Book lovers are like fans of anything else. They’re quick to offer their opinions and proud when you agree, but often upset when you don’t.
Unfortunately, there have been times when I’ve cracked open a book that has been lauded and revered and I just don’t get the appeal. The magic didn’t work on me. Below are five such examples. It doesn’t mean they’re right and I’m wrong or that I can’t grasp the work’s greatness (although that’s possible), it’s just that these didn’t speak to me the way they did to so many others.
by Denis Johnson
Praised by James Altucher and Chuck Palahniuk, I started reading this book the moment I received it. And I was underwhelmed. The writing has a certain poetry to it, but I kept waiting to be absolutely blown away by these loosely connected short stories about a heroin-addicted drifter, but it never happened. The content of the stories is supposed to be shocking, but it only made me shrug. I can see myself revisiting it at some point in the future and appreciating it for what it is, but after one reading I was far from impressed.
For Whom the Bell Tolls
by Ernest Hemingway
I’m not a fan of Hemingway. I have friends that worship at his altar, but for me his writing was always more about bravado than substance. Hemingway himself was a fascinating person, but his work never did anything for me. You could have swapped out For Whom the Bell Tolls in favor of The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms. It doesn’t matter. In this book – which I forced myself to finish – he couldn’t be bothered to employ proper Spanish, so he just used Bible speak or incorrect translations for words that sounded like something similar in English. That’s lazy and misleading. Either go all the way with the language or just have everyone speak English, but don’t pretend that it’s a world where Spanish people say “thou.” At that point, you’re just making shit up. Creative license can only be stretched so far.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
by Dave Eggers
True story: within reading the first few pages of Dave Eggers’s quasi-memoir, I went back and made sure that I was reading the same book that had won all those awards. I honestly couldn’t believe it. At first, I thought the hyperbolic title was meant to be a self-effacing joke, but nope, it was genuine. From the insufferable descriptions of his days of working at a magazine (he wrote with such importance like he was building rockets at NASA) to the smugness of the writing (who needs paragraph brakes?) to the overall idea that the reader would be enthralled in every moment of his mundane life, it’s obvious that Eggers is in love with both himself and his writing. Moreover, his attempts to justify his own actions while always making himself look good simply by reminding us that he’s (barely) taking care of his brother were painful to read. Isn’t it also supposed to be funny? I made it to the end without ever laughing once.
A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
As a fan of comedy for most of my life, I had heard multiple comedians praise A Confederacy of Dunces as a hilarious work of genius. Ignatius J. Riley was the ultimate hipster, going to movies just to mock them, and so sure that he is so much better than everyone else that he is not even of this world. In short, he is a delusional slob who does nothing but whine constantly. I enjoy works in which the main character is unlikable and I guess I could see how it would resonate with disaffected stand-up comics, but I failed to see the value in this book. This won the Pulitzer? Again, it made me cringe instead of laugh. Forgive me, but if Toole had not killed himself and had the story of the actual publishing of the book not been so inspirational, I doubt this becomes a modern classic.
The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This is not The Great American Novel. I have read this book three different times in three different decades – as a teenager in the ’90s, in my twenties in ’00s, and in my thirties in the ’10s – and it never gets better. For some reason, people insist that it’s great, almost bullying you if you say you don’t like it. I suspect this is because people have been told it’s a masterpiece and they want to seem well-read and erudite – it’s the same reason they buy and display massive books but never open them. There is no great lesson to be learned from Gatsby. It’s not a cautionary tale about the excesses of wealth or how no amount of money can buy happiness. In fact, it’s a story without much emotion at all. Everything is shallow and superficial. I’m sure Gatsby lovers would argue that that’s exactly the point – that the shallowness of the story mirrors the people it’s describing – but if that’s so, why should we care about these people or their story? The characters are so flat, representative of grand ideas and conceits rather than being actual people, with the symbolism hitting you over the head like a sledgehammer (the green light represents money? So clever). Even the great lost love between Daisy and Gatsby – the interaction on which the entire novel hinges – fails to come across. Don’t believe me? Fitzgerald himself admitted as much: “I gave no account (and had no feeling about or knowledge of) the emotional relations between Gatsby and Daisy from the time of their reunion until the catastrophe.” Even the author of Gatsby knew it wasn’t a classic.
Christopher Pierznik is the author of nine books, none of them nearly as successful as any of these, but all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.