Friday, June 6, 2014

20 Books I've Read So You Don't Have To

An expansion of a post from last year...

Life is short, you've got a lot to do and you still havent watched The Wire or read War and Peace yet. Well I haven't watched The Wire either but fortunately I have read everything so here's a quick primer on 20 'great' big books that I've read so that you don't have to.

1. Clarissa: This will take you hundreds of miserable hours to finish and at the end of it you will have no feeling of achievement, merely the aching knowledge that you wont get those hours back. Even Richardson's much shorter Pamela drags and Fielding's pisstake on Pamela, Shamela isn't the barrel of laughs you'd like it to be either.
2. The Mill On The Floss: The soppy ending is telegraphed miles ahead and its a dreary trudge to get there. If you're only going to read one George Eliot in this lifetime make it Middlemarch. 
3. Finnegan's Wake: A literary experiment or a longform poem, not a novel: read Ulysses or Dubliners or Portrait instead. 
4. Jude The Obscure: Thomas Hardy's books and prose style have not aged well. His poetry is terrific but I think you can easily skip the gloomy Jude The Obscure, The Return of the Native & Tess and maybe just read Far From The Madding Crowd which, spoiler alert, has a rare-for-Hardy happy-ish ending.  
5. The Brothers Karamazov: Controversial one this. I loved the Brothers K but if you're only ever going to read one Dostoyevsky read Crime And Punishment instead because its shorter, more focused and more contemporary. But hear me well: the five 5 big Dostoyevsky novels are all worth getting stuck into if you've got the time...
6. Little Dorrit: Read the first chapter that begins in a prison in Marseilles. Skip to the end. But definitely read this before Dombey and Son or The Old Curiosity Shop or Hard Times or the steadfastly unfunny Pickwick Papers. My preferred Dickens is the late 3 act masterpiece: Bleak House. 
7. Armadale: Wilkie Collins has been undergoing a revival of late but this isn't the one to start with. The Woman in White, No Name, The Moonstone - stick to those. 
8. From Here To Eternity: Interesting gay subtext, strange nihilistic ending, but James Jones's masterpiece is The Thin Red Line - go get that. Now. 
9. Infinite Jest: DFW's real genius was for writing essays. Read those and you won't regret a minute spent in the great man's company. 
10. War and Peace: The war bits will irritate those of you who like romance. The romance bits will irritate those of you in it for the war. The weird lengthy coda will annoy everyone. Look, I'll be honest I did like this book but if you're pressed for time read Anna Karenina or The Death of Ivan Ilyich or Hadji Murad. 
11. To The Lighthouse - Not really a fan of Woolf but I think Mrs Dalloway is better and sharper than Lighthouse. If, however, you're curious about what posh people were thinking about on their holidays in the pre WW1 salad days then this is the book for you. 
12. A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu: the first 30 pages will give you gist. Trust me.
13. The Harry Potter Series: I think we can all agree now that some kind of collective madness overcame the word in the late 90's when fully grown adults started wearing wizard hats and reading these novels. I'm reading these to my seven year old at the moment. Holy Christ do books 4 & 5 drag. 
14 Dune. I read all 6 Frank Herbert Dune books and a couple of knock offs written by his kid. What the hell was I thinking? Don't get sucked in. 
15. Against The Day. This is not the Thomas Pynchon to begin with. Start thusly: a) Inherent Vice b) Lot 49 c) Gravity's Rainbow d) Vineland e) Bleeding Edge f) Mason & Dixon g) V h) Against the Day.
16. The Finkler Question. Steadfastly unfunny, but not in a Stewart Lee deliberately unfunny meta-textual kind of way, just in a regular unfunny kind of way.
17. The Heart of Midlothian - Sir Walter Scott hasn't aged that well either although Ivanhoe is still a rollicking good read, isn't it? 
18. The Screenplay of The Counselor: Reads like it was written by that pervy old guy who's always hanging around the frozen yoghurt place the Catholic schoolgirls go to after soccer practice, but in fact it was written by Cormac McCarthy! Huh? 
19. The middle 300 pages of anything written by someone who is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop. You know what I'm talking about. The book starts well but then the IWW training kicks in and we get 300 pages of noodling around the same portentous issues with no jokes and plenty of hack philosophy and psychology. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule - Daniel Woodrell went to the IWW for example and you'll never hear me say a word against DW! 
20. A Suitable Boy. I kid. A Suitable Boy is terrific and I won't hear a word against it. I carried it around India with me for two months and it makes a useful stool, a source of emergency toilet or roll up paper and it could be a handy defensive weapon. Its perfect really except for the fact that . . . MAJOR SPOILER ALERT after 1300 pages she HIDDEN TEXT: doesn't actually marry the suitable boy


Mike R said...

Thanks for the heads up. I haven't read any of them except for "A Suitable Boy" but I don't remember anything about it! However, I did love another book about India - A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - it is one of my all time favorite books partly because it was such a an eye-opener into another world where many of the things that are described in the book have happened in reality (e.g. forced sterilization, etc.).

adrian mckinty said...


Yeah I remember that one, that scene where they took the mentally challenged man and sterilized him....

Pretty grim book.

There's an A Suitable Boy sequel in the works which I'm really looking forward to...

Dana King said...

I read the first four Harry Potter books when they came out, as my daughter was of the target age and I wanted to have something literary she and I could talk about. The first three were fine, with PRISONER OF AZKABAN the best in my mind.

Number 4 (GOBLET OF FIRE( was the last I read, 260 pages in before the actual story starts. I'm not who's going to bash Rowling: anything that gets kids (and adults) to read is great, and the adults dressing up are not her fault. She appears to be a humanitarian who truly appreciates where she has come from and gives back more than anyone could expect, but, damn, life's too short for 260 pages of exposition and prologue.

As for Cormac McCarthy, are you sure he's not that pervy old guy who's always hanging around the frozen yogurt place the Catholic schoolgirls go to after soccer practice?

There are several writers here I've wondered about. Thanks for the tips on where to, or not to, start.

Steve said...

Didn't John Irving go to IWW? I do like his stuff.

Anne Horton-Smith said...

Oh, a thousand times thank you for this, Adrian - you have saved me so much guilt about never having finished any of them, except for Infinite Jest. On this I have to beg to differ because I relish anything DFW has ever written - even his philosophy stuff that I don't fully understand, but that is obviously my failing, not his.

adrian mckinty said...


Goblet of Fire was amazing. The first 100 pages cd have been cut without any problem at all. What the hell happened to the editing process there?

Maybe you're right, maybe she did get a generation of kids reading? Maybe the situation wd be even worse if hadnt been for Rowling, Twilight etc.

Cd be...

adrian mckinty said...


I like JI too. A Prayer For Owen Meaney? Loved that one.

adrian mckinty said...


I do recommend that everyone at least try Infinite Jest but they shld try and finish at least one of the essay collections in particular A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again which is genius from start to finish.

seana graham said...

I'm sure I weighed in on this when you first posted it, so no need for me to rehash my thoughts. I did want to say, though, that I've been reading Life and Fate, per your recommendation sometime ago. I have maybe a hundred pages to go. It is a great book. It's funny because I'm tackling it with an online reading group, and so far I feel like I'm reading a different book from most of them, as they don't seem to be getting any of the things I'm getting out of it. It does seem to me like a tribute to War and Peace as filtered through Chekhov. Grossman's war scenes seem to me to be vastly superior to Tolstoy's although it's been eons since I read that book.

I also just read The Way We Live Now by Trollope. I had a good discussion with a group of my friends on this, but if you had to choose one, I would definitely go with Life and Fate.

adrian mckinty said...


Life and Fate is extraordinary and the fact that we have it at all in the face of Stalin's censors is wonderful. I dont think its the best novel of WW2 - that wd be The Thin Red Line or Catch 22 I reckon but its the best novel about the Russian front.

seana graham said...

It is also a wonderful examination of what it does to human relationships under a totalitarian regime. Grossman lived it, so he should know. It is so insightful about what courage and freedom mean in any human life, even ours. I was really struck by how we sidestep around things even when nothing very big is at stake, and it led me to take a stand in a situation where it would have been more diplomatic not to. But I was thinking, what is at stake here? I'm not exactly going to be sent to Siberia if I speak my mind.


Brendan O'Leary said...

Thanks. I suppose I don't have to read them now.

After reading Portrait of the Artist and Dubliners from the mining camp bookshop, I thought I could tackle Finnegans Wake. I hitch-hiked round Western USA and Scotland and worked offshore for a year and went back to Australia before I had the courage to ditch it.

And all I can remember is "riverrun" and that it weighed a brick.

seana graham said...

Brendan, read it aloud with a group of people and plenty of beer. It is a masterpiece. But Adrian's right. It isn't a novel. It's its own thing.

adrian mckinty said...


The internet means that you can always find a friend who thinks like you do. Its for good and ill though isnt it? Comfort for a little girl in, say, Iran who wants to listen to punk music, but have you ever gone through the Stormfront or David Icke message boards? Jesus.

adrian mckinty said...


Life is definitely too short to read FW casually. Although it might work Seana fashion really tackling it and reading it out loud in a group. I doubt I'll ever go near it again.

seana graham said...

Why would I go through the Stormfront or David Ickes comments? I rarely read comments anywhere but on the blogs I like.

No one should read Finnegans Wake casually at this point. But I bet in a hundred years it will seem conventional, even passé.

A safe bet to make, as I won't be here.

adrian mckinty said...


Dont ever do that.

No my point is that every nutcase and fascist can find like minded people to comfort him on the internet too. Whereas before the secret neoNazi might have been ashamed of his vulgar reactionary views and behaved himself now he can blossom online into a fully fledged hater

Naomi Johnson said...

Never could get into any of Thomas Hardy's novels, but I did enjoy his short stories, particularly the collection, Life's Little Ironies.

Tom McGraw said...

Adrian, thanks for saving me the pain. Flashbacks to high school, maybe I would appreciate a few of these more today? If you don't recognize your own limitations, someone else certainly will.

seana graham said...

They've been having a Mary Holmes festival up at my old college, and I went up and heard one of longtime friendly acquaintances give a talk on her the other night. He was reminding us of her point that though human beings need to find meaning in their lives, they are perfectly content to settle for extremely dubious meaning. Talking about the neo Nazis reminded me of that.

Steve said...

Another nice review for you:

adrian mckinty said...


His poetry is great.

adrian mckinty said...


Well you never what you might like if you give it a shot but if you're hating it by page 50 I say quit.

adrian mckinty said...


You or anyone can read that Viktor Frankl book here:'s%20Search%20For%20Meaning%20-%20Viktor%20E.%20Frankl.pdf

To be honest I dont find it that helpful.

adrian mckinty said...


Thanks for that!

Its funny that I've had twice as many newspaper reviews in Toronto than I've had in the whole of the United States of America.

seana graham said...

Frankl came up in the talk. In fact there was an interview with him.

I have to say that I don't really think of myself as looking for meaning, but then I am not in a bleak situation like a concentration camp where I have to question the idea of going on so much. I'm kind of in the 'may as well' camp.

Steve said...

Better taste in Toronto I guess.

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This comment has been removed by the author.
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Elsa (Uruguay) said...

With some friends we used to write about books in a blog. We have abandoned it by now. Reading in your blog I saw you wrote about "A Suitable Boy". I laughed a lot. Look at what happened when I tried to read it (I don't know if you can read Spanish):