The great books Spectator writers and others hate

21 December 2012

10:00 AM

21 December 2012

10:00 AM

Find out which books PD James, Sam Leith, Susan Hill, Mark Amory, Barry Humphries and many more hate, then tell us about yours in the comments section.

Craig Brown

Which classic work do you think this comes from? ‘Her teeth were white in her brown face and her skin and her eyes were the same golden tawny brown. She had high cheek-bones, merry eyes and a straight mouth with full lips. Her hair was the golden brown of a grain field that has been burned dark in the sun but it was cut short all over her head so that it was but little longer than the fur on a beaver pelt.’ Jeffrey Archer? Jackie Collins? Lee Child? I’ll give you one more clue.

After another 150 pages, the hero finally gets to roll in the heather with the brown-skinned, brown-eyed, brown-haired woman with the straight mouth and the hair like a beaver pelt, ‘and all his life he would remember the curve of her throat with her head pushed back into the heather roots and her lips that moved smally and by themselves’.

Well, my lips move smally and by themselves, and I imagine yours do, too, unless you’re the dog (‘Oh, yuss!’) on the Churchill insurance ad, but it’s not something we boast about. The writer is, in fact, Ernest Hemingway, and the book For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s described on the cover, by the Observer, as ‘one of the greatest novels which our troubled age will produce’ but it strikes me as soapy old tosh.

Susan Hill

It could easily have been War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov but I plan to have another bash at those so I’m keeping them in reserve. Since I was 18 I have been told I should read Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu by people who knew all seven volumes by heart and loved every line. You cannot, it seems, be lukewarm about Proust. Knowing that love of it is a badge of honour, and mark of a finely attuned and appreciative literary mind, I have tried eversomany times to get beyond Book One. Indeed, I have probably read Book One more often than I have read Great Expectations, which is saying something. I have even plucked Volume Three or Seven, off the shelf and tried to start there, so please don’t judge me, or tell me I haven’t given it a chance. It’s no good. I find the endless sentences distancing, the people without interest. I cannot care about upper-class French people of the 19th century. Mea culpa, of course. My loss too. But if I have not managed to find the key by the age of 70, I guess I never will. I am denied any enjoyment of Proust’s great novel and there it is. I tried to find one word to sum up how it seems to me. The word is ‘anaemic’.

Quentin Letts

At the Daily Telegraph in the late 1980s we were told on no account to be rude about the novelist Anthony Powell. The old monster wrote for our books pages and was touchy. Bron Waugh duly ignored the rule, savaging Powell magnificently. Powell never again put quill pen to paper for the Telegraph, even though the paper commissioned a bronze bust of him to say sorry. Intrigued by this haughty behaviour, I thought, ‘Gosh, his books must be good.’ I tried The Acceptance World, volume three of A Dance to the Music of Time. I made it to page 46. Later I tried it a second time, but the description of a dank Bayswater hotel and some mad uncle sent me to sleep two evenings in succession. Recently I tried it for the third time. Zzzzzzz. I can’t recall what Bron wrote about Powell but I bet he was right.

Jonathan Meades

If you can’t get beyond half a dozen pages of On The Road at the age of 18 it’s unlikely that you will later in life. I have, however, on a couple of occasions punished myself by pressing on and coming to the benevolent conclusion that it must possess some sort of sociological importance that is extra-literary. ‘It defines a generation’ — that sort of tosh. Of course it doesn’t. Like all of the beats, with the exception of Burroughs, Jack Kerouac was an artless, undisciplined, unfunny solipsist wrapped in a mantle of cosy outsiderness, comforting self-pity and snug alienation.

Florence King

My literary aversion is such an offence against the civilising grain that I need to be placed in the US government’s Witness Protection Program, where they stash you in some hidden location so that the people who disagree with you can’t find you and kill you. In a word, I hate Jane Austen. Trying to read her novels reminds me of putting up with the girls at school who were always yammering about who was dating whom, who was about to get engaged, and what the upset fathers intended to do about it. My aversion to Austen proves that I’m not feminine, which, of course, is the great tragedy of my life. However, I can atone at least partially by announcing that I am the modern reader who saved Charles Reade’s bacon: I adored The Cloister and the Hearth. Every word of it.

A.N. Wilson

I have read Don Quixote only quite recently. It is one of those books you think you must have read long ago, and maybe you have dipped into the famously ‘hilarious’ moments, such as when he tilts at the windmill. And of course, you know that all picaresque novels since have their origins in Cervantes’ original. I am bound to say I was very, very disappointed by reading it through properly. It is a one-joke book, and it goes on for hundreds of pages.


The joke is that a silly old man keeps mistaking events and characters around him, because inside his head, he is living in the romances of Amadis de Gaul. Great amusement is had, both by characters in the book who take delight in mocking, tricking and deriding the silly old man; and by the author, who plainly expects us to join in the sadism. I found the character of Sancho Panza terribly disappointing, too. Not nearly as rich as, say, Sam Weller, who is plainly based on him.

How do I explain the fact that Don Quixote is regarded as one of the great novels of the world? First, it appeared when there were almost no other novels to read, and it sustained many inventive and amusing readers, such as Dickens and Gogol, who made much better books than it. Once it was established as a ‘classic’, I suspect that generation upon generation never really read Don Quixote. Or perhaps there really have been millions of readers, over the last four centuries, who have thought it was brilliantly funny to laugh at repetitive jokes about a deluded old dunderhead as he made his confused journey through Spain.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Some years ago a question about overrated books was asked by one of the Sunday papers, and the respondents included the great John Bayley, the critic and sometime professor at Oxford. He said that when he was an undergraduate there just after the war, the fashion among the literary elite was to say that The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford was the greatest of all modernist works, ‘the only French novel in English’, and whatnot. Being as susceptible to fashionable opinion as most of us were at that age, he repeated all this, when the truth was that he hadn’t read it, and couldn’t read it, however often he tried, although it’s quite a short book. But he persevered and one day, after many years and many attempts, he finally got to the end. And then he couldn’t work out what had happened, or see the point of the book at all, or begin to understand why people claimed to admire it. On reading which, I wanted to embrace Professor Bayley, since that was exactly my experience, in every particular. As to Parade’s End, don’t get me started. In fact I could get started, or at any rate much further, and when it was being televised recently I felt a pang of pity for old ladies I saw buying the fat paperback in the local supermarket. They’re in for some grim evenings, thought I.

Miriam Gross

It’s an abysmally shameful admission, but I’ve never been able to read an entire novel by Charles Dickens. I mean ‘read’ because I’ve listened to most of the novels (on audio-books) and thought them marvellous — every bit as brilliant, inventive, moving, insightful as everyone says. But when it comes to reading them, the multitude of asides and digressions soon defeats my staying powers. On page two of David Copperfield, the narrator talks about ‘meandering’; ‘Not to meander myself, at present…’, he writes. It’s precisely this meandering quality that I find indigestible — not helped by the occasional jocularity of tone and the lapses into sentimentality. These qualities, when the novels are read aloud, are subsumed by Dickens’s greatness. So, as far as I’m concerned, his fiction works for the outer, rather than the inner ear.

Barry Humphries

‘They’re making hay under the Andes…’ It’s the only line I know from Moby-Dick and I may not even have quoted it correctly. But somehow, I have never managed to read all of that book. It is not as though I don’t admire Herman Melville, and Bartleby is one of the finest stories I have ever read. But I always have trouble with the book about the whale. I suppose nautical books in general have never appealed to me and I certainly never understood the fuss about Patrick O’Brian, whose books seem as phony as his Irish lineage. I must have read bits of Moby-Dick to remember that evocative quotation, and undoubtedly Starbuck is a great fictional creation I should have got to know, but his name is now irrevocably associated with that ubiquitous purveyor of hot brown water.

Sam Leith

The great writer I can’t stand is D.H. Lawrence. I should qualify that: I love Lawrence’s lyric poetry. If only he’d never ventured into fiction. Clumping, pompous, sentimental, entirely without a sense of humour — a very bad thing in any writer, a sign of being false to the world — and terribly repetitive. And as for all that guff about ‘the untamed Pan’! I can’t get through more than a couple of pages without wanting to dig him up and — as Mark Twain unimprovably put it of Jane Austen — beat him over the skull with his own shinbone.

Here’s a sentence cut and pasted, honestly at random, from St Mawr (his famous novella about an erection inadequately disguised as a horse): ‘Lou, who had strayed into the yard to see, looked so much younger and so many thousand of years older than her mother, as she stood in her wisp-like diffidence, the clusters of grape-like bobbed hair hanging beside her face, with its fresh colouring and its ancient weariness, her slightly squinting eyes, that were so disillusioned they were becoming faunlike.’

That’s not a sentence so much as a series of extra clauses tacked onto the arse of a declaration, isn’t it? And what is he getting at with the ‘grape-like hair’? Do eyes get disillusioned? And how do they start to resemble fauns when they do so: does the upper eyelid resemble a man and the lower lid a goat’s bum? No. It’s just bollocks.

Michael Burleigh

Nowadays I chuck rubbish history books after a couple of pages, but sometimes one has to persevere, regardless of mood. It’s the awful weight of superfluous detail, and the inconsequence of it all. Oddvar Hoidal’s Quisling: A Study of Treason (Norwegian University Press) was a real pain. I can vividly recall that, like the Terminator, he kept getting up again. After I thought, with his arrest, on p. 714, ‘that’s it’, my heart sank when I turned over and there was ‘Imprisonment, Trial and Execution’. Then the ‘Epilogue’, with the, to me, horrible prospect, in the final sentence on p. 777, ‘Quisling is still very much alive (in the nation’s consciousness)’. I have hidden this book, so I will never have to re-read it.

Christopher Howse

I haven’t read most books, among them Crime and Punishment. I don’t know any Russian, and translations soon bring me up short. ‘I’ve learned to chatter this last month, lying for days together in my den thinking… of Jack the Giant-killer,’ says Raskolnikov on the first page. Did Dostoevsky mention Jack the Giant-killer, or was it some other tale, familiar in Russia? Would Dostoevsky really have expressed things in the language used? I stop reading and turn to something else.

Jeremy Clarke

The 900-page Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell begins like this: ‘The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.’ Not bad, eh? Can’t you just see, hear, feel, smell and taste that image? Read no further. Seriously. It’s as good as it gets. Quit while you’re ahead. If you don’t believe me, go into a charity shop, any one will do, and you’ll find a cheap copy right there on the bookshelves. There always is one. You’ll find it just to the left of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Learn a language instead would be my advice.

Mark Amory

The most forbidding great novel seemed to me to be Ulysses. Unemployed, I treated it as work, three hours every morning. Also a critical study to explain to me what I had just read. I am a slow reader. It took weeks. I don’t say the book is a fake or a trick but I got amazingly little out of the experience: the surface was what I liked best, the atmosphere in an Irish pub. My critical work told me of parodies of writers I did not know, references and parallels I had missed, not just by the dozen but by the hundred. It was all very depressing. This happened almost 50 years ago and I have never got up the will or the energy to have another go.

Susannah Herbert

I cannot be doing with À la recherche du temps perdu. I used to attempt it once a decade or so. You have to read it all in one go or you lose interest — so any episode which stops you in your tracks is a great nuisance as you then don’t pick it up for another ten years, or more. And that means starting at the beginning. Again. Last century, I came undone in Sodom and Gomorrah: Baron Charlus has a quick knee-trembler with the valet Jupien which Proust describes — interminably — in terms of a bee pollinating a flower. It’s clearly a seminal tour de force etc etc. But I remember thinking David Attenborough does bees better.

Moving swiftly on, the once-revered novels I tried recently to read again, only for my eyes to roll back lifeless into their sockets, are David Copperfield and Wuthering Heights. The opening chapter of DC is an encyclopaedia entry on the history and significance of cauls. But really, who cares about cauls when the Murdstones, Micawber and Uriah Heep are in the wings? Press delete, Mr Dickens, make it snappy. As for Emily Bronte, the sexiness of Heathcliff is much overplayed. He needs a good bath.

P.D. James

I know that The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James is regarded as a masterpiece, but I find the heroine, Isabel Archer, so irritating that I can never read the book with any pleasure. Isabel comes to England from Albany, New York, to stay with her maternal aunt, Lydia Touchett, and her rich husband, and meets her cousin, Ralph. She has proposals of marriage from the highly eligible Lord Warburton, and by an American, Caspar Goodwood, heir to a Boston fortune, whom she loves. Her uncle dies and, at the request of Ralph, leaves Isabel a fortune. With the world and its possibilities open to her, she rejects both suitors and, under the influence of Madame Merle, marries the egotistical poseur Gilbert Osmond, unaware that Madame Merle was Osmond’s mistress and is the mother of his child, Pansy, whom Isabel befriends.

As any intelligent woman could have foreseen, the marriage is deeply unhappy, especially when Ralph is dying and Osmond refuses Isabel permission to leave Rome to visit him. She learns the truth about Pansy and Madame Merle, and surely this should enable her, as a wealthy and independent woman, to leave Osmond, taking Pansy with her. Instead the ending is irritatingly ambiguous. Isabel rejects Goodwood and is obviously about to return to Osmond. Whether this is because she is a masochist, has an inflated view of the responsibilities of marriage, or has promised Pansy she will return, is never made clear. Perhaps she has some deeper plan to free herself. Despite the novel’s brilliance, I have never been able greatly to care. Osmond is a sadistic dilettante, Madame Merle is so obviously devious that for me the heroine, whom I am expected to admire, seems almost wilfully gullible. Why were Victorian novelists, particularly the men, so ready to portray women as victims?

Gary Shteyngart

I never finished the Henry James thing that was set in Boston. It had a name that’s on the tip of my tongue. The Bostoners? Boston Me Up? Meet the Bostons? Argh.

Compiled by Digby Warde-Aldam.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Your thought is
    useful and nice.

  • lansdowne8

    I do recall liking the opening of Moby Dick and then finding it what followed boring beyond belief. One has to be in the right frame of mind for a book just as anything else. I loved Wuthering Heights which I consumed in one rainy, windy, cold day of youth. I have never been able to return to it with any pleasure. The same goes for The Magus.

    Miriam Gross’s remark about Dickens needing to be heard rather than read is usefully instructive. A French friend told me something similar about Proust. I have enjoyed the first two volumes of Remembrance of Things Past but fell off the perch in the third, several tomes before Susannah Herbert’s Sodom and Gomorrah. Dickens and even Proust wrote when books were read aloud in the evenings.

    The list reminds of Fifty Great Books We Can Do Without, compiled by Brigid Brophy, her husband Michael Levey and Charles Osborne in the heady Sixties. But while such monuments as Hamlet and the Brontës proved unassailable, the three would-be literary iconoclasts are largely forgotten. If books have survived over decades and centuries, there must be something worthwhile in them.

    I should rather list some authors, often admired in their day, and yet remaining now in an undeserved limbo, neither entirely forgotten nor promoted to classics. My list would be Compton Mackenzie, Maurice Baring, William Gerhardie and Osbert Sitwell’s autobiography.

  • Spondulicks

    Christopher Howse asks whether Dostoevsky actually mentions Jack the Giant-killer in Crime and Punishment. I’ve found a parallel Russian-English text on the net, and it seems that the reference is to Tsar Gorokh (=Tsar Pea). Wikipedia says ‘Appellations to this name are used in a number of expressions as a reference to times immemorial, such as “during the times of Tsar Pea”. It is used in some preambles of Russian fairy tales . In common speech it often bears an ironical sense, as an indication to unbelievable or obsolete circumstances.’

    So it looks as if Mr Howse is right to mistrust his translations. However, unless he is multilingual — and his unwillingness to learn Russian would seem to suggest otherwise — reading books only in their original language would be quite limiting.

  • kidmugsy

    It’s unfair to say that all of Dickens is tripe. But all the Dickens I’ve tried is tripe except A Tale of Two Cities. All the Hemingway I’ve tried is awful but at least it teaches that Hemingway was genuinely bogus.

  • Eddie

    I agree with Florence, and to quote Twain:

    ‘any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen’

    I would add Virginia Woolf to the exclusions too: The Waves is dreadful and unreadable – but is always praised as a groundbreaking poetic novel.
    Having said that, I also dislike Henry James and DH Lawrence (the novels anyway).
    Dickens, of yes. And George Eliot (except the awful Middlemarch).

  • Raman_Indian123

    Craig Brown can’t have read very far into “For Whom the Bell Tolls” if he dismisses it because of the one very serious defect it admittedly has – the rotten 150 or so pages blighted by the love affair between the hero and the girl Maria. No serious person doubts Hemingway fouled up badly in that instance.
    He was usually very bad when he wrote about women and “love” and he seems to have felt compelled to write about them because this was what a novelist had to do and he could not leave them out even if, truly speaking, they had no natural place in the action.
    But Brown ought to be aware there are 300 more pages to that book and they are about much more serious things and are very well done, in a way only a masterly writer and observer could have managed it. Hemingway says much about the high mountainous country in Spain, the way it looked and smelt, how the air was and the sky. He tells us about the Civil War, the way the military talked and what they expected and how things went – usually very badly.
    He was not a political man, one is told, and yet when he describes Stalin’s agents of the Communist International at work killing any republican who dared to be independent or seemed to their paranoia a threat, it is very effective. One cannot forget the pages in which the Comintern agent modelled on the savage Stalinist French Communist Andre Marty almost succeeded in having executed an emissary sent by the novel’s hero with vital information from behind the lines. It will tell future generations what Stalinist political paranoia was like.
    There are many fine pages in the book smelling of dust and leather and sweat and bad wine and high ideals in the course of betrayal. Who can forget the chapter in which Andres has to get through barbed wire entanglements to the Republican side at a point defended by anarchists and the anarchists are calmly debating in his hearing whether they should shoot him?
    So, freinds, ignore Mr Brown and read the book – only taking care to skip the bits about the “love” affair.
    So get serious, Mr Brown, and do not

  • Raman_Indian123

    If this be the quality of literary judgement of The Spectator’s writers, then that explains why its fare is so poor. Not read “Crime and Punishment”, that most thrilling of novels, so
    frightening in one place – where Svidrigailov seems about to murder Sonia – that I had to stop reading from sheer funk……A novel with a ruthlessly conservative message at that!

  • Raman_Indian123

    Authors I loathe and despise (so-called great ones)?
    Henry James. Cardboard writing about the pointless.
    Jane Austen. Petty gossip.
    The Brontes: discard pronto.
    Most of Nabokov: Clever rubbish
    Emil Zola: Hideous animality spoils even “Germinal”
    Goethe: His novels stink. His poetry is heavenly.
    A lot of Twain: puerile
    Walter Scott, Fenimore Cooper: Juvenile
    Faulkner: Dreary, unreadable white-trash pomposity
    A lot of Steinbeck: Sloppy when he was sometimes great
    Hugo: Often boring
    Jack London: Sometimes trite, often very powerful
    Authors most of whose writing I love: Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Pushkin, Lermontov, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorki, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn, Flaubert, Blazac, Shakespeare, Joyce, Schiller, Brecht, Thomas Mann

    • Austin Barry

      Blimey. I agree almost entirely with this list.

  • Sue J

    How about Sartre’s “Nausea”? I threw that one in the trash.

    • Raman_Indian123

      Then jumped in yourself.

      • Spondulicks

        That wasn’t a nice thing to say. Uncalled-for. As It happens, I’ve read Nausea, and in my opinion no book ever had a more fitting title.

        • Raman_Indian123

          “Nausea” is not a favourite of mine. But there are great things in Sartre’s fiction. “Iron in the Soul” describes unforgettably the sheer chaos and moral breakdown of France in the 1940 defeat.

  • Ian Davis

    For the benefit of humourless Marxists, it should be pointed out that Pride and Prejudice is loved because it is funny.

    • Eddie

      I think you’ll find it’s not just humourless Marxists who hate Jane Austen.
      Most male readers do (except the academic/literary elite who laugh theatrically – OH HOW WE LAUGHED – at the social comedy of manners in the inerplay of early 19th century social classes).

      But really, come on: Jane Austen is emo-porn for women. Pride and Prejudice is thus just Mills and Boon faffery for women who like to think of themselves as middle class and educated.

  • justejudexultionis

    I hate Pride and Prejudice: those simpering narcissists in their tiny southern sub-Arcadia expostulating about their trivial non-lives. To think that thousands were suffering economic hardship and dying on the battlefields of Europe when Austen wrote this bourgeois tripe…

  • The Red Bladder

    I loathe a particular book. It starts off brilliantly with the immortal three words “Call me Ishmael”. Sadly it’s all down hill after that and by about page 23 most people give up and go back to watching their toe nails grow. Thar she blows!

  • Sarka

    Almost all novels by persons who have won the Nobel Prize for literature. (Except V.S.Naipaul). .

    • Spondulicks

      Just checked the Nobel winners’ list, and there are some pretty readable novelists there, including Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Ernest Hemingway (FWTBT is a great novel in spite of some bad moments), Boris Pasternak, John Steinbeck, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Saul Bellow and Guenter Grass. Some pretty good poets, too. Admittedly, the list misses plenty of literary greats, such as Proust, Joyce, Woolf and Lawrence, but are the latter authors really more readable than the former?

      It must be admitted that quite a few of the Nobelists did not/do not write in English — they can’t be any good.

      • Sarka

        That is a fair enough rebuke. Thouhgh in your list I only really like Mann and Grass… Solzhenitsyn was a great man, and Gulag Archipelago – not a novel – a necessary read, but I couldn’t get on with his novels.

        I am generously prepared to forgive foreigners for writing in foreign – some of them are quite surprisingly good considering…

  • Kevin

    What a great article.

    Next week, can you cover classical music? Why, for example, do we feel comfortable criticising pop albums that do not live up to the promise of the associated single, but Heaven forbid we should suggest that, apart from “One Fine Day”, Madam Butterfly is disappointing to say the least.

    A commenter below dismisses Middlemarch as a novel, but at least the character of Mr. Casaubon provides a common reference point for the life wasted reading, watching or listening to things that were not worth it.

    My least favourite novel? The Old Man and the Sea. This was the first set text in my secondary school and it ruined me for literature class.

    • The Red Bladder

      Oh come off it Kevin! Some 30 years ago I used to regularly have to drive a fair distance. I timed it by the tape of Madame Butterfly and loved it every time. With the perfect drive I would arrive on that final, tragic huge chord. On the way back it was always Turandot, another great. Truth told it’s all a very personal matter. I’ve always found anything with the name Strauss near it to be music to have an enema by!

      • James Keck

        I can understand not liking Puccini, or Italian opera, or opera in general, but I cannot understand liking “Öne Fine Day” and not the entirety of Butterfly. For what it is, it is perfectly achieved. Puccini said he wrote the music as if taking dictation from God, which is fatuous, but not too much of an exaggeraton in the overall history of music.

    • Raman_Indian123

      “The Old Man and the Sea” contains many of the noblest sentences in English.
      “The old man was thin and gaunt, with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks.”

      “That afternoon there was a party of tourists at the Terrace and looking down in the water among the empty beer cans and dead barracudas a woman saw a long white spine with a big floppy tail at the end that lifted and swung with the tide, as the east wind blew a heavy, steady sea in the entrance to the harbour. “What is that?”, she asked a waiter, pinting to the spine of the great fish that was now just rubbish waiting to go out with the tide. “Tiburon. E-shark”, said the waiter. He was meaning to explain what had happened. “I did not know sharks had such beautifully formed tails” the woman said.”
      Without ever meaning to, and before it even happened, “The Old Man and the Sea” describes the Cuban Revolution: a great, superhuman feat that is undone by the sharks so that all that is left is a skeleton.
      Of course people like you don’t get it. That’s why the book needed writing.

      • Austin Barry

        Yeah, you’ve got to admire the metronomic certainty of Hemingway’s prose.

  • Malfleur

    I’m afraid this article didn’t do it for me; I couldn’t get past Craig Brown’s first sentence.

  • Rudolf

    A fascinating exercise, which reveals as much about your contributors as it does about the “classics” they rubbish.

    Michael Burleigh, for example, reveals that the really important thing in life, especially when one is at the top of a shaky professional tree, is to leave one’s conscience at the door, before being one is dismissive as one is inane.

    • Steve

      I think you’re taking this a bit seriously, but in any case I don’t entirely follow your ‘conscience-dismissive-inane’ line. Surely Michael Burleigh is just saying that particular book went on a bit?

      That said, his remarks made me check whether out the book in question on Amazon. Sady, it’s about £30 even in paperback, so if the Prof can look out his hidden copy and pass it on, I’d be grateful.

  • David Crawford

    “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. The ultimate primer on assembling cardboard characters. I read it the first time when I was fourteen and it bugged me even then. I just couldn’t figure out why it seemed so bogus. I then tried to re-read it as an adult and the simple-mindedness of it just about made me throw it against a wall.

    • Raman_Indian123

      It has its horribly sentimental patches – alas always a great flaw in Steinbeck – but did you not find the opening pages about the drought in Oklhahoma a very powerful bit iof descriptive writing? “To the red country and part of the grey country of Southern Okhlahoma the last rains came gently and they did not wet the parched earth…” (I quote from memory). Steinbeck does succeed in describing a society in appalling collapse and moral crisis. I was touched by the bit about how Pap went dumb and had to be taken to California by force after days of exulting about how keen he was to go. Who remembers the Dust Bowl era in America except through the eyes of Steinbeck?

  • Adam Cheshire

    That’s right Meades – Burroughs was the man and don’t you forget it!

    • Austin Barry

      Well, Burroughs was the man with ‘Junkie’ and ‘The Naked Lunch’, but then the years of heroin abuse took over and his talent was lost in the aptly named ‘cut-up’ style of frenzied nonsense from ‘Interzone’.

      Some of his early work was sheer poetry – when I’m standing on a New York subway platform the phrase, ‘The subway train swept by with a black blast of iron’, always jumps to mind as both precise and poetic.

  • erp

    Don’t agree with J. Meades. I didn’t read On the Road until my 40s, and enjoyed it well, thank you. I don’t regard it as a masterpiece, but to refer to Kerouac as “artless, undisciplined…comforting self pity” is unreasonable. Such a comment displays Meades’ ignorance of who Kerouac really was. Seems that Meades has fallen into the same trap as others who believe that the manner in which Kerouac was portrayed by media and critics was accurate. Hint: it wasn’t and it rarely is. Kerouac had a hand in creating a persona that am not have been accurate, but he was neither artless and undisciplined. Don’t like the work? That’s ok. But, Let’s stay away from attacking the person and instead reflect on the work.

  • Alan Ziebarth

    I so much loved this article. I retired a few years ago and I’ve tried to read many of these books to no avail. Now I won’t. Thank you.

    • Raman_Indian123

      Well, don’t. Go as ignorant as you came.

  • Austin Barry

    Apart from his essays, anything by Martin Amis.

  • Austin Barry

    Odd that nobody mentioned the Koran.

    • cg

      Though not surprising that you do. You seem to be obsessed with it. Are you a Muslim by any chance?

      • Austin Barry

        Well, I’ve checked my todger and apparently I’m not.

        • Raman_Indian123

          The Koran undoubtedly has passages of considerable rhetorical force and poetic power. It is fictional, but then so is the major part of the Bible. The most distinguished Israeli archaelogists have concluded there never was a Moses or an Egyptian Captivity or all the events in Genesis. They doubt the historicity of David and Solomon too. Much of the Old Testament seems to have been a brilliant work of fiction concocted during the Babylonian Captivity. As for the New Testament’s worth as a historical document, the less said the better.
          Islam is a very great civilization and it is foolish not to take that into consideration, whatever one’s animus with Muslims. Just because of Hitler Goethe was not less great.
          All religions are fictionally based.

          • Kevin

            Tell us about a truth that you have ascertained from a historical document.

  • On Benzos

    PS: Can’t agree with Quentin Letts. Powell’s brilliant, if a bit mannered from this distance.

  • On Benzos

    Javier Marias. He makes Joyce read like Jack London.

  • toby runcorn

    A good list. Books that I hurl into the corner of the room: Proust too, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, Middlemarch and most Booker prize winners. Especially the one by Ms Roy.