Smack Talk On “The World’s Best Books”

I read a lot. I read every day. I am a fan of the printed word. I am a word nerd. I read, therefore I am.

I am not one of those readers who won’t criticize a book just because it’s considered amazing by all those “must read before you die” lists. I’ve been working my way though lists like this or this or this for a while now, and I’ve discovered that a lot of the books on these lists leave me cold.

This is a list of books that I don’t necessarily think are bad books (although in some cases, they are just bad books), but books that I don’t think belong on lists of the best books ever. Here are some examples.

Anything by Ayn Rand


Alright, I’ll give her this, her first book, We the Living, isn’t too terrible, but she wrote that before she created her own -ism. Atlas Shrugged (I think it’s that one, but it might be one of the others) has a 90-plus page speech where her main character talks non-stop about Randianistic ideals while talking to someone else. I’m not sure how much real world time a 90-page soliloquy actually takes, but however long it takes to spew forth 90 pages of ridiculous Randianism, it’s too long. People don’t talk to each other for 90 pages without stopping. No one is impressed by Ayn Rand except Young Republicans. And your name is Alisa, not Ayn.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy


Anna Karenina is rich girl Romeo And Juliet meets train with even more emo angst. Still, it’s shorter than War and Peace, so there’s that. Did Tolstoy get paid by the word? Tolstoy was a nobleman. Not that there’s anything wrong with nobility except that he really couldn’t relate to us common proles at all. There are a lot of great Russian writers out there. Tolstoy is about halfway down on my list.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain


I adore Mark Twain. Just search for Mark Twain quotes, and the genius of his mind and the way he put words together will be clearly evident. I adore his non-fiction. I love his treatises. I not such a big fan of his fiction, specifically, this book. The man had a vocabulary and a pithy wit that wouldn’t quit, which is part of the problem. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn never quits; it just keeps lazily rolling down the river forever. If you have never read this book, you probably should try to read it once, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut


Like Twain, Vonnegut was awesome. He was the type of writer I could sit around jawing with for hours. He and Twain both belong on a top 10 American authors list. Vonnegut’s speeches, non-fiction and most of the rest of his fiction is great. This book is not, yet this is the Vonnegut book that always makes it on these lists. Why? I sum it up with the sentence: And, suddenly, aliens! Bah. Read something else by Vonnegut instead.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis


This book, when it was published, must have been something else. I’m sure it was shocking and controversial and yadda yadda, but it simply doesn’t hold up. It’s dated and no longer relevant. It really can’t happen here. It’s definitely not a bad book–Lewis was an adequate writer–and it’s certainly far from the worst book on this list, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it necessary reading.

Ulysses by James Joyce


Whenever someone says Ulysses is their favorite book, I automatically know they’re pretentious and probably lying. There’s no way you could read Ulysses and call it your favorite book, unless you grew up on a deserted island and it’s literally your only book. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love James Joyce, but I prefer Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man or even Stephen Hero, which I’m reading now.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Feodor Dostoyevsky

I love Dostoevsky. The first half of Crime and Punishment is one of my favorite half-books ever. It’s the second half that goes all Randian on us. By Randian, I mean it drones on and on about a point that was made a hundred pages ago just like Ayn Rand. Yes, Fyodor, we get it. You can stop now.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen


Mark Twain once said, “Just the omission of Jane Austen‘s books alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it,” and I can’t say I entirely disagree. Austen’s books are basically old-timey romance novels without all the steaminess.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte


Groundbreaking, yes. A work of literary genius, no. It’s basically Romeo And Juliet on the moors without all the suicide and wit. The Kate Bush song is better. It does have one great line though: “I prithee, frame off!” which is basically old-timey speak for please, get lost.

Anything by Jack Kerouac


Like It Can’t Happen Here, Kerouac’s books are a product of their era. On The Road isn’t too bad–it’s actually the best of the bunch–but the rest of his books are just beat poetry nonsense or self-congratulation. “Lookit how cool I am, mang.” There’s a poem at the end of Big Sur that’s just wooshing noises. You think I’m kidding?

——Ah back——Ah forth——
A shish——Boom, away,
doom, a day——Vein we
firm——The sea is We——
Parle, parle, boom the
Sho, Shoosh, flut,
ravad, tapavada pow,
coof, loof, roof, ——
Oh ya, ya, ya, yo, yair——

I like the ocean as much as the next guy but I don’t try to have conversations with it in its own language.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner


Nod to Shakespeare in the title aside, this book is inscrutable and annoying. As I Lay Dying is his undisputed masterpiece, no? Well, this book made me feel like I was reading Cormac McCarthy. For the first 75 pages, I had not a clue what was going on in the book. And the next section is all stream of consciousness with nary a comma to be found. Stream of consciousness does not mean it has to be incomprehensible. I don’t want to read every little flicker of a thought that ran through your mind, Bill. Edit that shit.

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis


This isn’t a bad book, but it’s not the world’s greatest by a long shot. It’s super simple. A child could have written it. Is Zorba on these lists just so we can have a Greek author on there besides Homer?

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe


The story in this book is an important one and I very much liked this book. It’s very simple prose. Is it worth reading? Yes. Is it the world’s best? No. If you’re really interested in the subject matter, you’d be better off researching the history of Africa and colonialism.

The Epic of Gilgamesh by Anon


Really? What poncy twit put this on a must read book list? Yes, it’s nice that we still have one of the earliest surviving works of literature lying around, but it’s certainly not a “must read” book. Just because it’s really old, doesn’t mean it’s good. “Two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human.” Gilgamesh is one-third human. Please, explain that math to me, because I’m not getting it. Unless you are a major in Sumerian culture, you don’t need to read this book.

Blindness by José Saramago


Blindness has an interesting story with abysmal execution. Every single sentence runs on forever with no paragraph breaks, commas in place of periods and no quote marks around any of the dialog. It just keeps shambolically trudging along with world-weary metaphors and absolutely no structure. I haven’t seen it, but I’d imagine the movie is probably a little less painful. I actually finished the whole book though, which is more than I can say for the next one…

The Road by Cormac McCrappy

This is not Cormac McCarthy. This is Viggo Mortenson from the movie The Road. I'd much rather look at Viggo than Cormac.

This is not Cormac McCarthy. This is Viggo Mortensen from the movie, because I’d much rather look at Viggo than Cormac.

I normally wouldn’t have included this because there’s no way you could consider it a classic, but I’ve seen this book on a lot of “best book” and “must read” lists. This book is CRAP. It makes me hate just thinking about it. Read why here.

Books that should be on the lists

And now, just so this post isn’t entirely negative, here are some books that I agree should be on the “Best Books” lists:

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

The Idiot and the short stories of Fyodor Dostoyevsky

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler

There are 41 comments

  1. aliceatwonderland

    Ack, ack, ack – oh on some I sooo agree and on others I’m like, what? Pride and Prejudice? It’s great! It’s more than just sappy romance, there’s a lot of subtle cleverness and humor in that one. Love anything Mark Twain, and I’m pretty sure I liked Huck Finn when I read it but that was quite a while back so I dunno. I DO think his other (better) works are neglected because people only want to associate him with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn which I think would make him want to roll his grave.

    Didn’t mind Slaughterhouse Five – interestingly enough, I also don’t remember it. I had to read it for English class, and I just remember out of the horrible books we had to read that year, it was one of the least horrible. Never had to read a lot of Russian authors, thank goodness, because many of the so-called greats are DEPRESSING. Depressing does not equal good! Totally agree on The Sound and The Fury and anything else Faulkner. I freaking hate Faulkner and took an F in a course (my only one) because I hated him so much, lol. Did NOT like Grapes of Wrath – I think it’s an important book, yes, but horribly depressing. And I hate Wuthering Heights though I’ve never read it mostly because it is mentioned so damn much in Twilight.

    You forgot James Fenimore Cooper. I love Twain’s scathing review of his Last of the Mohicans. The guy is totally incomprehensible, and what you can understand, is racist. Yuck.

    Uh, sorry for writing a post there! I wrote a post ages ago about books you have to read in school. Should try to find it and reblog it.


      1. aliceatwonderland

        I admit I only read the one book – from what I hear she can be repetitive. And I haven’t read Last of Mohicans entirely. I was only subjected to an excerpt, thank goodness. I DO agree that many people claim to like classics just to sound smart. “Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.” – Mark Twain


  2. completelydisappear

    Ahh.. You surely read a lot of books. From the above list, I read only one which was Anna Karenina in Thai translation and I couldn’t remember what I felt about it. Just recalled that it was the thick book.

    Usually, I also read many books but most of them are in children, young adult, new adult, chick-lit, steamy historical romance :), suspense, mystery, Japanese fictions, travel and comics. So much different from those books.

    I sometimes questioned the list of the world’s best books. When it comes to the word ‘World’, there are many languages in this world and books are the form of words. So does those lists consider books in other languages aside from English. How can people who list those best books be sure that they don’t leave some great books in other languages if it comes to the World’s best books? …

    It’s just my confusion, nothing against the lists.


  3. draliman

    There’s a typo there, it’s “Cormac McCarthy”, not “Cormac McC…”, oh, right, gotcha.
    Of all the books here, I’ve heard of some of them and read around about… none of them. Well, I read half of Wuthering Heights because I thought I should, because it’s a “classic” and then I gave up.
    So what’s the problem with these books? No vampires, no zombies, no space battles, no…. unicorns!


  4. braith an' lithe

    That made me laugh.
    I like Austen though, there’s a lot of wickedly astute social observation in her books.
    I flicked briefly through the ‘100 best’ links and thought well gosh who’d ever have suspected that most of the best books in the ‘world’ were written by white men ;-)
    One caught my eye- L Ron Hubbard ?!! Isn’t he the scientology guy?!


  5. rarasaur

    I love this and agree with 99%. John Steinbeck is actually one of my least favorite authors in existence, so I wouldn’t add him to any good list. Good call on Ayn Rand, though there are fans out there that will eat your brains if they hear you say it! :)

    I like a lot of the books on your “Don’t call ’em World’s Best” list, but just because I like them… not because they’re especially good books or even the best of the authors work. I definitely wouldn’t include any on a world’s best list. I especially have no idea why Huck Finn is the most famous of Twain’s works. It’s my least favorite and the least well-written! Super weird!


    1. goldfish

      I was actually talking to a friend last night about Steinbeck and my love of that book, and he said that it’s probably my fascination of the subject matter, not the book itself. I’ll have to read it again to be sure.

      I like a lot of those books, too. I gave Things Fall Apart 4 stars. While I think it’s an important subject, I don’t think the book itself is one of the world’s best.


  6. Melanie

    I don’t know if it’s on any of those lists, but the book I wish they would stop making people read is “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorn. Sure there’s history, culture, blah blah blah, but it doesn’t have any impact anymore, and honestly, there are dozens of better Puritan-era novels with less, well, crap spewed on paper.


  7. Doggy's Style

    The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a painful experience, however, I enjoyed the cartoon when I was little.
    As for Saramago, he has some fine work, but that book it’s like drinking cyanide.
    You know what other book is horrible and I don’t know why it’s so famous “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha”, can’t stand that book, was forced to read a short version as kid, then read it willingly when I was older, if I could only get those hours back.


    1. goldfish

      I love Twain, just not that book.

      I should probably read something else by Saramago once I get the taste of Blindness out of my system.

      I almost added Don Quixote, but I haven’t read it in so long, I didn’t feel qualified to comment on it.


  8. electronicbaglady

    I have to confess I am rather fond of Pride and Prejudice because it is pretty funny alot of the time. Generally I quite like older novels – I blame it on the English curriculum at school. We were brainwashed with Dickens and Hardy, although Hardy is pretty damn good I think, especially later. Jude was amazing.
    However, Cormac McWotsit needs to go. Stop the insanity!
    I have always suspected my reading tastes were not quite in keeping with the majority, but as we know, the majority is not always right :-)


    1. goldfish

      Austen’s books are not the worst books by a long shot, but are they the world’s best? I think they throw her on there because she’s a woman.

      McCrappy is probably the worst author it’s been my displeasure to read (it’s not fair of me, I know, since I’ve only read the one book).


  9. garryarmstrong

    Tad early on my beat so I’ll just say an emphatic NO to James Joyce and the his big “U”. NEVER!!!! I’ll be baaaack!


  10. notwendysdave

    Admittedly, I am not really one for the classics. I do like Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn. The characters are so well developed. I also like a little Charles Dickens from time to time, although the world he writes about is pretty bleak.

    Word nerd? Lol!


    1. goldfish

      There’s no doubt whatsoever that Twain and Dickens are great writers. It’s just that I think that book in particular of Twain’s isn’t the world’s best.


  11. kirstenhwhyte

    I’ve never heard that quote from Mark Twain about Jane Austen before, but I like it! I have tried to read Austen (Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility) and even the quirker counterparts in the hope that they will be better (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, Sense & Sensibilty & Sea Monsters). Even the inclusion of mythical beasts can’t make these books better. I just don’t get the whole ‘Austen’ thing.


  12. alexp01

    Fun fact: Bill Faulkner’s house and grave are in my current town and people come from all over to see them. One guy was so overwhelmed with Faulkner-love that he drank from Bill’s old birdbath. Also, the graduate students from the university English department like to get blitzed while hanging out on old Bill’s slab.


  13. aetherhouse

    ““Two-thirds of him is god, one-third of him is human.” Gilgamesh is one-third human. Please, explain that math to me, because I’m not getting it.”

    I think trinities are just really common in religious myth, tbh. Kind of like the Christian god is also 1/3 human in the form of Jesus? Gilgamesh is also comparable to Noah because I think it’s a flood story.

    I feel like I’m Ayn Rand reincarnated from a philosophy standpoint, but she was not a great writer. I have a book about the craft of writing by her, and she was kind of a dick about the whole thing. Really bland and “do as I say, not as I do.” Anyway, Atlas Shrugged should not even pose as a work of fiction. It’s a treatise on Objectivism, plain and simple.


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