April 4, 2009


Burning is too good for them: Some books are supposed to be classics, but all they ignite in us is anger. Rod Liddle presents his red-mist list burning book (Rod Liddle, 6/22/08, Times of London)

[Anthony] Powell’s name came up an awful lot as I importuned a bunch of writers and hacks about books they had read that now, when mentioned, make the red mist descend. Books that made them angry just thinking about them; that were once clotted with extravagant critical praise, like the butter surrounding the tiny crustaceans in the potted shrimp at White’s club, or that sort of sprang from the collective consciousness of the metropolitan elite of the time and that everybody felt they had to read. And that, from either category, we now realise are close to worthless.

Many mentioned Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Carlos Casteneda’s interminable drug-soaked hippie ramblings, which I thought I was terribly cool to be reading as a kid. Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man scored heavily, too, and the names of Colin Wilson and Mervyn Peake were invoked with a sort of guttural sneer and one or two expletives on several occasions. Yet two names kept cropping up when my respondents were asked for the misbegotten stuff of serious literature, the people who still today have a reputation: John Fowles and Anthony bloody “Pole”.

This was an interesting, if not entirely scientific, exercise. For many, it provided the opportunity to wallow in what we might call antinostalgia; the shaking of the ageing head and the muttered “My God, were we stupid enough to fall for all that claptrap?”. Like remembering you’d once purchased a Uriah Heep record, or sported three-button high-waisted Oxford bags with a cheese-cloth shirt. The columnist Catherine Bennett chose “the entire Virago imprint”, bemoaning the fact that, for political reasons, she had felt duty-bound to plough through Rosamund Lehmann and the like when there was Philip Roth waiting there, unread. James Delingpole struck a chord with “all magic realists, especially Gabriel Garcia Marquez” – there were one or two votes for Sir Salman, too, especially Midnight’s Children. Meanwhile, the historian Michael Burleigh suggested all “angry” black novelists (along with Herbert Marcuse and EP Thompson). Here’s a bunch of stuff we were all told we had to read by the political and cultural climate of the day; because it would be good for us and because, way beyond this, it was our responsibility to start patronising writers from minorities because it was only the oppressive white male cultural hegemony that kept them in an ethnic- or gender-defined ghetto.

Well, no. Looking back at Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Rosamund Lehmann, Aphra Behn, it wasn’t that – it was just good taste that kept those books locked away.

How about we give away a book to whoever has the best list of 5 books they'd burn?

The obvious ones are Mein Kampf, anything by Marx, Darwin or Freud, and all of Proust, Joyce, Beckett, Dreiser, and James.

But we'll go with:

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

Johnny Gotr His Gun

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Posted by Orrin Judd at April 4, 2009 12:00 AM
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