The 9 Classic Books That I've Always Believed To Be Extremely Overrated
Let the record show that I’m not usually one to hate on a book — and I’m certainly not in the habit of criticizing the books of long-dead but well-regarded authors who are unable to rage-Tweet me in defense of their undoubtedly hard-won literary achievement. There are far worse things each of these writers could have been doing with the time they had in the world than composing novels that sort of just graze the surface of my hubristic and admittedly not terribly relevant expectations. But that being said… there are just some classic books that really aren’t that great. There, I’ve said it.
Now, I’m not saying books like Ethan Frome or Finnegans Wake are unworthy of their place in the western canon or the paper they’re printed on or anything — it’s just that in a world where there are so many books to read (more than you will ever be able to read in a lifetime, even if you do almost nothing else with your time) why bother with the handful of classic books that are overrated, that leave you feeling just a little bit bleh? Do we understand each other?
So, in the spirit of saving you from books you probably already had to read in high school anyway, here are 9 classic books that are just kind of meh.
'Heart of Darkness' by Joseph Conrad
I imagine my 7th grade English instructor was well-meaning when he assigned Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness immediately after assigning William Golding’s Lord of the Flies — something about comparing and contrasting literary renderings of the innate, visceral darkness of 19th and 20th century British good ol’ boys, no doubt — but to this day both just seem like exceedingly long, somewhat-illegible leaps down the path begun by Hatchet in the 3rd grade (albeit, without the happy ending.)
'The Sun Also Rises' by Ernest Hemingway
My adult-lady eyes haven’t yet found the opportunity to form a different perspective on this one, but my 11th grade English student-self will forever be left wondering if this entire novel is one long metaphor for erectile dysfunction. And if so, must we leave Jake Barnes languishing on high school reading lists forever?
'Pamela' by Samuel Richardson
This is a novel about sexual harassment, assault, slut-shaming, victim blaming, and tips for becoming the perfect wife after you marry your assailant… and you kind of get the sense that Richardson thought he was right. Oh, and the subtitle is Or, Virtue Rewarded. Bleh.
'Emma' by Jane Austen
Admittedly, I myself have espoused Emma Woodhouse as an example of the kind of character I wish more 19th century English literature included. She is a lady who typically does, says, and thinks whatever she wants in an era when women, if they were in the habit of doing, saying, and thinking whatever they wanted, weren’t usually doing it between the covers of a book written by one similar such woman. That said, almost nothing actually happens — outside of internal and external dialogue — until (spoiler alert) Emma marries George Knightley, which is ultimately kind of counter-intuitive to the message I’d hoped Jane Austen was trying to send about women in 19th century English society.
'Finnegans Wake' by James Joyce
This is another novel I once recommended to readers. I’ve since reevaluated and decided I was mistaken (sorry.) Type Finnegans Wake (an experimental novel that includes invented his words — some of which are 100 letters long, and merges languages — English, Polish, Persian, and so on) into Wikipedia and you’ll quickly arrive at the description: “one of the most difficult works of fiction in the English language.” Life is already difficult. Read Ulysses instead. Ulysses is great. (Unless you’re actually fluent in English, Polish, Persian, and the half-dozen other languages Joyce used to write this novel. Then you might actually have a good time.
'Ethan Frome' by Edith Wharton
I go back and forth about this novel, mostly because I generally like Edith Wharton and it’s takes a special kind of hubris I’d prefer not to exhibit to criticize a Pulitzer Prize-winning and Nobel Prize-nominated author. But Ethan Frome is just SO. FILLED. WITH. MISERY. And sometimes, I’ll be honest, it reads like misery of the gratuitous kind. Ethan spends his entire life taking care of his sick wife Zeena, Zeena’s cousin Mattie stops by to help out, Ethan thinks he’s falling in love with Mattie and decides to kill them both in what is literally the least likely way to succeed at committing a murder/suicide ever, only managing to paralyze them both and leaving already-ill Zeena to spend the rest of her life taking care of them, when she would have probably much preferred being entrusted to a responsible caregiver while her husband ran away with her cousin. The end.
'A Separate Peace' by Jon Knowles
Another addition to the “tragedies from a boys’ prep school” canon, A Separate Peace is about a boy named Gene whose best friend Finny is in dire need of those grippy socks they give to you at the hospital, or in yoga class. He falls off a tree during an induction to a club called "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session" (sign me up?) that looks a whole lot like 1950s-style hazing, rendering him unable to play sports ever, ever again. Later he falls down a flight of marble stairs. The mantra of this novel is: “it’s all Gene’s fault.”
'On the Road' by Jack Kerouac
Let me preface this by saying I actually love Jack Kerouac’s On The Road deeply, and I will forever. That said, I like it a whole lot more in theory than I do when I’m actually sitting down and reading it. At times, it leans toward the sexist; sometimes not a whole lot happens for, like, 45 pages in a row; and if I’m being super nit-picky I don’t always love the way Kerouac arranges the length of his sentences. That said, I will always love the road-trippy freedom that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty inspired in us all.
'In Search of Lost Time' by Marcel Proust
Not only do I not actually believe that anybody without a fondness for elbow patches has actually sat down and read all 4,215 pages of this book from beginning to end in the last 100 years, but in my mind the vast majority of Marcel Proust’s “meh-ness” comes from the fact that I’ve noticed a tendency in people, generally of the mansplainy-kind, who reference the one Proust quote they’ve ever had occasion to Google, as though they perhaps watched a lot of Gilmore Girls with their younger sister as a teen and somehow developed the idea that this was the way to impress women who own bookshelves. Of course, you can’t ever call them out on never actually having read Proust, because you haven’t read In Search of Lost Time either.