writing just seems sort of amateurish to me.
posted by taz at 6:04 AM on May 25, 2003 [1 favorite]

I loved Dale Peck's review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions
, with scathing critiques from everyone from Joyce to Faulkner to Pynchon!

And Thomas Pynchon's 'Mason and Dixon' is about as interesting as Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics : With Selections from the Critique of Pure Reason. (analogy via John Derbyshire)
posted by hama7 at 6:07 AM on May 25, 2003

I've read Gravity's Rainbow dozens of times. And someday, I hope to get past page 50.

I had a teacher assign The Bostonians to me. I sincerely felt it was the reading equivalent to wading through mud. I complained, but the teacher would not relent. In the end, I took the 'F.'

... and that has made all the difference.
posted by crunchland at 6:14 AM on May 25, 2003

I found Ayn Rand to be quite a competent writer - it's her ideology that spoils her books for me. "We the Living" I actually liked quite a lot and from what I've read about Communist Russia it's probably a decent depiction of what it was like for those who understood what was wrong with the new regime. "The Fountainhead" was readable, though I found some of the characters monstrous and completely unconvincing. Yeah, people really set out to destroy those they love and admire. And with "Atlas Shrugged" I thought Rand went right off the rails. It's suspenseful and interesting to read, but her idea that society is held together by the efforts of a few geniuses (and she considered herself to be among the geniuses!) is just egotistical and stupid.
posted by orange swan at 6:27 AM on May 25, 2003

Fret not! age brings change. I tried to read Proust's immense Remembrance some 3 times and could not go beyond about 50 pages. Finally, on myh last attempt I read it nearly non-stop. And loved it. As for Finnegan's Wake, a poet I had as teacher said it was to be dipped into randomly and read alound for the joy of the language rather than as a novel. We utgrow novels and we grow into novels. Like wives.
posted by Postroad at 6:33 AM on May 25, 2003

Hey! I like bus timetables!
posted by spazzm at 6:37 AM on May 25, 2003

If you're not reading Joyce out-loud, you aren't going to get anywhere. I like to think I'm a reasonably competent reader, and unless I read Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man out-loud, they just don't make sense.

I've actually read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead cover to cover. Ayn Rand is kind of like Tolkien if instead of hobbits and rings, Tolkien was obsessed with an incoherent variant of libertarianism. Rather than get songs about elves every ten pages, we get a paranoid rant. The trick, I think, to getting through Atlas Shrugged is either to read only the thirty-thousand word speech at the end _or_ read only the bits that aren't speeches (no character in Atlas Shrugged gets a speech that sounds like anything human). When you ignore the politics, Rand is reasonably competent, with a few outright great lines ("Who is John Galt?"). When you ignore the novel, Rand is amateurish, but tolerable in the philosophy department. When you combine the two, you have a terrible beast indeed.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:44 AM on May 25, 2003

Books I hated reading, but somehow read:-

Goblet of Fire (JK Rowling) - tedious, badly written (like her others), awful plot construction (like all her others)

The Wasp Factory - Iain M Banks - tedious.

Miss Wyoming - Douglas Coupland - badly written, cliched drivel.
posted by SpaceCadet at 6:44 AM on May 25, 2003

i found gravity's rainbow much better second time round - i read it over a couple of months on the bus, going to work. mason & dixon also took a long time, and i enjoyed it, so i'm wondering whether the secret is to not try and finish these two too quickly (i normally read books in a few days).

rushdie's "the ground beneath her feet" was a disappointment for me (i'm not sure if that's because it's a particularly bad book, or because lmso anything suffers in comparison to midnight's children).
posted by andrew cooke at 6:48 AM on May 25, 2003

God, Postroad, that was one disturbing little postscript.

I wouldn't say that's an especially good analogy. Books don't change unless they're bowdlerized or something. Spouses can and do, and so do readers. And as he or she progresses through life his or her needs will change - from breast milk and pablum to cookies to pizza to a few fad diets to finally - hopefully - a healthy balanced diet. Some people do have arrested development and never do get past the pulp, though.

I used to pick up good kids books at thrift stores (at 50 cents or $1 apiece they were a steal) and give them to my nieces and nephew. My oldest niece wanted me to buy her the Babysitters Club books and even thoughtfully mailed me a list of them with the ones she already owned checked off. I never did buy her any of them - and I never criticized her for reading them. I just told her that since she already was reading them on her own that I would like to give her books that she might otherwise never even see. She was disappointed at the time, but now her younger sister has inherited the Babysitter's Club collection, and at 17 E. still has many of the books I gave her - her collection of Cynthia Voigt's novels and Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Turn of the Screw etc. are sitting on her shelves.
posted by orange swan at 6:51 AM on May 25, 2003

Any Shakespeare force upon us by the well-meaning public education sytem. They're plays for Pete's sake! Let's watch them, act them out, read them out load at least, not just let them reside like free Bibles at the bottom of our backpacks.
posted by lychee at 6:52 AM on May 25, 2003

ah! just found one. auster's new york trilogy.
posted by andrew cooke at 6:52 AM on May 25, 2003

Jonathan Meades: Author and broadcaster

The Harry Potter books by JK Rowling

I think they are absolute shit, just terrible, worse than Enid Blyton. I have discouraged my children from reading them. They are not particularly badly written ­ I don't mind bad writing ­ it's the smugness and the complicity with the reader that I dislike. It's like they're written by a focus group. JK Rowling is the sub-literary analogue of Tony Blair.

I have this strong desire for JK Rowling to read that comment.
posted by SpaceCadet at 7:13 AM on May 25, 2003

anything by the bronte sisters makes me want to rip my eyes out and stick a hot poker into the sockets to keep me from enduring such crap ever again. damn you tenth grade english...
posted by joedan at 7:21 AM on May 25, 2003

Updike. 25 pages into Rabbit, Run my autonomic nervous system just revolted. I think I came to in Atlantic City, or maybe Laredo. Still a bit hazy about the whole incident.

My favorite bit in the article was the art critic and illustrator who loathes, and yet needs, his copy of Photoshop for Dummies.
posted by furiousthought at 7:25 AM on May 25, 2003

Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyon - it impressed me as being a dull, obvious allegory with no depth or subtlety, and written in a plodding, tone-deaf style that buries the reader under droning platitudes. No, I didn't finish it.
posted by pyramid termite at 7:27 AM on May 25, 2003

anything by the bronte sisters makes me want to rip my eyes out and stick a hot poker into the sockets to keep me from enduring such crap ever again. damn you tenth grade english...

I must say I found wuthering heights to be an intensely enjoyable read.
posted by johnnyboy at 7:38 AM on May 25, 2003

You don't know the meaning of boring until you've taken an entire course on the novels of Henry James. Not just The Bostonians, but also The Ambassadors, The Europeans, The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square and Turn of the Screw over 12 weeks. It was my last semester in college, and I didn't think I make it to graduation.
posted by jpoulos at 7:40 AM on May 25, 2003

Ouch! This thread hurts!

I remember saying the same thing about Joyce in a freshman lit seminar. Our professor, the late Brian Stonehill (who later served as a TV "media expert" on the O.J. Simpson trial, bless 'im) launched into a passionate defense of difficulty.

I got big giggles out of Mason & Dixon, too: George Washington as redneck marijuana farmer? C'mon! The mechanical duck subplot was a little strange I admit.

I'm surprised that no lightbulbs popped off immediately for Norman Mailer, Oriana Falacci, or Bonfire of the Vanities.
posted by hairyeyeball at 7:43 AM on May 25, 2003

Everything is Illuminated and Kissing in Manhattan. Precocious shit by precocious shitheads.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:45 AM on May 25, 2003

Having just finished a graduate seminar that focused on Ulysses for about eight weeks, I have to say that I'd probably put it high on the list of best books I've read, perhaps even at the top. It's a book that requires an insane amount of work, but rewards it heavily. Had I not been reading it with Don Gifford's exhaustive Ulysses Annotated and a fantastic professor holding our hands along the way, I wouldn't have gotten much out of it. (I hear that The New Bloomsday is a reader's guide for those with slightly less time for reading than insane graduate students.) But it's a beautiful book. Hell, I'm going to Dublin with a couple friends next summer for the hundredth anniversary of a certain June day. Anyone want me to buy them a bar of soap?
posted by UKnowForKids at 7:46 AM on May 25, 2003

Damn! Didn't read carefully enough on preview to notice the unclosed italics tag. To make this post have a point, and also to counter potential accusations of graduate student snobbery, I'll add that I've not been able to get more than 100 pages into Gravity's Rainbow. (But I loved The Crying of Lot 49.)
posted by UKnowForKids at 7:48 AM on May 25, 2003

I love the fact that A. S. Byatt was one of the people asked, AND her most famous book, Possession, is someone else's least favorite book. I hope she got a laugh out of that one.
posted by Danf at 8:00 AM on May 25, 2003

I'm going to have to agree with joedan about Wuthering Heights. I read it in twelfth-grade literature class, and as I told my teacher then, any book in which the climax of the plot occurs halfway through the book makes for an interminably boring second half.
posted by Johnny Assay at 8:02 AM on May 25, 2003

Not to spoil everyone's fun, but I wonder... how many of these people happily decrying this or that work as "pretentious shit," have ever made a serious attempt at writing themselves?
posted by SPrintF at 8:08 AM on May 25, 2003

Just as the article mentions, I always thought it was a failing in myself, not being able to finish most of these so-called classic novels. Seeing them celebrated in print and television, or referenced by rock musicians (the album 2112, by Rush, was directly influenced by Ayn Rand) only reinforced this feeling. I decided that I was uncultured and boorish. I probably still am, but at least I'm in really good company.

Thomas Mann's Death in Venice bored me to tears. As if I cared about some poor schmuch who didn't have the wherewithall to find himself a life and accept his homosexuality. At the very least, something more could have happened other than wandering around a sickly city. I no doubt missed the point.
posted by ashbury at 8:13 AM on May 25, 2003

...how many of these people happily decrying this or that work as "pretentious shit," have ever made a serious attempt at writing themselves?

Doesn't matter...you don't have to be an "expert" or in the same field to form valid opinions about someone else's work, particularly the "creative" fields.

And re: worst books ever...I've tried about five or six times to read "The Hobbit" and can never, never get past page 25 or so...the success of Tolkien really surprises me. I can appreciate that he created a wonderful fantasy world rich with characters, languages, etc, but his writing style simply anesthetizes me.

Also have to include Cat's Cradle...like Tolkien, I've tried a few times, but never get past the first couple of chapters.
posted by davidmsc at 8:18 AM on May 25, 2003

ayn rand, i positively loved froum about 10th grade till college. though i could never stand her main characters, and she definately had some problems with sex.

as for the CRAP OTHERS LOVE category, i must throw in a huge bit of hate for anything Don DeLillo has written. alright, i've never anything but underworld and white noise. but plot man, plot!
posted by kid_twist at 8:22 AM on May 25, 2003

As someone noted above, Douglas Coupland really went downhill -- loved his first few books, but then they started to suck immensely.

I had to read Kate Chopin's The Awakening in high school. I hated, hated, HATED it. If the purpose was to show us how women can feel oppressed and stifled by their jerk husbands, they should have had us read Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston instead...same idea, but the woman actually DOES something about it rather than mope for an entire book and then commit suicide.

(on preview: right on, davidmsc -- I never "got" Tolkien either...but I only made it to about page 7 before dropping it for something INTERESTING.)
posted by Vidiot at 8:26 AM on May 25, 2003

Surprisingly, nobody has mentioned Richard Powers, that post-modernist critical favourite.

It's painful when you are constantly annoyed by the prose. Powers badly needs an editor who dares to trim away the surplus adjectives and long-winded, repetitive passages. I never got through Galatea 2.2; a good example is when he spends ten pages describing the main character's workplace, trying to nail down the feeling of the place, not knowing when to stop; I got the first few clever similes, I didn't need the hundred or so subsequent ones.

At the moment I'm struggling through The Gold Bug Variations. My first thought was that a book ought to be written for readers, not writers. As a writer, I can go, "Hey, that sentence was just damn clever!" As a reader, that's distracting -- I want to be informed, entertained and moved.
posted by gentle at 8:35 AM on May 25, 2003

John Pilger dismisses Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History as "propaganda dressed up as journalism," but I (like many critics) think it's an objective and thorough history.

Gay rights activist Peter Tatchell listed The Bible because "it is to gays what Mein Kampf is to Jews."

He also listed Ian McEwan's Atonement because of its "wildly implausible" plot. I just read Atonement, and didn't like it nearly as much as McEwan's Amsterdam, but more because of the writing style than because of the plot. (Minor spoiler: there's a reason for the writing style.)

One of the article's contributors mentioned Enid Blyton in passing. As a teenager I used to love her Famous Five books; in fact, I fell in love with a character from one of her books before I had the stones to deal with actual girls. (And she inspired a Housemartins song.)

I'd add Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain (not affiliated with the Six Flags park of the same name).
posted by kirkaracha at 8:36 AM on May 25, 2003

I didn't like those criticisms so much because they really seemed to focus on what didn't appeal to the reader's PC tendencies. To criticize American Psycho for its "revolting diatribe against women" is to utterly, completely miss the point. To decry a book for its "fascist tendencies" is to miss the point. I read to see the world from another person's point of view, NOT to confirm my own viewpoint.

I agree with the anti-Tolkien sentiment. The first 150 pages of Lord of the Rings were... possibly THE most boring thing I've ever read, on par with John Galt's speech at the end of Atlas Shrugged. The movies sucked so much too - they're little better than the books. I also have a special hatred for Dickens and Jane Austen and most of the other authors taught in high school - it's almost as if books chosen for the high school level are ones sanitized of ANY human feeling.

I found the Harry Potter books to be very nicely written, if a bit simple. It's really rare I'm able to read an 800 page book in the time it takes to eat dinner, but there you go. I like Rowling's style a lot - it's really to the point.
posted by Veritron at 8:37 AM on May 25, 2003

Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyon - it impressed me as being a dull, obvious allegory with no depth or subtlety
Perhaps but it has a few gems to look for...imagery of the lamb for instance.

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

You think you understand it, but then you get to the end, and realize you don't.

my school editor and I had a joke, that EVERYONE has this book and understands the first two chapters, after which, it sits on the shelf.

and someone send Pilger to the otherside, His marxist lean is disturbing to say the least. I would think that he could be covering wax candy or something other then politics, Esp. S.E. Asian politics after his "allegiance" to the Khmer Roughe.

Karnows' work is considered one of the best works on the Vietnam war.

whats a matter with these guardian idiots are they still upset that London is no longer the literary capital of the world. (ah, thanks EP).
posted by clavdivs at 8:46 AM on May 25, 2003

I tried reading this book a couple tiems, but it just jumps all over, and has all this wierd geneological crap. Now, though, it is on tape, so I might check it out again. Richard Perle says that the ending kicks ass.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 8:49 AM on May 25, 2003

Today I bought Stupid White Men (it was either that or Tuesdays with Morrie--I was shopping in a Japanese bookstore) but, man, it started to physically make me sick when he started giving me advice on how to get along with women such as Eat Less Food and Wash Your Hands After You Use the Toilet and Bathe Daily. Michael Moore, you are so fucking gross.

But the worst book I own is Beckett's Malloy. It was like listening to a history of my tired old uncle's heath problems.

posted by dydecker at 9:12 AM on May 25, 2003

Random notes:

1. To all the people who didn't like nineteenth-century British literature when exposed to it in high school: that's usually not the right time to read it. Try again in a few years. My college students uniformly adore Jane Eyre--even the guys, who worry that it might be "chick lit." For that matter, I didn't like Dickens when I was a teenager, but I still grew up to be a Victorianist. (I didn't "wake up" to Dickens until I was twenty; Bleak House absolutely blew me away, and after that I went back to the novels I'd disliked in high school and discovered I really enjoyed them.)

2. While we're on that subject, the texts usually assigned for high school English courses are some combination of a) short, b) "great," and c) sexless. My father (and everyone else of his generation) got stuck with Silas Marner and Ivanhoe in high school, both of which were and are absolutely inappropriate for twentieth-century teenagers. Silas Marner has redeeming virtues, but only if you've read a lot of Eliot; Ivanhoe is genuinely important in terms of literary history--although not quite as important as Scott's first novel, Waverley--but again it's something that needs to be read in context.

3. My candidate for worst novel read only by masochistic Victorianists would be William Sewell's Hawkstone--eight hundred pages of Tractarian, anti-Catholic, anti-union, and anti-Dissenting sentiment, conveyed in interminable lectures masquerading as dialogue. Yuck. My candidate for worst "great" novel, however, has to be Henry James' The Ambassadors; late James often strikes me as, shall we say, self-indulgent. (Early James I like quite a lot.) Tolkien I simply find mediocre, although I've discovered that expressing that opinion around some of my graduate students can be dangerous to my health :)

4. *Cough* Finnegans Wake. No apostrophe.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:19 AM on May 25, 2003

Glad to see others had the same trouble with Gravitys Rainbow I am, though I'm persisting with it. I wouldn't call that a bad book until I've finished it.

(*Hey, to diverge to RA Wilson, I eventually got into the meat of Illuminatus!, which was great, and then Schrodingers Cat Trilogy, which was less than great.)

Hmm, as for Tolkien the Chopping Block, Lord of the Rings good, The Silmarillion incomprehensible.

I also can't see the point reading the original Dune series after the first book - which is great. But by the time I got up to #4, whatever it was, it was a case of "why am I reading this?". I asked someone else and they said the Dune+ books were largely about what it was like to be a god. (I keep sniffing at the recent preludes by Herbert's son and a pal but I'm not sure whether to bite. Yes or no?)

So, who's read The Great American Parade?
posted by GrahamVM at 9:20 AM on May 25, 2003

Jean-Paul Sartre's "Being and Nothingness."

I'd read Steppenwolf, and loved it (seriously, read it) and after reading stuff by R D Laing, (Sanity, Madness & the Family, I recommend) and the like, who referred to it from time to time, I thought I'd give it a go.

I gave up after struggling to get through the first bleedin' page. I realised I'd probably have to consult god knows how many dusty tombs, and take evening classes just to understand the terms he was using, and which JPS, obviously felt everyone would be familiar with.

I dunno. I thought the idea of writing was to communicate.

When I tried to sell the £16 softback, and incredibly thick book, at my local second hand bookshop, I had to argue with the shopkeeper to take it, and got a lousy price: she already had about a half-dozen pristine copies, I can only assume from people who found themselves in the same position as myself.

Oh, and "Canal Dreams" by Iain Banks. Shite. Just really uninspired and poor; I dunno why he bothered.
posted by Blue Stone at 9:25 AM on May 25, 2003

Veritron, perhaps you missed the point of the first 150 pages of LOTR.
posted by ashbury at 9:27 AM on May 25, 2003

I found the first 150 pages (at least) of LOTR pretty dull, myself. I gave up after Bilbo's party, where he disappears.

Tolkein's writing style is so dull and workmanlike; it doesn't even so much as whistle, it just lays bricks.
posted by Blue Stone at 9:33 AM on May 25, 2003

PD James: Author

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I find Max de Winter a deeply unsympathetic character. He's arrogant, bullying and insensitive. Surely he must have realised that his young, inexperienced bride couldn't cope with Mrs Danvers.


I wonder if Mr. James and I read the same book. What a horribly underdeveloped idea of what Rebecca was really about.
posted by brittney at 9:42 AM on May 25, 2003

This list is mostly split between books which obviously aren't classics or literature at all -- like the Harry Potter books -- and books which are just difficult and/or long. And I don't understand its methodology: claiming "A Brief History of Time" is bad because you didn't understand it must be the stupidest thing I can imagine -- the book is a) readily comprehensible to a close reader, and b) about cosmology! Of course it's hard to understand!

That Ulysses or The Golden Bowl or Hamlet might also be about extraordinarily complex, difficult subjects seems not to count. Ulysses is hard to understand not because it's 'incomprehensible' but because it's very, very complicated -- until you're willing to put in the active effort to unravel it, rather than just be entertained, reading it is only going to stir up your ire. That's why there are companion books like The Bloomsday Book. It's just not the job of the classic books getting dumped on here to be simple, easily digestible, and fun. They are Serious Business.

I'm all for lambasting crummy contemporary books, though. My pick for worst book: A Heartbraking Work of Staggering Genius. Who's with me?
posted by josh at 9:58 AM on May 25, 2003

Definitely the Bible, although I haven't read any other holy books. Some nice philosophy bundled with archaic, insane and offensive lies.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 10:01 AM on May 25, 2003

I'm all for lambasting crummy contemporary books, though. My pick for worst book: A Heartbraking Work of Staggering Genius. Who's with me?

posted by brittney at 10:02 AM on May 25, 2003

Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections has to be the worst novel I've read in the past five years--poor man's William Gaddis, mixed with an Oprah's Book Club vibe. I don't know why he refused to do that show after Oprah picked it--it was no different (or better, or more "literary") than anything else on her list.
posted by Prospero at 10:03 AM on May 25, 2003

Awww...I loved AHWOSG. (But even Eggers was right -- and admirably candid -- when he admitted that after p. 150 or so it isn't as good.)

I also have a special hatred for Dickens and Jane Austen and most of the other authors taught in high school - it's almost as if books chosen for the high school level are ones sanitized of ANY human feeling.

Hmmph. Read 'em again. I agree with thomas j wise that they work better after you're twenty or so -- I re-read Jane Eyre when I was twenty-six and liked it SO much better than when I was fifteen or sixteen. And don't be hatin' on my main lady Jane Austen. (Rex Stout's favorite author, incidentally.)

I also agree that rotten books are generally assigned in high school. Fortunately, I managed to dodge the Ethan Frome bullet, though my best friend wasn't as lucky.

I need to pick up one of the annotations for Gravity's Rainbow -- can anyone recommend a good one?
posted by Vidiot at 10:13 AM on May 25, 2003

I just bought The Corrections, to be honest, after reading the acclaim on the cover.

Since that time (I haven't begun the book yet), I have come across nothing but negative sentiments for the book.

Makes me want to finish The Eyre Affair so I can get to it. I look forward to being polarized.
posted by brittney at 10:15 AM on May 25, 2003

The worst book I was assigned in high school, incidentally sitting onthe bookshelf above me, was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Yeah. That, and Beowulf.
posted by brittney at 10:19 AM on May 25, 2003

Wow: I just think it's interesting how different people's tastes are. I've seen five or six books I really love in the link and the thread (among them: "Kissing in Manhattan," Martin Amis's "War Against Cliche," "A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" and "The Corrections").

It's also interesting to see how many people fault the books and not themselves for not being able to get through the books: I've always felt incompetent for failing to get into "Rabbit Run," "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," "Bleak House," "Harry Potter," and "Everything is Illuminated." Maybe I'm learning that it's...ok...to be a literary failure.

There's a fuzzy line between the books I'd call "bad books" and the books I didn't bother to finish reading. On that line, for me, falls "Carter Beats The Devil" (which I got halfway through and grew incredibly bored and frustrated with), "The Fourth Hand" (I love John Irving but this was a TERRIBLE book), and "A Man in Full" (just didn't have the patience).

Among the overrated books I've read: "White Teeth" by Zadie Smith (I really loved the middle 3rd, but the last 3rd was awful, I thought); "The Sea, The Sea" by Iris Murdoch (it was mostly good, but I was anxious to get it over with) and "The New Yorker Book of Humor Writings" (I love the New Yorker, but I hardly laughed once).

And though I defended David Eggers "Hearbreaking Work..." above, I'm having a hard time with his second novel right now called "You Shall Know Our Velocity." Yes, he still writes with flair, and there's lots of cute gimmicks, but my least favorite part of travelling is the travelling and this book (so far) is all about the travelling (airports, airplanes, bus rides). Luckily, I'm balancing my reading with John Lahr's "Prick Up Your Ears" which is fantastic and I just bought Calvin Trillin's "Feeding A Yen" which had me at its acknowledgments page, the only one you'll ever read that will make you say "awww" outloud.
posted by adrober at 10:30 AM on May 25, 2003

When I was 11, I read Tolkien for the first time and re-read it 11 times. Now I can't stomach it. At the time I could never have read Trollope but now I gobble him up.

I also thought Jane Austen was soulless on first encounter, but now I agree with the English philosopher who, on being asked if he read novels, said, "Yes. All five of them. Every year."

Just last week I helped an old friend dispose of his aunt's library. She'd been one of the first employees of the U.N. and kept the same apartment in New York for almost sixty years. As I went through the books looking for treasure, I found Solzhenitsyn, Durrell, an ungodly amount of Collette, and the Warren Commission Report. These were hardcover editions in excellent condition. We were unable to sell them.

I thought the point of the article was that authors with reputations may have gotten them for the wrong reasons. Literature is probably more like painting than film, in that it sometimes takes the influence of a passionate scholar to help us see it clearly. And in academic circles, some of those scholars have a fairly suspect agenda.

To paraphrase Doris Lessing (whose literary star also seems to be fading) read what you want to, and if someone recommends something you don't like, don't hold it against them. In addition to being shocked and appalled at what others enjoy, we can also be thankful we're all unique.
posted by divrsional at 10:42 AM on May 25, 2003

Interesting thread. As ever, the list of bad reads seems to be divided on political grounds (I don't like the author's politics), intellectual grounds (the book is too hard/too easy) and aesthetic grounds (grindingly dull characters, implausible plot, etc. etc.). As I've gotten older, I find myself hating books most often on political grounds -- see the works of Robert Heinlein, which I loved reading as a child. But I read those for fun, because I can get mad about them, so they aren't really bad -- I just get a perverse pleasure from them.

This last year, I realized that I use books up at different rates than the author might intend. I got halfway through The Magic Mountain, and really enjoyed that half, but then just didn't pick it up again. Same with Great Expectations. And too many more to mention here. This was the year of unfinished books.

The one book that I wished I hadn't read, of late, was a spy novel by Robet Wilson -- The Company of Strangers. It was turgid and uninteresting and I couldn't bring myself to care about the characters, but I forced myself to finish the book. On the plus side, that's where I discovered fado music. Critics seemed to love this book, though. Go figure. They obviously never read anything by Alan Furst.
posted by elgoose at 11:02 AM on May 25, 2003

Lord of the Rings is definitely for children, if you ask me. I loved it as a twelve year old, but when I re-read it at age 37, I couldn't believe how bad it is. Definitely my choice for worst book I've actually finished. (I'm not counting The Silmarillion here, which is far worse still, but I don't think it's intended to be read.)

The movies are fun, though. I was surprised that the second movie did not feature Eowyn more, seeing as she's really the only female character in the trilogy.

To those of you trying to read Gravity's Rainbow, persevere! The first hundred pages are tough and don't seem to relate to the rest of the book, but they're important, trust me. With the possible exception of The Illuminatus Trilogy, my favorite book.

Hey, did I notice an Ignatius J. Reilly on this thread? In two tries I wasn't able to finish Confederacy of Dunces.
posted by alex_reno at 11:05 AM on May 25, 2003

I liked The Corrections myself.

Jonathan Franzen grew up in the suburb I grew up in, however, and went to my college, so much of the fun of reading is identifying familiar landmarks. Another book of his, The Twenty-Seventh City, is not a very good book at all, and yet 75% of the action takes place within walking distance of my old house. It's rare to read a work of fiction and know, exactly, what all the little places the author mentions look like.
posted by tss at 11:09 AM on May 25, 2003

I read Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (as I'm sure everyone else here did) and loved it. So I decided to read the rest of his books -- Snow Crash was fun, but The Big U just about put me off his writing forever...could barely believe it was by the same guy. What other uneven authors have you been let down by? (Along the same lines, I love Calvin Trillin's work, but I'm getting tired of his recycling his own jokes in book after book.)
posted by Vidiot at 11:33 AM on May 25, 2003

adrober, I also loved Kissing in Manhattan!. But I really didn't like AHWOSG -- primarily because I'd read Infinite Jest many years before, and it's a much better book, of which Eggers' is essentially a pale copy. Kissing in Manhattan is often accused of being a kind of Sex and the City for boys, which might be true, but it's a great book of stories.

Has anyone here read the short story "I Dated Jane Austen" (I think that's what it's called)? Great and really funny. I took a semester of Jane Austen's novels and enjoyed it greatly.
posted by josh at 11:51 AM on May 25, 2003

Two of my least favourite books came on the heels of one another. I had foolishly decided to travel around Europe with only one book to read: Cervante's Don Quixote. I persevered with it, chapter after chapter, country after country, finally finishing Book I. At this point, I figured that since Cervantes had written Book II some 10 years later, that I could wait just as long to read it (an anniversary that has -- thankfully -- passed unfulfilled).

At this point I was in central Turkey and, consequently, I had a hard time finding something (anything!) else to read in English. Eventually, I stayed at a hostel that had a book exchange and took the lightest reading I could find: Tom Clancy's Patriot Games...*sigh*...out of the frying pan and into the fryer.

However, I gave Cervantes extra credit for having been a) Spanish and b) 400 years before my time...with Clancy there was no excuse...it was simply bad, bad, horribly bad writing.
posted by filmgoerjuan at 11:55 AM on May 25, 2003

How to Make Love to a Negro by Dany Laferriere

He thinks he's being clever, but it's horrible stuff; he thinks its satire but it's not, and I loathe it.

I love this book and have read it three or four times in the past decade. The film is poo, however.

re: Rabbit, Run... it's my favorite book that I've never finished. I've only made it maybe 100 pages in. It's far too close to my own life and the things I write about. Whenever I "reread" it I always stop, thinking that if I ever finish I'll never write another word.

I recently tried to read Veronika Decides to Die and found it so horribly written that I threw it across the room half way through. Total poo.
posted by dobbs at 12:15 PM on May 25, 2003

I respect Tolkien for the immensity of the undertaking. To set out to create a new mythology whole cloth and to almost succeed is still pretty impressive. I agree that The Lord of the Rings is pretty boring and hard to get through, though. What I don't agree with is the guy in the article who condemned "Tolkien's lack of any feel for language," which I don't think can be supported, given his academic avocations and the fact that he did create several very beautiful languages by himself.

The worst books I've ever read were Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate to Women's Country, which embodies what I dislike about deconstrutionist lit and is basically hate-filled screed masquerading as feminism, and Sarah Scott's Millenium Hall, which was the reading equivalent of moving a pile of rocks: there's no point to it, and it makes every muscle in your body ache after an hour.

Also Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. I love Holmes and have read all the official stories, but the first novel is just tedious. Plus the unnecessary 100-page anti-Mormon tangent was both quaintly Victorian and incredibly disconcerting.

I, too, have never been able to get through a single novel by Joyce, though I've tried again and again. I think Pseudoephedrine's advice about reading it out loud and/or out of order is interesting.. next time I will try that.

Oh yes, and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was one of those books that I just could not force myself to enjoy.
posted by Hildago at 12:20 PM on May 25, 2003

I was talking with my college-English-professor stepmother the other day, and she was suggesting I that I read some Faulkner, saying I'd like it. I mentioned that I was forced to read his short story "The Bear" in high school and found it completely incomprehensible.

A looooong pause then followed.

"I think he must have been blind drunk when he wrote 'The Bear'", she eventually said. "There's much better Faulkner out there."
posted by Vidiot at 12:30 PM on May 25, 2003 [1 favorite]

Lemme add more kindling to the fire that is Everything is Illuminated. That book was so self-aggrandizing I thought it came from a vanity press. I’d say either that or The Fountainhead by everyone’s favorite totalitarian ruskie are my worst. Flat characters, blatantly didactic prose and longer than a July afternoon.

Egger’s bio wasn’t bad. It wasn’t as good as the amount of press implied, but not bad. Nowhere near the worst book I had the misfortune of spending untold hours with.

I tried to read Moby Dick and Portrait of an Artist but just didn't make it through either. Melville kept kicking me in the head with those long, pointless chapters on whale anatomy?sometimes two or three in succession! I’ll try Portrait again, that wasn’t Joyce’s fault. I’ll have to build up my stamina before going out after that damn white whale though.
posted by raaka at 12:34 PM on May 25, 2003


I agree with you about The Gate to Women's Country. It is probably the most hateful of the all books that I've read all the way through. I started books are that more odious but I put them down before finishing them.
posted by rdr at 12:53 PM on May 25, 2003

Faulkner's As I Lay Dying was one of those books that I just could not force myself to enjoy

I had the same problem the first time I read it, after running into the one-sentence chapter, "My mother is a fish." "OK, we're done," I thought, and that was the end of that. Once I figured out the fish bit and realized that it's a relatively straightforward sequential story narrated by all the different characters (including dead ones), I liked it a lot better. Then I moved on to The Sound and the Fury, which is narrated by only three characters (and only one of them is insane).

And for a classic book that's actually good, I nominate The Three Musketeers.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:03 PM on May 25, 2003

I can't say this is the worst book I've read, but after finishing Two by Emmanuel Cerrere I wished I'd skipped the experience. They both have trick endings so just read the Amazon reviews for more details.

The worst book? That's tough. As others have stated people usually hate books, not because of poor execution, but because of what the reader brings to the experience of the text. I hate Ann Rand, for example, not because of her writing so much, but because of her ideology. I also don't want to dismiss a book I was unable to engage or understand, since in that case I'd have to call out Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. I've heard enough praise for the book and I will finish it eventually (perhaps while serving a particularly long prison sentence or trapped on a desert isle.)

In fact, the more I stare at my shelves, thinking about which book I hated most, I'm going to go with the book that disappointed me most. I've read worse books, but (here's that reader to the text thing I was trying to avoid) I had great expectations of Dave Egger's You Shall Know Our Velocity. Much to my chagrin, I found it to be badly edited (if at all edited) unengaging, uneven and generally patterned more like a vanity project then a novel.

It was like falling out of love. I'd had a major lit crush on Mr Eggers and by doing so set him up for failure in my eyes. Ah love. I'm recovering nicely though. A friend pointed out that McSweeney's is still a great journal and publishing house. Egger's is doing great things for American writing, he's just not a great writer and doesn't need to be. (Maybe there still is the seed of that Lit crush in my head, however, I read Egger's story in McSweeney's Thrilling Tales and was entranced. I thought, 'give the man some time.')

Now I have a crush of either A.M Holmes or Amy Hemple, I can't quite decide.

that was longer then intended
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:24 PM on May 25, 2003

a crush on either .....
posted by elwoodwiles at 1:25 PM on May 25, 2003

filmgoerjuan: Which translation of Don Quixote did you read (assuming you read it in translation)? I recently picked up the Penguin Classics version translated by John Rutherford, which is a delight and is actually funny, as opposed to the creaky, dated Walter Starkie translation, which put me off the book for years.

And add me to the list of Confederacy of Dunces haters.
posted by turaho at 1:26 PM on May 25, 2003

vidiot: What other uneven authors have you been let down by?

Kim Stanley Robinson. He's written some fantastic short stories - Black Air, The Blind Geometer, Escape from Kathmandu - but I just got so bored by the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy in general (and Maya's continual histrionics in particular) that I couldn't finish it.

Classics such as Wuthering Heights and the majority of Jane Austen's novels came as something of a surprise; I enjoy them greatly, but I still can't stand Dickens. We read Great Expectations at school (at around age 11) and everyone got so bored by it that it was abandoned; thirty intervening years haven't improved the experience noticeably.
posted by arc at 1:29 PM on May 25, 2003

dydecker: But the worst book I own is Beckett's Malloy. It was like listening to a history of my tired old uncle's heath problems.

Oh man, this book is funny! How could you not enjoy it? It cracked my shit up (I read it last semester in the Joyce/Beckett seminar mentioned above). He can only communicate with his deaf/blind mother by hitting her on the head - once for yes, twice for no, three times for I don't know, four for goodbye, and five for I need money. And then she loses the ability to count past two, and just thinks he's saying no all the time to her. It's so absurdly depressing it's hilarious. And the bit with the sucking stones... Priceless.

brittney: [ragging on Beowulf]

Man, watch it. We're practically from the same hood and all, but them's fighting words. I know this will sound like pretentious bragging crap, but it's so good in the Old English. The passages about sailing alone are worth the cover price; a description of Beowulf's ship has stuck with me for quite some time, when the poet describes it sailing, "impelled by wind, the foamy-necked ship most like a bird." But there are some crummy translations out there, that's for damn sure.

And all the Dave Eggers-hatas kind of surprise me. I liked AHWOSG a good deal, but I haven't read his latest one yet. I also met him at a signing here in Madison, and he was a really great guy, which biases me more toward him. I expected him to have some kind of literary rock-star self-importance, but he was really down-to-earth and friendly. So good for him.
posted by UKnowForKids at 1:33 PM on May 25, 2003

turaho! you must provide me with a detailed explanation as to why you hate confederacy of dunces. everyone that hates it must tell me! I really am open-minded to your criticism of it; I've just never heard any before.
posted by Espoo2 at 1:53 PM on May 25, 2003

Regarding Godel Escher Bach, yeah, it's hard as hell to get through. I'm a math geek, and I just kinda skimmed the long derivations. I put it down for a year, then got back into it. It's definitely worth it. I will say for Hofstedter, though, that he fills his prose with such a sense of *wonder* that it's hard not to get excited.

Now, a really dense read is Plato's Republic. I never got through it, but I discovered some nuggets of wisdom. The secret to Plato is to get half-drunk on cheap red wine, then dig in.
posted by notsnot at 2:01 PM on May 25, 2003

You know a book that sucks? Fear of Flying by Erica Jong. So, so, so, so bad.
posted by josh at 2:21 PM on May 25, 2003

It's also interesting to see how many people fault the books and not themselves for not being able to get through the books: I've always felt incompetent for failing to get into "Rabbit Run,"

Okay, this is a distinction I am capable of making. Gravity's Rainbow, there's a novel I haven't been able to get through yet because I haven't been competent enough. (Actually I'm convinced what I'll need is a solid week to read it and do nothing else, but that's neither here nor there.) Rabbit, Run, now, maybe years from now I'll give it another shot and decide I was wrong, but when I tried it I fully understood where 80% of everybody in every creative writing class I ever took got their inspiration, only somehow Updike was WORSE.

Down, autonomic nervous system! Down!

I am convinced it is possible for a great writer to develop a very real voice and for a perfectly sensible reader to despise that voice the way one might despise a very real co-worker.

On Tolkien: reread LOTR recently when the first film came out. I didn't mind the first 150 pages at all, but I was surprised to find Tolkien's style growing more and more irritating as the story progressed. Thank goodness for plot momentum or I would never have gotten through Return of the King.
posted by furiousthought at 2:37 PM on May 25, 2003

I am glad most of you are aware of your limitations.
posted by tellio at 2:38 PM on May 25, 2003

Absolute worst book of my reading experience? Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Yes, I should have known that the joke was going to be on me after slogging through 1088 pages, but no, I had to read through the whole damn thing, waiting for something like a conclusion to happen. And then, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, followed in no particular order by The Old Man and The Sea, The Scarlet Letter and anything by Faulkner.
posted by Lynsey at 2:51 PM on May 25, 2003

It took me fifteen years and several attempts to finish Gravity's Rainbow (I read the last ten pages walking to a friend's house from Archway tube station and stood on her doorstep until I'd got to the very last page. When I finally got round to ringing the bell, my conversation was a bit awestruck, as you can imagine). And I read Mason and Dixon over six months, carrying the hardback with me everywhere. Both well worth it, and I hope I read them again when I'm in my dotage and have the spare time.

The very worst book I have ever read was The Celestine Prophecy. It may be the worst book ever to sell that many copies. I am occasionally appalled to discover people I thought to be competent human beings raving about it. I was stuck in my seat on a four hour train journey that became an eight hour train journey. The only good thing that I can say about the book is that it is marginally less painful than staring out of a window at Doncaster rail yard for three hours. Marginally.

And many of you will be relieved to discover that no one outside of North America ever reads Ayn Rand. I think she's generally considered to be a peculiarity of that continent, like dinner plates the size of a small city or roadside displays of giant balls of string.

And PD James is a woman.
posted by Grangousier at 3:05 PM on May 25, 2003

you must provide me with a detailed explanation as to why you hate confederacy of dunces.

I wish I had my copy here to refresh my memory--it's been so long since I read it that my dislike for Confederacy has passed into personal literary dogma and I can no longer remember the reasons for my hatred in the first place. I do remember finding zero sympathy with Ignatius, who comes off as a sniveling little brat with delusions of grandeur. I know fans of the book will say that's the point, but I think a comparison with Don Quixote is appropriate--as foolish as Quixote is, we never feel he's more than naive and misunderstood, and the reader can find an ally in Sancho Panza. I never got that with Ignatius.

Lynsey: if I remember correctly, the "real" ending of Infinite Jest is hinted at about a third of the way into the novel, but it appears in the middle of so many other crazy interludes that you don't realize it at the time. If ever there was a book that deserves two reads (Wallace's biggest joke on the reader), it's Infinte Jest.
posted by turaho at 3:09 PM on May 25, 2003

Josh, I can't see how AHWOSG is a pale imitation of Infinite Jest; first of all, IJ is a novel, and Egger's book is a bio. Stylistically I suppose there are a couple of similiarities but an imitation it isn't.

The worst book I've ever read: Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple, one of the first American novels ever. Horrible! More recently: The Wasp Factory: Iain Banks. Good until about 3/4 of the way through and then just stupid.

My wife just read Kate Moses' Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath and said it was the worst most pretentious thing she'd ever read (I'd have to agree after looking at select paragraphs). As if the title ("A Novel of...") wasn't a big enough clue.
posted by akmonday at 3:16 PM on May 25, 2003

FWIW I liked both Franzen's The Corrections and AHWOSG and will soon start Eggers' next one (Currently reading and enjoying Frazier's Cold Mountain, which I think I'd feel better about if it weren't about to be released as a Major Motion Picture™).
I read Wuthering Heights in high school and again in Contemporary books I couldn't stand included Wolfe's A Man in Full, Margaret Salinger's Dream Catcher (footnotes on page 1 = A Bad Sign) and Sebold's The Lovely Bones. That last one had some promise, but the neat and tidy ending was a big turnoff.
posted by
emelenjr at 3:31 PM on May 25, 2003

what the heck happened there? sorry, folks.
posted by emelenjr at 3:31 PM on May 25, 2003

Somebody upthread mentioned Tom Clancy.

He's a fun read because he's got an ear for dialogue and he creates lively and interesting plots. He has a strong voice and can thoroughly engage a reader at times. Jack Ryan, his central multi-volume character, is the thinking Republican's action hero.

The Hunt for Red October was a terrific first novel, even if Larry Bond did largely hold Clancy's hand through a lot of the naval action scenes. In spite of being a little on the long side, with a few bits that obviously could have been omitted to the novel's benefit, it still astonishes nearly twenty years on.

But his novels' suckiness has increased asymptotically since oh, about Debt of Honor, I'd say. That was the last one with anything halfway interesting happening in it. Since then, they've gotten predictable to the point of boredom and hackneyed to the point of irritation. Also, his novels are some of the most sloppily edited technothrillers I've ever seen -- possibly the product of a nine-hundred-pound-gorilla publishing asset (I'd initially written "literary talent") who insistently prevails against editorial efforts to curb his excesses.

His most recent and most disappointing, Red Rabbit, is the best (worst?) example of what I'm talking about; it's so appallingly, aggressively badly written that, after about the first fifty pages, I kept shaking my head. Was this unenlightened self-parody? A hasty and artless attempt for a quick buck? How on earth could the guy who gave us stolen submarines and carefully crafted "black ops" write such uninteresting, unbelievable and trite prose?

I may not even bother reading any future fiction of Clancy's. And I'm one of people who overall likes his stuff.
posted by alumshubby at 3:43 PM on May 25, 2003

How many people who are bashing the Bible have actually read very much of it, aside from what is often quoted by Bible thumpers and other deriders?

I probably would have agreed with much of what is being said before I took a course on it last year that treated it as literature rather than religion. If you disregard the way other people interpret it when you read it, there are some good stories. Seriously, Jonah is one of the funniest little stories you can read.

Anyway, criticizing "The Bible" as a whole is unfair. There are multiple authors and multiple books contained within it. It is kind of like saying, "The Norton Anthology of American Literature is an awful book."
posted by synecdoche at 3:48 PM on May 25, 2003


The worst book I've ever read: Susanna Rowson's Charlotte Temple, one of the first American novels ever.

I read that one in a Colonial American Lit class. It's obviously very very vapid, but I had trouble hating it because it was so short and easy to skim through. I guess my hatred is reserved for books that steal a good deal of my life.

But mostly I just wanted to post this to close that open tag and be a hero.
posted by Hildago at 3:53 PM on May 25, 2003

Stylistically I suppose there are a couple of similiarities but an imitation it isn't.

True, Eggers' book is non-fiction -- but can you seriously tell me that the pomo, self-effacing-yet-self-signifying, ultra-hyphenated, run-on style which is the, like, motivating force behind Eggers' writing does not hail directly from the aforementioned novel and author? Is anything about AHWOSG original at all? -- Because to me, reading it, nothing about it is at all valuable except as it maybe perhaps serves as a depiction of the ethnographic and psychodramatic realities of life at a certain point in a certain decade of our recent history -- and even then, despite its footnoting, end-noting, diagramming, &c., it contains maybe fifty pages of content and then a bunch of semi-ironic 'New Sincerity.'

That said, McSweeney's is pretty okay -- but I have no stomach for so completely ripping off another's style and attitude. It seemed to me that the whole point of Infinite Jest being 1,100 pages was that it had been done once, and now never needed to be done again.
posted by josh at 3:55 PM on May 25, 2003

Hama7 wrote:
And Thomas Pynchon's 'Mason and Dixon' is about as interesting as Kant's Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics : With Selections from the Critique of Pure Reason.
Yes, these are two of my favorite books ever written.
posted by Rebis at 4:20 PM on May 25, 2003

Rowling, like King, is a writer in dire need of a editor. Both authors trend toward the long-winded, and as they grew in popularity their publishers became frightened of forcing any change on them.

Authors I've hated but for some reason read anyway:

Anything by King longer than a novella or short novel.
A lot of John Irving.
Michael Crighton when he's on a soapbox (which is every ten pages).
Heinlein. Don't get me started on Heinlein.

There are others but that bookcase is upstairs. 8)
posted by Cerebus at 4:25 PM on May 25, 2003

For those who hate Hemingway and Faulkner, may I recommend John Dos Passos?

He's even worse.
posted by pooligan at 4:37 PM on May 25, 2003

Hey, I actually enjoyed Finnegans Wake. Can't say I understood it all, but I had a great time trying.
posted by oissubke at 4:57 PM on May 25, 2003

The worst book I ever read was probably Ethan Frome, which The Scarlet Letter placing a vrery close second. I prefer stories without dialogue stilted to the extreme, and with things actually happening, thank you. Also high on the list is Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany; I finally finished it on my third attempt, but again, it seemed like nothing actually happened in the book. I may have to give it another try sometime though; this was the only book out of fifteen or so my uncle has recommended that I didn't like, and I've heard it takes additional readings to properly comprehend.

And on the subject of Tolkien, I like to think of LOTR as a fancy lobster dinner. The meat of the whole deal can be very rewarding but it takes a little work to get the payoff, and there's a lot of green bits of garnish on the side that are solely for presentation which one can safely ignore.
posted by xbonesgt at 5:35 PM on May 25, 2003

I love all books, even the bad ones. If a book bores me, I put it down and come back after a few years. That usually works.

Oh, and based on Velocity and an interview I listened to recently with him and his partners in crime on theconnection.org, I'm about ready to bear Dave Eggers' man-babies.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:41 PM on May 25, 2003

(...or finally finish writing one or more of the books I've started but left lapse over the years...)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:43 PM on May 25, 2003

Thomas Hardy - Jude the Obscure. Jude the dipshit, more like.
posted by Joeforking at 5:46 PM on May 25, 2003

a couple of things:
someone mentioned not liking auster's new york trilogy. it's one of my personal favorites.

someone else asked about the dune series and mentioned getting bogged down around the 4th book. well, "god-emperor of dune" is the dullest one of the lot. aside from that book, the series is great if you're reading it for byzantine power struggles, but i wouldn't put too much stock into its thematic depth. I'm just starting the prequels done by his son and IMO they aren't quite as good, but I'm not too picky.

i've had the same difficulty as others have noted with gravity's rainbow and finnegan's wake, but i don't dislike them because of it.
posted by juv3nal at 5:54 PM on May 25, 2003


Which translation of Don Quixote did you read (assuming you read it in translation)? I recently picked up the Penguin Classics version translated by John Rutherford, which is a delight and is actually funny, as opposed to the creaky, dated Walter Starkie translation, which put me off the book for years.- turaho

I am constantly wondering how much is lost in the translation.

Having read some of Tim Parks' published articles on The Guardian website, I bought one of his books. But since English language books cost a pretty penny and selection is limited, I bought it in Italian. I enjoyed it immensely, but when I perused his website, the excerpt in English had (to my mind) a completely different tone.

I found this vaguely ironic at the time, as Mr. Parks translates Italian authors into English. But on the shopping list for my next excursion to the bookstore is Mr. Parks' book about the gap between an author's work and translations, which I am hoping sheds some light on this particular case.

/Sort of On Topic

While I enjoyed the The Old Man and the Sea, I have an unnatural phobia of reading anything else by Hemmingway because I fear I will have a severe flashback to 10th grade and begin finding Christ symbolism in every friggin' period and comma.
posted by romakimmy at 5:57 PM on May 25, 2003

Fear of Flying was asinine. The narrator came across as such an idiot and it seemed to take her a lot of screwing around on her nice husband to conclude that ultimately sex can't be separated from its larger context of emotion, personality, etc. Duh.

The problem with a lot of feminist lit is that it has dated so badly. Doris Lessing was a good writer but I find she has little to say that's relevant to my experience (I'm 29), or to that of any of the women I observe. It wasn't until I read and learned more about what women were up against earlier in the twentieth century that I started to even understand what Lessing was about. She's not without interest, but I think fiction is the better for not being addressed to some too specific political agenda. Make the characters real, write so that the ideas are expressed naturally through their actions and words. That way when you write about a 39 year old housewife who feels trapped by her life, who is trying to come to grips with her choices and her mortality, it will be read and understood by many people of all ages and walks of life, even many years down the road.
posted by orange swan at 6:07 PM on May 25, 2003

Robinson Crusoe. Twenty-eight years long; you'll feel every one. I would've nominated Jude the Obscure but I had sense enough to bail out on that one.

And I second the "The Three Musketeers was surprisingly good" vote.
posted by tyro urge at 6:22 PM on May 25, 2003

but The Big U just about put me off his writing forever...could barely believe it was by the same guy.

IIRC once the first edition went out of print, Stephenson tried like hell to keep this book from being rereleased. Finally gave in after the success of Cryptonomicon. Based on the author's lack of recommendation I've yet to read it myself.

It's such a basic concept, but I'm always fascinated by these differences in taste. "How could anyone like Kissing in Manhattan? How could anyone not like Gravity's Rainbow?" Well okay, I can see how but it's such a terrific book to me. De gustibus non est disputandum I guess...
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:16 PM on May 25, 2003

Whoops. Apparently this thread likes to eat closing tags!
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 7:20 PM on May 25, 2003

Joeforking--Thank you! Yes!

Also Beloved. I almost had to drop a college English course a few years ago because I couldn't force myself to finish that book. It probably suffered from the fact that, at the same time I was taking the course, I was completely engrossed in Infinite Jest.
posted by hal incandenza at 7:44 PM on May 25, 2003

Let's see, now:

Worst ending to an otherwise pretty decent book: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Oh look, he's degenerating into an incoherent, sweary rant--maybe I ought to skip a couple pages. And a couple more. And a couple more. And--oh my, I've run out of book.

Worst entire novel I actually finished from an author I respect: Visions of Cody, Jack Kerouac. Hey, you know what "On the Road" needed? To be three times longer and thirty times less coherent. Not.

Worst novel, lowered expectations to begin with: Tribesmen of Gor, John Norman. Yes, that Frazetta painting on the cover is the best thing about it. No, I don't particularly like Frazetta. Imagine reading a mediocre slash story about some swords & sorcery series you can't quite bring yourself to care about. Now imagine it longer.
posted by arto at 8:12 PM on May 25, 2003

I have to agree that Iain M. Banks' novels were disappointing, I can't even remember which ones I read. Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon bored me as well and I gave up on it, which was a disappointment as I enjoyed his earlier novels.

Just went and had a look at my bookshelf and noticed the copy of Stephen Donaldson's trilogy The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever I own. I found that an interminably boring read but I kept persisting in the vain hope it would transform into the great fantasy I'd heard it to be. Definitely rates up there as one of the worst reads I've actually got the entire way through.
posted by Onanist at 8:14 PM on May 25, 2003

Sorry about that bolded mess up there, that was all me. I included a link to Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland in that earlier post because the school is well-known for giving to a graduating senior the largest undergraduate literary prize in the country--the Sophie Kerr Prize. This year's haul was more than $60,000. Kerr herself was moderately successful, but no prize winners have gone on to write the next Great American Novel yet.
posted by emelenjr at 8:27 PM on May 25, 2003

Oh, I'd obviously managed to repress the memories of reading one of John Norman's Gor books. I have to agree, these are some the the capital-W Worst Books Ever.

For those not in the know, arto left out the detail that in John Norman's philosophy, and the Gor books are pretty much about this, women are meant to be slaves for men. Literally. As in, put a collar on 'em and chain them up type slavery.

(Hey, I was 14, hot slave chicks sounded like a pretty good idea at the time.)

As far as Confederacy of Dunces goes, it was pretty much the dislike for IJ Reilly that did it for me. I might appreciate it more now, it was 10 years ago at least that I last attempted it. (Also, this book was one of the favorite books of a former best friend who became addicted to heroin and useless, so I may be biased.)
posted by alex_reno at 8:58 PM on May 25, 2003

While we're slagging bad science fiction:

The Blue Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson is truly awful. I bought and read all three and then asked myself why. Heinlein is another I liked as a teen but can't stand now.

The Chung-Kuo (sp?) series by David Wingate started off fairly well, but by the third or fourth book had pretty much lost it.

Stephen R. Donaldson. Period.

And to switch genres slightly, James Branch Cabell. Jurgen is one of my favorite books, but the other books of his I've read have seemed like vastly inferior rip-offs of Jurgen.
posted by alex_reno at 9:13 PM on May 25, 2003

Vidiot: Try Steven Weisenberger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion. I got more out of GR with it than without it. It also led me to some non-fiction books, like this one.
posted by trondant at 9:20 PM on May 25, 2003

I see that a lot of you are disrespecting Papa. Stop this instant.

I love everything about Hemingway. I willfully buy into the myth lock, stock and barrell and am happy to do so, because I think in this day and age we need something so unabashedly misogynistic to at least partly assuage the Margaret Atwood-ification of literature.

That said, The Sun Also Rises was considerably less brilliant the second time I read it.
posted by Hildago at 9:27 PM on May 25, 2003

Egad, I forgot to mention Stephen R. Donaldson, Thomas Hardy, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing and Joyce fucking Carol Oates. God save us all from these overhyped hacks!
posted by Lynsey at 9:53 PM on May 25, 2003

Thanks, trondant. Couldn't decide between Weisenberger's and Fowler's. Will check it out.
posted by Vidiot at 10:33 PM on May 25, 2003

omg. Fear of Flying... I had to laugh. It's pretty rare that I come across a book of any reputation that I would just never pick up again. A book may bore or annoy me, but I'm usually willing to give it a second or third shot. Fear of Flying, however...

The best book I understood only a fraction of was "Foucault's Pendulum." Now there's the tome for a desert island, if one is allowed a companion library of reference books.
posted by taz at 10:37 PM on May 25, 2003

The Illuminatus Trilogy is the perfect primer for Foucault's Pendulum, as well as pretty much any other conspiracy-based works.
posted by alex_reno at 11:06 PM on May 25, 2003

The worst book I've ever read, hands down, is Ian by J. F. Baldwin. Never heard of it? You never will. It's basically Brave New World turned into a Christian fundamentalist tract, with all that book's prescience, vision, and pretension to literary goodness replaced with mindnumbingly awful proselytizing, dotted with a big ol' glaring, out-of-place metaphor every few pages, as if Baldwin had left them out at first and his editor told him he had to go back and gussy it up. Blech. The book's hero, Ian (Jesus), keeps offering useless platitudes like "Fences and chains make men free to rebel." I want to purchase the book (I had to read it for a class called "Understanding the Times" in high school, so we had it on loan from the school), so I can pull it out and poke fun at it every so often when I'm feeling down.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 11:31 PM on May 25, 2003

The Illuminatus Trilogy is the perfect primer....

posted by oissubke at 12:16 AM on May 26, 2003

The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch has already been mentioned; it actually won the Booker prize and is by far the worst book I have ever read. I actually finished it because I didn't want to let it "beat me", insane I know, but I was travelling and we didn't have many books or much money.
posted by johnny novak at 12:46 AM on May 26, 2003

I can't believe nobody's mentioned Tolstoy. War and Peace is the most turgid, boring, and long winded book I have ever had the misfortune of reading. (If you find that last sentence repetitive, don't read War and Peace.)

Basically, it's about 200 pages of setup and then another 1000 or so of "Sheesh, just fuck her and get it over with."

And yes, I did finish it, out of some masochistic impulse I suppose.

As for more modern writers, I was greatly disappointed by the Island of the Day Before, which took so many charming digressions that it made the whole story completely incomprehensible. I didn't finish it. Powers is boring. Barnes is annoying.

I also hate Ayn Rand, but hey, that puts me in good company. They made us read Anthem in high school, and I clearly remember my total loathing of everything it stood for. It even made me a communist for a while (thankfully, I grew out of that).

And oh yes, Shakespeare. I haven't looked at it since high school, but what a waste of my time. MacBeth had a few good bits but Julius Ceasar was high school boredom in its most concentrated form.

More high school hatred. I like Hemingway but The Old Man And The Sea is melodramatic oversymbolized garbage. Same for The Pearl.

As for stuff others have slagged but I love, I'm a huge Iain M. Banks fan (I must admit that Canal Dreams is weak, but I never felt it was actually bad). To me every word of Wasp Factory was pure ambrosia. I read Gravity's Rainbow and Vineland like the Bible - not sequentially but randomly. Worked for me. Lord of the Rings is overlong and a bit turgid but the setting and plot carry it.
posted by datadawg at 1:07 AM on May 26, 2003

I have an irrational hatred for all things Nick Hornby -- particularly 'About A Boy'. However, some of the worst fiction I've ever read would have to be Len Deighton's 'Bomber' -- unreadable self-indulgence written by a technically-obsessed freak:

'Leutnant Fritzsche, 22, lined up BF 110 G-2 AF+9G , and fired from 250 metres (the outside air temperature was -21C). Seventeen 20 mm. cannon shells hit Lancaster T-Tommy of 209 squadron; one fragmented against the H2S set and slightly wounded the wireless operator, F/Sgt. MacDowell, just under the left scapula...' and so on for 500 pages. Just wrong.

Also, anyone in an anti-Updike mood should by all means read Gore Vidal's review/hatchet-job 'Rabbit's Own Burrow'. It's reprinted in the essay collection 'The Last Empire'.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:52 AM on May 26, 2003

I find Peter Carey impossible to pick up.
posted by johnny7 at 2:02 AM on May 26, 2003

Perhaps you're not his type.
posted by Grangousier at 2:07 AM on May 26, 2003

By at least the width of a quark,
you're all quite beside of the mark.
When Finnegan wakes
he'll expel all the fakes
who've crawled up his ass whole in the dark.

--Eggers D. Von Brockman, from Disgorgement of the Fancy Thanatoids

posted by Opus Dark at 3:12 AM on May 26, 2003

I'm coming out as a fan of Everything is Illuminated. It is simply a fantastic book but, in my experience, is much derided by those people with aspirations to writing who feel threatened by someone who has written such an accomplished novel at a young age. I love it.

One book that sits on my shelves unread is The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I've started reading it a couple of times but I find the style to be like wading through treacle; one invests the time in reading through the florid descriptions and is rewarded by ending up exactly where one started.
posted by Lleyam at 5:34 AM on May 26, 2003

I loved the Magic Mountain, and since Hildago seems to've found my advice on Koyce helpful, let me offer another bit to save this book's reputation. Pick it up, flip to the last third of the book, and start reading. You've started in the right place when two guys named Settembrini and Naphta are on stage talking to a third guy named Hans Castorp. Read that last third until you get to the point where they challenge one another. Stop so you don't spoil the ending. Then, if you liked it to that point, go back and read the rest of the book. Mann's style is very discursive, but it's easy to get used to, and the book simply won't let you go after a hundred and fifty pages.

On a slightly more positive note than most of this thread, The Brothers Karamazov was both the best and the most difficult book I've ever read to get through. A difficult, but immensely rewarding read.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 6:30 AM on May 26, 2003

pooligan - Gotta disagree about Dos Passos. To my mind, Manhattan Transfer is the absolute best of that hyper-detailed experimental stuff everyone so loved in the '20s. And it's just a flat-out brilliant portrait of turn-of-the-century New York.

And on a similar note, I'll join several others in slagging Dos Passos' over-hyped contemporary Faulkner. I can't speak for his whole body of work, but The Sound and the Fury was among the most frustrating books I never finished. (Whereas Gravity's Rainbow was among the most frustrating - and ultimately rewarding - books I did finish.)
posted by gompa at 7:13 AM on May 26, 2003

"The Celestine Prophecy" is by far the tritest, most patronizing, badly written, belabored piece of absolute shit I have ever been in the same time zone with.
posted by signal at 7:17 AM on May 26, 2003

Ah, most recent overrated novel is Max Barry's Jennifer Government - nice ideas but they're never developed, snappy prose that soon jars, cute characters but they remain cutouts. In fact the novel's almost a cardboard cutout of Snow Crash. A train wreck. Buy it second hand or something.

The Mars Trilogy would've been great if KSR had taken out most of the stuff about the rocks and the detail about people's neurotic freakouts. I read through the whole thing twice, so it wasn't that bad, though without Coyote popping up and calling bullshit now and then it would've been intolerable. (The Years Of Rice And Salt, however was more episodic, less ponderous and generally a lot more fun. Really.)

Peter Carey? Hmm. Oscar and Lucinda wasn't bad, but The True History Of The Kelly Gang. Whoa. Even though I live not far from Kelly Country, as it's tagged, the history and the geography ought to resonate, but... it doesn't. Nice try, though.

As for Nick Hornby, it says something that I liked the movie of High Fidelity more than the book, though both are good. Fever Pitch was good, About A Boy less dire than the movie, How To Be Good was a bit breezy. I can see why people hate his novels, but I don't, though.
posted by GrahamVM at 7:39 AM on May 26, 2003

Clancy. Tom Clancy. God save me from never-served-wannabe-military-hyper-nationalist-technology-obsessed hacks. If I wasn't an atheist, that is.

I see upthread that some people actually like his drek. No accounting for taste, I guess.
posted by Cerebus at 7:56 AM on May 26, 2003

Oh yes. Celestine Prophecy. Also awful. Distant second to Ian.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 10:11 AM on May 26, 2003

And oh yes, Shakespeare. I haven't looked at it since high school, but what a waste of my time.

A poem in two lines -- perfect.
posted by mattpfeff at 10:17 AM on May 26, 2003

Worst books: a good half of the books from high school. Toni Morrison's Beloved seemed like it was trying too hard to be non-linear and just ended up repeating itself. Their Eyes Were Watching God just pissed me off because I hated everyone in it, except the guy who you were supposed to hate seemed like he might be not that bad, just protective. But when he's the bad guy and the guy who physically abuses her is this great amazing guy -- OK, that pisses me off. Wuthering Heights was pretty dull, and it just pisses me off when characters decide "OK, I'm going to die now" and do. The Great Gatsby I have to give another try. And we read too much Steinbeck. Also at 15 I thought To Kill a Mockingbird was childish and talking down to me and just not particularly interesting.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:09 PM on May 26, 2003

The Illuminatus Trilogy is the perfect primer for Foucault's Pendulum, as well as pretty much any other conspiracy-based works.

I read Foucault's Pendulum before The Illuminatus Trilogy and found it to be just as complimenting in that order, as well. Despite the fact that Umberto Eco and RAW should probably not be compared side by side like this. heh. But I'd be hard-pressed to write off Foucault's Pendulum as just some conspiracy novel.

Most books that I haven't liked were, as mentioned, a fault with the reader more than the author. And I'm young, so I'll give myself a few years with those.
posted by erisfree at 7:19 PM on May 26, 2003

I enjoyed Foucault's Pendulum quite a bit, though I've never read the Illuminatus Trilogy (and doubt I ever would.) The Name of the Rose wasn't bad, but The Island of the Day Before was absolutely putrid -- quite a letdown, and kept me from getting Baudolino on its first publishing day. Eco's essays are great too.
posted by Vidiot at 8:32 PM on May 26, 2003

I read Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (as I'm sure everyone else here did) and loved it. So I decided to read the rest of his books -- Snow Crash was fun, but The Big U just about put me off his writing forever...could barely believe it was by the same guy...

Stephenson admitted that The Big U is a horrible novel. (His first, by the way). Incidentally he also attempted to block its reproduction after the success of snow crash and cryptonomicon, he thought it was so bad.

What about Zodiac or Diamond Age? Also he has a great essay called In the Beginning was the Command Line.
posted by cohappy at 2:11 AM on May 27, 2003

Haven't read ITBWTCL (it's on my wishlist), but I really enjoyed Diamond Age and Zodiac (and even his magnum-opus article in Wired about submarine cables.)
posted by Vidiot at 8:34 AM on May 27, 2003

Three words:


That is all.
posted by monkey.pie.baker at 8:39 AM on May 27, 2003

This thread is making me actually want to read some of the panned and disputed books.
posted by orange swan at 9:07 AM on May 27, 2003

Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire. (/italic /italic /italic)

I'm usually turned off by "literary horror," which is often too affected for its own good, but I wanted to give Rice a chance, and see if I was unfairly judging the book by its cover, as it were. So I plunged into Interview.

I was maybe an eighth of an inch from the end -- 30 pages? -- and put it aside. Never finished it. I just didn't care about any of the characters, or how their plot threads might or might not have been resolved.

The Tommyknockers, with the flying coke machines and protagonist with broken legs crawling six miles to start or stop or avert something or other... this was Stephen King's third strike in a way; he was no longer must-read material.
posted by kurumi at 10:17 AM on May 27, 2003

Hildago: we need something so unabashedly misogynistic to at least partly assuage the Margaret Atwood-ification of literature.

Interesting, because I find Margaret Atwood's writing misogynistic as well. I don't think she actually likes women.
posted by witchstone at 11:07 AM on May 27, 2003

In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason, turned me off because it seemed so amateurishly written. I, too, could never get through A Confederacy of Dunces or anything by Don DeLillo (except for Mao II) and Pynchon (except for The Crying of Lot 49).

My favorite novels are some of the most difficult to get through: Sometimes a Great Notion, by Ken Kesey, and Moby Dick. I completely understand people who dislike Moby Dick, and I totally respect their opinions. It's not for everyone. The test is whether you can enjoy Father Mapple's sermon -- a mix of comedy, foreshadowing and high seriousness.

Having been born a bastard, I rather liked The Scarlet Letter and named my son after Hawthorne.
posted by Holden at 12:32 PM on May 27, 2003

Personally, I'd rather read a nice cheesy low-brow sci-fi book then almost anything mentioned in this entire list.

...Tom Clancy, Dean Koontz, Robert Gibson, or Michael Crighton. I'd prefer not to touch any of them.
posted by Yossarian at 2:24 PM on May 27, 2003

Maybe that's because we're listing bad books.
posted by Hildago at 5:47 PM on May 28, 2003

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