It takes a very complicated algorithm to determine what balance of critical history, publication volume, and content makes a book “overrated,” and I’m sure you’re all dying to see that math — no? I should just go ahead with the list, and you can cheer me on as I pander to your sympathies or curse my name as I skewer your old favorites? God, I love list entries. So with the cold calculation of science, I present to you what are undoubtedly the most severely overrated written works you’ve probably had to read — or at least pretend you read:
10. THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA by Friedrich Nietzsche
Alternatively “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” or for all I know “Zarathustra Once Said” in some translations. Friedrich Nietzche wrote a number of responses to what he saw as centuries of dense, incomprehensible moralizing texts, but Thus Spoke Zarathustra is by far the densest, most incomprehensible, and most moralizing of his offerings. Discontented undergrads have quoted it for years, usually without reading the whole thing, and who can blame them?
Apart from some entertaining cracks about everyone being monkeys and God being dead, there isn’t actually anything there except for hundreds and hundreds of pages of puns on words like “under” and “over” that don’t translate out of the original German. The selections in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations are more than ample for anyone who wants to sound like a pretentious asshole, which satisfies 99% of the population that might consider reading this book and therefore earns it a place on the list of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read list.
9. IVANHOE by Sir Walter Scott
Imagine everything about stories set in some unspecified “medieval” land of knights, castles, and chivalry that we as hip, sophisticated, cynical, post-modern readers like to turn our noses up at. Ivanhoe didn’t really start all that, but it certainly perfected it, and the blow is the more crushing because Walter Scott is generally considered the inventor of the modern historical novel.
It’s hard to summarize Ivanhoe because it reads sort of like a full season of a particularly schizophrenic HBO series: we have jousts, fights, abductions, love affairs (boringly chaste, don’t worry), religious and racial tensions (insofar as Saxon and Norman are different races), and some gratuitous Robin Hood bits all jammed together by Walter Scott’s unflaggingly turgid prose. This used to be a required staple of the public school canon, and is thankfully on its way out (unfairly, most objections are based on the portrayal of the Jewish love interest rather than the fact that it’s an awful goddamn book.) Still, its influence on the cultural consciousness and continuing presence on some required reading lists clinches it as one of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read list.
8. ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand
The title of Rand’s seminal work evokes the mythical Titan who held the weight of the world on his shoulders, but we’re thinking maybe he was just carrying a couple copies of Atlas Shrugged instead. It weighs in somewhere over a thousand pages depending on your edition, over a hundred of which will be a single speech by a single character — practically a novel in its own right, except for the absence of plot, character, dialogue, or anything else enjoyable to read.
In this day and age Atlas Shrugged would vanish among the heaps of other “distopian” novels that exaggerate a single aspect of modern government to make a very heavy-handed point (I once saw these categorized as “bitchtopian novels,” much to my delight), but in 1957 it was pretty radical stuff and so we’re still stuck with the damn thing half a century later. Whether you share Rand’s belief in the free market or recoil in horror from her work (a reasonable reaction to what she clearly thought were sexy love scenes but are pretty much just graphically-described rape), you can’t get away from the fact that there’s not much plot and no detailed characters, making this unquestionably one of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.
7. HOW TO WIN FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE by Dale Carnegie
This is apparently still a popular gift to freshly-minted MBAs (presumably from other, older-minted and therefore slightly tarnished MBAs). I don’t know if anyone else still has to read it, unless they spend their time making lists of overrated books, so perhaps its time on this list is limited? We should be so lucky — Dale Carnegie’s classic work is equal parts a guide to being a complete square and to being a goddamn liar (which is an impressive feat of personality juggling when you think about it).
If you’ve ever dealt with one of those middle managers who never say anything nice but won’t stop smiling? Yeah, they read this book. It will teach you how to sound sincere and earnest about everything, including where you’d like to go for lunch, which will help you become a person who sounds sincere and earnest about where he/she wants to go to lunch. Do you want to be that person? Do you even want to know that person? Apparently a vast percentage of the population does, if overall sales are anything to go by, making this very definitely one of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.
6. THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS by James Fenimore Cooper
To put things in perspective for modern readers, James Fenimore Cooper was basically the Steven King, Robert Jordan, etc. of antebellum America in terms of sales and impact on the popular culture, and he was about as concerned with consistency or quality in his work. I feel a little redundant panning any of Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” tales since Mark Twain did it earlier and better in an essay called Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses, but his opinion remains the minority in the public schools at least — they keep assigning the damn books, with Last of the Mohicans leading the pack (presumably because they made a movie of it, thereby providing the teacher with a solid four days of uninterrupted smoking out back while the class watches the video).
Suffice it to say that Natty Bumpo remains one of the more overpowered and under-characterized protagonists in the traditionally overpowered and under-characterized annals of genre fiction (and this at a time when “genre fiction” was at least a century away from being a well-defined category). There were a lot less books in 1826, so desperation gives the original audience some grounds for forgiveness, but the book’s enduring popularity confirms its place as one of The Top 10 Most Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.
5. GRIMM’S FAIRY TALES by Jacob and Wilheim Grimm
We’ve thoroughly backlashed against the Eisenhower era by now, so everyone knows that early fairy tales were a kind of Victorian Quentin Tarantino thriller, right? Well, no. Setting aside the fact that the Bros. Grimm were Victorian by neither nationality nor publishing date, most of the stories also weren’t all that horrific by anyone’s standards, modern or otherwise. Outrage with the “Children’s Stories” mostly centered around the allusions (veiled) to sexual activity and the presence of dense scholarship alongside the stories, not the violence.
Modern readers looking for the “real” version of Disney favorites will be disappointed to find out that a) Most Disney movies aren’t based on Grimm stories and b) The “sanitized” modern versions often aren’t all that different from the originals. They’re still stories for children, and therefore pretty simplified moral lessons with the same familiar cast of character archetypes. In honor of disappointed eyeshadow-wearing middle schoolers, I’m proud to christen this as unquestionably one of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.
4. THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J. R. R. Tolkien
Sure, we could get worked up about details like implied racism or the absence of female characters, but why bother when Tolkien’s beloved trilogy suffers from the much greater flaw of being really fucking boring? The influence of Icelandic epics and Norse sagas on The Lord of the Rings is clear and well-documented, and sure — back when Beowulf was hot shit, it was important to know what Hrothgwang gave to Hrothswanger, because you lived two hills over from Hrothwanger and probably wanted to know that someone had given him a giant fucking sword to hit you with. But there is no justification for that shit in 1954.
Remember that the “trilogy” was written as a single work weighing in at multiple thousands of pages, and that’s after Tolkien realized that he was going to have to make substantial cuts before anyone would touch the thing. Many of those pages are filled with interesting characters, epic battles, and questions of good and evil — but many, many more are filled with the genealogies of made-up kingdoms and descriptions of the different cloaks worn by different Elf-Kings, earning The Lord of the Rings its place on the list of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.
3. FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce
For those of you who don’t take the time to click through to the Wikipedia entries on these titles, here’s a snippet from their summary:
“…The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English lexical items and neologistic multilingualpuns and portmanteau words, which many critics believe attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams.”
That’s a polite way of saying that this landmark work is completely fucking unreadable. And yet it remains the critical standard by which all other works, including some very fine ones by Joyce himself, are judged and found wanting (at least by pretentious wankers the literary/academic elite). I can’t offer you a summary because there isn’t one — outside of a few generally agreed-upon plot points, even dedicated Joyce scholars haven’t been able to translate the text of the book into a meaningful narrative.
There aren’t even Cliff’s Notes, because the people who write Cliff’s Notes aren’t equipped for the kind of analysis it takes to get of meaning out of Finnegans Wake. Nonetheless, some of the greatest writers of the 20th century have declared this a work of genius, and it remains required reading for the true lit-crit snobs, thus allowing it to place in the final heat of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.
2. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee
Before the outrage begins, let me remind you that this is a list of overrated books, not bad ones. I quite like To Kill a Mockingbird myself, but it will always remain a children’s story no matter how many talk-show hosts hail it as one of the great American novels of all times. Like many first-person narratives it falls into the trap of establishing a character for the narrator that the prose cannot possibly reflect — in this case a rurally-educated six year-old girl, whose narrative voice frequently varies in the space of a paragraph from broken and folksy to sweepingly poignant and well beyond a first grader’s vocabulary or emotional understanding.
Perhaps the book’s popularity stems from its ability to touch on difficult social issues like racism without becoming difficult or confusing, which to me suggests that it’s not doing a very thorough job of portraying those issues — and for kids, that’s fine. But as long as people insist on treating this like a work of serious literary weight, it remains high on the list of The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read.
1. THE BIBLE by *
I know what you’re thinking — yes, it’s an oversized series of works purportedly by a single author (but actually written in his name by a host of credited and uncredited ghostwriters), chronicling the career of a single destined savior with miraculous powers and just about every relative or associated character they could come up with a prequel/sequel/spin-off for, but is Star Wars The Wheel of Time the Bible really a bad work? Maybe not. But taken as a whole it certainly tries to be too many things at once, until the reader is left wondering just what they’re holding — is it a historical record? An instructive moral text? An epic adventure? Any one of those answers gets bogged down with the others, making it hard to like the completed product.
There are parts that make very fine reading, and parts that are incomprehensible, which is not altogether unusual or noteworthy. Were it anything but the most published work in all of written history, the Bible probably would have been spared a place on the list altogether — but that kind of hype is very hard to live up to, and so it rests atop The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read, which you’ve just finished.