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Those overrated books

So, last week I found a piece on Slate about books that people read because they were highly recommended by a teacher or a loved one or a friend and which were found to be incredibly disappointing.  This made me think word of mouth is traditionally a very good way of getting people to read, but how many times do books that come highly touted disappoint us?

I, for one, have been disappointed by some huge bestsellers in recent years.  Maybe it was the hype, which is usually over the top, and maybe it was actually the book itself.  I remember being away on a Christmas vacation when it seemed that everyone in the resort I was staying at was reading The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen.  And so was I.  The book was discussed and discussed some more by perfect strangers; most loved it, but I remember thinking when I came to the end, “why did I bother?”  It was so incredibly depressing. To me this was a big disappointment.

Then there was The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.  Initially, I really liked the premise, but the book didn’t know when to stop; ultimately, despite its huge advance and huge success, I simply didn’t “get it.”

And, finally, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann which every single one of our staff absolutely loved.  I tried; I really, really did.  And I understand what McCann was doing.  But in the end, it just didn’t resonate and I think, as a result, I was more disappointed with myself than I was with the novel.

So I wonder, what recent bestsellers have you been disappointed in?  And what about those classics that we all had to read as kids—did any of those knock your socks off?

26 Responses to Those overrated books

  1. Will Overby says:

    I remember my mother pushing me to read The Phantom Tollbooth when I was younger, but I was never interested. Then when I grew up she gave a copy to my son. I finally decided to read it but could NOT get into it. Since then I’ve heard numerous people say it was one of their childhood favorites, but it bored me to the point of frustration.

  2. I was disappointed in “The Passage” by Justin Cronin. It was all anyone could talk about last summer and got a glowing approval from Stephen King. At seven-hundred-something pages, I figured it was a good investment, but I should have known about half of those could be cut. I only finished it because I’m stubborn.

  3. Oh no. I just bought Tollbooth and Corrections recently…

    It’s funny how books can affect people so differently. I actually loved Let the Great World Spin and Edgar Sawtelle. I picked up The Help and liked it okay, but can’t rave about it.

    I have a tendency to avoid books with too much hype and so didn’t come to Harry Potter and Hunger Games till much later and love them both. Some hype is definitely well-deserved.

  4. I just recently finished Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, and I’d be hard pressed to say when I’ve hated a book more (okay, yes I can- Little Altars Everywhere takes the Top Prize in that category). The writing was mostly fine, but the plot was all over the place with threads dropped everywhere (you’d never let me get away with that), and the characters were the most whiny, annoying, selfish kids I’ve run across (on paper, or in person). But a lot of people loved the book.

    • Julie Nilson says:

      YES! Kathleen, I feel so much better after reading your post. I didn’t like The Magicians either, for exactly the same reasons you stated. Since I usually love that genre, and so many other people seem to love that book, I was starting to wonder if I’d missed something.

  5. Angel Morgan says:

    I’m so happy/relieved to see you write this. Yes, so many books that people are reading and “loving” are not great. Sometimes I think it’s like The Emperor’s New Clothes, they praise the clothes they can’t see and regurgitate what they’ve heard others say. No one has the nerve to say, “Hey you, you’re NAKED!”

    For a long time I followed Oprah’s book club. I love Oprah and agree with most of the things that she endorses. I thought, “Certainly Oprah and I will have the same taste in books.” I bought many of her book club picks. I started them and flung them. After about five books I forced my way through She’s Come Undone. I HATED IT. I came to a conclusion that Oprah and I read for very different reasons.

    I read to escape. I read to be entertained. I read to laugh. I WANT a happy ending. My life has enough depression and sad events that I don’t need to invite that into my fictional world. I used to be embarrassed to say that I was reading fluff. Not any more. Reading is my escape from reality.

    One day I realized that the books that English teachers force students to read today were considered popular fiction in their day. That Shakespeare guy they love to quote, he was the entertainment of the day. Can you imagine in a couple hundred years English Teachers going on about the latest movie franchise in the same way they study Shakespeare? Now that makes me smile. I can hear a future English teacher say, “Class today we’re going to starting a unit on The Transformers. We are going to compare and contrast the leading ladies and discuss the choice to switch out the hottie from the first couple movies to the typical blonde stereotype in the later movies. At the time they said it was creative differences but know we know. . .”

    For my book recommendations I have found a few bloggers and friends that have very similar tastes in books and trust them. That has made book choosing a much happier endeavor.

    English teacher disclaimer: I love English teachers. I am grateful that I was exposed to the world of literature. My favorite books that an English teacher made me read were Of Mice and Men and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. (I think those were considered popular fiction of their day. Wink!)

  6. Kim says:

    I also share your views on “The Corrections.” I couldn’t get past the “lesbian sister” who was not believable as a female character. Franzen should have just included another brother. I just didn’t see what all the excitement was about.

    I also couldn’t get into The DaVinci Code–largely because the overuse of italics drove me crazy, and I never bought the premise. I have intelligent and well-read friends, though, who loved it.

  7. Ciara says:

    The Help. Everyone was raving about it and I couldn’t understand why, it had terrible racist stereotyping and was so full of unexamined privilege by the author. It had no depth, nor did it examine the civil rights situation in any real way. and had a classic white saviour ending. Very disappointing.

  8. Joelle says:

    There are quite a lot of new books that fit the bill for me here, but I don’t feel very comfortable naming them. However, The Bridges of Madison County was one that I just thought was so stupid. And loads of people loved it, so what do I know? Actually, I don’t think it was the idea as much as the execution and writing that got to me, and I think it was the idea that really appealed to the masses anyway.

  9. Catherine Whitney says:

    The Road by Cormac McCarthy (kill me now!)
    The Magicians by Lev Grossman (what???? what???)

  10. Stephanie P says:

    With all respect to the author for the gift of writing a novel:
    Super Sad True Love Story. Attempt at Woody Allen meets Junot Diaz meets Kurt Vonnegut.

  11. I agree about The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski! I had been hearing all about it from everyone, including tons of blogs and media outlets (and yes, Oprah, too). I read a lot, so I thought…why not? While I somewhat enjoyed the beginning, as well as bits and piece of the middle, once I turned that last page…nope. It left me thinking…”What? Seriously? WHY?”

    I was so disappointed, like at the end of a movie you were unsure of until that very last scene cemented your distaste and you’re left staring as the credits roll by, wondering how on earth you could possibly get those 2 1/2 hours back…the only difference being I wasted a lot more than 2 1/2 hours on this book.

  12. Steven Davis says:

    For all the hype, I’ve been completely unable to get through Game of Thrones (though I enjoyed the series on HBO). No American Tolkien for me.

  13. Carrie-Anne says:

    I think Ernest Hemingway is one of the most boring, overrated writers I’ve ever read, though I’ve enjoyed his work in the short form. I also found The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, and Tender Is the Night to be overrated, and couldn’t even finish The Hobbit both times my family tried to make me read it. I therefore have no interest in attempting to read LOTR.

    • Will Overby says:

      Glad to hear someone else could not get into Tolkien. I enjoyed the movies, though, but have no interest in seeing the “expanded” versions or reading the books. Hhmm… maybe Tolkien just needed a better editor.

    • Emily says:

      So glad to hear that I’m not alone. My graduate school house mate was completing a PhD on the Tolkien books — so I had lots of opportunity to learn what it was really all about — like a cartoon character spitting out cat hair: ptooie!

      I could not read the books. I did watch the films — and found them entertaining so at least I didn’t entirely miss the phenom of LOTR!

  14. Of recent-ish books, I’ll say NEVER LET ME GO. I quite liked it, but all the hype around it made it seem like it was this groundbreaking look into what the lives of clones would be like, but I’ve read so much science fiction that it didn’t seem particularly original. Lovely packaging, but the core idea wasn’t as fresh as everyone made it out to be, and I probably wouldn’t have cared about that if it weren’t for the reviews.

    As for classics, I could never get into THE SOUND AND THE FURY or anything by Ernest Hemingway. I found the stream of consciousness style used by Faulkner exhausting and was pretty disgusted by some of Hemingway’s treatment of women.

  15. Oddly enough, I would also say Let the Great World Spin–recently, at least. The writing was amazing in parts, but the story was just incredibly boring. The interwoven plot just seemed like a way to try to give it some sort of tension/bigger meaning that wasn’t really there. I read The Imperfectionists right after that, which was similar (the interwoven plot) but much more entertaining. Fun to read even, which it seems people forget about sometimes.

    (Second runner up for book I thought was overrated? Wolf Hall.)

    • Emily says:

      Re: Wolf Hall

      Must agree mostly — it was one of those books that I wanted to throw at the wall and sell to Half-Price Books.

      Why did I read the whole thing?

      I do not remember…maybe because it was on the bedside table and I didn’t have the energy to go look for something else?

      At anyrate, at some point well into the book, the editing changes.

      It reads like it had three editors. The first one did not manage the relationships between antecedents and anaphors — so the text abounded with unclear references to characters — one simply didn’t know who was being pointed at as the subject of any given sentence or thought.

      The second editor cleaned up a lot of the confusion by making it clear who was being talked about.

      The third editor apparently said, “enough,” and began following the basic rules of English: noun, verb, object.

      It still puzzles me though. Why did that book, so poorly edited, win the Man-Booker Prize?

  16. Curtis Moser says:

    I agree with the comments about Sawtell. I couldn’t even finish it. I also had/have a hard time with anything that Gregory Maguire has written. Wicked was much better as a musical, and I couldn’t even get through the sequels, though try, I did. I do enjoy many of the classics, however, with Hemingway getting top billing. He was a brilliant writer, in my opinion. I also loved Gatsby, but had a hard time with the rest of Fitzgerald’s stuff. Cormac McCarthy is also hard for me to enjoy, although I loved The Sunset Limited.

  17. Hillsy says:

    *sniff* it actually hurts to say it….Dune. Oh how I should’ve loved the trilogy.

    Massive, epic scope? Check
    Blend of Sci-fi and fantasy? Check
    Massive giant beasts capable fo devouring tower blocks? Check
    Evocotive, otherwordly setting? Check
    Book is thick enough to be used as amunition for siege artillery? Check
    Complex, multi-character plot? Check

    …….I have a very mild OCD trait. I can’t NOT finish a book I’ve started – I mean it took Terry Goodkind to break me out of reading a series to completion even if I didn’t like it (I got to book six having trudged miserablely through the previous 4 it was either stop reading the series or play russian roulette with all six chambers filled). I got the dune trilogy in 1 giant omnibus edition. I was always going to finish it…

    …..By the end of Children of Dune I was basically dreading lunchtime at work when I always read for an hour. I didn’t even take the book in the house, just left it in the car. If it wasn’t for the fact that the last 100 pages or so was actually bearable, bordering on ‘OK’ I don’t think I’d be here today…

    Even today, everything I read about the book and the universe and everything surrounding it makes me accept it as the masterpiece it is. I just can’t stand to read the damn thing, which unfortunately is the prime use of a book.

    • Emily says:

      Ah — the differences!

      I loved Frank Herbert’s original book, Dune, and the several that followed.

      But, the books written by others after his death are mostly boring and/ior unreadable.

  18. Emily says:

    I’m not a Jonathan Franzen fan so “The Corrections” languishes on the shelf unread — I tried, I tried but could not get into it. Also, “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” — quell bore!

    One of my favorite high school reads was “The Mouse That Roared.” Looking back I recall being entertained, laughing and now, as an old woman, I realize that my 16-year-old-self was in the place of seeing the adult as ridiculous. Of course that book takes the same satirical theme — only it ridicules international politics. Sadly, we are ridiculous at both the person and international level — being 16 is more fun. It’s an age of being all knowing and all seeing before lifting the ridiculous burdens of grown-ups onto one’s back.

    Recently I read, John Grisholm’s, “The Confession.” Now I can’t even remember what it was about — his books shoot up to Number One Bestsellers because of fans like me who purchase them as soon as they hit the shelves — but lately the stories are not memorable. I loved “The Client,” and have read it and reread it.

    I liked this topic — good questions!

  19. The Hobbit. I know. I must be a freak of nature, but when I was homeschooling my son, we took turns reading it out loud. After a few days, I asked him if he was enjoying it. He shrugged, and I just laughed because it was boring me to tears.

    Also, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Ugh. I had to read it for a book club. I hated it!

  20. Very informative article!

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