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)
- 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.