Friday 10 June 2022

The three most-disappointing books I ever read...

What made these three books so very disappointing is that in all cases the authors were people who I first encountered in my teens, at an age when books made their maximum and most lasting impact. 

All the authors of the disappointments had previously published particular books that I greatly appreciated, and there had been a prolonged wait with expectations.

I had been hoping for some kind of a 'follow-up' that would provide me with something of the same quality and flavour I had received from the previous book; or at least be complementary. 

1. The Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien (1977)

I had appreciated The Lord of the Rings as no book before or since, having encountered it about a year before Tolkien's death, written to the author asking about its progress, and then waiting for four teenage-years for the publication. 

When The Silmarillion was published, I immediately bought it in hardback and took it to college as a special treat - yet I found it so dull and... wrong that I could not finish it; and did not do so for many years.  

2. Lila by Robert M Pirsig (1991)

This book came a decade and a half after I had been bowled-over by the author's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which had originally been lent me in 1976 by Bill Ryan on a month long Outward Bound course where he was a group-leader. I had bought myself a copy, another for the school library - and some as presents; I had exchanged a letter with the author, and published a critical essay

As with The Silmarillion, I disliked the feel of the book, it seemed a bit sordid rather than having the freshness and hope of ZAMM. And its argument contradicted some of my favourite aspects of ZAMM. I've tried re-reading, but still feel the same. Very disappointing, for sure. 

3. Seven Days in New Crete by Robert Graves (1949)

Robert Graves's I Claudius/ Claudius The God were the first grown-up novels I read after Lord of the Rings, when aged about 13 or 14. Soon afterwards I got The White Goddess (1948), and constantly consulted it, and brooded on it, through the following years. About a decade or more later I discovered in a biography that Graves has followed-up the WG - which is non-fiction (sort of..) by a novel that expressed the ideas; called Seven Days in New Crete. It took me ages to find a copy of this - but when I did, I was avid with anticipation... 

But, as you will have guessed, I was extremely underwhelmed - on several levels. For a start, it is a poor novel qua novel - never comes to life, is just rather boring. But more damningly, Graves apparently regards his 'New Crete' as a kind of utopia, where the White Goddess rules and is worshipped - as Graves advocated for real-life, and which I had found persuasive in adolescence. Yet his depiction of the Goddess-dominated world was completely unappealing, and without a trace of the romance that permeated White Goddess. In sum: a dud. 


Have readers had similar experiences of seriously-disappointed literary anticipation? 


William Wildblood said...

I bought The Silmarillion the day it came out and had exactly the same feeling about it as you. I still have the book and occasionally have a look at it but I've never read it all the way through.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William. As I have written elsewhere; Christopher soon regretted the way the Silmarillion had been compiled and was presented; and that led to Unfinished Tales (absolutely brilliant!) and the History of Middle Earth series - which presented twelve volumes of posthumously-published texts as Tolkien wrote them, in context. So it all worked-out for the best, in the end...

Wanderer of Westernesse said...

I loved LORD OF THE RINGS as a child and still do, tho' I don't think the prose is good. Anyway, as a child, I was eager to read THE SILMARILLION after LOTR. When I tried it, I was badly disappointed and couldn't get past the first few pages.

But trying THE SILMARILLION again many years later, I found it not just profoundly moving but beautiful and melodious in a way that prose rarely is. It seemed much better-written than LOTR. In fact, I had the feeling that it was by a different author, not by Tolkien himself. I wondered whether Christopher created it from hints and fragments, not from sustained passages of his father's prose.

Poppop said...

You are a better man than I. My mom bought for my 13th birthday the first (US) imprinting hardcover and had the store apply to its slipcover that library-plastic-cover-thingy.

I got through a couple chapters then and couldn't bear another moment of it. It was long on my post-retirement to-do list, but so far in my dotage it has apparently slipped further to a quick skim from my deathbed, perhaps.

My youngest said recently "Dad, that book is worth a lot! You should cash in!" I chided him that one I wouldn't part with something my mom gave me, and two I couldn't in good conscience take money for such an over-hyped, disappointing piece of fiction.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WoW - As someone who regards the prose of LotR as first rate - I can't agree! But you are correct about the prose of The Silmarillion, which was (to simplify) a collaboration between the JRRT originals, CRT selection and sequencing, and a young Guy Gavriel Kay who helped with the fictional technique - presumably including prose style. Maybe you should try some of GGK's later fantasy novels (I never have, so can't say whether they are any good).

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - I suppose you mean the Silmarillion? Actually, in my experience; even the first printing of the first edition is worth probably less now than the inflation-adjusted cost back in 1977. I presume because it had such a big print run, and too many people had the idea of speculating.

Epimetheus said...

My example is more low-brow. The Mormon American sci-fi-fantasy author Larry Correia has created the Monster Hunter International series, chronicling a kind of gun-toting mercenary outfit that helps keep our "muggle" world safe from the hidden world of mythology - demons, vampires, the whole goofy works.

I waited for some years for his Monster Hunter: Legion installment. It looked epic, everything looked great, but for some reason it lacked all the magic of the previous novels. It didn't have the spark. It should've worked on paper - he uses large-scale elements and beloved characters - but it didn't work. One thing I noticed: he implicitly endorses anti-whiteness and gay marriage in a passing scene in the story. He might be the classic conservative whose inner will has collapsed under the assault of leftism, someone who's surrendered to the spirit of the age, a"cuckservative."

The other huge disappointment is the Fantastic Beasts film trilogy. You wrote a post years back that JK Rowling would never write anything magical or worthwhile ever again, not until she repents of leftism. You nailed that one. She tried to base the entire trilogy on her assertion that Dumbledore is homosexual. Well, judging from the results...

The last seasons of Game of Thrones (with their thesis that psychopathy is the only adult response to existence) had a similar self-lobotomy. It's the same story over and over again - artists surrender to Satan, basically, and the power of creation is taken from them. You can feel it - they lose 'it.'

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi - "artists surrender to Satan, basically, and the power of creation is taken from them" - yes, that's it. It is most obvious when the artist had some genuine genius to start-with - even if just a flair or spark, maybe of humour or profundity; because genius is an attribute of the divine, and that's what goes.

Eidolon said...

I had always heard great things about Heinlein, and Stranger in a Strange Land was a classic. I was totally unaware of Heinlein's personal proclivities, I just wanted to read one of those great books you hear about.

The first half was great. The second half feels like an inferior sequel novel attached to the first.

At first I thought -- OK, the guy raised by Martians misunderstands and is becoming an evil cult leader, and the guy who initially helped him to learn about humanity will have to stop him. That's a decent twist.

With creeping horror I realized that the book still saw the Martian cult leader as a hero, and his bizarre sex cult as something good. All the characters eventually succumb to the cult at which time the Martian is "martyred."

As much as it disgusted me, I feel that it does a good job of arguing against itself. Even if we accept its twisted perspective, it shows that the "free love" lifestyle is impossible. The characters have to be given so many ridiculous superpowers just to make it work that it becomes very clear how impossible it would be, even if it weren't evil.

Anyway, a morally repugnant book, and very disappointing. Just quit reading at the halfway point, and it would be quite good.

WJT said...

1. The Silmarillion. I guess my reaction was similar to everyone else’s.

2. Ada. Whatever his other faults, Nabokov is always extremely clever and extremely readable — except in this thing, which he thought of as his masterpiece.

3. Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon’s Ada.

4. Interpretation of Dreams. I don’t care how uncool he is now, Freud was absolutely a genius. This is another case where his most famous book is one of his least inspired.

Alexeyprofi said...

Silmarillion. I only read 3-4 pages. I thought that I was not smart enough, but now I see that many have such a reaction. The third book of "A Wizard of Earthsea" did not hook me and seemed less interesting than the previous two. Notre Dame de Paris and L'Homme qui rit. I read them after Les Misérables and thought it would be just as interesting. In general, a significant part of classical literature seemed to me not so interesting and I could not understand what was so special about it, now I think that this is due to the fact that the ability to create large coherent stories with authentic characters requires exceptional talent, for which their authors are getting recognition.

Howard Ramsey Sutherland said...

Pace Epimetheus, I don't believe Tolkien ever surrendered to Satan. Nevertheless, after years of serially re-reading The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, The Silmarillion left me cold. My mother bought it for me for Christmas the year it was published, and I gave it an honest try, but soon let it drop. A few years later, now aged 24, I read it through - as much from duty as from any urge to keep reading. Unfinished Tales shows what The Silmarillion might have been. Still, one can't blame J.R.R. Tolkien entirely: The Silmarillion was prepared for publication by later hands. And fortunately Christopher Tolkien's hands grew steadier as time passed.
I was rapt by Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey, first the Kubrick film when it came out and then Clarke's original novel which I read after seeing the film. About 15 years later I got around to reading Clarke's sequel, 2010: Odyssey Two, after seeing the film version of that. Neither was up to its predecessor.
At about age 13, I was also rapt by Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, which I devoured and immediately re-read. After rediscovering Clarke's 2001 novels, I looked to see if Asimov had written any more Foundation sci-fi. It turned out that in the 1980s, late in his life, Asimov churned out four prequels and sequels to the Foundation trilogy. Naturally I had to read them. The thrill was gone.
In college I discovered Dashiell Hammett, creator of Sam Spade and the Maltese Falcon. Turned out he had written, in the 1920s while trying to survive consumption in San Francisco, a series of short-stories about the life and hard times of a nameless Continental Operative (private detective) set in SF in the '20s, drawing on Hammett's own experiences as a Pinkerton agent. Great hard-boiled stuff set in a time and place that still fascinates me; also a worthy precursor to Raymond Chandler's equally hard-boiled Philip Marlowe tales set in Los Angeles in the '30s. Many years later a collection of Hammett writings was published which contained some Continental Op stories that had not made it into the two collections I knew. Naturally I had to read them. Their omission from the earlier anthologies was not mere oversight.

slocklin said...

Silmarillion was one for me also. Everyone should read Beowulf instead; that's where Tolkien got his ideas (Rebsamen translation IMO). Better yet read it in old English.

Pirsig's big book also didn't do anything for me, probably because too many people talked it up. For contrast, I thought Aristotle's ethics would be a crushing bore, but it was one of the greatest reads of my life.

Like others, I tried reading a couple of Heinlein's books; I can only assume they're written for 12 year olds. I mean, nobody remembers H. Beam Piper, but Space Viking was a hoot.