Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reading can be not fun

by Miriam

Reading this fun piece about books that have been “described, whether by critics or the authors themselves, as the Ulyssi of their respective cultures” made me remember how much I loathed James Joyce’s masterpiece when we spent what seemed like five years studying it in a graduate school seminar. Maybe it was our professor’s vaguely fascist insistence that this was a masterwork surpassing all others, or my exhaustion at the tautological discussions of the gorgonzola theme in the book, but this class may have influenced my decision to forgo getting a Ph.D. and venture into the publishing business instead.

We’ve all come across books that other people consider the most, the best, the greatest and that we found unreadable. Here are my top five what-are-people-thinking-when-they-rave-about-them-or-force-you-to-study-them-in-school books (the list is, of course, subject to change):

The Iliad
The Scarlet Letter
Moby Dick
The Catcher in the Rye

What are yours?


  1. My Five:
    Barchester Towers
    The Red Badge of Courage
    The Old Man and the Sea (or possibly Moby Dick, I can't remember which one I slogged through)
    And all those stupid angry British plays from the sixties that I had to read for my theatre arts degree (not novels, but same bloody idea).

  2. Gone with the Wind. I never did manage to get past the first 2 paragraphs. Scarlett pisses me off. =\

  3. I did not enjoy The Mill on the Floss or The Old Man and the Sea. I had to read a Rose for Emily three different times for three different classes which was annoying.

    I also tried reading The Lord of the Rings once and couldn't get past the Tom Bombadil part (though I love the movies.)

    As for something a little bit more modern: The Twilight series. I trudged through all four, wondering when it was going to get as great as everyone claimed. Only Breaking Dawn was vaguely interesting and still it was a total disappointment at the end.

  4. On your list, you have two books that I loved (Moby Dick & Catcher in the Rye)and only one that I somewhat disliked (Scarlet Letter).

    In recent literature, I read Tinkers before it won the Pulitzer and was distinctly underwhelmed by it. I've also found that my tastes have changed as I've gotten older. Dickens seems to have less appeal to me than he used to, for example. On the other hand, some favorite authors are still favorites (I recently re-read Graham Green's oeuvre and enjoyed it just as much as the first, second or in some cases third or fourth time).

  5. Love your list, I'd add anything Shakespeare or Dante, sigh, make that anything required for and English Lit credit!

  6. Canterbury Tales I remember as being particular loathsome for me.

  7. Great Expectations

    I think any time a book is assigned in school, that kills it for me.

  8. Definitely a subjective thing. I adored both Great Expectations and Gone with the Wind, read them outside of a classroom.

    Here's two I just don't get:
    Madame Bovary
    Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

  9. I can agree with the Moby Dick and Old Man and the Sea. I'd add Death of a Salesman (The only book I never finished in high school.)and Whuthering Heights, but I have to disagree with Catcher in the Rye and anything Shakespeare. They totally rock!

  10. Oh Miriam, I think all five of yours are on my list too. I never, ever quite get people's passionate love for Catcher in the Rye. I think I'd add Jane Austen to the list. While I like her stories and adaptations of her novels, I can't actually read one of those novels without finding them painfully dull.

  11. Madame Jill16/6/10 2:03 PM

    DJ -- Madame Bovary? No, no, she loved the sea for its storms! That book made a huge impression on me in (junior?) high school.

    As for me, I'll have to go with Heart of Darkness. Sorry.

  12. Plato's THE REPUBLIC and SYMPOSIUM, while slightly interesting, killed me.
    Also, I could never get through ON THE NATURE OF THINGS by Lucretius.
    But - some of those ancient books were pretty good. HISTORY OF THE PERSIAN WARS, by Herodotus, held my interest, as did the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY.

  13. I loved Heart of Darkness. Hated Scarlett Letter the first time I read it, liked it better the second time. Didn't "get" Jane Austen until someone told me it was supposed to be funny, and then I enjoyed her.

    My personal "don't get it": Virginia Woolf, particularly To The Lighthouse.

  14. Excellent post idea!

    Hemingway! A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Also, The Great Gatsby, which I read in high school and thought was a snooze. And Mrs. Dalloway, which I read in college. Catcher in the Rye I didn't get either, but I read it in my 20s.

    J. Anderson, I must agree with Death of a Salesman, but my degree of intense hatred is only because it was a summer reading project for which I had to answer about 90 ridiculously detailed, analytical questions. Still gives me shudders of revulsion.

  15. I enjoy how passionately we all dislike some books/authors. Do you find that you get almost as much joy from your hatred of a certain book or author (yes, Pynchon, I'm looking at you) as from your love of, well, a book you love?

    I do disagree on Austen and Woolf. Give 'em another chance, guys.

  16. Anything by Hemingway (except The Old Man and the Sea, which I found engaging) and anything by Vonnegut. I just don't get those two.

  17. Wasn't impressed by Tropic of Cancer and didn't make it through On The Road or In Cold Blood (maybe I'll try again one of these days). Someone else mentioned To the Lighthouse - I second that x 100. But I guess I'm in the minority - I love The Old Man and the Sea.

  18. I totally agree with Catcher in the Rye. It was incredibly hard for me to get through.

  19. Jane Eyre
    Wuthering Heights-- everyone says it's the greatest love story. I'm still convinced they were talking about some other book!

  20. Mostly I remember being dragged through hideous compilations of short stories considered to be "literary." I've tried--and managed--to forget most of them.

    But I do remember the plays:
    I do not like Othello.
    I do not like The Madness of King Lear.
    I think I could seriously gag over Hamlet, and I would like to start a bonfire with Endgame.

    And if I never, never again have to read the poem "Dover Beach," which seems to be the dead horse flogged by all too many professors of undergraduate literature, it will still be too soon.

    There, that felt better. :D Thank you!

  21. I hate Walden (Thoreau) with the fiery passion of a thousand suns.

  22. A Farewell to Arms ~ Ernest Hemingway
    Of Mice And Men ~ John Steinbeck
    Night ~ Elie Wiesel
    The Crucible ~ Arthur Miller
    ^ These were all required reading my sophomore year of high school. One right after the other. It was enough to make me understand why some of my peers HATE reading.

    For my 5th choice, it's a toss up between:
    Lord of the Flies ~ William Golding (9th grade)
    Heart of Darkness ~ Joseph Conrad (12th grade)

    Luckily, I was able to use these horrible experiences in my college admission essays. I pretty much railed against the string of depressing books we were forced to read and it contributing to the low literacy rates. Not that one shouldn't be forced to read some of these, but just not one right after the other with no relief.

  23. 1. On Walden Pond, by Henry David Thoreau. Induces instant coma.

    2.The Scarlet Letter-Yawn.

    3.East of Eden, by Steinbeck, but I love the Grapes of Wrath. Go figure.

    4.The Time Traveller's Wife--not what I expected.

    5.The Iliad. (basically, every book we had to read in freshman English including Romeo and Juliet and A Tale of Two Cities.

  24. What a hoot to read everyone's lists! I LOVE Shakespeare and I practically majored in the Canterbury Tales.

    For me it's the Hobbit/ Lord of the Rings--I can't even watch the movies...
    And Hemingway never floated my boat. Then there was that nightmare called The Brothers Karamazov...

  25. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (I absolutely loathe this book!)
    Romeo and Juliet (just because it's overdone)
    The Old Man and the Sea
    A Separate Peace (redleg, yes! I couldn't stand this one!)
    Lord of the Flies
    Slaughterhouse Five

  26. Interesting discussion. I'm surprised how many people list Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea as unreadable. In fact, if I had to create a list of some of my FAVORITE books of all time, many of the books I'm seeing in the comments would be on it. Huck Finn, for example. The Old Man and the Sea would be on it. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Lord of the Flies, Slaughterhouse Five, and Gatsby would all be there. As far as the unreadable ones, anything by James Joyce, most of Dickens's stuff is too wordy for me, and, of course, Middlemarch by George Eliot.

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  28. The Painted Bird (I could be stuck for weeks with no other reading material but this book and never be tempted to give it another go)
    Daisy Miller (in fact, just about anything Henry James ever wrote even though he sounds like such a decent guy; I can't get over how he could say the same thing over and over and never seem to realize he'd already done it to death)
    The Old Man and the Sea (so thrilled I'm not the only one!)
    The Sound and the Fury (life is just too short and this book was absolutely too long)
    Paradise Lost

  29. 5. The Lord of the Rings.
    4. Romeo and Juliet.
    3. Twilight.
    2. Wuthering Heights.
    1. Anything by Margaret Atwood.

    And yes, I do get almost as much joy from hating a book as I do from loving one. Especially if I can find someone else who hated it as much as I did and likes to complain about it as much as I do.

  30. Loved this post and had to come up with my worst reads in school. I was thrilled to see that others agreed with me, so I didn't feel so weird about not seeing the greatness in these works! Here they are...

    1. Lord of the Flies
    2. Heart of Darkness
    3. The Scarlet Letter (couldn’t finish because so bored, tried to use Cliff Notes but still got a D on the test)
    4. Rascol (so bored)
    5. A Tale of Two Cities (never finished it, couldn’t get passed first chapter)
    6. Dante’s Inferno

    Here is what I did like...

    1. Hamlet (I fell in love with Shakespeare's world!)
    2. Romeo and Juliet
    3. Taming of the Shrew
    4. A Farewell to Arms
    5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    6. The Crucible (Scary but fascinating. I ended up visiting Salem later in life and couldn’t get the book out of my mind!)

  31. I agree with you about The Catcher in the Rye. I read it in high school and loved it and then reread it again several months ago and thought, what was I thinking?!

  32. Many of these noted I really did like--LORD OF THE FLIES, HAMLET (but just read it this year!), Dickens, Twain. But here's the thing: It helps to read some of them later, I think, when it's your choice. Re. Shakespeare: Read some kind of annotated version. I like the "Shakespeare on the Double" editions--large type, plot summaries, and a "modern" translation presented side by side with the original. Also: WATCH Shakespeare--it makes all the difference.

    That said, I didn't appreciate slogging through Salman Rushdie's SATANIC VERSES. And forget about Cervantes' DON QUIXOTE. Once you read the first 150 pp, you've pretty much got the plot.

  33. N. Clifford Henderson27/6/10 9:32 AM

    In reading your blog, I hesitate to jump in, since I am something of an outsider, though I have hopes. I am not certain that I am allowed to comment. As a history professor, I read things different from what any of you have mentioned. As for Shakespeare, I found that it wasn't until I read him for the third or fourth time that I began to "get it." However, the book that I have had the most trouble reading, and I have never been able to complete it, is Mein Kampf. I still feel that I need to read it to help me understand Adolph Hitler and to put him in historical perspective. But I just can not finish it, partly because it is so hateful and evil, and partly because it is so poorly written.
    I hope you have not minded me jumping in. You will be getting a query letter from me.


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