Eight ‘classic’ and popular books that are unreadable…

Sometimes the vast majority of people love certain books and these books go on to achieve legendary status. Then it seems to be a certainty that you will love them too. So you waltz out and buy them and then settle in for an enjoyable read, until you realise that it’s all a mirage and a house of mirrors. The enjoyment is frustratingly out of reach. So you try harder and harder. It’s a strange feeling when you’re a part of the minority who simply can’t enjoy certain so-called Classics. Here are some popular reads that fell flat for me.  

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Just like Vegemite, another Australian export – you will either love this book or despise it. It is that polarising and many people claim it to be the ultimate travel memoir/adventure. Consistently on the bestseller list for decades, this is the ultimate boy’s own adventure. This is the story of a criminal who flees an Australian prison on a fake passport for life in the bustling and chaotic streets of Bombay. That plot sounded promising for me, so I bought it for a long-haul flight to London. This is a chunky 933 page brick of the most excruciatingly self-important and egotistical drivel you will ever read. This is what happens when a boring, self-absorbed and entitled man from a first world country is able to taste the nefarious and exploitative delights of a third world country, without limits. 

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

The Penguin Classics imprint is a by-word for a never-fail approach to fiction and non-fiction. Although sometimes books sneak in there that shouldn’t be there. I would say My Family and other Animals is one of these. It’s a memoir published in 1956 it recounts Durrell’s quirky family as they move from Britain to the Island of Corfu. The book sounded right up my alley – one part nature writing, one part funny memoir, one part nostalgic summer island trip. Although, I read it recently and found the prose to be boring, the pace of the storytelling glacial and the characters from the Corfu village and Durrell’s family, a bit like poorly drawn caricatures, rather than real people. It may be because the book has aged considerably since it was published, but not sure? People on Good Reads seem to adore this one? I am left absolutely baffled about why I didn’t.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Apparently a work of genius, or so everyone says. There’s a lot of literary references in there and it’s based on the Iliad by Homer and so blah blah blah….a classic.

The words when strung together in sentences have a mellifluous, onomatopoeic rhythm. In other sentences, the words sound like a dog has vomited up contents of its stomach onto the page and is now trying to paw through the remainings. The characters were difficult to care about as well, the plot was motionless and as boring as hell.

Anything written by Jane Austen

I really love books from this time and vintage and developed a teenage passion for many of the books by the Bronte sisters including Wuthering Heights. Although, I find Austen’s writing too purple and ornate to really enjoy. I didn’t find her writing witty, as others have claimed about it, the whole thing was just too decorative, dense and long-winded, like a gigantic and frothy cream-cake filled with champagne. The writing and the stories are too frivolous and bubbly and practically the opposite of the brooding gothic stuff by the Brontes. That probably just says a lot about me, rather than Austen and I will probably get drawn and quartered by Austen lovers for saying that.  

One hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The famous author of another classic ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, this was a classic that I was super excited to read. Until that is, I read the first few pages. ‘Shit! this was going to be a grower’ I thought to myself, and rolled up the sleeves of my mind and entered into a poorly dug cave, ill equipped with a tiny hand axe. This book about magic realism is practically unreadable and the plot is completely incomprehensible to follow. I think sometimes these books become the Zeitgeist because some critic tells the world this is the case and then everyone follows along blindly with it.  I have no idea what this book was about so I can’t really explain further, but a few chapters in, I gave up. Obviously I’m stupid or something then.  

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

A multi-award winner from 2001, this book gathered hype like a fast-moving Californian wildfire. The writing is tight and the character development is great as well. Although I think the main issue is the subject matter and the lack of a strong forward motion in the plot. This is the tale of a middle-class American family from the 60’s until the present day. It bares the most ugly, unlikeable and repugnant parts of people and you’re left thinking – why the hell am I reading this, these people are so horrible and revolting and I simply don’t care about any of them?! In terms of the plot, nothing much happens – they just fight a lot with each other. It’s incredibly depressing. I’ll save you the trouble with this one and simply say, skip it.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I felt a high degree of pressure and hype from friends (both on here and real life) to like this one. On Good Reads, Bill Gates and his wife Melinda (always mainstays of the mainstream, talk about how they often read this book simultaneously to each other and gush about it, some sort of literary mutual masturbation perhaps?) But on actually engaging with this book, I found the main character Count Alexander Rostov to be pretentious and annoying. The fact that he was above all of the problems of the Bolshevik revolution, and how he maintains his composure and his manners at all times seemed (to me) unrealistic and made him less believable and likeable as a character, rather than more endearing. Most people absolutely loved this book, but I just couldn’t like this character and found the setting and the storytelling to be unrealistic. So I must have been reading something completely different from the majority.

The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho

This is a self-help book in the guise of a parable about a man meeting many people on a long and mysterious journey. If that sounds promising, it’s not. Rather it’s written in a childish, overly simplistic language that an six year old would understand. Fables and archetypal characters are pilfered from many different places here and the lessons in it about how to listen to your heart, and how to follow your own true path in life are so obvious that they are the most clichéd shit you will ever read.

Do you have any books that everyone else seemed to love and you absolutely hated, or that you found to be a bit mediocre? Do you disagree with my assessment on these books and want to give me a good talking to? Let me know below.

25 thoughts on “Eight ‘classic’ and popular books that are unreadable…

  1. Wow! I had no idea Shantaram was so polarising. I liked his use of imagery, but I suppose, never thought to consider it from the ‘entitlement’ perspective. Wuthering Heights was when I finally spat the dummy in High School English (and subsequently failed). I think we had just moved on from ‘Maori Girl’ and ‘King Lear’. It wasn’t a comment on the literature, or the subject matter, but too much death, suicide, and madness in your mid teens may not be good timing. Durrell I think, was one of those books that you simply grew up with. He was a household name. I’d probably find it jolly…. boring today. I read The Alchemist last year, and would have to agree with you. It was a nice, quick read, but probably doesn’t deserve the hype. It’s basically a fable re-written as a short book.

    1. I think Mike if you were to publish your own travel pieces in one book it would be far more interesting than Shantaram and I would buy it for sure! I just couldn’t believe how corney Shantaram was, and how he clearly loved himself so much, but I guess we all experience books differently. What do you mean by spat the dummy with English? did you have enough of the teacher, did you hate Wuthering Heights? I get why a teenage boy would find that book tedious I suppose, Heathcliff and Cathy it is like a teenage goth fantasy though and coupled with the Kate Bush song, it made it very appealing to many girls. What was Maori Girl about, was it any good? About Durrell, I was dissapointed in myself I couldn’t like it, as it is a classic.

      1. I seem not to be getting an alert that you’ve replied – I wonder what other ones I’ve missed? Yeah, Ioved his choice of words, but sort of typically, just take people at face value (to start with!). By spat the dummy, I mean I refused to read any more of what were were assigned. I found them all horribly depressing. The teachers were fine, just would have liked something light. Surely high school literature shouldn’t all be about depression and suicide – Maori Girl was a classic that way. Good books of course, just felt like it was one after the other of the same basic thing. I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Kate Bush’s song…. !

      2. Don’t worry about missing any of my comments I am not bothered by it 🙂

        It’s funny you say about depressing teenage books…that Maori Girl one sounds like one of these. This could actually be another list. Overly moralistic and over-blown disaster stories about ‘teens gone wild’ or depressing stories about teens with parents who abuse them etc These are given to teens to stop them from going over the edge and getting into drugs or criminality. I could think of a few of these books.

        There was one given to me by my mum – Go Ask Alice – the story of a teenager during the hippy 60’s who gets into heroin and LSD and loses the plot. Another one called Anna’s Story about a teenage girl who took ecstacy at a rave and then died.

        I really wish they would produce more books about mindfulness, philosophy, the nature of love, how to be a good person, how to be happy, how to believe in yourself for teens, instead of all of this cynical bullshit. Being in the world is hard enough when you are young as it is.

  2. I thought Shantaram was supposed to be good…I have it on the kindle but haven’t read it yet. ‘100 years’ is an interesting selection — I remember started it years ago but only got 50 or so pages in. Don’t think I stopped due to lack of interest but can’t exactly remember the reason hmmm. And what a pity you didn’t like ‘A gentleman in moscow’ — my fav read of the year by a distance!!!

    1. Oh and Coelho treads a fine line between meaningful emotionally resonant books and new age crap. I quite liked a few of his books but it can be touch and go. Your description would very well suit that book about the seagull…johnathan livingstone something…have you read that? A steaming turd of a book.

      1. Oh my gosh!!! Yes…Johnathan Livingston Seagull, holy shit I forgot about t…a whole island’s worth of seagull shit hahaha Coelho really lost me on this one to the point where I never recovered to read his other books. One I actually did like of the same ilk is Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet…others have told me that it’s an absolute stinker, what are your thoughts on that one? It’s another polarising spiritual book, for sure

    2. I would say maybe give Shantaram a go if it is there, I would be interested to hear what you think. As Mike said here, he rather liked it, I think many people do, maybe give it a go. I don’t know why, his writing just didn’t do it for me.

  3. Good on you.

    So many books with so much hype, only to disappoint. I know it can be a matter of personal taste, but many sheeple falsely laud stuff they don’t like.

    Shantaram – twice I tried to read this self indulgent pretentious nonsense.

    The Alchemist – personally I was not offended, but too much hype, and after I read Coelho’s, The Valkyries, I have never ventured down his spiritual path again.

    The Corrections – I have never read and probably never will after slogging through Franzen’s, Freedom – what a wank that was.

    One hundred Years of Solitude – just checked, I gave this two stars on Goodreads. I definitely got seriously confused with all the characters with the same name. I think I persisted because I had read Love in the Time of Cholera and loved it.

    Ulysses – unreadable, seriously. But you have to love Joyce if you want to be taken seriously in the literary world, seriously.

    Jane Austen – It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a high school student in possession of a desire for good marks that lead to a good career that will create a massive fortune, must be able to write an essay on the techniques and themes of English privilege.

    My contribution, The Boat by Nam Le. Some good story ideas wrecked by completing a Masters in Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the United States.

    1. I am so glad you agree with me here on some of these choices Sean. Yes about Austen you are so right that this is prescribed reading for anyone who wants to be considered a ‘serious’ young writer. I don’t see her as being particularly compelling, I never could although when I was younger and doing English literature, I am ashamed to admit that I pretended to like her for this reason, for a while there. I guess the internet doesn’t hide how people really feel about these so-called classics for long, and it’s easier for people to out themselves as not being fond of classics, it feels like such a relief to admit to such things, the pressure to conform to what is universally considered good taste, can be exhausting!

      The Boat by Nam Le…I hope to never encounter this in the book shop hehehe I hope I don’t half remember this title in a book shop and impulse buy it now, thinking that it’s actually a good book haha

  4. A great idea for a post. Bad reviews are often more amusing than good ones, and just as informative.

    I must admit to not having read most of these:

    * I did attempt Ulysses once when I was a better fiction reader, but I didn’t persist.
    * I’ve not read Jane Austen since school, though I’ve been meaning to, given that I like most of the BBC adaptations of her work. But she’s still down my list a bit.
    * I did read and enjoy A Hundred Years of Solitude, but only succeeded at the third attempt. But once I was in the damp claustrophobic world of the Buendías, where they use the same two names down each generation, I loved it. Another book I had to try three times with was Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. Sometimes you have to be in the mood. Eventually I loved it, so confirming that I am really Australian! Otherwise I would have had to seek another nationality.

    Books that I’ve read and regretted in the last few years are:
    * The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This was recommended to me by a friend and so I forced my way through it, but it wasn’t worth the trek – I lost interest in the characters and their fates.
    * The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I got halfway and abandoned it as a bad idea.
    * Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. I had read some other McEwan books which I admired rather than loved. But this book was cold and dry and dull. He won the Booker Prize for it! Jesus wept.

    I’m sure there are more, but I must have blocked them out. Cheers, Peter

    1. Hi Peter, so funny that you mention the Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides I had the same experience with that book. Although with The Secret History I blazed through it and adored every second of it…isn’t it weird how some books can resonate deeply with some people and for others it can be a completely awful or boring experience, I find this fascinating!

      Your experience wth One Hundred Years of Solitude makes me want to give it another solid go actually, as if you loved it, maybe I will to. I will get it from the library this time (I gave my old copy to the charity shop).

      About Austen – the BBC adaptations are the best aren’t they, especially with Colin Firth in it.

      I love a lot of Ian McEwan but I haven’t read Amsterdam and doubt I will now after your words here. I probably have loads of others too, same as you, but they were so bad I found a fire or a cowpat in a desolate field and threw them into it LOL!!

  5. I haven’t read any of those books but i will share with you this thing that happen once relating to one, OK? my younger sister is a big huge fan of Austen but i don’t know other that when i asked her once what’s so great about her or something like that? the only think i remember her saying now, all the old fashion words she uses in her writing, she joked she did try to use some of Jane’s words in her own modern life and the only one she sipped in was nonsensically but that very unsuccessful. Then it did become the running joke the rest of that night, maybe only because it was weekend night, everyone was drinking a lot and having a good time? all three or four of us started using it like sometimes almost every second word and in everything we talked about the rest of the night, even if it made no or little sense at all which is the point, i guess? it was just totally very silly, drunk funny but that’s my JA story! 🙂

    I can’t think of anything i would call unreadable! my trick i have been using for years is that i just stand in the bookshop, library and read the whole first chapter even if the shop has signs we are not a library or the staff get pissed off with me or whatever? if nothing grabs me or i don’t really want to knows what happens next, i put it back on the shelf. i guess, i then forgotten about it! i think, yeah i have in the past read more to be so very disappointed by some books, thinking i will dig this more but don’t or I’ve got total bored by it, don’t care after a while and just give-up. i guess, that’s the very same thing as unreadable books you’re talking about, right? i will have a think and get back to you, if i can remember them and if they are very well-known? because if i did buy it at the time off course i haven’t kept it or them. maybe, also i shouldn’t have said i was stopping book blogging myself, i guess i could change my mind again? anyway it’s very cool post plus i am finally leaving you a reply after some time not commenting here! 🙂

  6. Hi William I do the same thing in book shops and I don’t really care what they think, In New Zealand sometimes you are looking at $30-$40 for a book, so if I am gonna buy it, I want to ensure it’s a good one so why not stay and read it for a long while and work out if you like it. I have got a lot of bad looks from the people in the shops though. Try before you buy I say!

    Thanks so much for taking the time to reply to me here. I agree about Austen, it’s very hoity-toity poshy over the top kind of language that suits an olden time England and sounds absolutely bizarre in our modern day world I’m sure you enjoyed making fun of it when having a few drinks lol 😉

  7. Great list! I certainly agree on many of these, especially on One Hundred Years of Solitude – I had a terrible reading experience with this one and on The Corrections. I am a bit surprised to find here Jane Austen. I don’t think that her writing is complicating or dense (just archaic). It is long-winded just because that was the way to write prose back then, similar to Bronte or any other “notable” adult book of that period. I actually consider Jane Austen’s books the simplest to understand and enjoy for the modern reader. That explains their popularity even today. I also agree with you on The Alchemist. I found it (a little) condescending even. Other ones I had problems with are Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and virtually any book by William Faulkner.

    1. Yeah I agree on the Alchemist, it is very condescending and over-the-top hehe. Heart of Darkness I think I liked that but it was ages ago, William Faulkner I have never read but I may steer clear of him now that you say that. 😁 Thanks for your response….your book tags continue to inspire my own posts.

  8. I started, several times, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, some years ago, having been taken in by all the hype. To properly enjoy it I think I needed to be an American in his 50s, rather than an Englishman in his (at the time) 20s. Lots of references I just didn’t get and couldn’t be bothered looking up. I think with some books you’ve got to be the right age to enjoy them—wait till you’re old and slow, then try again. I’d highly recommend the classic At Swim Two Birds, though.

    1. Haha, I haven’t read that book or any of his others, now you mention this, I probably won’t. It’s weird and a bit frustrating that feeling isn’t it…of not being able to click with a book, the same sort of weird feeling you get when you don’t like a person, no matter how hard you try 😉

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