Bad Books

I’ve been reading many bad and/or badly written books of late. One by choice, the rest by necessity. I think it was three or four birthdays ago that I vowed I would never do that again.

Speaking of which, I always took it as a mark of a great book—not the only or a necessary mark, but a mark—that it contains certain passages that, because of the vividness of an image, power of an argument, or stylishness of the prose, you remember years later. Read them once, they’re with you forever.

Foucault’s opening description of the execution of Damiens the regicide; Arendt’s meditation on the 1957 launching of Sputnik and how it was greeted not as a celebration of human power or the wonder of adventure but as a welcome relief, an opportunity for men and women to at last get off the earth; Lukács’s remarks on how, in contrast to Frederick the Great, who fought his wars in such a way that no one would notice them, the French Revolution turned warfare, and thus consciousness and history, into a mass experience; Sartre’s analysis of the waiter and bad faith; Janet Malcolm’s description of the psychoanalytic encounter as a kind of shadow boxing (she doesn’t use that exact phrase) or her wintry description of her last sessions with Aaron Green (and his claim that what he is doing in psychoanalysis is brain surgery, where the patient one day wakes up with a new mind)—these will always be with me.

So why then do I remember so many bad books? Actually, what I remember about them is less their contents than my reaction to them. Which I guess is the point.



  1. Michael July 17, 2016 at 12:40 am | #

    Read the Sputnik passage during a look through a bookstore. Also stuck with me, and motivated me to purchase a copy a year later.

  2. mark July 17, 2016 at 4:49 am | #

    ‘A violin in a void’ is how Nabokov described one of his novels.

  3. graccibros July 17, 2016 at 9:19 am | #

    Speaking of bad books:

    This is the title, and my opening paragraph in my review at Amazon of Charles Murray’s book “Coming Apart”, from 2012:

    Who “Done” It? Who Did in the “White Working Class?” They Did It to Themselves, according to Charles Murray.

    Charles Murray’s new book is actually a book about change, how some parts of American society, like the upper middle class residents of Belmont, Massachusetts, have done very well, and others, the working class residents of Fishtown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, have not. But it’s also, implicitly at least, about causality: a book about “winners and losers” between the years 1960-2010, and he is covering a span of American cultural and economic life which saw enormous changes in both. But which sphere of human activity drove the changes? Murray says it was character changes in the working poor that did them in, while the Belmontians thrived by their retention of the right values. If only, if only, the poorer Philadelphians could have kept the virtues of our “Founding Fathers,” they would have done much better than portrayed here. This, readers, is one gigantic fairy tale, and if the book does not sell well, I’ll personally recommend Murray as an advisor to Colonial Williamsburg or Disneyland – and Mr. Murray – you of course will be “free to choose” which one you fits you the best.

  4. Dean C. Rowan July 17, 2016 at 10:34 pm | #

    A sharp memory isn’t a fair tool to measure greatness in a book. Some people–you, evidently–have sharp memories. I do not. But even I am devoted to great books particular features of which I can’t recall: Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Henry James’ The Ambassadors, Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, and so on. Among non-fiction works I count Paul de Man’s Rhetoric of Temporality, which I’ve read many times. Don’t ask me to recite any of it. Among bad books I include Stephen Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park. All I recall of that particular waste of time is its overly eager attempt to pass as literary.

  5. Labriola July 18, 2016 at 3:02 pm | #

    nd so onI hear the complain, but it is best not to ever follow up on that sort of resolution. Too many good things would go out of the window: Weber, awful writer great mind; Arendt, yes, Arendt, who often reads like a bad translation from the German language, you may find memorable but not everyone; hey, even Arno Mayer is far from being a stylist, not to speak of Raymond Williams…and so on… you get my drift…

  6. WaltzWaltWalzer July 19, 2016 at 12:51 am | #

    “One by choice…”
    Re-reading Habermas after Brexit, are we now?

  7. Daniel T Peters July 22, 2016 at 1:51 am | #

    That bit from Arendt’s Human Condition stuck with me as well fwiw. I’m only 35, but it felt so *modern*. Modern to me at least.

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