Ten books other people love but I don’t

Oh, the web is wonderful. After reading the following:


I had to give it a go. Because the above posts made some EXCELLENT points re: the painful shittiness of Wuthering Heights, The Old Man and the Sea, and Heart of Darkness, I can simply agree wholeheartedly and move on to:

1. Billy Budd. The only thing more painful than social implications of his speech impediment is reading about it. Tragic? Aye. Dramatic? Aye. Now stick me in the eye so I don’t have to read it ever again. (My secret for those who loathe Moby Dick is: skip any chapter that begins with a whale or a boat. The dialogue and existential angst stuff is pretty darned good. Except that it’s Melville and I don’t much care. I’m just saying, if you have to read it, skip the whale and ship bits. Makes it a pretty quick read.)

2. Oliver Twist. B-uh-lech. Maybe it had soap-opera appeal as a subscription serial, but come on. Try Tale of Two Cities, instead. Still laborious in a “yup, clearly he was paid by the word” kind of way, but the final two pages make it all worth it. And I like a payoff. Which is why all the E.M. Forester-y British nineteenth century books that leave ends dangling, dripping with possibility and fraught with “if only” make me want to hurl them at the nearest open flame.

3. War and Peace. Ugh. Oh, God, please, don’t. Crime and Punishment, yes. Anna Karenina if you really, really want to. But barring those masterpieces, why, really, wend your way through Russian lit? They have long winters, lots of vodka, and enough space to be alone. I would not begrudge them their need for torturously long reads. But we don’t need the literary distractions. I’m not arguing for short books. I wanted to write my Master’s thesis on Infinite Jest, for heaven’s sake. But Anna and War are like reading all the “who begat whom” sections of the Bible. Were those guys paid by the word, too?

4. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Um, no. Stop with your Catholic angst and your paternal angst and your filial angst. Too much boy desperate to be a man but held back by his country, religion, and extensive knowledge of classic literature for me. (Seriously? A whole novel about Icarus and Daedalus? The painting is genius. The story is okay. The Irish reinterpretation is laborious and self-congratulatory.) Stephen is the Irish Holden Caufield, only not as easy to read. (Ulysses is worth it, though, for those dissing Joyce. But read the The Odyssey first. Or get a guide. Or read the critical edition. Ulysses is brilliant as a call and response to The Odyssey like O, Brother Where Art Thou is brilliant as a call and response to both. All three are abstruse on their own.)

5. The Sun Also Rises. Aaaaack! Ernest Hemingway, you offend my literary sensibilities. Again. Do you actually read, or do you just write? Jesus, le mot juste was never so dry or so overwraught with self importance. Bombastic in his superiority, Hemingway makes me gag, especially when he’s so obsessed with male genitalia. Try his Nick Adams stories, instead. The only way to fix Hemingway is to make his male characters prepubescent.

6. Gone with the Wind. Makes me want to strangle Scarlet and Rhett—for the entirety of the text. Please. Shut up already. You’re boring. Makes me want to let them secede. Or force them to read all the books on this list, over and over.

7. Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness. Heart of Darkness. I know I said above that it was covered in the other anti-best-of lists, but I can’t not say it again and again. Poorly written, colonial racist eroticization of The Other, thinly veiled homoeroticism, and just plain uninteresting. More machismo-penis fiction, a la Hemingway. Assign it only as punishment for plagiarizers who will “do anything” to not fail your class.

8. On the Road. Holy Self-Absorbed Baby Boomers at Their Worst, Batman. Jeezus, why are we letting that generation run the world? They’re boring!

9. Confederacy of Dunces. ptooey! Did you not want to throttle Ignatious J. Reilly the whole way through? I’ve never met a more unsympathetic character in a novel. Why do people like this book? I felt like I was on the spinning wheel of fortune while a blindfolded knife thrower was on break waiting to maybe think about maybe making things interesting for me and the audience. After he made us all watch cubist films about paint drying.
Infuriating. Pulitzer? What? Try, instead, if you want funny yet tormented, self aware and philosophically important—Infinite Jest. And read the footnotes. Ten thousand times more worth your while than any of CoD.

11. The Great Gatsby. Okay, I said it. I know I’m the only one, and I’m willing to be alone on this one. Gatsby is full of horrible people doing horrible things, and not even in an important, changing the world kind of way. Give me biographies of dictators or famine or tracts about world poverty, but don’t make me pretend to be impressed, or even interested, in rich Americans who shat all over society. Yucky, icky self absorption, conspicuous consumption, devaluation of women’s bodies, and painfully obvious but unexamined divides between the many classes in American society. Plus, the narrator is way too Holden Caulfield for me, and you know how I feel about him. Entirely disagreeable and distasteful chap, that one.

12. Tuesdays with Morrie. SCHLOCK! Oh, my, schlockedy schlock schlock. Get your carpe diem elsewhere. This is schlock.

13. Angela’s Ashes. I’ve now been disowned for saying this, but what is the appeal? The writing is fair to middling, and it’s neither depressing enough nor uplifting enough. As memoirs go, it’s filed twice under “yeah, right” and “who the hell cares?” Maudlin expressions of intense poverty are fine by me. I love me some well written memoirs of intense powerlessness. Somehow, dotting the “i”s with little smiley faces makes the whole thing seem disingenuous, no? You want a book about finding hope in absolutely desolate conditions? Try What is the What? by Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng.

(Now that I’ve read the list here, I feel less original about On the Road and Catcher in the Rye, but I also feel vindicated…)

Yes, that was more than ten. Ask anyone who has ever met me if I can follow rules or self-edit.

Our next assignment, overeducated blogosphere, is a list of books we love that nobody else is reading.

Talk of the town

I’m not a people watcher. Couldn’t care less. Can sit in an airport or train station and never see the people around me. But I am a people listener. I hear the conversations behind me, in the stall next to me, at the table down the aisle. I listen, picturing how the people speaking could be in a novel, a play, a movie–what their whole story is and what moves them. I’m listening, empathizing with their plights, cheering their successes. I listen to people when I run, loving our new (if temporary) digs along the waterfront because I run and listen in on dozens of conversations from walkers, cyclists, and joggers.

And I have never, in decades of listening, experienced anything like this week.

Every single voice I heard, amongst those explicitly not talking to me, was talking about the economy. Every one. The ladies walking on the levee, the businessmen at the cafe, the family at Fleet Week, the couples holding hands at the library. Every, single non-me-focused voice is talking about the shitstorm that is our economy. How did we get here (that one I know…traunches); what is happening next (that one I know…massive recession); what is the government going to do (that one I don’t know…depends on the election, and neither option will fix things economically). And the people on whom I’m eavesdropping aren’t even in New York, looking at this.

It’s amazing to hear, for the first time, an eerily similar conversation from EVERYONE. (And really good for my novels, because people walking around just paralyzed with fear make for really good characters. I’m sorry we’re all hurting and scared. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s a major boon for my fiction.)

Check with The Fourth Turning, btw. This, even more than Sept. 11, puts us in another Crisis period; which puts me, as I’ve always suspected, with the Lost expat writers of the 20s. Our current generation of Hemingways and Steins and Fitzgeralds and Nins is working right now. And watch out–they’re listening when you go Rollerblading on the levee.