10 Literary Classics We (Not So) Secretly Hate
Don't @ Us
I think most serious readers have a love/hate relationship with the “literary canon.” It has obvious problems (too old, too male, too white, too boring) but still contains plenty of wonders (Beloved, for instance), and there’s something comforting about having a kind of shared cultural language for everyone who went to high school in America. But that said, one of the inevitable results of having a literary canon is that people grow to hate it. What else do you expect when you make everyone in the country read the same 30 books? Readers are peculiar, and so are books. Some we’ll like and some we’ll dislike. Now, we often categorize people based on their likes (see the lunch room scene in every high school movie ever), but often, our dislikes can be even more illuminating. Plus, it feels good to speak truth to power—even if that power is a musty 19th-century novel. To that end, I polled the Literary Hub staff to see which classic books they know they’re supposed to like, but just . . . don’t. The results are below.
Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
We get it, mate, you know a lot about the buildings of Paris. I tried my best to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame once, truly I did, but with respect to Mr. Hugo, if I wanted to read a 1000 page book about architecture I’d have gone to the architecture section of the library. It’s a shame because the human story is dark and wonderful and full of damaged oddballs, but not unlike Moby-Dick and the whaling, a judicious edit of the author’s smuggled-in research notebooks would have been no harm. Side note: the Disney adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my jaaaaaaaaam. Imagine trying to get a kid’s movie with songs like this made today. Imagine one sunny afternoon in 1995 Roy Disney rocks into the writers’ room with a beaming smile on his face and says “hey gang, what scaaaary villain are you guys dreaming up for us?” and you reply “Well, Roy, you know that lecherous archdeacon from the nineteenth-century Victor Hugo novel? The one who murders gypsies and tries to drown their deformed children in wells and burns women at the stake because he want to have sex with them but also, you know, destroy them? Well, that’s the guy we want for the next big tentpole release.”
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
I used to love The Sun Also Rises, back when I was young, naive, and able to feel confident identifying with Lady Brett. She was a blond sophisticate, I wanted to be a blonde sophisticate. She had a guy in love with her without having to put in a single ounce of work, I also wanted to be that lazy in love. She got to drink every night with her friends and say mopy things in a cool, disaffected accent, and to teenage me, that sounded like pretty much paradise. But then, an emotional need to identify with Jewish characters replaced my adolescent urge to be the shiny one in the story, and I could never pick up The Sun Also Rises again without wincing at Hemingway’s anti-Semitism, or contemplating how a dismissal as pathetic can be far more damaging to the psyche than being cast as a villain.
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
To be a woman who hates Ernest Hemingway has come to feel almost as cliche as being a certain kind of man who worships him uncritically. The arguments against him are, by now, predictable and shopworn: the depthless female characters, the hyper-masculine iconography, the violence and misogyny of the personal life that can feel inextricable from the themes of his fiction. Yet as much as I resent conforming to type, it’s true: I also can’t stand Hemingway, and no novel more so than A Farewell to Arms. And okay, the context in which I was first introduced to this book—a compulsory composition class in my freshman year of college—may have colored my first impressions of it. But the objections I have are more elemental. My biggest gripe: It’s impossibly boring on the level of the sentence, limp with Hemingway’s signature prose style, which is characterized, in my opinion, by a deadening monotony. (Spare me any “iceberg theories” unless they pertain to the Titanic.) By the time Catherine and her stillborn son are narratively sacrificed for the sake of demonstrating Frederic’s, I don’t know, trauma and complex male interiority, I’d been asleep too long to get angry.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Like many people, I tired of the extensive whale anatomy lessons from Moby-Dick. I tried getting into it—have you ever thought about whales like that? have you ever thought about someone else thinking about whales like that?—but it wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. I did love the philosophical, poetic aspects of the book; or I convinced myself I loved those parts enough to “read” the book over several years, packing it and unpacking it as I moved between five different houses. At one point, I resolved to skip over the detail-heavy chapters, focusing on the adventure and relationships aboard the Pequod. I had tried a similar plan with The X-Files a few years prior, skipping “Monster of the Week” episodes with the intent of solely following the conspiracy arc. I didn’t follow through on either plan. Maybe I needed that extra fat (blubber?) as context or cushion. Regardless, I feel like trying to read a book over multiple years is more than a fair try. And I’ve long since ditched my copy of Moby-Dick.
Samuel Richardson, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded
I stop reading most things that I don’t enjoy—for instance, I never finished The Catcher in the Rye when it was assigned to my high school class, which essentially disqualifies me from angsty teenhood—but I have developed incredibly fraught relationships with classic books (the fallout from which can last for years). One of the most frustrating such experiences I’ve had was reading Pamela by Samuel Richardson, which is apparently very important to the history of the novel, so thanks, I guess. It’s about a horrible old pervert attempting to rape his incredibly virtuous, virginal, 15-year-old maidservant until she falls in love with him. It is also the most boring, torturous book I’ve ever had to read. After several hundred pages, however, it began to consume me; I made my computer wallpaper this image of Pamela and Mr. B, I talked about it incessantly, I named the opossum who rifled through our garbage after the protagonist. I hope she’s still out there, eating trash.
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
I didn’t read this book until I was an adult, so you could argue that I just missed the window. Except that I tried reading it as a sullen teen, and after a few pages, I gave up, telling my father that I couldn’t be bothered spending any more time with a character this obnoxious. After all, I already knew a bunch of bored guys who thought everything they encountered was like, the lamest. Though I love Salinger’s stories, when I finally made myself read this a couple of years ago, my opinion about Holden hadn’t changed—I know all about the argument that he’s in mourning, but I just never could buy his angst.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Dear High School Boyfriend who gifted me his used copy of On The Road, hoping it would provide the same articulation of rootlessness and spiritual freedom it had given you… I’m sorry. Sal and Dean’s journey always felt toxic to me, and Kerouac’s prose never awakened in me the thing the novel has seemed to awaken in men all over America (and, recently, Amanda Petrusich who despite loving the book articulates all the reasons why it’s not very good). Maybe it’s because I don’t drive, but OTR just doesn’t do it for me.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
I know, none of us like to think of culture in competition, but the fact remains that we can only read a certain number of books in our lives (a total you can calculate based on this simple formula). My resentment of Wuthering Heights stems from high school English, when I was robbed of my chance to discuss Kafka’s Metamorphosis for longer than a week, because Wuthering Heights, and its concomitant endlessly boring romanticism, had taken up two months of stultifying class discussion time I would never, ever get back.
George Orwell, Animal Farm
Give me the plongeurs of Down and Out in London and Paris any day. From the jump, I’ve always found Animal Farm to be heavy-handed and ham-fisted. (Can a hand do both simultaneously? Orwell’s sure could.) The symbolism and satire are laid on so thick there’s no room left for a beating heart, or entertainment of any kind, or drama, or subtlety. How this one still floats around as a perennial ‘statement’ book is beyond me. (Do I feel this strongly about Animal Farm? Truth be told, no. I haven’t thought about it in fifteen years, at least, maybe twenty. Come to think of it, I don’t much care for Charlotte’s Web, either. So it’s entirely possible this isn’t an Orwell or an E.B. White problem but a bigger grudge I hold against farm animals.)
Henry David Thoreau, Walden
I read Walden in what I thought would be the most appropriate of circumstances: in between sitting practice sessions on a weekend meditation retreat in Montreal, where I was staying alone in an almost-deserted hostel. News flash: it was not appropriate, because nothing other than my eyes being wired up Clockwork Orange-style would have kept me awake for this book, and meditating already makes me sleepy. That’s not even getting into the fact that Walden is more or less bullshit, because writing a self-important book about self-reliance and “life in the woods” doesn’t really work when you’re just throwing house parties all the time and your mom is still doing your laundry. You’d think if Thoreau was going to write a fabricated memoir, he’d at least, I don’t know, spice things up a bit.