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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, February 12, 2007

What is the worst book ever written?

Just quickly, I wonder if anyone is willing to offer a view on this one. (Hint: books by present company, such as Kong Reborn by Russell Blackford, do not count.)

The Future of Human Nature by Jurgen Habermas must go very close. I'm re-reading this, in the wake of recent discussion about Fenton's critique of Habermas - I hadn't read it for a a year or two. In that time I had forgotten what an execrable piece of bio-Luddite rubbish this book really is, committing just about every possible sin: it is repetitive and badly structured (even within the individual pieces from which it has been cobbled together), relies on sonorous rhetoric, rather than careful, rational analysis, is full of bizarre logical non sequiturs, projects an almost mystical view of human nature, and just generally is one book you would not want to give as a token to a favourite smart adolescent (or anyone else).

Any other suggestions?


Blake Stacey said...

This is actually a pretty hard question! Well, it gets much harder if you disqualify Chick tracts, which commit a plenitude of sins, almost always relying upon an argumentum ad baculum (as Bronze Dog ably pointed out).

The most uneven book I own is probably J. Kerry Grant's Companion to The Crying of Lot 49. In his page-by-page annotations, Grant provides some lucid and commendable explanations of tough topics like Maxwell's Demon (with a greater focus on history &mash; who did what in which year — than many scientific texts offer). He misses a couple things, like the relation between Zeno's paradoxes and Newton's calculus; this particular example would if present have elucidated what he called the most difficult passage in the novel.

The book also includes, mixed in with the science and history, capsule summaries of "literary" theses people have written, and these are enough to make the heart flutter and the brain bubble. I know that Grant himself can make sense. He just takes it upon himself to give an overview of all the papers written about Lot 49, and in the process obligates himself to cover a farrago of things which just don't click.

I'm tempted to say that such papers are the inevitable result of people who have not experienced personal loss, a counterculture, scientific discovery or mathematical intricacy trying to write about Thomas Pynchon because he's Important. The charm of modern Theory is that it can easily be applied to any "text" at all. . . .

"The purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure pure reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! Want to see my book report?"

"'The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes.'"

"Academia, here I come."

Even though it has the atmosphere of a battlefield survey after an intellectual Antietam or Agincourt, I can't call Grant's Companion a bad book. It's a battlefield survey, competently done.

Hmmm. People whose judgment I generally trust have said harsh things about Tipler's The Physics of Immortality, Capra's The Tao of Physics and Zukov's The Dancing Wu-Li Masters. I picked up Peter Woit's Not Even Wrong in a bookstore because I'd heard it had a chapter on the Bogdanov Affair. When I read that chapter, I was so thoroughly underwhelmed I set the book back on the shelf and contemplated writing an essay on the Affair to unburden myself. (I even found a journal which might publish such a review: Plagiary.)

I'll have to think a little longer about which books I should designate as truly bad. Were you around for the Pharyngula discussion of the "Ten Worst Science Books"?

Stuart said...

Are we talking Fiction here? I got out this book called 'Four Letters of Love' by this Irish guy because reviews said it was the most romantic book ever written. The protagonists didn't even meet until the end of the book! Since when is romance about fate/god/chance conspiring for hundreds of pages so two people can meet? Who cares if the back of the book says they were 'made for each other' I want to see some actual interaction.

Russell Blackford said...

Stuart, we're talking any book that makes you want to throw it against the wall. Fiction counts as well as non-fiction.

At least the Habermas book is short. I was able to read the whole thing yesterday. I have to try to work out whether there's any actual merit in the argument. It's written in a way that doesn't make it easy.

Of course, there really are more infuriating books around. I just haven't read them of late.

I didn't see that thread on Pharyngula, Blake. It was before you got me reading ScienceBlogs.

My original PhD thesis was partly on Pynchon, back in the day, and I do recall reading a lot of the sort of criticism you describe.