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Four Ways to Ruin a Good Book

March 13, 2013



The Iliad might literally be epic, but a bad translation can ruin it for a reader. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Even though finding a good book to read can be difficult, ruining a good book for somebody else is easy.  It’s so easy that excited readers usually don’t realize they’re destroying somebody else’s pleasant experience.  There are probably dozens of ways to ruin a good book for somebody else, but here are (the top?) four:

1. Sneezing on it 

Sneezing on a book will always ruin it for me.  I don’t want to touch any book after it’s been sneezed on, no matter how much I had originally wanted to read it.  It’s not just the nose debris I’m worried about either.  Any type of fluid (body or not), and I won’t read the book.  The moist spots might be water, but I can’t take that chance. 

The only books I check out from the library are the new ones because they’re relatively undamaged.  All of the older books have warped areas, or discolored sections, or green/brown spots that can’t be sanitary whatever they are.  The older books can be checked out for extended periods of time, but I wouldn’t want them infecting my house, not even for a day or two. 

The possibility that somebody has sneezed (or done worse) to a book will keep me from reading it.  This narrows my selection at the library a little, but that also keeps me from wandering the shelves, and my kids appreciate how quickly I can choose a book from the library. 

2. Spoiling the Ending 

When I was reading The Iliad in junior high (by choice… 30+ years ago), some wiseacre tried spoiling it by telling me the Greeks won the war.  I smugly replied that I already knew that.  Then the spoiling wisacre revealed to me that The Iliad doesn’t go all the way to the end of the war.  I couldn’t believe it!  I cheated and read the final chapter where Achilles returns Hector’s body to Peleus, and I was shattered.  I was really looking forward to reading about the Trojan Horse. 

Maybe The Iliad isn’t the best example of a novel (or epic poem) that can be ruined by a spoiler.  I could have used a more recent novel (like Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island), but readers could have potentially gotten mad at me (and I try to avoid conflict whenever possible).  At least The Iliad is Greek mythology.  It’s (almost) impossible to spoil Greek mythology anymore. 

As bad as a spoiler can be, the fake spoiler can sometimes encourage a reluctant reader to finish a book.  When I was in fourth grade (way more than 30+ years ago), my vulgar older brother told me that Tom Sawyer got Becky Thatcher pregnant in the caves in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  I eagerly read the entire book, searching in vain for an adult encounter that the Classics Illustrated comic book version didn’t have.  I couldn’t find the adult scene, but I was too embarrassed to mention that to my vulgar older brother. I was afraid the scene was there and I hadn’t been wise enough to recognize it. 

Maybe I fell for my vulgar older brother’s “fake dirty scene” trick, but I never painted any picket fences for him. 

3.  Assigning it as Required Reading 

Most people aren’t going to read a classic unless it’s assigned reading for school.  But a book doesn’t have to be a classic to be hated when assigned.  I probably would have liked Fahrenheit 451 if it hadn’t been assigned.  I probably would have liked Lord of the Flies as well. 

There are only two exceptions.  I liked To Kill a Mockingbird even though it was assigned, and I’m pretty sure I’d have hated Moby Dick even if it hadn’t been. 

Assigning a novel is a great way to make kids hate (even what they think is) a good book. If you’re tired of The Hunger Games or Twilight or Beautiful Creatures, just get some teachers to make these books required reading.  If a few teachers could overanalyze these books, the popularity of these YA novels would drop instantly.  

Any teen craze can be destroyed by making it compulsory.  If you’re sick of Justin Bieber or One Direction, have some music teachers require their classes to perform their songs.  It’s an incredible power that teachers have to ruin teenage fads; they should use it more frequently. 

4.  Building up High Expectations 

I probably would have liked The Catcher in the Rye if my friends in high school (about 30 years ago) hadn’t told me how awesome it was.  The Catcher in the Rye was okay, but my friends had set my expectations too high.  Holden Caulfield struck me as a whiner instead of a rebel.  Now when I recommend a book, I just say something like “You might think this is good,” and not, “THIS BOOK CHANGED MY LIFE FOREVER!!!” 

After my high school friends recommended The Catcher in the Rye, (“You HAVE to read it!  It’s awesome.  You won’t believe how great it is!”), I handed them a copy of Massage Parlor II by Jennifer Sills and said (probably in a monotone voice), “I think you’ll like this.” 

That was it.  No hyperbole.  Very little emotion. 

When I got my copy of Massage Parlor II back, it was in worse condition than any library book I’ve ever seen.  If the kid sneezed on it, he sneezed on it a lot.  Of course, I threw it away and scoured my hands.  I then bought a new copy of Massage Parlor II and when I recommended it again to my other friends, I told them to buy their own copies. 

That’s the final way to ruin a good book: make your literary peers buy their own copies.

  1. I also dislike when you’re quietly reading to yourself, you’re getting to a really interesting part, and someone interrupts you in the middle of a chapter. That always ruins my reading time…

    • Yeah, that’s really annoying. The thing is, I don’t get interrupted if I’m reading a book on my phone or other device. I guess those who interrupt think it’s okay if we’re reading an actual book but NOT okay if we’re reading on a tablet. This might require an official study.

  2. Reasons 1 and 2 are why I stopped going to the library. The rather large bloodstain on one page pretty much did me in…

    I’m with you 100% on both reasons 3 and 4, especially 4 — high expectations make me skeptical, and I will rarely read such a book, until many years later, when I’ve read many reviews that confirm that the book is actually good.

    • A minor blood stain I could overlook (at least we know what it is), but a MAJOR bloodstain… that’s it. If you combine #s 3 and 4 (a teacher who assigns you a book he or she REALLY LOVES!!!), you’re in trouble.

  3. All good points, but I would mention that blogging about a book can be a hazard sometimes. Whenever I mention a particular book on my blog, I try to avoid giving away the ending but it’s not easy sometimes. I try to share what I liked about the book so that other people might be inspired to read and enjoy it.

    • Book reviews… that’s a tough one. As a reader, I know what I’m getting into when I start reading reviews, but I’ve seen reviewers get carried away too. Some will give a SPOILERS warning. I appreciate that. Most of the time, I know I’m not going to read the book anyway, so I’ll read on.

  4. Oh man, AGREE AGREE AGREE with #3. The best classes were the ones where teachers let you choose whichever book you wanted. But then it was still kind of ruined, because you inevitably had to deconstruct it, pick out metaphors, explore similes, etc. Blargh. I had to read Brave New World in grade 9, and I hated it. I picked it up again second year university, and found it to actually be a quite interesting read. Possibly I was too young to fully appreciate it the first time I read it through, but I still suspect it was the required reading aspect that really turned me off it.

    • Brave New World in grade 9? I don’t know. Schools choose books that weren’t written for public school kids, and then teachers get frustrated at the resistance while the kids get frustrated with the reading. I have mixed feelings about that. Brave New World… I read that without being required to (which means after high school), but I can see where the hatred would come from (from a 9th grader).

      • It definitely had some concepts that didn’t belong in a grade 9 classroom. Little kids playing sex games … everyone getting all drugged up all the time to forget the hardships of their lives … I can’t remember what else … but definitely not something I understood back when I was like 14 years old.

  5. Oh how I’d love for my teachers to make all the screaming girls give up on the franchise of the beaver or the 1D valued music. But I am reluctant myself to go and learn these songs, much less than perform it. Sometimes life is just too difficult a decision.

    • The best situation would be if somebody else’s music teacher recognized the educational benefits of Bieber and OD’s (or 1D’s) music. Then you could relax and enjoy the show (and maybe mock it a little).

  6. I’m so skeeved out by library books that I just don’t bother anymore. Is that chocolate or something else? Never know!!

    • People do eat chocolate while they read library books (at least I tell myself that). I still check out books, but they sit on a specific table in my house, and I wash my hands after I read.

      • I’ve switched to buying used books and haven’t found a problem with them. For some reason, people seem to treat books better when they own them. Then again, they probably haven’t been read by as many people. I have yet to find snot in a used book 😦
        Good idea on the handwashing!!!

  7. kirkykoo79 permalink

    As a English teacher, I recognise the problem – 90% of the class will automatically dislike anything I ask them to read (though the open-minded 10% who love it and want to talk about it make me feel better). With the younger ones I try to get them to recommend books to each other but it’s hard to know how to guide the older ones to the ‘good stuff’ without putting them off. (Of course, they also have to read whatever is the set text for the exam, but half the time that’s something I wouldn’t choose to read either!) Any suggestions on how to get them to want to read…?

    • Telling your students about “adult” scenes that don’t exist (like my vulgar older brother did with me) probably isn’t a good idea if you want to keep your job. My daughter’s school librarian shows classes book trailers (I think there’s a website for that, but I don’t know what it is), and my daughter likes to go straight for those books (but unfortunately, so do a bunch of other kids).

  8. So true! Thanks for the chuckle this morning.

  9. Agree with all four, but for me there’s another (though it’s closely related to #4). When someone says, “This book changed my life” I make a note never to read it. First, I like my life and don’t really want it changed. Second, if someone’s life was really changed by reading a book then I have some serious questions to ask them. Third, if their life wasn’t really changed and that was hyperbole, then I wouldn’t trust them to recommend a book.

    But I’m glad to see this list for another reason: my wife won’t buy used books or take out library books for the reasons you give, and up until now I’ve poked fun at her. But now I see she’s not alone by any stretch of the imagination, I shall be nicer. Huh, which seems to say that reading your blog has changed my life…

    • A couple other people have mentioned used books, but I haven’t had an ickiness problem with those (though I’ve had a missing pages problem when it’s too late to take them back… AAaaarrrgh!). I kind of wish you hadn’t told me that my blog has changed your life. By your logic, that means I can’t read my own blog anymore.because you used hyperbole and I can’t trust your recommendation… I think… or maybe I just confused myself.

  10. I couldn’t agree more with #3. I hated most of what I had to read in high school literature class, including the Shakespeare. Then I read Brave New World later for fun and really liked it, unlike many people who read it in school.

  11. And sometimes I spoil the ending for myself!

  12. I am guilty of ruining a perfectly preserved copy of Atlas Shrugged, which I borrowed from my friend. When I finished reading it from the nth time, the book was literally in three parts. I then got her a new copy and lied that I had lost the old one, and she replied that it was a gift from her brother. Worst day ever! 😦

    • You read Atlas Shrugged more than once? Whoa! Anyway, I don’t think it’s possible to read a perfectly preserved copy of Atlas Shrugged without damaging it in some way; it’s just too darn big. It’s bound to fall apart at some point. Your friend (maybe) shouldn’t have lent it out if it was that important (or at least warned you about it). But you have a conscience about it, and that makes you waaaay better than most people who ruin library books.

  13. “It’s an incredible power that teachers have to ruin teenage fads; they should use it more frequently.” Can’t help chuckling at this!

    And I am with you on the library books. Although I do spend some time browsing through the books at book stores. Cause they are only that many books I can buy and fit in my room!

  14. I had a teacher in high school who chose books that were overtly sexual to shock us. When we read The Handmaid’s Tale she had us read most of the book to ourselves in class. When she’d catch us blushing with embarassment she’d giggle. I HATED reading the Handmaid’s Tale in that class. I could clearly see the literary value in reading it, but my teacher was so immature that it ruined it for me. I read it two years later in college for a contemporary lit class and loved it.

    I do agree with most of these points. I’m just such a literary nerd that I love to pick apart novles for analysis, so assigned reading isn’t usually too painful.

  15. Welp. You’ve spoiled The Iliad for me! Haha

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