I know this is going to open a can of worms, or perhaps a barrel of rattle-snakes, but it needs to be said: do not read these famous books. One thing all these books have in common is that they are too long. If they were excellent, fascinating, educational, absorbing on every page they would not have a problem. But most readers find they are not any of those things.
I have read all but one of these books, and while they are talked about in literary circles, and are on lists of Must Read Books, few people ever finish reading them. Some people would hint that you are “artistically impoverished” if you have not read these books. Do not believe them.
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
This is one of the longest novels ever written. The version I read contained 1500 pages of tiny print. The story: Napoleon Invades Russia, Napoleon retreats in disarray. It is not a difficult book to read, and it is mildly interesting. But it is going to take months of reading, and probably you will feel it was not worth the journey. If it was a shorter book, it might be worth the time and effort, but life is too short to spend on one long, humdrum book.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E. Lawrence
Wow, written by the famous Lawrence of Arabia! Great movie! But this book is not going to lead you to enlightenment. It is not going to make you clever, it is not going to give you any more wisdom than you had yesterday. The book is an account of Lawrence’s WW1 war experiences. Once again it is a long book; not just long, but meandering with no sense of direction, speculative — perhaps even misleading, some facts were exaggerated or omitted. He only hints at what happened to him when he was arrested by the Turkish authorities, yet this was an important event. Skip this book.
If you really want to know about Middle East history, read The Great War for Civilization, the conquest of the Middle East, by Robert Fisk. Here is a book on history, 1300 pages long, which is totally fascinating, and enlightening. This indicates that a long book can be extremely worthwhile; the failings of the listed books, are compounded by their length.
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
It was rated number one, by Newsweek, in a list of the top 100 books. Like all of Dostoyevsky’s novels it is set in 19th century Russia, not a pleasant era. Dostoyevsky wrote fifteen novels, of these, Crime and Punishment is one that is certainly worth reading.
Many of Dostoyevsky’s books were written for magazines, where he had to write a section of the novel each month. Novelists constantly make changes to plot, characters, and events as they progress. Serialisation meant he could not revise what he had already written; which is like asking an Olympic swimmer to tow a sea anchor.
I have read most of Dostoyevsky’s books, they are generally long and wordy. With The Brothers Karamazov there is little in the way of plotting, progression of the story, or any kind of conclusion. Perhaps if you like reading philosophical novels that endlessly debate issues of God, morality, reason, free will, and the purpose of life, you may enjoy this; be prepared for 1300 pages of small print.
Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
Just because you thought the movie was one of the 10 best movies ever made, that does not mean the book will be good, or vice versa. This novel is set between 1905 and the Second World War, in Russia / Soviet Union. It was refused publication in the Soviet Union, because of its criticism of Soviet leaders, and the depiction of the Communist revolution.
The English version was published at the end of 1958, staying on the New York Times best-seller list for six months. In October 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was recently revealed that the CIA printed and distributed thousands of copies of the book, with the purpose of embarrassing the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, Pasternak was abused and condemned by Soviet authorities — but for our purposes, this does not make it a great book. It is a shorter book than some others, but still 675 pages of small print. The novel is somewhat boring, although it should not be since it deals with momentous events. Watch the movie again, it’s worth it (the 1965 version).
Ulysses, James Joyce
This one has been listed as the number one book to read out of 100 best novels ever. What attracts people’s attention is the Molly Bloom stream-of-consciousness section at the end of the book. It is 62 pages long without one comma or full stop. It is inspired writing, a little difficult but worth the effort to read this passage. This stream-of-consciousness technique was a breakthrough in writing, not invented by Joyce, but raised to a pinnacle in this novel. I would recommend reading only the last section.
The whole novel is somewhat difficult to read, and from what I can gather, few people read all of it. To fully understand it, you should read one chapter, and then an explanatory chapter from Stuart Gilbert’s book James Joyce’s Ulysses, which clarifies what you are reading. Unfortunately, this total exceeds 1200 pages, of which you will find little of interest, apart from extreme confusion. Just skip to the last section, Molly Bloom, that will be all that is required.
Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
It was placed 77th by the Modern Library in a list of the best 100 English-language novels, and much higher on other lists. A mere 640 pages long, but I assure you it will seem much longer should you get past page one (extremely unlikely!). This is the only book listed here that I have not read, (apart from the first page).
It’s a mess of words, but less comprehensible than a book on String Theory written in Egyptian hieroglyphics. It could be the best novel ever written — if anyone could understand it! The main interest in this book, is that it is a 640-page cryptic crossword with no clues. To understand it will require you to read dozens of other books, including the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Expect to spend fifteen years studying this book; you will have little time left to read anything else not connected with Finnegans Wake.
It is possible you will have a brilliant mind by the time you finish this project, or more likely, be a blabbering idiot. Instead of reading Finnegans Wake, you could choose the easier option of tunnelling to the centre of the earth using a plastic teaspoon.
Okay, that’s a few books I found not worth the effort. What books are on your list of Do Not Read?