Smack Talk On “The World’s Best Books”

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

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