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Six books to leave unread when you die

12 April 2014

12 April 2014

The recent challenge to compose the most off-putting book blurb imaginable elicited an avalanche of entries. This was one of those competitions that is both a pleasure and a pain to judge: a delight to read through but devilishly difficult to whittle down to just half a dozen winners. Virginia Price Evans’s entry was a masterclass in impenetrable jargon: ‘Policy Initiatives is an essential tool for civil servants responsible for driving effective public policy. Disdaining Ernest Gowers’ simplistic bourgeois maxims, the authors show how the use of prolix and abstruse circumlocution will facilitate meaningful dialogue and incentivize empowerment mechanisms, eventuating in sustainable outcomes for holistic governance.’ And I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to buy Jonathan Friday’s ‘groundbreaking exploration of the neglected beauty of bodily fluids and excreta’, which features ‘a striking array of scratch’n’sniff imagery’.

Other unlucky losers included Gail White, Chris O’Carroll, J.R. Johnson and Bill Greenwell. G.M. Davis nabs £30 and his fellow winners take £25 each.

G.M. Davis
Like Ernest Vincent Wright and Georges Perec, Gullermo Pozoverde has written a lipogrammatic novel, an extreme one. While the earlier authors gave themselves a relatively straightforward task by omitting only the letter ‘e’, he dispenses with ‘u’, ‘s’ and ‘a’ as a protest against America’s aggressive world role. Yet this is situationist aesthetics with a twist. Instead of using only words that do not use the banned letters, Pozoverde simply omits them from words that would normally contain them. Thus Brussels becomes ‘Bruel’, vagina ‘vgin’. Inevitably, there are many instances of ambiguity thrown up by this method, and therefore constant exciting opportunities for readers to be active in the creative process, deconstructing the rules that have held back their understanding of art. In a bold move to unite two sources of cosmic energy, the book comes with an inspirational CD of commentary, music and reflection by Yoko Ono.

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Hugh King
Embittered by unceasing conflicts in his university’s department of linguistics, post-structuralist philosopher Murdo Mackintosh returns to his native Cape Wrath, devoting himself to translating the works of Jacques Derrida into Gaelic. Tormented by the complexities and ambiguities of the text (recounted here in meticulous detail) he descends into alcoholism and depression. On a lonely beach he meets the equally despondent Morag, an artist and fervent Scottish nationalist, who suffers from severe irritable bowel syndrome. She expresses her anguish through painstaking studies of seaweed. In her most iconic painting (the immensely intricate ‘Seven Types of Bladderwrack’) Murdo finds the key to his own philosophical dilemmas. A tender relationship develops, but the almost unbearable tensions of the impending referendum on Scottish independence, Murdo’s erectile dysfunction, a series of rejections by publishers, and the hidden dangers of the Cape Wrath MoD firing range, combine to draw the story towards its tragic climax.

C.J. Gleed
You know that feeling you get when someone at work starts telling you about the really amazing dream they had last night? Well, now you can experience it in the comfort of your own home with Brian Orring’s ‘Book Of Dreams’. With scrupulous care Mr Orring outlines the truly extraordinary variety of dream scenarios and then painstakingly categorises them into groups with common features, cross-referenced and diligently footnoted. This novel approach sheds fresh light on a phenomenon we’ve all experienced: did you know, for instance, that many dreams involve being pursued? Or that anxiety is often the basis for dreaming? These and many other very interesting facts are revealed by this exciting volume, which comes with a set of FREE DVDs in which Mr Orring discusses several of his own dreams in great detail. Don’t sleep on it — it’s a dream purchase!

Ralph Rochester
Sexually explicit and wonderfully authentic, this riveting autobiographical novel plunges us into the Belfast of the post-war years where the young, asthmatic and short-sighted Seamus O’Hara is struggling to survive in an overcrowded tenement. Here he experiences only appalling viciousness. We share intimately in his desperate attempts to deal with his disabilities as well as with a bed-ridden father, a drunken mother, beastly brothers, whoring sisters, bullying schoolfellows, bigoted schoolmasters and perverted clergymen. The only friend he knows is Cromwell, a one-eyed ginger cat. This book is a must for the serious reader and will reward all who have the courage to finish it. It is chock-full of clear memories and has been painstakingly written to remind us all just what a bloody-awful, wretched, woebegone, comfortless, forlorn, godforsaken, miserable and heartbreaking place this world can be. 

Adrian Fry
In this genre-expanding volume of counterfactual historical speculation, historian Dan Snigg combines meticulous research and epic imagination to wonder What If? What if, instead of being born into a life of privilege, power and political opportunity, Sir Winston Churchill had been a bicycle? What if Napoleon Bonaparte had stood 37 feet tall in his bare feet?  What if Henry VIII had been a Negress? How might the Great War have been different if fought by varying lengths of 5B graphite pencil? Concentrating on persuasive timelines and cogently argued political and economic analysis, Snigg uses these and other scenarios to shed fascinating sidelights on human history unlikely to be unearthed through study of the mere facts.  If you’ve ever wondered whether Stalin’s second Five Year Plan would have increased steel production more consistently under the direction of British comedian ‘big-hearted’ Arthur Askey, this book will prove an indispensable aide.

Max Ross
If you want a marriage of all that is challenging in modern art with the astonishing factuality of a scientific treatise on coal and shale, and you would like it in the best of experimental verse, then this is your read. ‘Mine Reader’, with its courageous disregard for the orthodox, will have you digging deep into its rich seams of technicality, searching for every twist of meaning that the author buries in lines that disregard conventional spelling and punctuation. Hooked already? You are here to work, this book says, and although the first hundred pages detailing mining contracts and locations require your full alertness, on completing the second century — one third of the book — you will already be an accomplished miner. The illustrations will tease you too, amusingly done in the style of graffiti. And did you spot the clever pun in the title? Enjoy!

Your next challenge is to compose a hymn for atheists. Entries of up to 16 lines should be emailed to lucy@spectator.co.uk by midday on 23 April.


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Show comments
  • RavenRandom

    Fantastic, hard to believe they’re real.

  • Dodgy Geezer

    ..Your next challenge is to compose a hymn for atheists…

    Er… who can do better than C S Lewis:

    Lead us, Evolution, lead us
    Up the future’s endless stair;
    Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us.
    For stagnation is despair:
    Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
    Lead us nobody knows where.

    Wrong or justice, joy or sorrow,
    In the present what are they
    while there’s always jam-tomorrow,
    While we tread the onward way?
    Never knowing where we’re going,
    We can never go astray.

    To whatever variation
    Our posterity may turn
    Hairy, squashy, or crustacean,
    Bulbous-eyed or square of stern,
    Tusked or toothless, mild or ruthless,
    Towards that unknown god we yearn.

    Ask not if it’s god or devil,
    Brethren, lest your words imply
    Static norms of good and evil
    (As in Plato) throned on high;
    Such scholastic, inelastic,
    Abstract yardsticks we deny.

    Far too long have sages vainly
    Glossed great Nature’s simple text;
    He who runs can read it plainly,
    ‘Goodness = what comes next.’
    By evolving, Life is solving
    All the questions we perplexed.

    Oh then! Value means survival-
    Value. If our progeny
    Spreads and spawns and licks each rival,
    That will prove its deity
    (Far from pleasant, by our present,
    Standards, though it may well be).

  • rob232

    I have always hated ‘The Old Man and The Sea’

    • Doggie Roussel

      Yes, the most undeserved Nobel Prize for literature ever…

  • Doggie Roussel

    Anything by Hemingway, apart from The sun Also Rises ((Fiesta), Death in the Afternoon and all his short stories,… all masterpieces in their own particular genres with particular reference to The Snows of Kilimanjaro & The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

  • transponder

    Strangely enough, I had to put down The Iliad. The only lines I really liked were ‘He fell, thunderously, and his armour clattered upon him’. Those are immortal lines. The rest was meh. No doubt I’m a philistine and that explains everything.

    • Doggie Roussel

      I couldn’t pick up the Iliad let alone read it…

      • transponder

        I suppose we’re both philistines, then. Unless you’d rather be a philippic, which is OK with me : )

        • Doggie Roussel

          I have no idea of what is a Philippic…but I am most definitely a philistine… and extremely proud of it when one engages with all the pseuds who contribute to these columns…

  • Extricate

    The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is the most nauseating, pseudo-intellectual book I’ve ever read.

    • La Fold

      That is one which I am told again and again I must read but so far have managed to duck it.

  • La Fold

    Anything by Will Self!

    • Doggie Roussel

      Anything by A A Gill
      Anything by Salman Rushdie

      • La Fold

        Gave the statanic verse a birl once, gave up after about 30 pages. Never read anything by AA Gill, although hsi TV reviews in Times were pretentiously quite funny.

  • swatnan

    The complete works of J Archer….

  • John Lea

    Midnight’s Children – torture.
    Women in Love – suicide-inducingly boring.
    Proust – ditto.
    The Stranger’s Child – anyone got the number for Dignitas?

  • mitate

    two i found impossible to get through were joyce’s ulysses and proust’s remembrance of things past. had me grabbing for a wodehouse.

    • La Fold

      Im currently having to read Proust… in French! Its even worse.

      • mitate

        mon dieu. courage, mon brave!

        • transponder

          I quite like Rousseau in French. And it helps to have Charles Butterworth to make sure I’ve got it right. (And very pleasing when I mainly have.)

    • Doggie Roussel

      Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man runs Ulysses a close second, although his descriptions of a hideous Jesuit upbringing in Dublin touched me personally and always brings a shiver to my spine… It’s definitely not a late night read.

      • mitate

        i seem to remember “dubliners” as being a decent read, but i never got to “portrait”; ulysses saw to that.

  • Shorne

    Didn’t somebody once say that an infallible cure for insomnia was to start reading a novel by Sir Walter Scott?

  • Kitty MLB

    Hugo King, also wrote a book on Robert the Bruce.
    May I mention a whole group of books to be avoided- ‘Chick Lit’- ghastly, never read ever one !
    To Kill a Mockingbird- never quite finished.
    Always wanted to read: Life and opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
    which is supposed to be a masterpiece, but Dr Samuel Johnson said it was too
    modern and I never have. Speaking of him, I will at some point read about his
    travels through Scotland.
    Orwell’s, Nineteen Eighty Four is perhaps another of those books.
    I also never liked Catcher in the Rye.

    • gerontius

      Heartfelt recommendation for Tristram.
      The early scene where poor Tristram is conceived is worth the entry ticket on its own. “The Clocks! The Clocks! My God you forgot The Clocks!”
      (Aside – I hope I’ve got the right novel)
      Sentimental Journal is also great stuff.
      Get reading Kitty

      • Kitty MLB

        I Shall indeed read this recommended book.

      • Kitty MLB

        After some exploration on the computer,yes
        you have the correct Tristram book.That is
        available I believe from Amazon.Feel hugely
        hypocritical after what I said on the other
        thread in regards to book shops.

      • transponder

        That was one of the books I found unreadable!

        • gerontius

          But! but!…, the scene in Sentimental Journey where an impeccably elegant, supercillious and slightly threatening french customs officer explains to our hero that if he were, unaccountably, to die here and now on french territory then yes, all his belongings would automatically become the property of the King of France.
          And so much more.
          You were younger then, you’re older now.-try again!

          • transponder

            You were younger then, you’re older now.
            Thanks for reminding me.

            The trouble is that I already have about 1000 books on my shelves right now, waiting to be read.

            • gerontius

              Ah!
              I didn’t mean it like that at all!
              I could think of other ways of saying that you are now a fine grown up women, but you were once not so grown up, however experience has taught me to stop, now, immediately.

              • transponder

                You always make me giggle!

                • gerontius

                  Hmm. Well I suppose that’s a good thing!

          • Kitty MLB

            Hmmm! Sentimental Journey- I have wee drop of Latin blood
            within the vein so might like it. A sensitive fellow like you might
            like A Man of Feeling by Henry MacKenzie:
            ‘ He is cursed enough already, to him the noblest source of
            happiness is denied, and the cares of his sordid soul gnaw at it.’ Yet if one thinks it might damage the quintessentially English equilibrium then you should not bother.

          • Dodgy Geezer

            They order these things so much better in Watford…

  • transponder

    Hugh King: Fabuloso!

    • gerontius

      Hugh King’s effort is indeed magnificent
      It will appear next term, unacknowledged, in a student essay.

      • transponder

        Ha!

  • IfItPleasethThee

    “Policy Initiatives is an essential tool for civil servants
    responsible for driving effective public policy. Disdaining Ernest
    Gowers’ simplistic bourgeois maxims, the authors show how the use of
    prolix and abstruse circumlocution will facilitate meaningful dialogue
    and incentivize empowerment mechanisms, eventuating in sustainable
    outcomes for holistic governance”

    I am slightly distressed by the fact that I don’t have much trouble reading that …

  • James Strong

    I haven’t read One Hundred Days of Solitude.
    One Hundred Years of Solitude is a novel of breathtaking genius.

    • gerontius

      I enjoyed it, but I was young, so who knows.

      • Kitty MLB

        This may sound like sacrilege but I managed to
        avoid anything by Charles Dickens, even whilst
        at university.There was always an alternative
        to such Dickensian gloom.
        Hope you have read one of my favourites
        being Evelyn Waugh.

        • balance_and_reason

          Its not too late to start….Dickins is magical; in fact better to read as an adult.

        • gerontius

          Well I haven’t read Dickens either. When i was young the books seemed so large and the paper seemed so thin that I thought that i wouldn’t have the patience to get through one. When i grew up I assumed that Dickens was sentimental and would irritate me. Have a yearning to try Pickwick Papers for some reason.
          A fan of Waugh – not so much Brideshead, which uses such over-ornate language that I found it tiresome, but A Handful of Dust and the Sword of Honour set are all fine books.

          On bad books: Llosa’s The War at the End of the World left me perplexed. The first half was compelling, almost hypnotic, the second half appeared to have been written by his idiot brother. Presumably it was me that had the sudden loss of critical faculties rather than the author. I might try it again one day, if only to find out.
          I was persauded to read The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – couldn’t finish it – dire beyond belief.

          • Kitty MLB

            You really must read Waugh’s: Put Out The Flags,
            a truly brilliant book a fitting end to Bright Young Things as they
            approach war. Funny you should mention Pickwick Papers,
            husbands parents have a small dog called Pickwick and they
            are always saying I should read that book first.
            Your Bad Book: The war at the end of the world. They say its
            like Beethoven’s seventh symphony, its majestic beauty and depth, mixed with an imposing doom that is quite relentless-
            Another book I struggle with ( and should not) is
            James Joyce – Finnegans Wake- brilliant, but full of multilingual puns and reading it, resembles wandering around in a dream.

          • transponder

            My h. liked Bleak House. Other than that he finds Dickens to be Trollope without the subtlety of prose or characterization, and probably without the political understanding, as well. I’ve read Trollope but not Dickens so I can only offer that opinion at second hand.

  • MaxSceptic

    The above selection were easy targets (not that I’d heard of any of them).

    Why not choose very famous books that are truly over-rated and not worth their fame?

    I’ll start the Ball roiling with two sacred cows:

    1. Catcher in the Rye.
    2. One Hundred Days of Solitude.

    • lucillalin

      Oh yes, I gave up on Catcher in the Rye. My list of cult classics I gave up on halfway is actually rather long…

      Another topic: books you wish you haven’t read. Ballard’s High Rise tops my list, what a misery!

      • transponder

        I read Moby D8ck, and kept reading, until by about Chapter 813 I decided that life was too short. So I skimmed to the end, skipping bits along the way. So now I can say I’ve read most of it. Shame, since the opening chapters are magical.


        Speccie: you need to do something about the auto-modding. It comes to something when I get spiked for spelling the name of one of America’s most famous pieces of literature!

        • gerontius

          Moby Duck gets through ok
          ’twas a fearsome tale….

          • transponder

            Ha ha ha! I wish I’d thought of that :^0

        • Colonel Mustard

          Disqus auto-modding is pathetic. Even the word s*x is modded. The adult word constrained and censored by dweebs worried about ten year olds online but happy to peddle s*x education in primary schools. And on the website of a journal that bellowed “No!” to press regulation.

          You couldn’t make it up. Although Lewis Carroll did.

          • Kitty MLB

            I wonder who Tweedle dee and Tweedle dum are if that is
            the case.
            Also Opposite The Red Queen we have C S Lewis, The White Witch although he is somewhat Yellow in appearance and
            politics. Ah Who shall be Miss Havisham

      • gerontius

        Don’t “diss” Ballard please.

      • rosebery

        I confess that I enjoyed ‘Catcher in the Rye’, but then again, it was a school-designated reader when I was 16, which is probably the right demographic for the book. ‘…Solitude’, I couldn’t get close to finishing. All that magic realism is just, well, not realistic.

      • Liz

        Long? It’s a slim volume.

    • Sean Lamb

      Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
      Eat Love Prey (on the gullible)
      Anything by Martin Amis

      • gerontius

        Zen seemed really profound when it first came out – probably my gullible hippyish period. Might try it again if only to check out how foolish i was (as I suspect you’re right).
        i thought Money was good though i thought it rather patronising as I recall. He got gradually worse as the years went by, but c’mon, still readable. Prefer his father now.
        Never heard of Eat Love Pray: I’ll google it.

        • transponder

          Or Zen may have insights that will make more sense to you now even than they did then. You were younger then, you’re older now.-try again! (;^)

          • gerontius

            Cheeky young whippersnapper.
            Off to bed with my hot waterbottle

            • transponder

              I don’t believe it! Though a hwb between chilly sheets is a lovely thing, esp. if covered in soft wool or cotton. I made a cover once out of an old jumper (seems silly in England but over here hwbs are exotic items and covers can be expensive). On a REALLY chilly night I like two at least, but I only use them about three nights a year in the subtropics. Also we probably have a different idea of what ‘cold’ is in this part of the world. : )

              • gerontius

                I find the cats hog mine. What is it with cats?

                • Kitty MLB

                  Actually you are hogging what the cat has decided is its
                  bed. Quite honestly, when are some going to learn. The cat is
                  the master and you are there to serve. Sleep elsewhere,
                  creatures need room to spread.

                • transponder

                  I don’t know; I’ve never had one. We rescued one that had been wandering round a mountain crying its heart out for months, but our dog didn’t want it, and I’m afraid she had the veto. The good news is that the shelter we took him to found a nice family home for him two weeks later.

    • Jeffrey Vernon

      I don’t know how any English readers can enjoy GG Marquez; the translations are slapdash and vile (and ‘100 Years’ is not his best, in my view). You could try ‘Big mama’s funeral’.

    • La Fold

      Family Guy on Catcher in the Rye

      “Yeah, I date women for their bodies, but at least I’m honest about it. I don’t buy them a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” and then lecture them with some seventh grade interpretation of how Holden Caulfield is some profound intellectual. He wasn’t! He was a spoiled brat! And that’s why you like him so much, he’s you! God, you’re pretentious!”
      Pretty much spot on.

      • Liz

        He’s not pretentious, he’s a depressed teenager. Who’s he pretending to? He barely talks to anyone else and when he does he acknowledges he’s full of it.

        • La Fold

          If you actually look at the quote Holden Caulfield is described as a spoiled brat, not pretentious.

    • flaxdoctor

      The Catcher in the Rye – the Emperor’s New Clothes of classics. Drivel from cover to cover. Ripe for pulping.

    • Latimer Alder

      Lord of the F…g Rings! A dreadful book and, I suspect, an even worse series of films.

      • transponder

        Don’t agree with that. I read it as an adult, and the only thing I found mildly disappointing was the sexlessness of the creatures: not that I wanted erotica, it’s just that they were all (of necessity, perhaps) a bit de-natured or bloodless. Hardly even a criticism: more an observation of the limits of the genre. But if LOTR is a ‘dreadful book’, there’s no hope for anyone!

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