Great books, bad Amazon reviews

Here‘s a delightful article that simply quotes one-star reviews of great books on Amazon.  (I read about it in the Boston Globe this morning and assumed it was recent–but it’s actually from way back in 2005.)

Some of the reviews just kinda miss the point, like this one of Slaughterhouse-Five:

“In the novel, they often speak of a planet called Tralfamadore, where he was displayed in a zoo with a former movie star by the name of Montana Wildhack. I thought that the very concept of a man who was kidnapped by aliens was truly unbelievable and a tad ludicrous. I did not find the idea of aliens kidnapping a human and putting them in a zoo very plausible. While some of the Tralfamadorians’ concept of death and living in a moment would be comforting for a war veteran, I found it relatively odd. I do not believe that an alien can kidnap someone and house them in a zoo for years at a time, while it is only a microsecond on earth. I also do not believe that a person has seven parents.”

Some of them simply employ different critical standards from the rest of us. Here’s a one-sentence pan of Lord of the Rings:

“The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs.”

And some of them do have a point.  Here’s a takedown of Gravity’s Rainbow:

“When one contrasts Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five with this book, it’s like comparing an Olympic sprinter with an obese man running for the bus with a hot dog in one hand and a soda in the other.”

And this one pretty well sums up The Sun Also Rises:

“Here’s the first half of the book: ‘We had dinner and a few drinks. We went to a cafe and talked and had some drinks. We ate dinner and had a few drinks. Dinner. Drinks. More dinner. More drinks. We took a cab here (or there) in Paris and had some drinks, and maybe we danced and flirted and talked sh*t about somebody. More dinner. More drinks. I love you, I hate you, maybe you should come up to my room, no you can’t’… I flipped through the second half of the book a day or two later and saw the words ‘dinner’ and ‘drinks’ on nearly every page and figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”

I just love that last sentence.

I wonder if you could chart a book’s reputation over time by the customer reviews.  The Sun Also Rises has 621 reviews; On the Road has 811; Slaughterhouse-Five has 911. That’s getting to be a reasonable sample size.  In any case, writers can take comfort that you can’t please everyone; some people are bound to hate even the best books.  Everybody likes To Kill a Mockingbird, right?  It now has 87 one-star reviews in Amazon.  Here’s one:

i had to read this book in 9th grade. i heard that it was supposed to be this wonderful american classic, and i actually looked forward to reading it. well, all i’m gonna say is that it sucked. it was just like any other book, nothing special. yes, the prejudice part was good, i think it could show people that we need to accept our differences, but it just wasn’t that deep. i got bored after 20 pages. all in all, i was very disappointed and to whoever gets an assignment to read this, good luck.

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What’s the most difficult novel you ever read?

Publishers Weekly has an article about The Top 10 Most Difficult Books.  It’s an odd list.  Some books are difficult because they’re old (Tale of the Tub).  Others are difficult because they’re long and old (Clarissa).  Others are difficult because they’re philosophy (The Phenomenology of the Spirit). Why don’t we throw in some books about quantum mechanics while we’re at it?  Finally, I just don’t get a couple of the choices.  It’s been a long time since I read To the Lighthouse, but I don’t recall it being all that difficult. And The Faerie Queene is just boring.

I think you need to compare apples to apples.  Why not simply limit the list to novels?  For me, the most difficult I’ve read were Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses (and both repaid the effort).  But I’ve never tried Finnegan’s Wake beyond short excerpts.  I also found Mason & Dixon and Against the Day (both post-Gravity’s Rainbow Pynchon) to be difficult, but they were also boring and I don’t think I tried very hard to understand them. (Were they difficult because they were boring, or boring because they were difficult?)  The Sound and the Fury is difficult in its own way; Faulkner doesn’t make life easy for the reader.

The article mentions The Recognitions, which I think I tried once and gave up on. Joseph McElroy, whom the authors put on their list, has escaped my notice entirely. David Foster Wallace hasn’t escaped my notice, but I don’t think I have the energy to take onThe Infinite Jest.  Haruki Murakami is difficult in a weird and entertaining way; I enjoyed 1Q84 and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, for example, but I’d be hard put to explain what the heck Murakami was up to in either of those novels.

Very few “difficult” books made that top 100 list I wrote about.  If part of what you’re trying to do is getting people to read great books, you’re probably going to be more successful suggesting Fitzgerald and Hemingway than Pynchon and Gaddis. The top 100 list reminded me of a lot of novels that ought to be on my personal to-read list; I’m not adding anything from the PW list.