Culture House Daily

‘Great’ books best left unread: Anna Karenina, Moby Dick, Catch-22…

6 May 2014

Martin Amis compared Cervantes’ Don Quixote to ‘an indefinite visit from your most impossible senior relative, with all his pranks, dirty habits, unstoppable reminiscences, and terrible cronies’, while Kathryn Schulz, book critic for New York magazine, poured scorn on The Great Gatsby, describing it as ‘aesthetically overrated, psychologically vacant, and morally complacent’.

Cult contemporary bestsellers have also drawn contempt. In last year’s Spectator Books of the Year Thomas W. Hodgkinson recommended giving a wide berth to Paulo Coelho’s chart topper: ‘The Alchemist is surely the worst book I’ve read recently. The tale of a simple shepherd boy (ah, aren’t they all?) in search of enlightenment, it’s essentially a self-help book disguised as a novel. The fact it has achieved such phenomenal worldwide sales proves nothing except that most people don’t know the difference between good and bad.’

And it’s not just famous authors and literary critics who are in the business of slaughtering literary sacred cows. A recent post here on Culture House unleashed a tide of readers’ comments that put the boot into many so-called classics. The Catcher in the Rye was roundly denounced as the adolescent whinings of a spoilt brat, and readers were equally scathing about Moby-Dick and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I lapped up Holden Caulfield’s angsty, narcissistic outpourings, perhaps because I was a depressed, self-obsessed 16-year-old when I read them. But I was beaten into submission by Moby-Dick’s 135 chapters of impenetrable Victorian prose, which I did battle with out of some misguided sense of obligation.

A quick poll among colleagues here at The Spectator has revealed that I am not alone in being left stone-cold by a literary ‘great’. Here is a selection of the books that have defeated us:

Fraser Nelson

Anna Karenina


Don’t believe the hype. It’s a turgid journey through the psyche of dull people. Takes a huge chunk of your life, and never really gets going.

Liz Anderson


This ‘amusing’ novel by Joseph Heller is my candidate: I could not have cared less if  Captain John Yossarian and the other US airmen were able to return home or not. I was not amused.

Lucy Vickery

The God of Small Things

It’s hard to fess up when all around you are hailing it as a masterpiece, but I think Arundhati Roy’s Booker prize winner is horribly overwritten. I found myself bogged down by its excessive lushness and lyricism and irritated by the relentless barrage of metaphors. This is self-consciously flashy, creative-writing-class stuff. There are Far Too Many Capital Letters used to Flag Up Something Significant. And. too. many. short. sentences. by. half.

David Blackburn

Tender is the Night; Middlemarch

I’m 28; but, in literary terms, I’m still growing up. If I’m not enjoying a book, I give it up. Can I recommend people not to read a book that I have not finished? No. But I will say that no canonical book should be cast aside for ever. Enjoyment of a book depends to a great extent on the time and place in which it is read. Many of the books which I loved as an adolescent will never be reread. I fear that adulthood will cast Tender is the Night, for example, in unforgiving light. Conversely, there are books for which I’m not yet ready. I have tried and failed to read Middlemarch six times. There comes a point where I can take earnest Dorothea ‘Do-do’ Brooke no more. Sometimes I exceed my previous attempt. Sometimes I fall even shorter. Perhaps it’s time to try again.

 Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Disgrace; The Hare With Amber Eyes

Once I’ve mentally thrown a book across the room, I forget almost everything about it. So with no reasoning – but a lot of hatred – I offer up J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes.

Those are our nominations; now over to you.

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  • Lloretta

    Anything by Joseph Conrad -we had Youth and Typhoon as O-level set texts, better suited to old sea-dogs than 16-year old schoolgirls! Perhaps it’s just that he’s more (much more) of a man’s writer.

  • kenedal

    All of Umberto Eco -Oh how he does love to show off his untranslated obscure references in languages he knows most of us dont speak.

  • David Smith

    I’m appalled. I thought The Spectator was a serious publication. Nelson, Vickery and the rest have exposed themselves as illiterate imbeciles. These books are all superb. But perhaps too demanding for the numbskulls who have participated in this callow sixth form iconoclasm.

  • MargoLB

    Lord of the Flies- just ghastly.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’ should be a reference to anyone who ploughs through it to the end – he made one of me for sure.

    Stick to Turgenev.

  • Fergus Pickering

    The Naked and the Dead. Anything else by Norman Mailer.

  • Cincinnatus

    Catch 22 is a great novel. Perhaps it appeals more to men.

    • NMcDNY

      It is great, but my God it goes on and on, delivering the same punchline over and over.

  • erikbloodaxe

    Rites of Passage, William Golding. I can’t believe anyone has got to the end, other than because they thought they should.

  • razajac

    Sometimes, a plodding, overly descriptive book has a hook… and so you bull on ahead and wade through descriptions, coming across descriptive gems. Gogol’s “Dead Souls” is a perfect example of this. When you’re finished, you wonder if it was really worth your time. Then you realize it was the product of a kind of “mad” mind, and realize that even a mad person deserves *some* respect.

  • Thomas Richards

    Jane Eyre. Overblown, over-written, clunking sententious rot.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      What does over-written even mean? Does it mean that the writer knows more than three adjectives? The plot is fairly rehashed, but I thought it was well written and pleasant. Something which quite a few 19th century writers managed to do, but which many 20th century authors never seemed to have quite gotten, was that they succeeded in making one feel intensely about what they were reading. To be fair my encounter with 20th century literature has been fairly brief, but quite a lot of it has left me rather cold about the characters even at supposed climaxes. Only Graham Greene had the same tortuous intensity.

      • Thomas Richards

        Interesting that you should make the comparison to Greene, who is my favourite novelist bar none. I think it may be precisely the contrast with the leanness of Greene and Waugh, both of whom I was reading a lot of at the time I attempted Jane Eyre, that left me unable to stomach it. I should probably give it another go: it wasn’t much more insufferable than the insufferable bits of Dickens, and those are worth putting up with for the good ones.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Nonsense, sir. How dare you? Men have died for less.

  • RobWatkin

    Midnight’s Children. I’ve tried twice but life’s too short.

  • scordelia

    I nominate “Things Fall Apart”!

  • Count Boso

    Anything by Thomas Hardy

  • Daniel Jeyn

    Could I double-second “100 years of Solitude?” Ugh. Such a tedious read. Does it scan in Spanish somehow? I prefer my Latin American magical realism by Los Bros Hernandez and Love and Rockets.

  • aalopez33

    Beloved, by Toni Morrison is by far one of the worst, overrated books I’ve ever read. I’d also add Pamela, by Richardson

    • John Lea

      Good shout. I had to read Beloved as an undergraduate, and still feel angry about it. To think I could have been spending that time reading William Trevor or Simon Raven instead!

      • aalopez33

        Same here. Read it for an undergrad course. When I finished it, I wrote to my prof to let them know this book was terrible, and wanted to know why she selected that title for us to read.

    • mikeydredd22

      I’m with you on Pamela. Historically, it might have been interesting. As a work of literature, it ain’t.

    • johnnyhenry

      “Beloved”…terrible read.

  • random_observer_2011

    The Catcher in the Rye is indeed ridiculous. One longs almost from the earliest pages for Holden Caulfield to meet a prolonged, painful and grisly end. The entire thing amounts to “adolescent fool discovers the word phony and becomes obsessed with tagging the universe with that label, whether genuinely phony or not, and whether or not ‘phoniness’ is or is not necessary and helpful in any given situation, and with the absurd assumption that hypocrisy is the worst sin of which man and life are capable.”
    Arrested development, even in the face of tragedy, is not much use as a comment on the human condition. Caulfield’s whingeing was preemptively answered by Rochefoucauld, entirely and sufficiently.

    • Fergus Pickering

      I liked it when I was fourteen. It is a children’s book.

  • solly gratia

    Lanark, by Alasdair Gray. Great book, excellent writing spoilt by a crap ending.
    If there is anything else, i can’t remember because it was so bad and I probably never got past chapter 3. I tried re-reading Atlas shrugged a few years ago (read it as a teen). Never got past chapter 3. Ye gods and little fishes it was bad!

  • Apoplexy

    Did anyone manage to finish “A Brave New World” without gnawing their arm off, for a 200 page book its a serious struggle to finish.

    • solly gratia

      I did.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      Brave New World is a good, fast read, but the style fits in rather too well with the context, it is very fast and not really the best of Huxley.

    • Moob

      At least a dozen times Apoplexy, but even though it’s a favourite I know what you mean.

  • david bowden

    And in all this slaughtering of sacred Cows Thomas Pynchon remains unscathed ,how so, unreadable and unlovely.

    • MC73

      I’ve made several attempts on Gravity’s Rainbow. All failed.

  • Jingleballix

    Jude the Obscure………..Ulysses…………Nostradamus

  • NIck Mercer


  • Fraser Bailey

    Crikey – I appear to read have almost all the books mentioned here, right through to the end.

    I really should get out more.

  • DavidL

    Amen to those who nominated Ulysses – a virtuoso exercise in flatulent futility. On a rather different tack I now find Brideshead Revisited unreadable – whilst I loved it as a young man. I believe Evelyn Waugh felt the same as he got older.

  • Darren Major

    Any book that can be brought at the checkout in stores is a turn off for me.Oh and any of those books lauded over by critics that i think i will try that then realise its just boring.And anything by Will Self his books are so smug and self important.

  • Joanna Jones

    The God of Small Creatures abd The Hare with the Amber Eyes – tried several times and failed – the rest I have read. The one I would add to this list is The Fountainhead – had no clue what was going on and didn’t care!

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      Never heard of the latter. Thought reading “The God of Small Things” was more disagreeable a read than Mein Kampf, which I was perusing concurrently (as part of historical research)

  • Whyshouldihavetoregister

    Moby Dick’s a tremendous read.

    • The Red Bladder

      Starts well, I’ll give you that. “Call me Ishmael” is a stonker. Trouble is it goes rapidly downhill from there.

  • Liz

    Finance for IT decision makers.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    Midnight’s Children
    Any novel by James Fenimore Cooper
    Most novels by Walter Scott.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      James Fenimore Cooper novels are fantastic! And so is Walter Scott. Certainly neither is terribly historically accuate, but they are wonderfully good fun.

      • NMcDNY

        It depends. I enjoy The Last of the Mohicans very much but his Later novel, The Pioneers, I think was depressing and deadly dull by contrast. But then, I think so much of this is subjective. I think I might enjoy The Pioneers now.

        • Marian Davidson

          Try Scott’s, ‘Old Mortality’, for a taste of excruciating boredom It was on my required reading list when I was about 14. My parents took turns to read it out loud because, avid reader though I was, I could not plough through the turgid prose. It amounted to cruel and unusual punishment for the whole family!

  • IfItPleasethThee

    The Quiet American because every single character in it is loathsome. I’m sure it’s very clever, and all that, but it makes for a nightmare of a read.

    Orientalism because, perversely, everyone who reads it becomes a teeth-gnashing Occidentalist.

    And last but not least, What’s Left, because it contains truths of which I would have been happier in ignorance.

    • IfItPleasethThee

      Oh, and no fashionable hate-list can exclude A Theory of Justice. A philosophical thought-experiment that, amazingly, just happens to lend its author’s views objective correctness. How stupid and ignorant of the rest of us not to fall straight into line.

    • Fraser Bailey

      I think The Quiet American is a very good book.

      I like Green’s controlled anger at what the Americans are doing and going to do.

      And it’s nice and short.

      • Thomas Richards

        There are at least five of Greene’s that I’ve read which I prefer, but considering how much I love Greene that’s not exactly a damning indictment. It’s one of his harshest and most pessimistic novels, to be sure, so “like” isn’t exactly the word, but I agree it’s very good.

  • John Lea

    Reviewers say Ian McEwan writes with cold precision, which is different to being left cold by his writing – alas, I find his books un-readable.

    Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is pretentious waffle. God help undergrads force-fed on that sort of rubbish.

  • GraveDave

    Catch 22 IS amusing. And who F–K the was Liz Anderson.

    • Barakzai

      Agree that Catch-22 is amusing. A ‘Guardian’ reviewer called the sequel (Closing Time) ”ravishing”. I found it extremely pedestrian.

      My own ‘give up’ book is Joyce’s Ulysses: I’ve tried five or six times over the past 30 years to complete it, but can’t.

      • oldestel

        Ulysses – me too and it was the first hardback book I purchased (and with my own money too)
        We are stupid – be proud.

        • Michael Sweeney

          Ulysses is a work of a great and original mind. There is much to admire. But parts are unreadable. Martin Amis correctly said that Joyce had all the gifts to be the most popular boy in school, but ended up wanting to be the teachers pet.

      • chrisphillips

        Closing Time is rubbish but Something Happened compares well with Catch 22, which for me is one of the five best American novels since the war.

      • Aloysius

        I’ve never read Ulysses, but I have read Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which apparently is in a similar vein and was written just after she read Ulysses. It was bearable, so perhaps worth a try.

      • razajac

        I wasn’t able to finish Ulysses until I was sick with a fever.

      • Fergus Pickering

        Ah, but have you tried Finnegans Wake? Then you know just how bad it can get.

        • Barakzai

          I think you can guess the answer!

          That said, moons ago I was given an aged audio tape of FW to listen to after mentioning to its owner that, several pints of Guinness taken, I’d once enjoyed listening to Stanley Holloway reading the Canterbury Tales. I never did try it: after ‘Ulysses’, I reckoned even the Guinness wouldn’t help . . .

          • Fergus Pickering

            I think you’d need at least two gallons.

    • oldestel

      Agree- but don’t swear about Liz – you might end up marrying her.

    • MaxSceptic

      Catch 22 is a very good read. Alas for poor Heller, he never wrote anything remotely as good. He should have retired (or changed profession right after its stellar success).

      • disqus_kuiqPjf2eI

        His second novel, Something Happened, while an uncomfortable read for many will I suspect, be regarded as his masterpiece.

  • Robertus Maximus

    I have two “notable” books rotting away in my shed. I bought them forty years ago in an attempt at reading the widest possible subject matter, yet have always passed them over when choosing my next read. They are Mein Kampf and The Koran.

    I think, on balance, Mr Schicklgruber’s tome might edge out the Koran as it is merely a historical curio, whereas the Koran has a continuing stomach-churning legacy. However, neither would merit a claim as a great book in any humane person’s mind.

    War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the last two great books left oustanding in my collection – both being kept indoors and not in the shed!

    • Darren Major

      I was brought this as a present,never got past page 100.Its now propping up a wobbly table.

      • Robertus Maximus

        In 1983 an Italian girlfriend, who was a German teacher, very pompously told me that the book enables one to “discover yourself” within its pages. I later worked with a film editor who had been a German teacher who said the book was dismissed by a noted literary committee as an “artistic nothingness”. The only thing I did “discover” was how utterly pretentious both Thomas Mann and my Italian girlfriend were.

        My advice – for goodness sake leave your copy propping up that table as it’s doing more good than Thomas Mann’s writing the wretched thing ever did!

    • johnnyhenry

      I dug it. It was a little tough getting through parts, but overall I dug big time.

  • Donafugata

    A few years ago I managed to finish Anna Karenina mainly because I did enjoy Tolstoy’s descriptive writing.

    However it was, at times a struggle to keep going because I came to loathe the central character. At least the tiresome and disgusting woman did the right thing eventually.

  • Michael Sweeney

    Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment is an overlong, terrible novel and a complete waste of time.

    Practically everything by Hemingway leaves me underwhelmed.

    On a related note, although I am a lover of Shakespeare, I saw King Lear (a play I thought I loved) last year in Bath and found the closing scenes ridiculously fast, complicated and unsatisfying. Does anyone else?

    • Grey Wolf

      I agree with you on Hemingway – what is the hype all about?
      Dostoevsky – give him time and he will grow on you. He is not merely telling a story.
      Shakespeare – Don’t know if anyone will agree but Coriolanus, I feel, is his best.

      • oldestel

        Just love Midsummer Night’s Dream.
        OK so I’m an airhead.

    • oldestel

      Crime and Punishment was profound – but I was eighteen at the time I read it, so who knows

    • johnnyhenry

      Two thumbs up for “Crime and Punishment”. “The Brothers Karamazov” even better.

  • dmitri the impostor

    Agreed on The Hare With Amber Eyes, to which the words precious and pretentious scarcely begin to do justice.

    ‘Before departing for Vienna, I devour all 17 novels of Joseph Roth. My minions are under instructions to tell Lord So-and-So that he will just have to wait. Have I told you lately that there were 264 of them? Nestling on green satin? Flying my biplane through the Alps (upside down), I have another peek at Proust ….’

    • Donafugata

      Having read almost the entire oeuvre of Philip Roth I came across Joseph by accident and found his books far more enjoyable.

      Joseph Roth excels as a short story writer as well as a novelist.

      • MaxSceptic

        Philip Roth: a success built on masturbation.

        • Donafugata

          Very true.

      • dmitri the impostor

        Fair comment and I certainly have no objections to Joseph Roth as such.

        The key to Mr de Waal’s insanely overhyped tome is that Patrick Leigh Fermor once stayed at the Ephrussi country seat at Kövecses. Those who get off on PLF’s mixture of name-dropping, self-congratulation and fruitcake-rich prolixity will love The Hare WAE. The handful of brave souls who dared to suspect that the old General-snatcher was an exhibitionistic fraud might wish to leave it well alone.

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