Saturday, September 22, 2012

Now, I Don't Claim to Be an A Student

Daughter reeled away from the kitchen table, where she had been reading.

"May I have some pudding?" she croaked.

Usually I'm no great fan of the first meal of the day being dessert, but she had gotten up on a Saturday morning and, without complaining, grabbed a book she had to read for a class, sat down at the table and got to work. That merited something. When you factored in what she was reading, that merited pudding. I spooned some out. She leaned against the counter and inhaled it.

I said sympathetically, "I know. I believe I also told you in advance you would not actually enjoy this book."

She sighed, "You didn't tell me how bad it was."

I said  brightly, "Oh, but aren't you enjoying the scintillating plot? The believable characters? Come on, there's all that sparkling dialogue."

I was finding this too hilarious so I stopped. I composed myself. The kid looked unmoved.

"Mom, has anyone, anywhere, actually liked Pilgrim's Progress?"

"Well, the March girls. But come to think of it, they're fictional. Your teacher must like it. I mean, you're reading it."

She shook her head and added more pudding to her bowl.

"I get the feeling she hates it, too. But she thinks it's important or something." Her face slid into horror.


I patted her shoulder sympathetically. We've all confronted the boring, irrelevant, mystifingly important book -- that hellish goulash of tedious, obvious, obtuse and annoying prose that some well-meaning English teacher has nevertheless decided separates us from the animals. I'd have told Daughter: "Some day, you'll come to appreciate 'Pilgrim's Progress" but I made a promise I would never lie to my child about important matters.

My question to you: If you were Ruler of the Word, what books would you sentence to anonymity? I'm not saying we're going to burn these works; we're not those people. I'm just suggesting that if there was a product that dismayed 99.94% of its potential market, we'd probably stop foisting it upon people. At the very least, we'd have a special list of "This book is chewy and will probably not give you any actual pleasure" titles.  Books on this list might appeal to those people who prefer their triathlons in the driving rain.

So, what's your Beastly Bad Book?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll be the first anonymous to comment. My first thought was Atlas Shrugged, but it was actually an interesting story if you ignored all the mythical economic mumbo jumbo. Second and better contenders are Moby Dick, Beowulf and Canterbury Tales. Bleah.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Kenneth Urban said...

I'd vote for Ulysses by James Joyce.

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atlas Shugged. Its badly written, boring as hell to read, and has had an unhealthy impact on political discourse.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Tammi Kay said...

I chuckled at the above list because my son just read Moby Dick and Beowulf and Canterbury Tales are on the list for the next few months. Perhaps I should rethink?!

11:52 AM  
Anonymous becky c said...

Tess of the D'Urbervilles was torture!

12:14 PM  
Blogger Maria said...

A Farewell to Arms!!!

4:03 PM  
Blogger Mark Moran said...

Well, it comes to mind that some books made great movies, and were improved by the transition: Advise and Consent would be one, and Anatomy of a Murder would be two ...

4:38 PM  
Blogger Heather said...

I heartily second (or third, or fourth) the utter tedium that is Moby Dick. I practically had to toothpick my eyes open to slog through that for freshman English back in high school. *shudder* I am a lifelong bookworm, too, and I usually devour books. That one, though, blech. Page after page after interminable page of whale/whaling descriptions. I will confess I eventually did less *reading* and more *skimming* (though I still pulled off an A on the requisite paper). Ugh. That book could make one hate reading.

To be fair, I've never read Pilgrim's Progress, despite my great fondness for the March sisters. That might outdo Moby. I don't think I care to find out, though.

5:48 PM  
Blogger Kathryn in NZ said...

Samuel Richardson's Clarissa was the first to spring to mind.... Jane Austen's Mysteries of Udolpho is next in; There's others, but those two were required texts in my 2nd year of university.
I liked Canterbury Tales, but then I had a university professor who could read them in the original Middle English and they made way more sense and were much funnier that way.

6:18 PM  
Blogger thelittlefluffycat said...

War and Peace has lived in my ereader a long, long time. It may be in witness protection there - I certainly don't know it.

20, back when he had to read Catcher in high school, complained that the guy was kind of a lazy writer because he used way too many cuss words.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous ginny said...

Well, I was going to mention "The Scarlet Letter," but hey, hot, shirtless preacher flagellating himself...that's better than "Fifty Shades of Grey" right there.

7:00 PM  
Blogger AndyEM said...

With the exception of A Christmas Carol, I confess I find books about Dickens (e.g., Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life) to be better than books by Dickens. Despite all the years in-between, I will never forget how my high school English teacher (a sadist; I still picture him with an arm-band and a monocle) ruined the entire Christmas vacation by assigning Great Expectations. To me, every chapter was a water-boarding session.

7:02 PM  
Anonymous Emily D said...

Last of the Mohicans and Moby Dick - I am an inveterate reader but just could not find any pleasure in either one.

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

loathed loathed loathed A Confederacy of Dunces. Only book I have ever felt compelled to hurl across a room because I despise it that much. sue

7:38 PM  
Anonymous @quirkyviolet said...

William Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" was absolutely horrific-- the writing style was tortuous (let alone the subject material). I somehow escaped high school without having to read Moby Dick, Beowulf, or The Canterbury Tales, but I might have been willing to try all three if I could have skipped the Faulkner!

7:39 PM  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

Moby Dick. I almost fell asleep just typing the words. I ended up just reading the Cliff's Notes and wrote a decent paper, but made the mistake of mentioning within the teacher's hearing that I hadn't read the book. So she failed me for the semester out of spite. To avenge myself, I took the same class at Pali at summer school and got an A+.

8:37 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

I enjoyed very few of the classics, and I have been a bookworm all my life. However, I absolutely adored Confederacy of Dunces. Of course, I haven't read it since it first came out, and I was actually living in New Orleans at the time. So maybe time and distance aren't kind to it?

And that might also have something to do with why I don't like so many of the classics. Maybe I just don't relate. And certainly the language in Canterbury Tales makes it difficult to slog through.

I do enjoy reading historical fiction, but written by modern writers. It's probably all just a matter of taste.

11:05 PM  
Anonymous Robin Raven said...

Definitely Moby Dick. Also The Old Man and the Sea. I like Hemingway, but not that one.

Good question. :)

12:26 AM  
Blogger Alison said...

I'm an English teacher, and I somehow managed to get through my undergrad and graduate years without reading all of Moby Dick and Paradise Lost for a class, but I've read enough of both to know I will never choose to read either one voluntarily (or inflict them on students).

Just a caveat: sometimes high school teachers are constrained by district curriculum, tradition ("the sophomores always read this") and finances ("we already have these novels and no money to buy others") with what we assign. College professors, however, get to choose. At least mine did.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Sandra said...

I know dd would vote for Moby Dick. After reading it while homeschooling she deliberately avoided an English Lit paper at university that would have required her to reread it. Based on her glowing recommendations (not!) I avoided it (and marked her essay based on what I gleaned from Cliffs Notes!) The following year she picked Catch 22 and really liked it. So I felt honour bound to read it ....and hated every single word. Needless to say I have removed it from the list of suggested high school readings for my younger kids. There is no way I'm reading that again.

12:46 PM  
Blogger Joann Mariani said...

I will add my vote to the plethora of Moby Dicks above - it remains the only book I ever read in school that I abandoned after 30 pages and read the Cliffs Notes. (Yes, I am dating myself.) But honorable mention should go to Ethan Frome. I hated it in high school, then tried to re-read it as an adult after I discovered the wonder that is The Age of Innocence and realized Wharton was a genius. But no, Ethan Frome is still Ambien on a page.

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Nancy Songbird said...


1:25 PM  
Anonymous Angela said...

My undergrad degree is in English and I've read pretty much everything people have mentioned (agree on "Moby Dick" and "As I Lay Dying"). Stuff I can't stand: "Mason and Dixon" (Pynchon) and "To the Lighthouse" (Woolf). I've also never been able to finish "Anna Karenina" (Tolstoy), although I like "Crime and Punishment." I do, however, love "A Confederacy of Dunces" and Hemingway in general!

6:15 PM  
Blogger Jo said...

I heartily second Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and would pretty much add Anything By Thomas Hardy Ever to that list.

Having said that, however, and with a genuine respect for differences of literary taste and opinion, I must confess that the comment suggesting "As I Lay Dying" made my Faulkner-loving heart weep.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Jen @ Rolling Through Looneyville said...

Jude the Obscure. I remember hating that book.

6:59 PM  
Blogger Jenny said...

I have to vote for Moby Dick, too. I was an English major, and I love reading "classics." Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which someone else mentioned, is one of my favorite books of all time. I adore Charles Dickens. But Moby Dick? Ugh. I have never managed to get through that book, and I intensely dislike what I did manage to read.

4:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom." I had to read it and write a paper on it for freshman English in college. 25 years later, my daughter was complaining about the terrible book she had to read--and write a paper on--in her freshman English class. The book? "Absalom, Absalom."

5:24 AM  
Blogger Karen Edmisten said...

Moby Dick.
(Bangs head against wall.)
Moby Dick.
I would read Moby Dick Lite (The Old Man and the Sea) twelve times before I would read Moby Dick.

(I can't say "read Moby Dick again" because it's the one book in high school that I was assigned to read but couldn't get through.)

5:55 AM  
Blogger Karen Edmisten said...

And btw, I do like a fair amount of Hemingway. But Old Man and the Sea brings on ugly flashbacks.

5:56 AM  
Anonymous Michele said...

Oh YAYAYAYAY other people hate Moby Dick too. We just had this conversation the other night. And THANK YOU to the anonymous commenter for mentioning A Confederacy of Dunces. I was fairly sure that the point of this book existing was that there was a secret camera recording those who read it to see who last the longest before putting it through the shredder page by page.

6:16 AM  
Blogger ChrisinNY said...

Along with the other English majors here, I had to read a lot of the "Western canon" books. I was going to come up with my usual hated title, "Heart of Darkness" (had to read THREE separate times in college lit classes- blech), but "As I Lay Dying" and Tess of the D'Urbervilles also bring back terrible flahsbacks. I would count the number of pages left to read, read for an eon, then count the pages again- finding there were only 5 less than before. I don't miss those days. I actually tried to find Pilgrim's Progress based on Little Women, but quickly figured out it was not something I'd enjoy.

6:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an English lit undergrad, I, too, read most of the above-referneced books. Moby Dick was excruciating, as is A Room of Her Own, which I tried to read 3x. Tried, as in, after 60 pages, realized that since it was not assigned, I could fling the book out the window and laugh recklessly. Which I did. In my head. (No actual book was harmed; it was donated). Thanks for this post.

6:53 AM  
Anonymous babz said...

Some good choices from the abyss of high school reading - however, the worst book ever written in the English language has got to be Men Are From Mars, Women are from Venus. It should be banned. Eradicated.
I hated Moby Dick and Billy Budd too. In my high school days (back in the 60's) every book we read was a Boy book. No female authors allowed either.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Atlas Shrugged. I felt like it was something I needed to read...I mean, Hello..."Who is John Galt?" I STRUGGLED to finish it. Ugh! Those long, rambling speeches. Some of the premises were interesting and all...but the characters were reprehensible, the whole thing is 5 times longer than it needs to be, and the ending is just stupid...I should have just read the Cliff Notes.

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lord Jim. Old Man and the Sea. Anything by Henry James. Catcher in the Rye. Red Badge of Courage. (But I loved "A Confereracy of Dunces.")

Anonymous because my attempts at logging in never work...Betty

1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anne said...

I hated reading Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness, Typhoon, and Lord Jim) and will never voluntarily read anything by him again. But at least I could read them and they eventually came to an end. My wrath is saved for another book I just couldn't get through: William Thackery's Vanity Fair. I don't even like the brief excerpts in Little Women. It's a good story so I like watching adaptations but his writing...oh his writing.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Marni said...

I'd put Atlas Shrugged on my list too. I ended up just skimming it so I could be done since it was something I chose,rather than was assigned, to read. (go figure...)

I remember struggling with Fathers and Sons by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, when I was in 9th or 10th grade, I think. I just have a memory of endlessly boring small print.

Looking up the title now, I am no more interested in it now than I was then.

I have given thought to trying to read Pilgrim's Progress, simply because L.M. Alcott did, but this post is changing my mind!

PS I have just started your book and am loving it!

4:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those of us who hate "Ethan Frome," please note we are not alone. The first time I watched the film "Grosse Point Blank," I howled with laughter when the John Cusack character asked his old English teacher if she was still inflicting Ethan Frome on her students. That's exactly how I felt in high school!

Maybe it's a guy thing - or maybe because I'm from Massachusetts and spent a lot of time on Nantucket - but I didn't think "Moby Dick" was THAT bad. Sure, you have to skip the chapters dealing entirely with whale guts, but there's a lot of amazing imagery in that novel.

5:06 PM  
Anonymous Nancy said...

Agony, thy name is The Red Badge of Courage. I skimmed a few pages, then gleaned enough details from Cliffs Notes to pull off a sham paper.

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moby Dick, definitely. Unlike some, I actually liked Ethan Frome.

6:06 PM  
Anonymous Amy said...

If I die and wake up in a library filled with books by William Faulkner, I will know that God has created a very personal little hell, just for me.

3:07 PM  
Blogger StevenIre said...

Steven King called Stones of Summer by Dow Mossman a 20th century Moby Dick. Herman Melville in Redburn wrote, “Not till we know, that one grief outweighs ten thousand joys, will we become what Christianity is striving to make us.” Stones of Summer is that literary grief that outweighs ten thousand literary joys. It’s like an antioxidant vegetable—heck, it is antioxidant in your face. The carbon atom in a CO2 molecule gets captured by the carbon in the book which screams, “Take me with you!” And the oxygen breaks off leaving a growing carbon chain. We should print more of these books as a carbon capture devise to alleviate global warming, “So carbon, you like to warm-up things. Well warm up to this book.”

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am rendered speechless. Because I don't have a book to add. Not that I've enjoyed every book I've ever read but that I've only read books I enjoy. Seriously, I have NO idea how I graduated high school. Or college for that matter.

If I didn't love it, I didn't read it. I faked it. (And don't we all sometimes...)

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Walden Pond by Henry David Thoreau. The bane of my 7th grade existence.

5:22 PM  
Blogger Judy said...

Wuthering Heights. I know so many people who claim it as their favorite, but it made me want to jump into the pages, drag the characters out to the moors and leave them there to die just to put them out of their pathetic misery.
The first time I read it I was ill with the flu so thought that maybe my hatred was due to a fevered brow. But I read it again - clothed and in my right mind - and I still hated it. Not just a little bit, but very VERY much.
Have I mentioned that I HATE Wuthering Heights?
Yes. Yes I do.

6:26 PM  
Anonymous Robin Raven said...

Oh, I thought of another one when her name just popped up in my philosophy group. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. I read it when I was in high school and completed uneducated on how awful I now think she is. They have an entire scholarship foundation to try to rope innocent teens like my then self into reading her books by offering scholarships based on writing about her work! Evil, I tell you.

8:35 PM  
Blogger Philip said...

I find it interesting that someone mentioned Beowulf; I would put it on my syllabus in a second if I thought any of my students could handle it (I teach English as a Foreign Language in Japan.)
On the other hand, I thought Walden was one of the most pretentious and self-serving works I'd ever read, and I feel like I took what I felt to be the work's hypocrisy personally. It didn't help that my English teacher thought it was the best thing since magic beans...

5:59 AM  
Anonymous SusannahS said...

"Romeo and Juliet". Stupidest story ever. Romeo was head over heels in love with Juliet's cousin Rosalind until he meets Juliet.
Next thing you know, Rom & Juls have kicked it (and not in a good partying way).
He was fickle (I would use a stronger word but I won't). She was young and naive. Any relationship that ends in multiple deaths is a wee bit toxic.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Well, my first husband died while reading Moby Dick so I am sure it deserves to be on the list. I would not punish myself so.

Confederacy of Dunces is the book I require all men dating my daughters to read. I can tell quite a bit about them from their responses. And, obviously, if they won't read it they are just not deserving.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

20-ish years ago, I won a full ride to college for my 500 words on a subject I felt strongly about: the poor selection of "literature" on high school reading lists. I found a copy recently when I was doing some cleaning. My disdain for Daisy Miller (possibly the stupidest book ever written) and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch are still with me, and please don't even get me started on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Even the class suck up read the Cliffs Notes on that one. Ugh.
Seriously, do the teachers/districts think "I had to read this, you'll read it, too"?

11:08 AM  
Anonymous dinazad said...

I heartily second Richardson's Clarissa. And "Mysteries of Udolpho". But, Kathryn in NZ, you've besmirched Jane Austen's name. Udolpho is by Ann Radcliffe (and terribly boring).

7:22 AM  
Blogger Miss Cavendish said...

I adore The Canterbury Tales; in fact, I loved it so much that I went to graduate school to study it more. But then grad school picked it apart too much, so I switched centuries. A colleague once told me that Scarlet Letter is much better if you skip The Custom House (oh, sacrilege!), so I teach my students to embroider that day. Truly, Mohicans gets harder to teach/read, unless you're really in to the various "crossings" it addresses.

But mind-numbingly dull? It's not a novel or story, but it's anthologized and revered: William Bradford's narrative of "planting" a colony.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sister Carrie is a the tip top of my list. I am pretty sure that my 8th grade AP English teacher was in love with the idea that he somehow could step into the story and "save" her somehow. Yuck! To add insult to injury, had to read it again in college. Oddly that class also was taught by a male??????

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had a college prof who was a Moby Dick expert, and he made the book interesting, so I liked it.

I loved Confederacy of Dunces. I was in Mexico going to language school, and my room was on the top floor of the house. I know the family heard me laughing out loud while reading it.

The Ambassadors by Henry James is the one I'd permanently ban. I remember trying to finish it the night before we'd have a quiz on it, and at 2 in the morning, fighting to stay awake. I gave up and next day, found somebody with Cliff's Notes so I could read the ending. I don't remember ever going back and finishing it. BORING.

I tried to read Ulysses by James Joyce, but failed miserably. It was very controversial when it was first published, but I don't know how anybody read enough of it to know why.

While teaching Freshman Comp in college, we teaching assistants had to inflict stuff on the students like Hobbes' The Leviathan and some other horrible, boring writing that had been personally approved by William Bennett. Also, A Clockwork Orange, which the guys loved and the girls (including me) hated.

I loved just about anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I think Hemingway was overrated.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Didn't like Pilgrim's Progress? hmmm...I guess you have to "get it" to like it!

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished your book, Quinn- much fun and helped me sort out my thinking a bit about homeschooling and my daughter. Not that I have An Answer but I feel better. As to my least favorite book inflicted on me, I would say that would have to be Lord of the Flies in seventh and eighth grade. Like the Write Girl, I generally didn't read anything I didn't like- well, not all the way. I wasn't a cliff notes girl, rather I read all the interesting dialog and the last chapter. Which, gave me a grade that placed me exactly where I wanted to be in class, hiding out not seeming too smart. But I actually read Lord of the Flies all the way through because C. Morrison did it several times as a book report and I was totally enraptured with her ability to come up instantly with accurate historical facts about the Russian aristocracy. So I felt there must be Something To It. I now suspect she just read it once and re-used the report- but perhaps I have become too jaded. I remember liking Moby Dick but... did I just read the dialog? Did it have dialog? I can't remember. On the other hand, Normal Rockwell once said if a picture wasn't turning out right he just put a dog in it. For me it's boats. I am embarrassed at how many times I have watched that post-apocalypse ocean movie with Kevin Costner (fast forwarding over the fight scenes) just so I can see him play with his trimaran. I liked The Old Man and the Sea, Moby Dick, the poem Oh Captain, my Captain (I'm quite sure I didn't get that it was a metaphor), Mutiny on the Bounty, that novel about fishing in the Gulf, the one with the Portuguese sailor (played in the movie adaption by someone I should know but can't remember), and the song "Mary Ellen Carter" always makes me cry. (Yes, sad to say but I cried at all the Mighty Duck endings too). I can tell you some of the books I skipped, Clockwork Orange, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Catch 22. Laura Ingalls Wilder gave me nightmares for years (the part about the black panther almost catching her grandfather), I do not need help with my over active imagination. I manage to go swimming in lakes only by imagining there are Mermen down there fighting off the sharks. Yes, I do "know" there are no sharks in fresh water lakes in Maine. I also skipped Tess of the D'Ubervilles, I loved the Canterbury Tales- especially the Wife of Bath, and I had to stop reading Gone With the Wind because I found myself starting to act like Scarlett. Uggh. But I liked Wuthering Heights and the protagonists in that were pretty awful too. Stranger in A Strange Land was the first time I absolutely adored a novel assigned in English class. My mother captured the love of reading for me by reading only one chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe each night until it was done. Waiting was complete torture.

4:29 AM  
Anonymous MK Ray said...

Hemmingway is indeed WAY over-rated. In a way that makes me angry. I also do not get why anyone likes JRR Tolkein. I have tried and tried. Then I watched the first Lord of the Rings movie and I still don't get it.

9:18 PM  

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