Technorati Profile The classical literary canon is full of treasures, books you can read a dozen times, and always find something new. But there’s also a lot of dross, books that are great mainly because people have been saying they were great for so long. What follows is a highly subjective list, but here are [tag]ten overrated books[/tag], classics I wouldn’t read again if I had been sentenced to a bookless desert island for the rest of my life and these titles floated ashore.
And I’m also suggesting some “insteads” — books that have something in common with the ones I’m dissing, but are (to me, at least) better reads.
1. [tag]Moby-Dick[/tag]: I know, I know. It’s great, it’s cosmic, it’s universal in its scope. It’s looonnnnggggggg and it’s masochistically boring for endless stretches, and don’t tell me Ahab is Shakespearean, because when I want Shakespeare I know where to get it. INSTEAD: The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. Epic, mesmerizing novel about forgery in virtually every aspect of human existence. I read out of this book — in other words, I read more about the topics Gaddis covers — for several years, and got a better education that way than I did in college.
2. Beowulf: Monster. Cave. Hero. Monster’s mother is a nice twist, but please. The best thing you can say about this is that it’s really, really old. And that’s not reason enough. INSTEAD: The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri, translated by John Ciardi.
3. [tag]The Catcher in the Rye[/tag]: Can anyone say overprivileged? Self-involved? Didainful? Too cool for the room? I think Holden Caulfield is all of the above. There’s some very good Salinger, but this isn’t it. INSTEAD: Great Expectations, Dickens. Here’s a kid who’s a wretched little snob and comes to realize he’s a wretched little snob.
4. [tag]Finnegans Wake[/tag]: I like to think I’m a patient reader. I’m generally comfortable with obscurity. This book gives me brain cramps. INSTEAD: You want long? The Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xuequin, translated by David Hawkes. The decline of a great (and enormous) Chinese family in the early 18th century, told against a background of Buddhist and Taoist mysticism; five volumes in length and worth every page.
5. [tag]Jonathan Livingston Seagull[/tag]: I know, this is too easy. But this is the longest short book ever written. And seagulls are filthy, quarrelsome creatures with less intelligence than a handful of raisins. INSTEAD: Watchers at the Pond by Franklin Russell — real animals, a real pond, one year. Sheer magic.
6. [tag]Atlas Shrugged[/tag]: Just breathtakingly, dizzyingly, metaphysically bad, like a nightmare scribbled into a rockface by lightning, with all the subtlety and shading that mode of composition would suggest. INSTEAD: The Fountainhead, also by Ayn Rand, if you must. At least there are no female characters who carry whips around.
7. Celine, Louis-Ferdinand, anything by: There’s incomprehensible self-indulgence and there’s pretentious incompehensible self-indulgence, and Celine falls into the latter category. My mind has miraculously erased every word of his I’ve read, probably in self-defense. INSTEAD: Gravity’s Rainbow, by Thomas Pyncheon; a real writer with a global perspective and a truly dazzling sense of humor.
8. Remembrance of Things Past: Okay, it has the most inert opening scene in the history of literature — somewhere between 60 and 100 pages of the central character trying to fall asleep. I kept waiting for him to drop off in the (disappointed) expectation that he’d eventually get up and do something. No such luck. I think it took Proust longer to remember this life than it took him to live it. INSTEAD: A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, twelve novels tracing the progress of four young Brits from school to advanced middle age: funny, tender, brilliantly inventive, and containing one of the century’s great comic monsters, the character called Widmerpool.
9. The Turn of the Screw: Great story, tortured prose style. [tag]Henry James[/tag] was the Spanish Inquisition of the English sentence — bend them over the wheel, dislocate subject and object, and pull some bits inside-out. Don’t quit until it’s unrecognizable. INSTEAD: The Green Man by Kingsley Amis, a great ghost story about a guy who buys a pub that’s haunted by several spirits, one of whom happens to be Death himself. When Death reaches out for a drink (yes, Death drinks), Amis’s narrator sees bone showing through the skin on Death’s wrist and smells decaying flesh, and says, “That was unnecessary.” Oh, and it’s got the funniest sexual threesome I ever read.
10. [tag]Catch-22[/tag]: This is different — I actually love this book, but I’ve read it too many times. If I’m going to reread a comic novel, INSTEAD I’d choose either The Straight Man by [tag]Richard Russo[/tag], which had me laughing so hard I thought I’d broken a rib, or Lucky Jim by the aforementioned [tag]Kingsey Amis[/tag], who doesn’t get anywhere near the credit he deserves these days as one of the funniest (and best) novelists of the last century.
And no, I’m not suggesting I can write a better book than any of these, so don’t bother.