Imagine my delight when, purely by accident, I came upon a Wikipedia entry called “List of books considered the worst,” with the explanation, “The books listed below have been cited by many notable critics in varying media sources as being among the worst books ever written.” [Their emphasis.] The list includes only books written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and I’ve put below just the former, eliminating all the snark and explanation that makes each entry hilarious. I did leave in the entire entry for A. N. Wilson’s dreadful book on Darwin, because, to my extra delight, I found they quoted me (my original review was in the Washington Post, not Dawn).
I couldn’t really make my own list of the worst books ever written, because if I find that a book doesn’t engage me, or is poorly written, I don’t finish it. But there is one book I’ve read that is a glaring omission from the list below: a book whose prose is truly awful, and yet became a best-seller and a popular movie. I don’t have it at hand, but here’s Coyne’s choice for the worst fiction book of the 20th century:
The Bridges of Madison County (Robert James Waller, 1992). I can’t remember when I read this rancid crock of tripe, but it was similar to the circumstances in which I read The Da Vinci Code: I was in a house where there was only one book to read. I need to read like a tiger needs meat, so I read that one. (I used to read the cereal boxes at breakfast when I was a kid.) All I can remember is that the prose was absolutely awful: a rank amateur attempting a love story.
I can’t remember quotes, but, by God, I found ten from someone who really LOVED the book. Here’s just one:
The leopard swept over her, again and again and yet again, like a long prairie wind, and rolling beneath him, she rode on that wind like some temple virgin towards the sweet, compliant fires marking the soft curve of oblivion.
Oy! And a few quotes from Goodreads:
“It’s clear to me now that I have been moving toward you and you toward me for a long time. Though neither of us was aware of the other before we met, there was a kind of mindless certainty bumming blithely along beneath our ignorance that ensured we would come together. Like two solitary birds flying the great prairies by celestial reckoning, all of these years and lifetimes we have been moving toward one another.
. . . . “It already smells good,” he said, pointing toward the stove. “It smells… quiet.” He looked at her.
“Quiet? Could something smell quiet” She was thinking about the phrase, asking herself. He was right. After the pork chops and steaks and roasts she cooked for the family, this was quiet cooking. No violence involved anywhere down the food chain, except maybe for pulling up the vegetables. The stew cooked quietly and smelled quiet.”
. . . “He was an animal. A graceful, hard, male animal who did nothing overtly to dominate her yet dominated her completely, in the exact way she wanted that to happen at this moment.”
. . . “The human heart has a way of making itself large again even after it’s been broken into a million pieces.”
The thing is, I read the book after I saw the 1995 movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring him and Meryl Streep as the star-crossed lovers. I thought that the movie was very good, and the performances convincing. It was in fact a tearjerker, and once in my life I even experienced a cars-going-opposite-ways-at-an-intersection parting similar to that below when, in the pouring rain, Robert’s truck goes right and Francesca, in the car with her husband, goes left. (It was a scene that was filmed magnificently.) Imagine, then, my depression when I read the book, and found it was infinitely worse than the movie. (Movies from books are usually worse than the source.) Whoever turned that steaming dung pile of a book into a screenplay—and the acting of course was a major plus—did a magnificent job.
Here’s the parting, which always breaks my heart. This is the last time they see each other:
Anyway, the book sucks big time.
Here’s Wikipedia’s list for the last 120 years. Do add your own, or, if you’ve read any of the books below, feel free to agree or disagree.
- The Lair of the White Worm (Bram Stoker, 1911)
- Mein Kampf (Adolf Hitler, 1925)
- Dildo Cay (Nelson Hayes, 1939)
- Across the River and into the Trees (Ernest Hemingway, 1950)
- Valley of the Dolls (Jacqueline Susann, 1966):
- Naked Came the Stranger (various authors, 1969)
- The Eye of Argon (Jim Theis, 1970)
- Worlds of Power: Metal Gear (Alexander Frost, 1990):
- Dazzle (Judith Krantz, 1990):
- Borderliners (Peter Høeg, 1993)
- The Jam: Our Story (Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton, 1994)
- Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth’s Last Days (Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, 1995)
- The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown, 2003)
- Fan-Tan (Marlon Brando and Donald Cammell, 2005)
- Atlanta Nights (various authors, 2005)
- Twilight novel series (Stephenie Meyer, 2005–2008)
- American Vertigo: Traveling America in the Footsteps of Tocqueville (Bernard-Henri Lévy, 2006)
- Life in the Fast Lane: The Johnson Guide to Cars (Boris Johnson, 2007)
- Fifty Shades of Grey (E. L. James, 2011)
- Save the Pearls: Revealing Eden (Victoria Foyt, 2012)
- Field Guide To Chicks Of The United States (Joe Bovino, 2012
- Die Abenteuer des Stefón Rudel (Stefan Knapp, 2012)
- List of the Lost (Morrissey, 2015)
- Charles Darwin: Victorian Mythmaker (A. N. Wilson, 2017): a biography of biologist Charles Darwin with an anti-evolution viewpoint. Jerry Coyne, writing in Dawn, called it “The worst book about Charles Darwin ever written” and “a grossly inaccurate and partisan attack on both Darwin and evolution.” The Guardian and New Scientist also gave it extremely negative reviews.
- Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff (Sean Penn, 2018)
- The Mister (E. L. James, 2019)
To end the day, my next post will be my choice of the worst rock songs of all time.
184 thoughts on “The worst books ever written”
Should I be proud or embarrassed that I’ve not read anything on the list?
Proud Joe, proud! 🤓
Bloody hell – cannot type my bloody email on iphone!!!
I recall that the review of “The Bridges of Madison County” in The New York Times was one of the most excoriating things I have ever read. I just went to the paper’s website to find the review but had no luck. If you can find it, you’re in for a treat.
This may be the review you are referring to.
And that is a VERY CHARITABLE review!
I just realised, I was confusing that with The Horse Whisperer!
Was that a book as well??? Holy heck.
OH! It’s spelled ‘h-o-r-s-e.! I thought it was about a guy with a sore throat.
I always thought it was a modernised version of Francis the Talking Mule.
Just like you say, if I can’t get ‘into’ a book, I just put it down. So I can’t bring one to mind.
But I will enjoy visiting here later today to see what others put up. It’ll be fun, like it is oddly fun to share a bad smell with friends.
Nothing by Judith Butler?
Not C19th or C20th but ‘The Divine Comedy’ and ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ are well worth giving a swerve. Boring, clunky and wearying analogies.
Don Quixote has the honor of being the only book I’ve ever hurled across a room. It’s the same story told over and over, interspersed with some of the worst poetry ever written. I only finished it, because I couldn’t leave books unfinished back then. Infinite Jest cured that compulsion for me.
Oh, I loved DQ. I thought it was really funny. I was about 18.
As is DFW’s IF.
… er, IJ.
I’m reading it now, and was expecting it to be dull. I find it hilarious as well, personally.
Have you ever tried reading the full, un-abridged version of Moby Dick?
Oh, man. That was tough to get through. Some great moments, of course, especially when I recognized what Khan was paraphrasing in Star Trek II. But, wow.
In Philip Roth’s great American novel entitled The Great American Novel, there’s a scene in which a fictional Ernest Hemingway goes sport fishing with the narrator — a sportswriter name o’ “Smitty” — and a literature major from Vassar (whom the fictional Hemingway refers to as “a Lteratoor major” and addresses simply as “Vassar”).
While fishing, they get into a discussion of the contenders for the title of “Great American Novel.” Hemingway dismiss all his competitors with a line or two. When Vassar brings up Moby Dick, the fictional Papa calls it a hundred pages of good novel, another hundred pages about how handy darkies are with harpoons, and three hundred pages of whale blubber, with a madman thrown in for excitement. 🙂
That sounds about right. The madman WAS exciting, at least.
Come on, all you Moby Dick critics. Were you not entertained by an entire chapter on all the symbolism in “white?” I read that one about a hundred years ago in college – and didn’t mind it at all then. Mostly because of the madman and the opening line. “Call me Ishmael.” Never wanted to wade thru it a second time though. Too many good books stacked up – and many with madmen.
Read MB twice when I was young, loved it and totally ignored any symbolsim (I’ve always been irritated by symbolism – just say what you want to say, don’t make me work for it). I loved any book about sailing and the sea. I couldn’t stomach it now, knowing what I know about whales.
Coel, everyone loves a good analogy but 600 pages of it is pushing it: no jokes either. I’m not too clear on how expositions of fishing-net repair techniques are life lessons. But hey-ho, I was young when I read MD.
Other dishonourable mentions for analogy-marathons, authors who think one good idea can last the reader’s lifetime. Philo and Justin Martyr: the tradition of exegetes who babble “and-another-thing-about this-Bible-passage-this-is-what-it-really-means”. Matthew’s gospel is the same, but at least it’s pretty short.
I love, though, Justin’s ‘Dialogue with Trypho’, the Jew: as Justin riffs away on “Socrates-he-was-a-Christian-‘n’-all” you can feel Trypho’s unspoken scepticism. “B*ll*cks”, is what I always think Trypho is thinking.
“analogy-marathons” — I think the label for those is “allegory,” mate. 🙂
I was too generous, Ken: analogy-Ironmans. What do you think about MD, Coel? I’m nowhere near as anti-it as I make out. I’m at work, hence the Farmer Palmer grouchiness. Btw., hear-hear on Bleak House’s brilliance: start of Our Mutual Friend is as good as the one in Great Expectations; great river myth-making, like Ray Davies and Springsteen.
I hate that book so.
I feel that way about Moby Dick and anything by Charles Dickens.
I’ve tried about three books by Dickens (including one which I think was on the “required reading” list for Eng.Lit.) and the only one I finished was Xmas Carol. After #3 or 4, I just ignored the “Complete Works” occupying the second-to-top bookshelf. Britannica, seven shelves down, was much more of a page-turner.
You can say we had Great Expectations.
Or that you find them all as interminable as Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. 🙂
Dickens can be erratic, but Bleak House is his masterpiece.
It is. I’m a Dickens fan; I was just pulling Diana’s chain a bit.
Love Dickens, and loved Alun Armstrong as growly Mr.Bucket. Bleak House has so many great characters.
Yes, that’s what I figured. The other Dickens I’ve read are Oliver Twist, Barnaby Rudge, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and Our Mutual Friend—all were good, but not on the level of Bleak House. OMF was even something of a disappointment, since it postdates BH. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to reading his other major works.
Good luck with that, Revelator. I read all his novels about 10 years ago: one of the best things I ever did. Dickens obviously loved being alive.
Bleak Expectorations, shurely? Ed
I can’t believe I’m reading this! I’m not saying Dante isn’t challenging, but that is the point,…..so many layers of meaning, so profound.
“I can’t believe I’m reading this!” is exactly what I thought when I entered the seventh circle of hell with Dante, Jane. At least when Frost found a divide in the road in the wood, he had the good sense to keep it short. As for Dante’s OCD rhyming scheme, thank goodness I didn’t read it in Italian.
For me, Dante sounds out but does not reach a depth I cannot fathom. Tertullian kept it nice and brief gloating over the joy he anticipated when watching from heaven the tortures of the damned. Dante thought pornographic fantasy the material for an epic, meanwhile taking swipes at his political enemies, and seeking our sympathy for the unexplained unrequitedness of his hots for Beatrice. It is difficult to warm to the bloke: too many words and a filthy imagination.
My taste runs to the briefer analogy: let the reader do the work. Homer’s pathetic Priam begging his son’s murderer, “I kiss the hand of the man who killed my son”. Beowulf’s bird flying through the mead-hall springs to mind. As does the deer evisceration scene in ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, the stand-out passage in all the epic poems I’ve seen.
The Da Vinci Code is the only book on the list that I’ve read. Ken Russell made a film of The Lair of the White Worm in his typically bonkers style – it stars a young Hugh Grant and is pretty hilarious (although not necessarily intentionally)! https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lair_of_the_White_Worm_(film)
You beat me to it!
Ditto … I did not think it was that bad. Fairly typical of the genre.
The two worst bools I have read:
The Case for Christ Lee Strobel … lies all the way down
and the worst:
The Number of the Beast … Robert Heinlein … I remember my paperback copy had 555 pages. I remember turning page 500 and thinking I don’t care how the book ends and put it down.
Heinlein can be annoying. I remember finding some of his stuff crappy and I therefore haven’t really read a lot of his stuff.
As a sixteen year old, Stranger in a Strange Land was interesting. The other bits and pieces I have read were OK.
I’m five novels away from finishing all of Heinlein (I’ve already read all the short fiction). Can’t say he’s my favorite, but I do want to know what he wrote, as it influenced so much that came after. However, I just finished Podkayne of Mars, and it was the worst. I mean, a teenager smuggling a pocket nuke on board a spaceship?? Must say, though, that I’m really looking forward to “Job: A Comedy of Justice,” as I once read the first chapter, and loved it, and I know the book is a parody of religion.
The two science fiction series I liked the most recently were Hyperion and The Expanse. I also like the Bobiverse series and the Murderbot series. I don’t know if you’ve read any of those. I like how The Expanse is more realistic about space travel especially under exceleration.
Diana, as always, your taste is exquisite (that means, of course, that it agrees with mine! 😉 — the Expanse and the Hyperion quartet are my first and second favorite SF series ever. Haven’t read the other two.
I will be beginning the 4th Expanse book soon. I have even read the short novellas.
Yeah, by the time he got to “Number” he was getting pretty tediously repetitive. I read it once and never bothered to pick it up again.
“Tediously repetitive” is *exactly* the right term for Number of the Beast. A shame, too, as it could have been a very interesting book. It really reads like he was just being lazy.
The “Pile them high and sell them quick” school of business, applied to words.
I’m quite fond of Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion and of his adaptations of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love and Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon (under the title The Devils).
It was really fun film – I have fond memories watching it numerous times on TV growing up. The worst books would surely be the ghost-written celebrity memoirs, the Fox news ‘let me tell you how it is and how to fix it’ screeds etc. The Bernard Henri Levy travelogue was decent enough – overwrought but not badly written
I could list a bunch, but the one I was most disappointed in reading was the Bourne Identity. The movie was so much better, it’s hard to imagine how they were related. The book was unbelievably boring.
I think the most dreadful fiction I ever read was The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.
“Out of the Silent Planet” was also awful.
The sequels to OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET were no better, especially THAT HIDEOUS STRENGTH, openly misogynistic.
I read The Lair of the White Worm in the 80s – it was made into a terrible film with Hugh Grant.
I cannot recall thinking it any good at all. Just avoid these. There are plenty of other awful books.
I have read a number of stinkers, usually all the way through, for the Fiction Lab at the Royal Institution, books that are Lablit with scientists as characters. Most recent rubbish was Sophie Ward’s Love & Other Thought Experiments. Praised highly, but I detested it.
There are many many terrible thrillers. Hard to write a good one.
The Bridges of Madison County IS the absolutely worst book that I have ever read in its entirety. Who in the world believes the woman’s daughter would be thrilled and happy to discover documentation of her late Mother cuckolding her Dad. The protagonist (with his ripped abs) is an irresponsible male fantasy. He gets to sing in the sunshine, love ‘em and leave ‘em, take the sleeping bag rolled up behind the couch – and move on, leaving the woman to treasure his memory. All this is justified because the steady, hard-working, taking care of business husband is kinda taciturn and maybe a little boring (or tired?) What a total crock!
Someone handed me a Danielle Steele novel way back, but the writing was so godawful that I couldn’t finish a chapter.
As for the Bridges movie – the taint of the book interfered with my objective view of it – ripped abs or not.
You would have liked the movie more had you seen it before you read the book, as I did.
I “heard” the book on tape, read by the author, before seeing the movie (it included a horrible song by the author at the end). Friends had convinced my wife that it was worth a listen, so we bought the tapes and listened during a road trip. Neither of us was impressed, and I had to be cajoled pretty hard to go see the movie, but the facts of cast and the director convinced me.
I agree with you that it was actually a very good movie, largely because of the two leads and the directing. I think Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep each have a hard time making anything TOO bad, and together they were excellent. But my wife fell asleep (she did that often in movies, even Indiana Jones ones, and she was a huge fan of Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones). I agree with you that usually movies are not as good as the books, but it this case it was vastly better.
Certainly, the works of Mark, Lenin, and Stalin need to be on these lists. And Freud.
I thought you were going to say Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
Hey, if you’ve read one Mark, you’ve read ’em all.
Mark the Gospeller trumps Mark Twain?
No way. Even the Mark that wrote with Freddie Engles beats the gospel guy. 🙂
And in the case of Marx I guess there are two 🤣
I haven’t read The DaVinci Code, and have no desire to do so, but I did once attempt to teach Dan Brown how to waltz in the basement of the Math building at Phillips Exeter where I was attending a Math conference Dan’s dad was running. More than 20 years ago, while young Dan was still in college, I believe.
Great anecdote! 👍
If only he had tripped in just the right way…
Musta been a good dancer, if he’s anywhere near as light on his feet as he is lightweight in his prose. 🙂
I also read Mein Kampf. It was hard to read but I felt I needed to read it to try to get some insight (not sure if understanding would apply) to Hitler and his followers. I visited Auschwitz in 1986 and read Mein Kampf in 1988. I also have watched Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” twice. It is a great piece of filmmaking but terrible to watch when you keep in mind what it led to.
I am still uncomfortable with Germany and Germans. I was at the abbey atop Monte Cassino ln Italy. I have an uncle who is buried in the Polish cemetery there. I met a Pole whose father fought in the battle and we went off the road and up the mountain to the abbey following the route of attack the Polish II Corps took. We were on our hands and knees, grabbing the grass to pull us along. Not far from the top, we stopped and had a toast. He had Spirytus (95% alcohol) which he blended with a tea based concoction. When we got to the top, the abbey was full of German tourists. I felt such rage, I needed to get a better understanding. In 1900, Germany was on its way to being the dominant economic power in Europe. Pretty much what it is now. A center of culture, art and science. How could they go so far off the deep end.
Yes… I’ve visited Germany about 7 times, loved it, but I understand exactly what you mean. I had a German girlfriend whose great uncles were killed late in the war somewhere in Poland I seem to recall, apparently still convinced of the war’s justification. Anyone who visited one of the many memorialised ruined villages destroyed by Nazi reprisals will get the picture. I saw the one in Crete in the mountains, in the mid 80s, & noted how many tourists in Greece were German. But I cannot blame young Germans.
I DO get angry at how the wartime generation of manufacturers were allowed to rebuild their industries that exploited the blood of slave labour & fully endorsed the Nazis.
I understand and sympathize fully how you and Dom feel about Germany and Germans. One could spend a lifetime studying the specifics as to what happened in that country in the 1930s and 1940s. The historical circumstances were perfect to allow the unleashing of extreme horror. But, it was the circumstances, not anything inherent in Germans that allowed what happened. Such horrors were not uncommon in human history. In other words, there is nothing in human nature that would prevent similar events to take place in the future. Pinker has argued that over time violence has diminished. I am not qualified to determine the accuracy of his statistics, but assuming they are true, what do they mean? Aside from being an interesting factoid, I think very little. Life as we know it can change in a flash as the pandemic demonstrates. I see nothing to indicate that we should dismiss the fear that sometime in the relatively near future a madman, either as a state actor or terrorist, will arise that could dramatically change the world in an instant using weapons of mass destruction. Science and technology have provided the means for this to happen. There is little that people of good will can do to prevent it.
Lots of Germans lost members of their families in Monte Casino too.
Certainly the holocaust is unparalleled in human history and the species will never recover from it. But in defence of modern Germany, I must say that I don’t any other country in the world has tried as earnestly as Germany to face up to their history. I say that as an Australian who has lived in Germany for 20 years.
And the country could recover so quickly was not merely because of its economy but also its prior cultural achievements. It was world leader in a dozen or more areas of culture and science.
I see Hemingway’s 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees made the list — and, yeah, it’s pretty dreadful. But Papa wrote a terrific short story on a similar theme way back in the mid-1920s, “Soldier’s Home.” The first few pages of it could be torn from the New Journalism of 40 years hence, and, except for the technology back home, the tale could be describing the homecoming experiences of GIs returning from Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan.
Hemingway’s writing from that era has an undeniable power. And I’ve long thought that had he merely STFU about his “code” and his “iceberg method” and knocked of the cattiness toward other writers in non-fiction like Green Hills of Africa and A Moveable Feast — if he had simply eschewed publicity and personal detail and let the writing speak for itself the way, say, a Thomas Pynchon does today — his prose would’ve maintained their mystique and be all the more esteemed even now.
I’m pleased to say that with the exception of Mein Kampf (to those of us who took a Germany between the wars symposium it was required reading) I haven’t wasted my time with any of these. I don’t think that relates to my good taste as much as to my sheer luck.
The Bernard-Henry Lévy book listing is interesting. Wikipedia is evidently taking the NYT review by Garrison Keilor, described in various places as ‘scathing’, as their basis (and perhaps allowing their de facto anti-Israel and I’d say anti-Semitism to help guide their choice, since B-HL is an ardent Zionist whose damning critique of French sociopolitical attitudes and practice, _The French Ideology_, offers a savage indictment of an attitude towards Jews that both the NYT and Wikipedia arguably share). But no less formidable an adversary than Christopher Hitchens published a reply which devastatingly outscathed Keilor, and argued that Lévy’s book was well worth reading (and that Keilor’s stuff is, largely, NOT). You can access the NYT review—it is, unaccountably, *not* behind a paywall)—and Hitchens’ piece is avalable at https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2006/02/in-defense-of-bernard-henri-levy.html.
I have read the Da Vinci code, and the Twilight novel series. Since Twilight is aimed at teenagers, I assume it makes the list because of it’s popularity. On the other hand, I’m surprised that nothing by L. Ron Hubbard is on the list. I haven’t read any, but I assume that the movie Battlefield Earth had to come from a very bad novel.
As for my picks of bad writing, although I am an avid reader, some of the books I had to read in high school were terrible in my opinion. Perhaps age changes ones perspective on this, however I hated all of the Margaret Lawrence books (basically all about a girl growing up on the Prairie and having a miserable life), The Loved One (something about a funeral home, I literally kept losing interest every few pages, and couldn’t maintain my concentration. I can’t think of any other book this has happened to me with), and the short story The Kid Who Fractioned (a single mother has an idiot savant child that she thinks is a genius, but compared to every other character in the story, he is). I really don’t understand why they made us read such horrible books (other than for Canadian content in the case of Margaret) in high school, instead of trying to foster a love of reading. Twilight would have been better…
I actually liked a Margaret Laurence book I had to read in high school but the one book I read in Canadian Lit in university I will forever hate is Susanna Moody’s Roughing it in the Bush. Boring. But I also hate all the prairie books set in the depression. We get it. It was dusty.
We had to read “The Stone Angel” in grade 11 – my aunt gave me her copy of the book the summer before school started and I read it and enjoyed it. But then we had to analyze it to death in English class and I ended up hating it. I’m a voracious reader but high school turned me off of the study of literature.
Yeah it was Stone Angel I read and I think I had to write an essay about it so we didn’t overanalyze it. I was such an anorexic in high school that I was so exhausted I couldn’t get through a lot of the reading very easily and I don’t remember a lot of what we read. I do remember that though.
What impressed me at the time was how much a book about an elderly woman appealed to a (closeted gay) teenaged boy. Maybe I should go back and try to re-read it … unfortunately I gave it away to my sister when she went through the same high school course.
Yeah I actually think of that book often because the perspective of the elderly woman was so well done that it also appealed to me as a 17 year old female that was so far away from old age.
Well done you for thriving, Diana. And I mean that.
“The Loved One” is a satirical novella and rather savage about America. It is also one of the funniest,laugh-out-loud books I’ve ever read. The names alone should give the game away… I re-read it every couple of years. Waugh is also a terrific writer and prose-stylist,especially in his shorter,comic novels.. Here,have a faintly grudging,contemporary review from an impeccable and possibly slightly offended source: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/05/04/reviews/waugh-loved.html you’re welcome 😉
Waugh’s Scoop was terrific (book and movie).
Yes. The funniest-and sunniest- of them all.
I was surprised to find “Borderliners” on the list. Peter Høeg’s first novel, “History of Danish Dreams” is
wonderful, and “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” isn’t bad. “Borderliners” suffers mainly in comparison to these two, but surely doesn’t belong in the same category as Madison County, Valley of the Dolls, etc. etc.
I happen to know a novel which makes even these last two look almost good. It was a sci-fi mishmash, the title and author of which my memory has mercifully blotted out. The plot had a failed Microbiology grad student constructing a deadly virus to get back at his PhD advisor, a fiendish virago inclined toward bondage SM sex. The author may have been himself a failed Microbiology student, and he mixed garbled misinformation on the subject (such as the “Pasture Institute” in Paris) with a style of trash-novel clichés that flew hilariously beyond parody. I made fun of it in an internet magazine review, about which we received a thank-you note from the editor who had endured struggling with the book and its author.
Meryl Streep has a knack for getting good movies out of bad books. The Devil Wears Prada is another. (I was on a cruise ship with nothing else to read.)
That was a good movie, with great performances not only by La Streep, but by The Tooch himself, Stanley Tucci — though you couldn’t pay me to read the novel.
Wait!!!!!! How dare it include “The Lair of the White Worm”, which in 1988 Ken Russell turned into a movie with, among others, Hugh Grant.
Here is the trailer (beware: there is female nudity.):
I actually enjoyed the movie but then I’ve always liked Ken Russell’s bonkers films.
Naked Came the Stranger was actually a fraud perpetrated by a bunch of Newsday reporters. Each reporter wrote a different chapter, with instructions to make it execrable. A sister, I think, of one of the reporters posed as the author. Unbelievably, they found a publisher. Having for many years delivered Newsday to several dozen subscribers, I thought it my duty to read the book. It was easily as bad as intended. The person who signed the book said he liked it. It is the only book on the list that I have read, but at least I have an excuse. All I remember, except for one of the characters, Rabbi Joshua Turnbull.
A group of acclaimed South Florida writers — including Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry — did a take-off on that project, Naked Came the Manatee, in which they each took a turn writing a chapter.
It was serialized in The Miami Herald Sunday magazine back in the Nineties, and it came out pretty goddam entertaining, if I do say so.
I remember this as being a deliberately awful pastiche of an erotic novel. It was kind of funny in a stupid way. The book was about a woman who was a radio personality (as was her husband) who discovered that her husband was having an affair. She decided to get her revenge by having relations with a whole bunch of different men. Each chapter in the book was by a different author who documented each sordid episode.
I read The Lair of the White Worm while in college after having read Dracula. While Dracula was quite a good book, the Lair was not.
Yes, that sounds about right – I’d forgotten the motivation for the “sordid episodes.”
The book probably differs from the Barry-Hiassen book, which I have never before heard of, in that Manatee sounds like a deliberate satire, with the multiple authorship clear at the outset. Stranger, by contrast, was a hoax, though I think they never really expected to get it published. I agree with “stupid,” but I remember only a little “funny.”
Yes, Manatee was a pastiche of a hoax; its title, an homage to the original.
I have a special relationship with the spine of Hemingway’s “Over the River and into the Trees”. The headboard of my bed when I was a child was a bookcase, and a first edition of that book was right at my eye level. It had a particular pattern that I can still call to mind without difficulty 60 years later (I might add that it was next to the 14 volumes of EH Carr’s monumental “History of Soviet Russia”, the spine of which was a rather boring green and cream). As I learned to read, I was able to decipher the title of the Hemingway novel. I eventually read it probably aged 10 or 11 and was hugely disappointed, having just read and enjoyed “The Old Man and the Sea”.
Foucault’s Pendulum sticks out in my mind, if only because it was the first book I read that I voluntarily gave up before the end.
The Da Vinci Code is a terrible book in literary terms, but I’m going to defend it on two counts
1. it’s a page turner. I started it one afternoon and didn’t stop until I’d finished it in the early hours of the next morning. Other people I know have had similar experiences.
2. have it on good authority (viz. my brother) that some of the other books in the series are even worse (I haven’t read any of them, but he has). Any list of the worst books that has the Da Vinci Code on it but not Angels and Demons is really not trying.
On the subject of film adaptations being generally worse than the book, I think there are enough exceptions to make this questionable. Some examples where I’ve seen the film and read the book and the film was better are:
Jaws (perhaps prejudice on my part – the film ends better for Richard Dreyfuss)
Jurassic Park (the plot is much more focussed in the film and the book’s ending just peters out)
Bladerunner/Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
I’ll add to your list Das Boot — pretty much my favorite film ever. Not so the book! After 600 pages I scarcely knew more about the characters than when they were first introduced. Not too many authors could accomplish that!
I quite enjoyed the book, but you are right, the film is a masterpiece.
Yes, I support those statements. I’d add that the assassin character was genuinely well written and I assert would count that aspect of the book as genuinely belonging to literature rather than cheap fiction. All the other characters are cardboard cut-outs.
I enjoyed the book The Godfather, but have to agree completely with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I expected the book to be great, written by a sci-fi legend of sorts, but it was so much less sophisticated and interesting than the movie…even the version with the voice-over.
I did enjoy the Godfather. It’s just that the film is better. In fact I didn’t hate any of the books on the list.
I enjoyed The Godfather novel, too, since I’ve got a thing for pulp. (Matter of fact, I’m jonesing for some just thinking about it.)
But ain’t nobody gonna mistake Puzo for Proust or Tolstoy or Flaubert. 🙂
Yeah because they are so different. I actually really like the book and it’s classic Phillip K Dick with his drug induced paranoia about identity and his standard anti-heroes.
It seems that with many of his books and stories that are made into movies, the latter depart very far from the original, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
Agreed. Couldn’t finish DADOES.
I think Bladerunner and Electric Sheep are really so different the movie is hardly acceptable as a adaptation of the book. There is no mention of mercerism or the mood machines or even kipple. They are both good on their own though.
I would add The Shining to your list.
Inferior novels frequently lend themselves to adaptation as better films (while great novels do so only rarely), since the action tends to lie on the surface, freeing the filmmaker to add his or her own subtext, rather than trying futilely to chase after the author’s. A leading example is Mario Puzo’s pulpy The Godfather, which Francis Ford Coppola made into a masterpiece — two masterpieces actually (and one so-so sequel).
They made a pretty good movie out of Sophie’s Choice, which was a damned fine novel.
Oh, there are exceptions. My choice for great novel adapted to great movie would be the Burgess-to-Kubrick A Clockwork Orange.
The Pasternak-to-Lean Doctor Zhivago ain’t too shabby, either.
I beg to differ. The novel is very poorly written, in my opinion.
Does that opinion extend to Styron’s other writing?
For a long time I’ve had a list that I once downloaded and have used as a touchstone for the worst 100 books of the 20th century. Unfortunately, I just went to the URL, and the page is no longer there. I’ll post it if Jerry doesn’t mind (it’s a bit long). It’s divided into sections, including Evil (Mein Kampf), Obnoxious (How ’bout that! The first book listed in that category is The Bridges of Madison County), Trash (Valley of the Dolls, and, drum roll please, The Art of the Deal, by some halfwit whose name I’ve forgotten), Overrated (first one listed there is Ulysses; don’t shoot, I’m only the messenger), Delusional and others. Fairly amusing. I’ll be happy to e-mail it to anyone who contacts me off-list.
How would we contact you off list?
I’m kind of under the impression that there’s some way to determine this (after all, I have to type in my e-mail to be allowed to post), but in case I’m wrong (wouldn’t be the first time ;-)), mark joseph 125 at gmail dot com (with removing the spaces and the obvious changes).
Valley of the Dolls is just kinda trashy. It’s probably best remembered today for the film adaptation, which provided the breakout role for Sharon Tate (Mrs. Roman Polanski, a victim of the Manson Family murders).
Its author, Jacqueline Susann, always struck me as a kinda Harold Robbins wannabe (although Robbins could also write a decent novel when he set his mind to it, like A Stone for Danny Fisher).
Shamefully, I’ve read The Da Vinci Code (I went through a phase in my younger years of reading and loving Dan Brown stuff…cringe!) and Twilight. There, I’ve confessed. Forgive me! In fairness, formulaic and barmy and terribly written as they were, Brown’s books were (cheaply) thrilling.
(I can’t muster even such a faint defence of Twilight, though.)
Stephen King famously (and apparently apocryphally) really dissed the Twilight books as compared to Harry Potter. I’ve read the latter (multiple times) but not the former, so I couldn’t weigh in, but they seemed vapid from a distance.
Yes, I remember that story! He said something like ‘the difference between Meyer and Rowling is that Rowling is a good writer’ (if indeed he said anything at all?). I’d agree, having read both.
I sort of see Twilight as Grease with vampires. The girl gives up all that she is to be with the guy and hang out with his pals.
That’s a great point of view. I actually kind of enjoy Grease…maybe someone should do a musical of Twilight.
Oh my. I did watch some of the Twilight movies for some reason and hated them but kept coming back for more.
The wife ploughed through some Dan Brown thing about polar bears and icebergs a few years ago while I was doing a 4-weeker (became 13 weeks) on a Korean rig, and I found the Da Vinci Code as almost the only English language book in the rec room’s library, so I ploughed through that and we laughed at Dan Brown together over Skype.
Far more interesting than the books themselves.
I read a couple of them. I found it funny how the main character is so obviously Dan Brown’s fantasy self, yet is still an absurd cardboard cut-out of a character with no emotional depth whatsoever.
I think your analysis is more sophisticated than the source material supports. The critical equivalent of citing a 1 in 7 chance to 15 significant digits.
How could they have left off Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged? — a book about which Dorothy Parker is reported to have quipped, “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” If one has the strength to do so, I would add, given its 1,168 pages.
I’ve read it. I can understand many people’s animosity, though I don’t quite share it; I enjoyed some parts of it. It’s easier if you think of it as sci-fi. A lot of the dialogue does make it very clear that English was not her first language. (David Mamet’s dialogue sometimes reminds me of it a little). And it IS very lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnng.
Alas the quote is a misattribution.
Also, nobody knows which book it was about.
Well, one good quote is worth a dozen non-apocryphal ones. 🙂
One of Parker’s non-apocryphal quotes I like. While on her honeymoon, she heard her publisher wanted to know why her scheduled work had not been submitted. She said “Tell him I’ve been too fucking busy—or vice versa.”
Or when she was told Calvin Coolidge had died.
“How can they tell?”
Oh ye ghods!, that one was “put me to sleep” reading on a land rig in Russia. I can’t remember how far I got into it – it’s one of those things that leaves you unable to remember the previous page by mid-point on the succeeding page. The only book on the rig which wasn’t written in a Cyrillic script.
Fortunately, tick-borne encephalitis got me medivacced back to the field hospital before I was anywhere near the end.
Put to that Hobson’s choice, I’d opt for the Cyrillic (unless, perhaps, there was some cyanide aboard the rig). 🙂
Well, you could have tried going to wrestle the bear that had fallen into the shit pit. Someone got an expensive rug out of that. And someone else had to tie a chain round the poor be-bulleted beast’s leg and clean the pelt.
“Fortunately, tick-borne encephalitis got me medivacced back to the field hospital before I was anywhere near the end.”
I count that as the second worst book review in history. (The worst of course being the one Rushdie got from the Ayatollah.)
It was a pretty freaky summer at work. Followed by a caving and rafting holiday in the Urals.
Looking up stuff about the A.N. Wilson book, I saw that he responded to some of the criticism with the following:
‘The intemperate responses from some, not all, scientists suggest something weird is going on, as if one has taken away their comfort blanket or, dare one say, their God. Obviously the only way for reasonable people to decide is to buy my book and make up their own minds!’
Wow, what a stinging riposte…
I offer a different category… books that start off well but subsequent books in the series (a red flag there) become less and less attractive until you give up on the whole series.
Loved Dune by Frank Herbert but subsequent books in the series just didn’t engage me. Eye of the World (book one in the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) started off well but got very samey later on.
The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower series, Stephen King)… just gave up.
I’ve heard that the same is true with Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” 12-book series; only the first one is good, but I haven’t read it.
Like many people, I’ve read (and loved) Dune, but have not read farther, primarily due to everyone insisting that the rest of the books aren’t very good.
Heretics is Dune is good. Children of Dune is meh. Think of it like the Alien franchise. Alien is good, Aliens is good, after that don’t do it.
The adaptation of Dune turned out to be David Lynch’s worst film.
God Emperor Dune pretty much jumped the shark. After that one I couldn’t stand any of it.
Same category for the Thomas Covenant “The Unbeliever” trilogy of trilogies – recommended by a flatmate at university, the first book was good enough to find the second and third in the library. But the descent was steady. I didn’t finish the nonology (?).
Donaldson – that was the guy’s name. Steven Initial Donaldson.
Ye ghods – he got to volume 10. I pity the poor copy-editor at the publisher.
I know the ending’s a bit ambiguous, but I assumed he died in For Whom the Bell Tolls. 🙂
It seems to me that, much as with a list of the 100 *best* books of the 20th century, much depends on the definition of “worst”. I’ve had this discussion often with my book-loving friends, and it seems to me that “best” books admits of at least four definitions–most popular, most critically-acclaimed, most influential, and “books that I, personally, liked the most”. Similarly, “worst” books could mean (off the top of my head), evil, stupid, badly-written, boring, or “books that I, personally, disliked the most” (there’s always someone who claims not to have liked Bleak House, or 1984, etc.); I’m sure there are other possible criteria. And, in our time of virtue signaling, woke asshattery, and cancel culture, I’m certain that some people would label a book “worst” on the basis of “takes a philosophical position with which I disagree”.
That said, and given that I try to avoid known evil and/or stupid books, my “worst” list is primarily co-extensive with my list of most boring or ludicrous books; I have the unfortunate compulsion to finish every book I start. There are five that stand out (almost all of my fiction reading is science fiction and fantasy):
Slan, by A. E. Van Vogt (supposed to be a classic, but actually an unreadable bit of pulp nonsense)
The Girl in the Golden Atom, by Ray Cummings (good first line; rest of the book is stomach-turning melange of nonsense and sentimentality).
The Night Land, by William Hope Hodgson (600 pages of the same thing over and over; the *most boring* book ever, but see below)
OK, these three at least had the excuse of being pulp fiction. The next one, published in 2014, does not:
The Bees, by Laline Paull (bad biology, bad sociology, bad psychology, and bad writing; there were exactly five good words in the book: “I read flowers, not scripture”. The rest of it was, well, bad).
And, not from the 20th century? Why, the koran, of course. Page for page as boring as any book ever; saved from the ignominy of being the most boring book of all time simple because it is 200 pages shorter than The Night Land.
I’ve read quite a lot of spiritual books, so I’m way out in front with books far worse than about 90% of that list.
The worst written, (I’m embarrassed to even type this) is Mutant Message Down Under, by Marlo Morgan (self published, 1991). Morgan didn’t have an editor or a proof reader, and has sentences that simply stop without getting anywhere, information that is repeated several times on the same page,and a great deal of information that is irrelevant to everything on planet earth. She claimed to have visited Australia and met an Aboriginal tribe that had never contacted “white people” before. She claimed it was all true, but got every single detail of Aboriginal life and even Australian geography and landscape hilariously wrong. It would have been laughable had she not claimed that her tribe were the last “true” Aborigines — the “urbanised” ones have lost their essence and their supernatural powers — and have fulfilled their earth mission and chosen now to die out voluntarily. Real Aborigines who are glad and proud to have survived and think they still have something to live for have told her to retract it, but she refused. Her book is translated into 30 languages and is by far the most widely read book on Australian Aborigines. As one Aborigine put it: “The book should be pulped to make new paper for people to write sensible things on.”
The worst in terms of content: The Biology of Belief, Dr Bruce Lipton. I wrote a series of blogposts correcting the factual errors about biology in this book, which wound up taking several years and running to 80 posts. No one has managed to get more wrong about biology than Lipton. No one. Not even Duane Gish. And Lipton’s argument is that you can use the mind to cure cancer. A deadly dangerous cancer quack.
The worst in terms of instantly destroying the universe if it were to become true: The Power, by Rhonda Byrne. The woman behind The Secret. She claimed that “like attracts like” is demonstrated by magnetism, and that the law of attraction is gravity, and gravity is love, and that this force is the strongest force in the universe. Which would make the entire universe instantly collapse on itself.
It could’ve been worse — there was almost a Hollywood film of Mutant Message — a script had been written and Meryl Streep was considering the lead role. A group of Aborigines saved the world from this horror by simply turning up unannounced in Hollywood and talking to a few people.
Apart from a few pages of the Left Behind book, which I dipped into at the local library long enough to convince me not to read any more, I’ve read none of these.
Your first quotation – leopard/prairie wind/fires – from Bridges is utterly amazing – how could any author or editor write or read this and not notice the problems arising from the scrambled imagery and somewhat contradictory prepositions on top of the hyperbolic sensations, anti-climaxing into the vague and rather abstract ‘soft curve of oblivion? The simple ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ looks good in comparison.
The worst book I ever finished was a self-published SF novel titled Alpha Centauri by an “author” whose name I have mercifully forgotten. I came across it while browsing the shelves in the Harold Washington library (the 1990s was my Chicago Decade). It was written by somone who had probably never read a real SF novel or story in his life, and I’m sure that PCC(E) would find it execrable for its treatment of evolution. It posited that the process of evolution on a planet four light years distant would exactly follow the same pattern as on Earth, but be behind us by about a hundred million years. I finished it just out of curiosity to see if the rest of the book was as execrable as the first few chapters. It was. When I returned it, I recommended to a librarian that it would best be used to level a wobbly table. I have noted that the title no longer appears in the Chicago Public Library catalogue.
Some SF is god awful on the science side. There were several I read in a 4th year genre course ans I was dismayed and angry that my peers couldn’t see how bad and stupid the science was.
I have a horrible feeling that I have encountered that self-same self-published guff. I even think I’ve got a digital copy somewhere, so I could find the authors name if you wanted. I’m not keen on delving back into it for check though.
If I recall correctly, the author prowled sci.geology and was almost a sock-puppet for the resident “Expanding Earth” wingnut. His geology was as bad as his information theory. If I’m remembering correctly.
Mark Twain famously described The Book of Mormon as “chloroform in print” & he was 100% correct
Most predictable title for a book:
The Science Delusion, by Rupert Sheldrake (where he accuses scientists of making up the whole of modern physics and biology);
The Science Delusion by Curtis White, (in which he accuses Hitchens of lying but fails to say what the lies were); and
The Science Delusion by Peter Willberg (which I haven’t read, and won’t).
Fools seldom differ.
I know Joseph Conrad is highly rated but I’ve always found his prose leaden and clunky – we had to read “Heart of Darkness” in high school and I struggled to get through it. I’ve gone back since then and not been able to get past the first few pages.
I’ve read a few of Dostoyevsky’s novels but I couldn’t make it through “The Brothers Karamazov” – it got too religious for me.
William S Burroughs is also highly rated but I couldn’t make it through “Naked Lunch”, after having seen the (awful) 1991 film.
I devoured Stephen King’s novels when I was a teenager but having gone back recently and read (“11.22.63”) and reread (“The Shining”) some of them, it strikes me as before that he’s a good storyteller but not a very good writer. The prose is flat and unimaginative.
re Dostoyevsky’s novels, I have heard it said of ‘Crime and Punishment’ that the crime was writing it, and the punishment is reading it. I must admit that I have not read it.
That was the first of his novels I read, and better than the others that I read.
In the 1990s there was a modest cottage industry of book length parodies of other books which included “The Ditches of Edison County” and “The Philistine Prophecy” (a parody of “The Celestine Prophecy”). There was the highly pornographic “Kiss My Left Behind”. Simultaneously parodying the men’s movement books “Iron John” and “Fire in the Belly” was “Fire in the John”
The Da Vinci code has the modest distinction of having the highest movie quality to book quality ratio in film history. The prose style of the book is bad, and while parts of it are simply wild speculation, other parts are demonstrably false. (It’s account of the origin of the Nicene Creed is definitely false, as is its view of the right wing Catholic organization Opus Dei.) However, the film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard is terrific.
I don’t see what Bram Stoker’s “Lair of the White Worm” is doing here. It was made into a fairly bad movie by Ken Russell who did his best work in his young years. The book isn’t Stoker’s best work, but it isn’t terrible.
One example I liked was Jonathon Livingston Trafalgar Square Pigeon.
Being without a book of one’s own is a scary situation, but sometimes you can get lucky, too. It’s happened often enough to me that when I’m staying with friends now, sometimes I’ll put aside whatever I’m reading, pluck a book from their shelves almost at random — a book I’ve heard of but don’t know much about, or even simply a book with an interesting title — and dive in reading.
It’s how I first encountered Chomsky (at an in-law’s rental cottage on Chincoteague Island).
Dan Brown’s books and all the police procedural and spy novels are in a different category: bad books that are entertaining. It is the ‘good books” that are not good that we should identify. For me it is The Poisonwood Bible which is full of fake accents and the cardinal sin of too much dialogue, period. I found the Da Vinco code hilarious and much more entertaining. As for nonfiction, Judith Butler definitely gets the prize but she has heavy competition from the other post modernists like Donna Haraway. However, these latter writers will enliven up a party if you read them out loud. (Butler got the award for Worst Writing some years back). These faux feminists keep churning out their purple prose ceaselessly. (Da Vinci Code is the only book on the list that I have read).
Ten years ago I started working with some people in Sweden and decided to learn the language. I never really read police procedural novels but “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was very popular then, so I bought and read all the books in Swedish. The story is entertaining but the writing is rather bland and repetitive – perfect if you’re a language learner. Unfortunately I got hooked on Swedish crime novels and moved on to Håkan Nesser and Leif GW Persson, who are much more difficult to read (but much more interesting than Stieg Larsson!)
I agree authors should generally avoid eye dialect, at least unless they have an excellent ear for it. How much dialogue constitutes “a cardinal sin,” OTOH, is open to question.
I love Richard Price’s novels and they’re dialogue-heavy. Elmore Leonard’s, too. Leonard is essentially a pulp writer, but his dialogue (like Price’s) is so crisp, so accurately captures the rhythms and cadences of actual human speech, that’s it’s been a major influence even on belles lettres authors. His “10 Rules of Writing” is essential reading for anyone interested in the topic.
Nobody can beat ol’ Elmore with dialogue.
I’m surprised no-one has yet mentioned the christian bible – in particular the KJV. It has it all; incoherent unbelievable plotting, outrageous falsehoods masquerading as truth, worst ever translation from another language, incredible prolixity and utterly boring.
Moby Dick: gave up on it when at chapter 27 they still haven’t left the dock at New Bedford.
Is any one here old enough to remember an execrably childish novel called “the Harrad experiment”?
I was amused to see a book by Boris Johnson on PCC(E)’s list of shame. Our buffoon of a Prime Minister likes to imagine himself as a Churchill for the 21st century, and even wrote a biography of his hero. That book was reviewed by the distinguished historian Professor Sir Richard Evans, who likened it to “being cornered in the Drones Club and harangued for hours by Bertie Wooster”. Prof Evans’s review is one of the most entertaining slap-downs that you will ever read:
I have read THE DA VINCI CODE…..the first problem is the title, it should be called THE LEONARDO CODE.
Holes, by some author or the other. It was required reading, and it was boring. Can’t quite understand what the point was.
The worst book I’ve ever read (though certainly not the worst ever written) is Dune by Frank Herbert. (I’m excluding from consideration various creationist tracts I’ve read as a matter of professional study.)
While we will have to agree to disagree about Dune, I was wondering a little bit why no one had mentioned trash like “The Genesis Flood,” “Evolution: The Fossils Say No,” and “Darwin’s Black Box” among others. In the bad old days I read all of these, and many more as well 🙁
Its film adaptation also accounts for the worst entry in David Lynch’s cinematic canon.
Lynch’s film adaptation does have a certain camp value. In what other venue could you find yourself rooting for Sting to kill Muad’dib?
” when you’re supposed to ponder your mortality. For me that is every day.”
Now, now. Easy there fella.
I do not know how it would feel like to read just any book anywhere. Thank God for the internet, I can choose what I want to read and buy it. Not to sound mean, but I would like to add this book to the list:
‘Too Big for the Princess.” I have read my fair share of erotica but this one…