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Books That Make Readers Feel Stupid

June 8, 2015
This has to be a conspiracy.

This has to be a conspiracy.

Reading should be a pleasurable experience.  Most of us work really hard throughout the day, looking forward to that spare moment when we can relax and lose ourselves in a good book.  Honestly, I’m proud to be an avid reader.  Book readers tend to be of above-average intelligence.  And reading is supposed to make us smarter.  But some books have made me feel the opposite of intelligent.  There are some books that I haven’t understood.  There are some books that I didn’t “get.”  And then there are some books that just made me feel stupid.

Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce

First of all, I’m not a conspiracy theorist.  I believe the United States actually put astronauts on the moon.  I don’t think FDR knew about Pearl Harbor ahead of time.  But I believe Finnegan’s Wake is a cruel literary joke.  Personally, I believe James Joyce intentionally wrote a bunch of gibberish just to see who would pretend to understand it.  Anybody who claims to understand Finnegan’s Wake would then unintentionally expose himself/herself as a literary fraud.  I have to believe in that because otherwise, I have to admit that I’m not that smart.  I mean, I’d like to be intelligent enough to at least understand a little bit of Finnegan’s Wake, but I couldn’t get past the first sentence.

Therefore, it has to be a conspiracy.  And James Joyce laughs (or laughed) himself silly every time somebody pretended to understand Finnegan’s Wake.  It has to be that kind of conspiracy because otherwise, I would have to feel really stupid.

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

This one makes me feel stupid because I think I don’t “get it.”  I don’t like it when I don’t “get it,” especially when other people whom I know aren’t much smarter than me claim to “get it.”  It reminds me of high school, when a bunch of guys claimed to “get it” all the time.  Most of them were probably lying, but it still ticked me off.  Yeah, the “get it” was something different, but it still ticked me off.

At least I understood what was going on in The Sound and the Fury.  But I didn’t see anything special in it.  I didn’t think it was especially insightful.  The writing was okay but nothing that I remembered afterward.  I was actually bored.  To tell the truth, I didn’t finish it, I was so bored.  I was downright ambivalent about the book.

As a writer, I don’t want readers to be ambivalent.  I’d rather they hate something I write than be bored by it.  But I was bored.  Maybe it’s a reflection of me as a reader rather than of Faulkner as a writer.  I’d say it was a little of both, but that’s a cop-out, and I don’t like cop-outs.  I’d rather be wrong than take a cop-out position.  But I felt like I should have finished The Sound and the Fury because it was short and was so supposed to be so great.  It makes me wonder what I was missing.  And that makes me feel really stupid.

The Corrections– by Jonathan Franzen

A lot of people hate The Corrections.  I understand why.  A lot of people love The Corrections.  I understand that too.  I wanted to hate The Corrections when it came out in 2001.  I had just given up on writing after ten years of several projects, one coming kind of close to getting published (“kind of close to” probably meant “never had a chance of,” but I was at least told I was “kind of close”) and I was bitter that some guy who wasn’t much older than me was getting published, getting publicized, and then almost winning a Pulitzer, while I had nothing to show for my own efforts.  I read The Corrections just so that I could be justified in hating it.

I also remember thinking that Jonathan Franzen looked like a prick in his publicity photos.  Again, that was my bitterness.  Even though I’m usually hard on myself for my faults, I don’t blame me for my attitude back then.  Every unsuccessful writer should be allowed to go through a bitter stage, and 2001-2003 was mine.  But I’ve gotten over it.  Blogging helps.  And if I ever got nominated for a Pulitzer, I’d probably look like a prick in my publicity photos too.  I don’t think that Jonathan Franzen looks like a prick anymore (and if I did, I wouldn’t admit it).

I’m still glad that The Corrections didn’t win the Pulitzer.  I’d never before cared about whether or not a book won a prize or not, but I was filled with joy when I learned that The Corrections didn’t get a Pulitzer.  I know I shouldn’t get emotionally connected to situations that are out of my control like that, but I couldn’t help it.  Maybe The Corrections made me feel worthless, but the author didn’t win a Pulitzer.  Yeah, Franzen got nominated, but he still lost.  What a loser.  Ha!

Okay, that was really stupid of me.

*****

What do you think?  What books have made you feel stupid?  Or are you such a good reader that no books make you feel stupid?  Have you ever gone through a bitter phase as a writer?  What do you do when you don’t “get” books that other readers claim to “get”?

*****

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49 Comments
  1. VansVerdi permalink

    hahaha!

  2. Love this blog! Personally have a love/hate relationship with ‘A Complicated Kindness’ by Miriam Toews (mostly because she somehow ripped out my innermost soul and smeared it across the pages, then left me hanging at the end so I ended up disposing of the book while secretly swearing to never forget Nomi for as long as I live). Also, I never got why people love Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ so much. Don’t get me wrong, it was ground-breaking for its time and all that, but Lee’s style isn’t really that gripping, to be honest, and as a book reviewer, I try to ignore all the hype and focus on the work itself, and to me it was just sort of…placid. I’m sure there’s more but that’s what comes to mind. Also, I too couldn’t get past the first sentence in ‘Finnegans Wake’ BECAUSE IT DOESN’T FREAKING END. Anyway, keep posting!

    • Thanks. I don’t know anything about A Complicated Kindness, but I might look into it (very carefully, if I do). I know what you mean about To Kill A Mockingbird, but it was the only book in school that nobody hated (at least nobody admitted to hating it).

      I’m glad that I’m not the only one who stopped after the first sentence in Finnegan’s Wake. I don’t like admitting it when I don’t understand the first sentence of a book.

  3. LOL! Great post. I too have read many stupid books that have annoyed me.

    I wrote about the changes were seeing with e-books here.
    https://insanitybytes2.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/why-e-books-stink/

  4. My grudge against James Joyce is similar to your James Patterson obsession, so I agree. Plus, I didn’t get the Sound and the Fury either, although I forced myself to finish it. I think I actually checked Wikipedia to find out what it was about.

  5. kh1789 permalink

    I read The Sound and the Fury in high school (or, rather, suffered through that agonizingly difficult collection of words), and I absolutely do not “get it.” I couldn’t tell you what the purpose or theme of the book is, though I did finish it. I’m glad there are others out there who feel the same!

    • You had to read The Sound and the Fury in high school? I wonder how your English teacher felt about that (I’m pretty sure I know how you felt). Was your English teacher enthusiastic about it, or did he/she have the “let’s just get through this” mentality?

      • kh1789 permalink

        I had a really great English teacher–she was extremely tough, but she definitely made us learn (I didn’t love her at the time, but in retrospect, I am glad to have taken her class). I think she wanted to expose us to something different in order to challenge us. I don’t believe that she expected us to really “get” the book, but rather to scratch the surface of the deeper meaning in order to test our skills of literary analysis (and our ability to stick with it, probably).

  6. reading is subjective as all art is –

    • That’s true. There’s a lot of art that makes me feel stupid too.

      • I read The Corrections and absolutely loved it – I really felt it was more of an American psychology perspective (being Canadian) and his writing is phenomenal – the descriptions and the characters – along with their quirks and all, but my friend hated it, so it’s hard to please everyone (as an artist)…cool blog you have 🙂

  7. I found out my grandson has dyslexia, can you provide a link that helps?

    Janice

  8. 100 Years of Solitude. Basically, people have children, who grow up, have weird stuff happen to them, have sex or marry wrong people, have children of their own, die in a weird way – rinse and repeat for five generations. I still have no idea why this is considered to be a great book.

  9. In my humble opinion, vocabulary, sentence structures and the writer’s voice all have an influence on our levels of interest and understanding but content that falls outside a readers personal frame of reference will be incomprehensible to even the most intelligent of people. I have felt stupid quite a number of times.

  10. Well written post on an interesting topic. You do seem smart, so don’t take this the wrong way, but everyone thinks they’re smart until they run into someone smarter, just like everyone thinks they are good at their favorite sport until they run into someone who kicks their butt. Doesn’t mean you can’t learn to kick their butt someday, though.

  11. Desiree B. Silvage permalink

    Reblogged this on Literary Truce.

  12. I’ve never really understood the fascination with Virginia Woolf’s fiction. Her novels are readable but I didn’t particularly feel anything for them.

  13. Ah, Joyce…Dubliners, Ulysses, Finnegan’s Wake….all rantings and ravings with the briefest touches of lucidity. Writing is subjective but honesty, if reading becomes a chore which infuriates rather than challenges or elevates…or hell….simply entertains…..it really serves little purpose.

    • When I was younger, I was more willing to accept writing that infuriated and challenged (or was forced to try it), but now I give up, maybe too easily some sometimes.

  14. anita ibeakanma permalink

    Reblogged this on Anita.com.

  15. The only purpose of a book surely isn’t for it to be just readable. Barthes talks about the difference between ‘lisible’ books, such as the ones written in realism, and ‘scriptible’ books, which have not been written yet, but he believes they could. My point is: the writer may just not give a shit about the reader.

    • Well, your comment made me feel stupid at first because I had no idea who Barthe was or what “lisible” means, but I looked them up. Now because of you and Wikipedia, I feel much smarter. And I think that you’re probably correct about the writer sometimes not caring what the reader thinks.

  16. If the writer doesn’t give a shit about the reader, then why bother publishing? Why not keep the manuscript in a draw, take it out every once in a while to remind themselves of how clever they are, then put it away again? I’m not criticising your view, just wondering. 🙂

    The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro was the book that springs to mind for me. Unlike Joyce, Ishiguro’s prose is perfectly intelligible, but the narrative is so repetitive and disjointed (intentionally, I should say) that it made me want to burn the book – I did not, of course, but neither did I finish it. I’ve held a slight grudge against Ishiguro ever since, only slightly mollified by Never Let Me Go.

    • I was just staitng out the well known concept of modernism and postmodernism: as Walter Benjamin would put it, it is all about the autonomy of beauty. By the time Joyce wrote his books, the authors were expected to write things that would go well on the market. That way, the artist was completely dependent on his audience. That meant he had to write things that the audience would understand. That way the author becomes the puppet of the audience, he bows to their wishes. Joyce and his generation did not want their books to be like goods on the market. Maybe that is why he published it – to make a statement.

      • Good point – I have no idea what motivated Joyce (or his publisher) to publish it. It would be interesting to know if he was indeed making some kind of artistic statement. He’d have to self-publish these days, of course and run the risk of being lost in the Amazon ebook jungle 🙂

  17. Boy did this post resonate with me. I am not a writer. I also feel that I am not a critical reader. I am on a grave side of 70 and I read a lot. I am in the midst of the Goodreads Challenge and so far am up 105 books on the year and that after spending two months reading fan fiction. I am obstinate about reading books that people say I must read because they are ‘classics’ but in the course of life one ends up reading many of them for one reason or another and, like you, wondering what is wrong with me when they bore the bejesus out of me. I could not make it through Finnegan’s Wake. I am compulsive about finishing books and there are few that I haven’t plowed right to the end of, no matter how difficult or dull. Maurice by E.M. Forster boring, Remembance of Things Past by Proust. I tried twice to get through that one. The first time I tried I was relatively young and actually was interested enough but half way through I was interrupted for a few days and could not pick up the thread again so I put the books away for ten or more years and one day decided to try again. The second time I got half way through again but this time it was a struggle with boredom. I disliked the people, I had no interest in their lives I thought them shallow, ugly, stupid and their interests and interactions stupid. I thought the lead character was the most emotionally stunted person I had ever read about and I finally gave up and admitted defeat that I would never finish it and would never even try. At the time I thought perhaps I had just outgrown people’s romantic silliness. I did like his use of language but talk about padding…eeek. I love to read about Virginia Woolf, her biographies and I also enjoy a lot of her articles and diaries but her books are a yawn to me and that bothers me. She is supposed to be so special and yet her books leave me cold. I hate that I feel stupid because I do not enjoy much of ‘classic’ literature. On the other hand, I loved Moby Dick and have read some scathing reviews by others. Hey, I loved Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence and Lord of the Rings. Density is not an obstacle. I love that reading one book leads to another in an entirely different sphere when one name, one place, one thing twigs my interest. It used to lead me to the library and off on a new trail but now with google and instant satisfaction of curiosity..that doesn’t happen as often any more. If I am curious about a person mentioned in a book I no longer have to read the entire biography in book form to satisfy that curiosity. I think I am missing something these days but the house library is so full and life is so short that just rereading existing loved books will take me till I drop in the traces.

  18. Just finished posting comment on books and went back to my email and received a photo of a cat reading To Kill A Mockingbird and the caption read…”.200 pages in and not a single killing or bird sighting..it should be called To Bore A Cat”. Timing is everything and connections like that coming so close together are weird and wonderful.

    • Yeah, when was the mockingbird mentioned anyway? Was it at the end? I remember it in the movie (at the end, I think), but I wonder what page it’s on in the book. I’d like the cat to know what page to turn to. Then again, the cat might be disappointed to find out killing a mockingbird was frowned upon.

  19. I don’t think you’re stupid. A lot of what you said was absolutely correctly. There are people in the world who believe literature must be complicated and obscure, in tale and language, to make it great. They make a cottage industry out of that nonsense. Many of those people praise the books you’ve just said are crap.
    The mere fact that someone is published does not mean these days that he writes well. It means he has spent a long time in the society of writing, getting to know the right people to get himself published.

  20. I wrote many of the same opinions on Finnegans Wake in the blog: http://rilaly.com/2013/10/10/james-joyce-incomparable-or-incomprehensible/

    I knew that Joyce intended the title Finnegans Wake to be written without an apostrophe, but a reader found two such instances that did, even though they happened to be hyperlinks I made to the webpages that intended to decipher it. One some levels, it makes no sense to write the title without an apostrophe, but on the level we both wrote about neither does much of what Joyce wrote.

    • Thanks for linking your article. It was great! I like how you connected Joyce with comedians and musicians, etc. I might even try a Joyce short story.

      I didn’t notice the lack of apostrophes in Finnegans Wake. Sometimes I’m not very observant. I’m going to keep the apostrophes in my blog post, so everybody can see my mistake. Then they might not feel bad if they make the same mistake too.

  21. Haven’t laughed so hard for a while….thank you! And my sentiments exactly about James Joyce!

  22. somesortofreviwer permalink

    You are so right about these. All I can hear in my head is Roland Barthes and his stupid readerly/writerly texts. Writerly may be better in his eyes and I am all for novels that make you think, but no one wants to read a book that isn’t a pleasure

  23. I’m exactly the same. I feel like some books are written by people in order to prove that they are more intelligent than the rest of us, not to provide anything enlightening for the reader.

    This can be the only reason some books exist! Either that, or I’m just not clever enough to ‘get’ them!

    • N@ncy permalink

      I agree completely with your remark: ” …written by people in order to prove that they are more intelligent than the rest of us…”

  24. Reblogged this on themonkseal.

  25. N@ncy permalink

    James Joyce: read Ulysses and still don’t ‘get it’. You need Cliff Notes to understand it.
    “C’est vraiment infect!”
    W. Faulkner: read it and thought to myself: no more Faulkner, ‘didn’t get it’.
    Mauvaise pioche!
    J. Franzen: read it because I succumbed to the hype about the book. I ‘did get it’, but hated it and threw in in the bin. Franzen didn’t the the Pulitzer. Overjoyed that finally an award jury “got it” and saw through Franzen’s literary facade.
    “Franzen, crétin fini!”
    I would rather read 20 books in French…than one more Joyce, Faulkner or Franzen.
    I know it is a ‘stupid’ remark, very subjective but …
    “je m’ en fiche!”

  26. saumyajit permalink

    The kind of books that makes me feel stupid are the ones in which the author goes in so damn deep inside human mind and how people tend to think. They explain each and every instance and thought and are fun to read. But in the end, the author gives a mixed conclusion about how nothing is absolute, and there is no right and wrong. Ofcourse there is right and wrong. I don’t know why is it hard to admit?!

  27. Great post! Agreed on Joyce. Faulkner’s Sound and Fury made sense to me the third time I read it. And I loved the Corrections. Love Cormac McCarthy, but his Blood Orchard was so damn lofty and biblical, it was unreadable.

    • ” Sound and Fury made sense to me the third time I read it.”-

      The third time you read it? I might read a sentence or a paragraph three times to make sense of it, but not a book. You have much more patience than I do.

  28. Its a tough choice to just write about he things you don’t undesrand. I enjoyed your work. More power!

  29. Great post! Personally, I found reading much more enjoyable when I was finally able to accept that there were some books that I just didn’t get. On the other hand, enjoying a book only to find out afterward that it is ‘difficult’ and that you are smart for ‘getting it’ is a real thrill!

  30. Reblogged this on potterhead.

  31. I read Sound and the Fury while studying for the SAT’s in high school, naively thinking that it would “give me reprieve from studying”….Well, solid proof that teenagers can be pretty dumb sometimes.

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