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Every month, I tell you what I’m reading; every year, I rank my favorite books of the year. Reading is a huge part of my life and I make an effort to read the best books I can find. (See the best of 2016 and best of 2015 here.)
That being said, anyone who reads this much knows that there’s no attraction in, “This is good, this is good, this is also good.” The bad stuff — the drama, the conflict — is what gets readers really interested.
And so I think it’s time to talk about the WORST books I’ve ever read.
I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and don’t plan to, so you won’t find that here. Nor anything by Ann Coulter — in fact, I’ll exclude political books altogether. Nothing by L. Ron Hubbard. The Da Vinci Code won’t be on this list, either (Dan Brown gets a lot of hate, but dude knows how to write suspense and I can’t hate on him for that). And while some people can’t stomach it, I happen to love Lolita.
Here are the worst books I’ve ever read, in my opinion. Some are great works of literature that happened to rub me the wrong way. Some are more embarrassing than that.
And the worst book of all, a book that made me physically angry for having read it and forever changed my opinion of the author, is listed last.
The Worst Book from High School: Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Sophomore year was tough for me, capped by my experiences in Honors American Lit. My teacher and I butted heads from the start and I disliked much of the literature we read. I struggled to keep up, even deciding to drop Honors British Lit the following year in favor of English electives. (This is why I didn’t read Hamlet until 2015.)
And then came Walden near the end of the year. A book lauded by so many people — often including the travel blogging community. A book that took place and was written just a few miles from where I grew up.
Henry David Thoreau moved into a cabin in the woods. He read, he wrote, he observed nature and grew his own food and tried to create art from it.
“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and I may say innocence, with Nature herself.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity.
Revisiting Walden after years of reading about privilege in America, it becomes more striking that Thoreau was only concerned with what a wealthy independent man could do with his time, ignoring everyone else in society.
Another problem was that much of what Thoreau actually wrote was cloaked in hypocrisy. In between talking about the beauty and fragility and nature, he described how much he loved burning down half the forest. He would go on and on about how the only books people should read are classic Greek literature — as he writes a new book for them to read. Also, his mother would do his laundry.
I wrote a scathing paper decrying Thoreau’s hypocrisy.
My teacher gave me an A-.
I consider that one of my greatest academic victories.
What To Read Instead: The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s pretty much as much an opposite of Walden as you can get, and I found it far more entertaining.
The Worst Conclusion to a Series: Allegiant by Veronica Roth
I get it — it’s hard to write a good ending to a book, much less wrap up a three-book series. But I haven’t seen anything crash and burn as badly as Allegiant, the conclusion of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series.
The series as a whole intrigued me a bit but ultimately made my eyes roll. In a futuristic society, teenagers take a test and are sorted into one of five groups based on their personality: Abnegation (the selfless), Erudite (the intelligent), Candor (the honest), Amity (dirty hippies), and Dauntless (the brave). But when Tris displays the traits of multiple groups in her test, she finds out she’s Divergent and she could be killed for it.
Now: the first two books were told from Tris’s point of view. In Allegiant, the story is suddenly told from two points of view, Tris and her lover Four — but both voices are exactly the same. They witness the same events. They have the same feelings. Their vocabularies and cadences are identical. I could never tell who was speaking.
Beyond that, the “big revelation” at the end of the book landed with a thump, and so many people died throughout that the deaths became meaningless.
“When her body first hit the net, all I registered was a gray blur. I pulled her across it and her hand was small, but warm, and then she stood before me, short and thin and plain and in all ways unremarkable- except that she had jumped first. The stiff had jumped first.
Even I didn’t jump first.
Her eyes were so stern, so insistent.
Beautiful.” –Vernoica Roth, Allegiant
Another theme throughout the first two books is that characters would occasionally get injected with serums that would create simulations — and sometimes led them to do evil things. The final book was a series of, “Okay, it’s time for another serum!” “Wait, here’s a serum to override that serum!” “No, that’s a bad serum, we’re the good guys, this one’s a GOOD serum!” Again and again, another serum. You’d think Roth owned stock in skincare products.
What to Read Instead: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Not only is it a fantastic novel, the story is told through several different narrators and each of the voices are unique and different.
The Worst Book Receiving Bewildering Levels of Praise: The Girls by Emma Cline
One of the buzziest books of 2016, The Girls is a fictionalized retelling of the Manson murders of the 1970s, focusing on the relationships between the women in Not Charles Manson’s cult.
One of the things I can’t stand the most is wasted potential. This book could have been so good in the hands of another author!
Emma Cline focused more on creating elaborate prose than telling a story. And when I say elaborate, that’s not a compliment — she stuffed her paragraphs with enough bewildering metaphors and similes as if they were banana peppers on a Subway sandwich (yes, I know what I did there). It goes to show that no matter how you write, if you don’t know how to tell a story, you’ve got nothing.
“Poor Sasha. Poor girls. The world fattens them on the promise of life. How badly they need it, and how little most of them will ever get. The treacled pop songs, the dresses described in the catalogs with words like ‘sunset’ and ‘Paris.’ Then the dreams are taken away with such violent force; the hand wrenching the buttons of the jeans, nobody looking at the man shouting at his girlfriend on the bus.” –Emma Cline, The Girls
At the same time, the book moved at a glacial pace. By the time the action started, I was psyched to finally have some excitement — only it withered and died instantly. The big showdown I had been expecting didn’t even come to fruition.
What To Read Instead: American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin, a much better book about 1970s Bay Area counterculture. This one focuses on the kidnapping of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army, and it was so exciting I couldn’t put it down.
The Biggest Disappointment From An Author I Love: A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain
I love Uncle Tony. I worship the man. But A Cook’s Tour was not his best work.
You think combining Anthony Bourdain and world travel would be amazing, especially after his wild and raw Kitchen Confidential (one of my all-time favorite memoirs). This book is a collection of essays about his first major international trip as a food writer and personality. And he loved every minute of it.
But that was the problem — Kitchen Confidential was full of conflict. Pirate-looking chefs fucking brides in their wedding dresses in the walk-in. Crawling along the bar after work, snorting six-foot lines of cocaine. Going from cooking in world-class restaurants to flipping burgers in a crappy diner, the metallic taste of methadone in your mouth. It was gritty and ugly and utterly compelling.
A Cook’s Tour was just Uncle Tony eating food and having a good time traveling. There was no story, no narrative arc. It was just a lot of, “Hey, this is great.”
“What is love? Love is eating twenty-four ounces of raw fish at four o’clock in the morning.” –Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour
And while I enjoyed his stories from Russia and San Sebastian, Spain, they weren’t enough to sustain a full book.
Luckily, his writing changed direction in his subsequent collections, and I suspect he had a better editorial team behind him. Uncle Tony is at his best when he’s ripping on people he can’t stand.
What To Read Instead: Kitchen Confidential is great, but Bourdain’s best post-fame work is The Nasty Bits. It still has a lot of food and travel, but with a sharper, more ardent point of view.
The Worst Impulse Kindle Buy: On the Island by Tracey Garvis Graves
On the Island was an Amazon bestseller and I liked the concept: a teenage boy and his thirty-year-old tutor survive a plane crash in the Maldives, end up living on a desert island for years, start a romantic relationship after he turns 18, and are rescued following a tsunami and have to deal with the aftermath at home.
And absolutely nothing that happened was believable. This sixteen-year-old boy acted like a 40-year-old man the whole time. Neither character changed or transformed in any way. And even after being rescued after living on a desert island for THREE YEARS, the only thing they worried about was how people would judge their relationship that they started after the kid turned 18.
“You weren’t supposed to fall in love,” she whispered.
“Well, I did,” I said, looking into her eyes. “I’ve been in love with you for months. I’m telling you now because I think you love me too, Anna. You just don’t think you’re supposed to. You’ll tell me when you’re ready. I can wait.” I pulled her mouth down to mine and kissed her and when it ended, I smiled and said, “Happy birthday.” –Tracey Garvis Graves, On the Island
Yes, that’s an actual quote from a bestselling book.
It’s been translated into 27 languages.
I hate people.
What To Read Instead: Euphoria by Lily King. Now, THAT’S a great controversial love story set in a remote location — in this instance, Papua New Guinea in the 1930s.
The Worst Smash Hit: The Twilight Series by Stephenie Meyer
I’ll be honest — I was hooked on the Twilight books during their height of popularity. I didn’t like them, but I couldn’t stop reading them. And my friend Beth and I made a tradition of seeing the movies on opening night amongst the superfans, only somewhat ironically.
Nothing I say here is anything you haven’t heard before. These books are poorly written. The character development is scant at best. The plot holes are the size of football fields.
But the worst part is that these books glorify intimate partner abuse to an impressionable audience of young women. The behavior that Edward exhibits — stalking, controlling, threatening, saying “no one will ever love you like I do,” leaving you with bruises and suggesting you tell people you fell down the stairs, and ultimately leading you to give up your future for him — should be recognized as alarming, not held up as a model for romance.
“The waves of pain that had only lapped at me before now reared high up and washed over my head, pulling me under. I did not resurface.” –Stephenie Meyer, New Moon
Also, a werewolf falls in love with a baby.
What To Read Instead: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. It’s a much better, more intellectual book for teens that focuses on issues of justice, bravery, brutality, media culture, and utopianism, just to start.
The Best Book I Happen to Hate: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road is a fantastic, gorgeous book worthy of its Pulitzer Prize and every other honor it’s received.
And I fucking hated every word of it.
It’s an incredibly frightening tale of a post-apocalyptic world after a series of unspecified disasters — a barren planet where survivors hide in the shadows and the world is pillaged by tribes of cannibals and rapists. Through the book, a dying father takes his young son on a journey to the sea, not knowing what lies there but hoping they’ll find something better than what they’ve left behind.
“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.” –Cormac McCarthy, The Road
This book is terrifying. And realistic. And that’s why I hated it with everything I had.
Maybe it shouldn’t be on this list. I appreciated every beautiful word. But it still makes me upset, years after reading it.
What To Read Instead: The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Also a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, it starts with an incredibly bleak beginning but blossoms into joy and forgiveness.
The Worst Book of All Time: Cleaving by Julie Powell
Julie and Julia was a commercial success, and deservedly so — a sweet if not overly literary memoir about how a directionless woman finds joy and meaning in cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes.
A feel-good tale about an everywoman with a sweet husband who supports her, encourages her, and makes her a better person. It got some hate, but it was overall a fun and engaging memoir, and it was commercial as hell, working even better as a film.
Cleaving, the sequel, destroyed all the goodwill Powell earned with her first book.
Following the success of Julie and Julia, Powell began an affair with a former boyfriend. Her husband found out. They decided to open their marriage, though it seemed like they didn’t want to actually work on their marriage, either. And she decided to go apprentice at a butcher upstate because…food is continuity? And this memoir is about, um, all of that. It’s unfocused at best; I suspect her publisher rushed it.
But it mainly focuses on Powell’s affair with the former boyfriend, her enjoyment of the affair and obsession with her lover, and her complete lack of remorse while her husband waits in the background.
The worst part is when Powell is out with her lover and gets recognized by a blog reader. Her lover introduces himself as her husband to save face and they both get off on the scenario. This sums up the book: Powell runs wild with her id, doesn’t care about who she hurts in the process, and learns absolutely nothing.
How did her publisher agree to release this?!
“Like the muscles knew from the beginning that it would end with this, this inevitable falling apart… It’s sad, but a relief as well to know that two things so closely bound together can separate with so little violence, leaving smooth surfaces instead of bloody shreds.” –Julie Powell, Cleaving
I’ve read raw memoirs that overshare the intimate details of a marriage — Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior comes to mind. But Cleaving is far worse. I find it to be a cruel book. Cruel in its lack of accountability.
The other part I hated was that Powell clearly discovered she was into rough sex — only she never explicitly says so. She implies things and hints at others, conveniently evading details. Dude, you’re not the first person to suddenly realize you’re into a new kind of sex. Stop patronizing your readers and actually say it.
The book ends with what I’m sure she imagined was a heartfelt revelation: her lover, who had been called D up until the final page, was actually named Damian.
Hey Julie — nobody cares. Literally everyone hates that guy.
Many reviewers focused primarily on Powell’s infidelity; I don’t thick that’s fair, and much of that criticism is rooted in sexism. Infidelity itself is not the issue here. What matters is that she went about her infidelity, as well as her apprenticeship and travels, with a complete lack of self-awareness. Powell wrote a sloppy memoir about her darkest, most selfish moments without a shred of insight or transformation by the end of it. The Julie at the end of the book is the same Julie at the beginning of the book.
This book is the reason why I eat grass-fed beef today, and that just makes me hate it more. I hate that something good came out of it.
What To Read Instead: Wild by Cheryl Strayed. She flew into a tailspin after her mother’s death, cheating on her husband and using drugs, but she acknowledged her failures, strenuously worked through her shit, and transformed as a result.