What’s the worst book you’ve ever read?
I was thinking about some of my favourite books, across different genres and the fiction/non-fiction divide. It’s relatively easy to pick favourite books from my past: my long-term memory has binned most of the mediocre stuff, and left me with the works which most resonated with me. As a teenager, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods was up there; before that, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy kicked off an enduring love for the genre he practically created. Neither work is hugely compelling to me now, partly the result of over-familiarity and partly due to change in my personal tastes and reading habits. They might not be the best books I’ve ever read, but they’re undeniably important to me.
This is the all-in-one edition of The Lord of the Rings I first read at 10 years old. I skipped over all the Elven poetry parts. I still do.
I find non-fiction even harder to judge as works of writing. An interesting non-fiction subject can carry average writing, and even the greatest prose-smith is going to struggle to keep me interested in a history of rural gardening tools. It’s interesting, and perhaps telling, that the two non-fiction texts which stand largest in my mind’s eye are war journals: Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and Philip Caputo’s A Rumour of War. They’re both excellently-crafted pieces; particularly Dispatches, written by a journalist at the top of his game and the inspiration for practically any Vietnam film you might care to name.
Michael Herr: one of the best and most courageous writers of all time.
Great books. The best books I’ve read? Maybe. It’s hard to tell. What about the worst book I’ve ever read?
That’s even harder.
I can think of some appallingly bad writing, including some works of fiction which have become bestsellers through the strength of their concept and the power of marketing. I don’t want to name names here for a few reasons. One is that I’ve no particular interest in upsetting anyone, either writers or their fans. Another reason is that I couldn’t vouch for any book I found truly awful as being the worst, because I never finish them. Why would I? I think they’re awful.
More importantly, books that make us cringe do at least fulfil one basic quality of art. They inspire a reaction; not a good reaction, sure, but better than nothing. For me, the worst book ever would have to be one which was borderline readable – readable enough to finish – but which left no lasting impression. This might apply more to fiction than non-fiction, but maybe not: even a school textbook can inspire reactions and create memories if it’s well-written; and if it’s not memorable at all, then it’s not fit for purpose.
This post isn’t a call to write badly; but it is a call to take risks. As a recovering academic I still write too many long and overwrought sentences. Sometimes my writing comes out flat – informative, but not compelling. Not the kind of stuff to create a lasting impression, in other words. It’s something I’m aware of and working on, but it’s sometimes tempting to fall back into the overwrought declaratives of my early career (there I go again).
Maybe it’s better to be remembered as falling short than to not be remembered at all.
Is boring worse than crappy? What’s the worst book you’ve ever read? Let me know in the comments.