Sep 06 2010

Books You Shouldn’t Read

Category: Literary PretensionsOren Hurvitz @ 6:08 pm

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.
– Dorothy Parker

If you seek book recommendations then there’s no shortage of sources. But unrecommendations are far more valuable: which books are overrated, overcelebrated, or just plain overwrought.

The Huffington Post has just published an article, 13 Books Nobody’s Read But Say They Have. Their list includes these books:

  • Geoffrey Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales
  • Alexis de Tocqueville – Democracy In America
  • James Joyce – Ulysses
  • Charles Dickens – A Christmas Carol
  • Salman Rushdie – The Satanic Verses
  • Herman Melville – Moby Dick
  • Stephen Hawking – A Brief History of Time
  • David Foster Wallace – Infinite Jest
  • Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose
  • Marcel Proust – “Remembrance Of Things Past” or “In Search Of Lost Time” (the book so nice they named it twice)
  • Cervantes – Don Quixote
  • William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying
  • Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace

That article sure hit a nerve, with over 1,800 comments so far! Most of the commenters tell of books that they tried to read but couldn’t, each comment a small capsule of human anguish. I wish to add a few unrecommendations of my own.

Don’t read Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This sneaky book pulls you in with clever patter and a wry, sympathetic narrator (Ishmael). But the good times only last about a third of the book (which, to be fair, is almost 200 pages!). As Ishmael begins to catalogue every part of the whale, from spout to tail, devoting a chapter to each (there’s even a whole chapter on the color white!), you may well consider whether you’re reading a piece of fiction or a textbook from the 1850’s. In the latter part of the book captain Ahab becomes increasingly prominent, delivering one tirade after another in impenetrable English that bears little similarity to the fluid prose from the beginning of the story. I have struggled to get through Moby Dick almost as much as Ahab fought against the White Whale himself, and although my fate was better than Ahab’s since I did finish the book (oops, was this a spoiler?), I don’t recommend the experience.

Don’t read The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. The story is little more than a skeleton for Brown to hang his (admittedly interesting) research about early Christianity. The characters are sketchily drawn and emote about as much as Tom Hanks’s ridiculous hairdo in the movie adaptation of this book. The upside: if you do read this book it won’t take you much time as it’s easy to get through and far shorter than Moby Dick.

Most of all, under no circumstances should you read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon! That book nearly killed me as I struggled to get through it. Parts of the book are well written, but often it’s opaque and it’s difficult to understand what the author meant. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in a different mindset, skipping over difficult to understand passages in order to get the gist of the story. If I had two lives to live I would put this to the test.

I read a couple of books in the middle of reading Gravity’s Rainbow in order to refresh myself, much as the contestants of a reality show, when forced to eat something disgusting such as raw cows’ eyes, clean their palate with water between bites. After spending six months to read 200 pages I finally gave up, and the day I decided to stop reading this book the sun broke through the overcast sky, a warm breeze scented with wildflowers began to stir the grass, and little children ran laughing through dewy meadows as excited dogs ran beside them, barking and wagging their tails. Perhaps these were the very same dogs that were experimented upon in Gravity’s Rainbow, happy to be freed at last.

My advice is: if a book is not interesting after 100 pages, stop reading. There’s too much good literature to waste time on something you hate, no matter how critically acclaimed it is. As The Onion put it: failure is an option.

(Photo by gaspi *yg)