The worst book I ever read

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I don’t read that many bad books, I take no pleasure in them. People sometimes talk about how they are going to gorge on book-junk as though a bad novel is a messy burger and there is a special joy to be gained from swallowing it. Not me.

I like many kinds of fiction and there are great writers in any genre, but I would rather seek out the glittering best of any given type rather than read that which is merely mediocre or indeed plain awful. So I do some research, take advice from people whose taste I trust. Hence I read very few bad books.

The exception came when I was a newspaper journalist and used to review books as part of my job. Then I got what I was given and, of course, the quality was mixed.

The worst book I ever read was a self-published memoir by a retired small businessman. This was in the pre-digital days when, to self-publish a book, you had to pay a vanity publisher to do a print run. He had plenty of money I guess and had coughed up so there were none of those blunt object problems like terrible proof-reading and so on. Also the prose was adequate, the firm who printed the book for him had titivated that a little too I’m guessing, it made you sleepy rather than bringing you out in a cold sweat.

But what I had to wade through was a book which simply should never have been written. It was the story of a life so unremarkable that the highlights were barely worth telling as an anecdote down the pub, never mind committing to print.

I could have stopped reading it early on – written a couple of inoffensive summary pars about the thing for the local paper and moved on. But I found I couldn’t stop reading. The guy’s very blandness was addictive.

He had run some kind of small engineering firm. He saw his life story as a rags to riches tale – though he was hardly born in rags and didn’t get all that rich. But he assumed his legion of readers would be swept away by his tale of modest success in provincial manufacture. Nothing happened to him of any note whatsoever yet he told us about it all in forensic detail. He reminded me of the man in Auden’s satirical poem The Unknown Citizen who is remembered fondly by the state for his inoffensive ordinaryness.

“Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

There was one horrifying chapter – headed something like: ‘The Transport’ where he went into significant detail about every motorcar he had ever owned – how much it cost, its vital statistics, how it felt to drive. He even included a photograph of himself standing smugly next to each shiny chariot.

There was another, rather spiteful, chapter, where he went into detail about every member of staff he had felt compelled to dismiss from his employment during his time as CEO of Sprockets Inc. In this one he endeavoured to present himself as having the wisdom of Solomon and those who he sacked as venal and wicked.

Finally he offered us his thoughts on the future. Though the preceding chapters had been focussed on the minutiae of his existence, in this one he spread his horizons to global politics and economics, telling us nothing of value about any of it.

When I arrived at the foot of the last page I was strangely satisfied. I would never, I felt, read a book as bad as that again. I wrote two inoffensive summary pars about it which duly appeared in the newspaper.

The worst book I ever read was a maddening scrap-book of nothing, of interest to nobody, except one man – the man who had written it.

Is there a message in this for us writers? How do we avoid writing the worst book someone else has ever read?

Well, I think the one simple message is to put the reader first. The basic problem with the worst book ever was that the man who wrote it didn’t care about anybody but himself. His reason for writing was self-aggrandisement, he didn’t give two hoots for anyone who might be unfortunate enough to read it.

Let’s not be that man – let’s be writers who care about our readers. The world has enough bad books already.

 

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13 thoughts on “The worst book I ever read”

  1. Oh my goodness. This is probably how one reviewer felt when she gave me a one star review for my first waterways memoir. She said it was so boring she could only get a quarter of the way through it. Thankfully, other people have loved it and given it five stars. I think the point is, Chris, I do take yours (point, that is) but memoirs are like that. I certainly agree I would have been bored stiff by the one you describe, but if someone has a fascination for running a business, they might even have enjoyed it. My one star reviewer admitted afterwards she had zero interest in boats and should never have started it, so it’s my bad luck she did. On the other hand, it could be that someone out there would find Sprocket Incs book riveting. That’s memoir writing for you. It’s a different market and genre entirely from fiction. I’ve given up on many memoirs that haven’t grabbed me. I wouldn’t actually know or be prepared to say if they are bad or not. They just don’t interest me personally, so I just stop reading them. Hmm, it looks as if I disagree with you here, doesn’t it? I do apologise and hope you don’t mind, but I suppose having had experience of a thoroughly damning response, I’ve since learnt that that’s often the way memoirs go!

    1. You’re very kind Val but I suspect the truth is that this book would only have been of interest to the man who wrote it and possibly a few members of his friends of family. It might have served as a kind of written photo album for him to bring out at Christmas but I can’t imagine it would find an audience even in these days of social media. Not all memoirs are created equal and it does help if one has something interesting or unusual to talk about – such as life afloat!

      1. Okay, point taken. I tried 🙂 I just couldn’t help thinking of all the memoirs I’ve started that have made me wonder why I bothered, only to find others have loved them. And as I said, I’ve had a slamming too. But yes, the picture you paint suggests he was being a bit smug to say the least. I enjoyed the post though and it made me think…thanks!

        1. You are so generous Val and it it’s a fair point that one person’s most awful anything could be another person’s favourite. Trouble with that though is it suggests everything is equal and that there is no place for criticism, no such thing as quality. I do think that, in order to honour great works of art we also have to accept some are not so great. It’s another blog post isn’t it? And one I will probably do 😉

  2. Hilarious! A lesson to everyone, not to be self-indulgent in novels and blog posts, too. I quite often see blogs that I wonder if might be better kept as personal diaries…. the first thing you should consider before publishing anything, be it a novel, a memoir or just the simple blog post is: will it be of interest to anyone else?

    That’s why people moaning about others not reading or commenting on their blogs seldom are. I read one of these recently and commented, fairly diplomatically, I hoped, that subject matter was all 🙂

    1. Couldn’t agree more Terry, what’s writing for if it’s not for the reader? There’s nothing wrong with someone keeping a private diary which is just for them but if you are writing something for the public, and particularly if you are charging money for it, then you really do have a duty to offer some value to the person who is reading it.

  3. I think I would have had the same reaction to this memoir as you did but I couldn’t call it bad if it was readable, with all the parts in the right places and a certain appeal to someone, no doubt.
    I was hoping to read about a book that was badly written, with a wobbly and confused structure, inconsistent characters, incoherent sentences, etc. I’ve come across those a few times and simply couldn’t go on reading.
    There are also the books that are “well-written” and even win prizes that I think stink. They are a delight to tear into.

    1. Thankfully I haven’t read any books which are bad in the way you describe. As I said, I certainly don’t go out of my way to read bad books, quite the opposite. My point about this book was that it ignored its obligation to the reader, something no author can ever afford to do.

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