Some of the best books aren’t very good?

Whilst compiling a list of my favourite 2011 books  I noticed a strange thing. Many of the books I remembered vividly were ones I hadn’t enjoyed, whilst I often forgot about the seamlessly good ones. Re-reading my reviews produced some interesting findings. I seem to remember the books with an excessive number of coincidences, or characters that behave in unrealistic manner, far more than those with accurately observed ones.

I also noticed that I was more likely to recommend these books to others. I’d always warn them about the unrealistic aspects of the book, but state that it was worth reading anyway.

Meanwhile the beautifully written books quickly faded from my mind; the plots so ordinary that there was nothing to jog the memory afterwards. My reviews reminded me about the clarity of the writing and the perfect plotting, but although I enjoyed every minute of the reading experience, these books do not seem to live on after the final page has been turned and so I have not gone on to recommend them.

Longevity is often thought of as a sign of quality, so does this mean that the annoying books are the best?

Should a beautiful, but quickly forgotten book, be marked down for its inability to stand out from the crowd?

27 replies on “Some of the best books aren’t very good?”

hmm, interesting debate! – My view is that the books that provoke the strongest emotional response, neg or pos, will be most remembered. The TV ads that work linger most are the ones that are simply irritating, no? i’m thinking of insurance and that annoying film director? i even remember the brand, which i won’t re-type here.

My vote (plug alert ) is to read THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS by M L Stedman #lightbetweenoceans, as this will be remembered most vividly by the profound emotional response. its unique setting (an island with a lighthouse), a woman who keeps a baby that doesn’t belong to her and so on.

Jane, Comparing them to TV adverts captures my thoughts exactly. Some of the most annoying things I read just get under my skin and replay themselves – just like the jingles in adverts. No matter how hard you try, you can’t get them out of your head.

That’s right! they just don’t go out of your head, till you read something that is more annoying ( in a pleasant or a bad way).

I guess it’s human nature that we find perfection boring and remember the things that rattled our cage, for good or bad.

I also forget beautifully-written books more easily, especially if they weren’t “different” in any way. For instance, “Lolita” was perfection but memorable because of how it treats a tabu topic. “Lolita” about a “normal” couple would probably have been beautiful but forgettable. The same for “Room”.

Alex, The interesting thing is that I don’t find perfection boring whilst encountering it. It is only afterwards that it looses its shine.

I haven’t read Lolita, but agree that a taboo subject always helps. I have read a lot of brilliant books recently, but I worry they are too realistic (ie normal) to have any lasting impact on me.

it sounds as though there needs to be a better mix of the ordinary with the extraordinary. Over familiar settings and themes are eminently forgettable, but can be extremely powerful if harnessed to something truly different.

I’ve experienced some of this before, and I’ve often thought it was actually a side effect of consistently reading very good books. They all start to run together! The bad ones get our attention more if we’re consistently reading very well written novels. Weird!

Andi, I guess you’re right about bad writing really standing out when you read nothing but excellent stuff. Most of the books I’m thinking of had really good writing, but had some very odd scenes or characters sprinkled through the text. These stood out as weird and so I remember them. Wonder if good writing stands out as memorable if you read nothing but bad writing?

I’m finding that I disagree re the quality of writing argument … However there needs to be something in a book to make you remember it however well or badly it is written. An event, a phrase, a scene, a taboo, a quirk, a great title – I could go on and on … something original, shocking or just particularly resonant. I won’t forget Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch in a hurry as it contains a nest of vampires in Purley – my birthplace! Just one example …

Annabel, I often find I can remember a title or a scene, but have no idea what happened in the rest of the book. Rivers of London is on my wishlist already, but I’m intrigued about the nest of vipers now. Sometimes I find I know more about a book I haven’t read than one I have!

I’ve noticed that when something is done flawlessly, it looks easy. Take the Olympic downhill skier, for example. He (or she) skiis down the hill so apparently effortlessly, I’ve found myself thinking, “I could do that!”

Perhaps it’s the same with books. A beautifully written novel rests lightly on the mind. It doesn’t jar us with its imperfections.

Still, I personally remember them more than the ones with glaring defects. What strikes me, is that very often the more beautifully written books do not have a breathless plot. One needs to take them for each page, not the overall action. Pictures From Italy by Charles Dickens, which I’m reading right now, is such a book. Or, Monsieur Pain by Roberto Bolano. I don’t remember the plot as much as the mood created.

Bellezza, Skiing is a very good analogy and I agree that a talented person can make something look easy, but if you’re watching skiing who will you remember – the 10 in a row that did it flawlessly, or the one who fell over?

You always ask such good, thought-provoking questions. I guess you can read a beautifully-written book, but it takes creativity and edginess to really make us remember it. For me, I would probably rate the creative one higher for that reason.

Sandy, I used to think authors could go too far with their creativeness, but I’m beginning to think that isn’t posiible. I love books that push the boundaries to breaking point.

What an interesting observation! Thinking back, I don’t think I had the same issue. But yes, perhaps your best books aren’t really the ones you rate the highest at all it seems.

Amy, My favourite books are both amazingly written and memorable, but there are a layer of ones just beneath that that are memorable but not as well written. It is interesting to discover this isn’t the case for everyone, but at least I now know I’m not alone.

Such a good good question. I have such trouble assigning ratings to the books I read becuase I have noticed that the books I end up loving the most at the end of the year aren’t always the ones I rated as highly as I thought I did. There is something to be said for a book that stays with you rather than leaves you quckly.

Jenners, I should probably go back and give a second ‘year later’ rating to all the books I’ve read. Books that are memorable deserve a bit more recognition. Just a shame that you can’t always tell which books will stick when you turn the last page.

This is something I recently noticed as well – two of the books that stay in my mind despite it being over and year since I read them, were ones I really wasn’t keen on. But because I wasn’t keen on them and found lots to talk about in a critical way, perhaps that’s why I remember them – I tend to write longer reviews of books I didn’t like.

I don’t think it makes them better books per se, but there’s definitely something to be said in the way they could possibly be the basis for a better (longer) debate than wonderful books.

Charlie, I agree – I often find it hard to discuss books that I love and spend far longer delving into a book with numerous flaws. Glad I’m not the only one. 🙂

Personally I find many well crafted books easier to like than to love. That’s pretty much how I felt about The Sense of an Ending for instance; I admired it but was not inspired by it.
It’s the books that take huge risks that you either love or hate and ultimately that you remember. Many of the most successful books provoke the most polarised reactions from readers because they are challenging and are like nothing else. I am a great fan of the Kafka novels, for instance, but I can see why others might be infuriated by them – their author was, after all.


“I find many well crafted books easier to like than to love”
That is a very good point. I always appreciate the skill that has gone into them, but it is hard to get that emotional attachment to a book that has been perfectly crafted.

Books that polarise opinion always grab my attention. I’m beginning to realise that hating a book shows it has at least provoked a response in me. Far better than something that bores me.

I guess I would differentiate between best and most memorable. The best books are just that – beautiful plots, stunning writing, still haunt me months after finishing them. The most memorable books are the others – those that bothered me so much that I find it difficult to forget them. If there was something in a book that bothered me, it would never make my Best list but it may make my most memorable list.

Michelle, But surely the memorable ones are haunting you just as much? I find that I often forget the tiny flaws in the writing quality etc and so after a while I can love a book I didn’t think that highly of at the time of reading.

Maybe that’s human nature. I seem to remember all the disastrous moments of my life vividly and probably make them out to be worse than they were. Even in the “best” books, I remember the most annoying characters more than the nice ones.

I guess this is why some not-so-good books get high praise and some good books went unnoticed. Everyone is looking for different things from the same book. I don’t have that issue. If a book annoys me, I’ll know where to park it but I keep the most memorable characters and books at heart.

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