I’m not sure if there is a reason, but lately many have asked me I read any bad books; and if I do, why I don’t write about them. These are both good questions and I spent some time thinking about them over summer.
The simple answer is that I do read (especially start to read) a lot of what I call bad books. The second question is more difficult to answer as it almost implies that books I write about are “good” and those that I don’t write about are “bad”. This is not true in my case. Anyone who has read my book reflections knows that I do not review books in the traditional sense, e.g. I would never dream of using a ranking systems as there are so many different aspects that make a book worth reading. What I try to do is to use books to discuss subjects I find interesting and important.
First I would like to clarify that many of the books I read and write about are ”bad” in a way that I’ve seen others define bad books, i.e. they belong to one or more of the following categories:
- I don’t agree with them
- They are simplistic books with just one idea (often by a journalist) that is basically an op-ed extended to a book and often also incoherent.
- The grammar/language is poor
The first category I don’t consider bad in any way at all, on the contrary. In the current society when social media and the web support simple group thinking by creating echo chambers that reinforces people’s existing beliefs we need to challenge ourselves. Books might be one of the best antidotes to cyberbalkanization.
I think all books that argue for something in a good way and/or tell an interesting story are good books. I tend to appreciate books that I disagree with more than books I agree with, as long as they address important issues. Books that argue for things I don’t agree with, or argue for things I agree with in ways that I disagree with, helps me to revise my knowledge and opinions if I find good arguments. I also think it is important to read books where you don’t agree with the author as you often realise once you have read the book that you are closer than you though initially.
On a more fundamental level I think a healthy society should have a lot of different voices, including those that argue for really unsympathetic, or even dangerous, things. It can not be said often enough; the freedom of speech is only really important when it comes to protecting very provocative voices, and that includes those you most disagree with.
The second category is more problematic as one part of me feels frustrated with the “sound-bite” focused society we have today. I also feel bad for giving more attention to people who write books to get attention rather than actually writing about something they care about and think is important to share.
In the best of worlds I would not spend anytime with these books and instead only focus on books written by people that really have deep knowledge and help expand our knowledge, but as these “sound-bite” books influence decision makers and the general discussion in society I often write comments about these books. Perhaps I should begin to indicate when I think it is enough to only read a summary of the book (as they lack substance) so that it is clear that my comments is meant as a comment on just that (often very simple) idea? I came across a “review” that I think capture many of these books very well (see below under the *).
The last category I find totally irrelevant in most cases. A knowledgeable person arguing in a convincing and passionate way, or telling an engaging story, is often the most important thing for me when I read a book. Still in fiction it can be disturbing with sloppy writing, especially in the cases where I suspect that it is a bad transition to e-books that is behind the spelling errors. The fact that my own grammar and spelling is really bad and that I myself like to focus on content rather than style might contribute to the fact that I tend to be generous in this area.
When it comes to books I consider bad most of them fall into one or more of four categories.
- Basic premise illusion
- Issue lure
- Momentum exploitations
- Incoherent word- and sentence stapling
Please note that the specific examples given below are not the worst books in each category. In most cases they just happen to be books I read recently so I still remember them. As the overall criteria for a bad book is its irrelevance I tend to forget bad books quite fast.
1. Basic premise illusion These are books that set up a narrative in an interesting way, but then doing nothing interesting with that premise.
Example: The Fold by Peter Clines The book is presented as if it is a riddle related to gateways to other worlds and the main character is presented as very smart, so I guess I was fooled into thinking that there would be a story that described an interesting solution to an interesting problem (folding of time-space). Unfortunately it was nothing interesting in the book at all and the writing was poor also. These books are like looking at a bad scary movie when the only thing you do is frustrated that everyone in the book is stupid. So in the end this is just a plain boring book and a book where I feel my time was wasted.
2. Issue lure This is perhaps the category with most bad books for me. It is similar to 1. but broader. Here only the title/story needs to be about a fascinating subject. My expectations when reading such a book is based on the hope that I will be inspired in some way as I find the subject so interesting. I have almost no expectation in terms of story/style etc. as long as I can get something out, it can be an idea, a fact I was unaware or, links to further reading, etc.. It is hard to have lower expectations than this as most authors usually have at least one or two ideas that can be used.
Many business books fall into this category. They tend to have a message about the need to be innovative/original/etc to be successful and use famous people to give advise to the masses (usually telling the reader that their book is relevant for everyone on the planet). Once you open them up they seem more like a desperate plea to be invited to conferences and show how many famous people you know. A funny side consequence is that the books create loops where the same group of people celebrate each others books, calling them “a must read”, etc. The latest example of a book where I struggled to find any new or interesting thinking was Originals by Adam Grant.
Example: Zoo by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge This is a book that tells the reader that it is not only about a global pandemic, it is a book about our relation to other animals and how they are react to our treatment of them. After reading the book my only question was if it was a computer that have written the story based on a simple algorithm that only included the most common clichés. It just felt like an insult to any thinking person and provided not one interesting thought related to global pandemics or our relation to other animals.
3. Momentum exploitation This is a different category as is very much self-inflicted, but is also used by some authors/publishing houses. For anyone with a tendency to be a “collector” who likes to follow a story/author the “momentum exploitation” is something to be particularly aware of. Although I suffer more in the areas of music (when I like a record I tend to listen to other things by the composer, the musicians involved, conductor, etc.) as there are more people to follow than for a book (as there is usually just one author per story). Still there are a few books where the passion has been lost and it feels like the author just write to get money, or just can’t move on. The worst kind is usually an author that writes something good, then tries a few other things without much success and they goes back (in desperation) to the original success to write a follow-up. Lately a new category has emerged when the “market” use a story developed by one person by bringing in a new person to write about it. Momentum exploitation has nothing to do with fan fiction, something I enjoy as a phenomenon even if I no longer read much of it.
Example: Det som inte dödar oss (“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” in English), by David Lagercrantz In the case of Lagercrantz and the GITSW it just feels parasitic and unnecessary. I read the book as I found Stig Larsson’s books fascinating. The fact that it was professionally done just made the situation worse, a skilful parasite feels more unpleasant than an incompetent. It left me feeling soiled by a con artist behind the scene. I want to stress that it is not Lagercrantz that I think is the parasite, but the people behind how asked him to write it, those with the strategy to make more money.
4. Incoherent word and sentence stapling This is a category where I tend to stop reading after a chapter as I think they lack any intellectual coherence. As I tend to delete these books directly (as I have enough difficulties keeping track of all the interesting books/reports I want to read/keep) I don’t remember many examples. I currently work on security policy issue in Europe right and remembered an old article that discussed the role of Germany in a way that made me wonder how it could be published in a well established newspaper.
I want to stress that it is not the message as such, but the fact that it is hard to find any logic or coherence in the text.
I looked up the latest article by the same person to see if the article about Germany was a mistake, but this article, about Wikileaks, was if anything even more incoherent and confused. It is the kind of text where I fail to see what argument that the person is making
The two examples are just to illustrate a category and the rest of his articles might be brilliant, but after suffering though two articles that I read multiple times I can’t take the risk…
For those who like some context for the articles please see: > The emails published
As I was about to post this text I started to read a book “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the world” and it might be a good candidate for this category also (not just “issue lure”). The theme is interesting and important. The person who wrote the book seem very nice and I think I agree with him on many things, but the book is such a patchwork of sentences and feels more like a “I scratch your back and you scratch mine and let’s forget all important issues”.
I think it is because it is not a book where you are supposed to learn anything specific, it is a “self-help” book where I think you need to be a little bit desperate to enjoy. What the book it trying to say (I think) is that everyone can be more creative. I really like this message and think it is true, but unfortunately it does not make the book any less incoherent. Examples are given that does not make sense if you think about it, there are no references provided for most parts and there are so many general and vague statements that I was beginning to suspect that the book was inspired by Deepak Chopra (who is famous for writing texts that make no sense, perhaps with the exception for Chopra’s bank account).
There are also two categories that I include in books that I don’t write about, but that I don’t think are bad.
1. Fast food Occasionally I read books that are like watching soap opera on TV. These are books when reading feels as if you following a simple formula and where you just turn pages without really using your brain. In well-written cases it almost feels like surfing/sliding down a slippery slope. You just turn pages without resistance and it almost feels as if you are picking up speed so it is hard to get off. One of the best examples is probably The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I think the small nuggets of “educational reflections” help the flow where the story has a very simple structure. Even if I don’t write about these books I think these are important as they encourage more reading in a time when many companies encourage ever shorter attention spans and where we live in a culture when some people actually think that 140 characters is enough for meaningful conversations about important issues. Any book that encourage readers to concentrate for more than 5 minutes is an important contribution.
2. Form without function This is a difficult category. I think these books often walk a thin line for me. If I’m in the right mood I like them and appreciate the way the author plays with language. If I’m in the wrong mode I only feel that they have a form but without function. As if the author had a structure for an interesting book, but could not find any content for it. Don DeLillo’s Zero K falls in this category. It is beautifully written, and it was possible for me to appreciate this for a few chapters, but eventually it just feelt like a meaningless show if writer skills. As if a skillful artist made a number of beautiful but sterile circles and squares (no criticism against Kandinsky intended, even if I don’t consider them among his best). Zero K is a good example of form without function. The books is not hard to read as the language and ways he set up the different scenes are fantastic, but the tension between the skill and the lack of content also builds up a tension within me that I find interesting.
Perhaps the contrast to White Noise and Cosmopolis, two books I very much enjoyed by Don DeLillo, contributes to the tension as these books in a very interesting way allow form and function/narrative strengthen each other. As with “fast food” I don’t see these as bad books. First of all I think these books often push the limits and it is a matter of taste and context if you like them or not. But I also think craftsmanship is always worth supporting and if 100 Zero K are needed to deliver one White Noise/Cosmopolis it is more than worth it.
* “Take one concept from economics. Apply the didactic tools of business books - the laundry list of dos and don'ts, the capitalized letters, the end-of-chapter summaries. Transpose the whole to the field of politics, while making it relevant to people's everyday concerns. Provide a tsunami of facts and figures to illustrate each chapter. Pepper it with scholarly references. Make sure you quote important people with whom you had casual conversations - the attractiveness comes not from what they say, but from who they are. Provide the garbs of academic scholarship: a long bibliography, an index, footnotes. Impress the crowd with a statistical appendix. Et voila ! Such formulaic books may not make history or change the way we think about important topics such as power, but they will be the talk of the town during the few weeks that follow their launch by a media campaign.” This brilliant review, that I think could be copied and pasted with just a few modifications on very many of the self-help/ business book bestsellers, is written by Etienne Rolland-Piegue on Amazon.com for the book The End of Power by Moises Naim.