Day 2: My Least Favorite Book

After deciding on my favorite book for yesterday’s challenge, I quickly set my mind to thinking of what my least favorite book of all time was. I read quite a lot, and I’ve read many books that I’d rather not have read, but to hold the not so covetous position of “Least Favorite” it had to be more than just a mediocre book with a flat storyline (like all those Dean Koontz books that I read in high school). This book had to be an exceptionally painful experience to read.

It took me hours of contemplation and staring at my bookcases before it hit me, the repressed memories flooding me, sending shivers down my spine. The worst book, or shall I say, my “least favorite” book of all time is, undoubtedly Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. Now before all the Dickens fans out there start trying accusing me of sacrilege, allow me to explain. I love Dickens, Bleak House is among my favorite books. I thoroughly enjoyed Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. This is not and indictment of Dickens, only of this one novel that I can only imagine had to be a horrible forgery done in his name.

I was assigned The Old Curiosity Shop (of Horrors, as I now refer to it), in an undergraduate honors seminar on Dickens and Hardy. We had an extensive reading list, most of which I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed. The professor was insightful and really loved the literature he had us read, so my experience of this particular book was in no way colored by bad context.

So why is this my “least favorite” book? I dislike it because it is mawkish in the extreme. The novel tells the overly sentimental and cloying story of Little Nell (the boring, two-dimensional, never developed character, flawless and angelic to the point of sprouting wings, victim of the Industrial Revolution and far too good for this bad, bad world), her grandfather (a gambler who has lost everything and has put LIttle Nell in the terrible position of having to sacrifice everything to care for him), and, of course, the evil dwarf Quilp (as flat a character as Little Nell, as ugly as she is beautiful, he is all evil, all the time). The dance between these three, along with a rather large cast of peripheral characters with names like Dick Swiveller, form the never-ending torture, I mean narrative, of the book.

Oscar Wilde once said of The Old Curiosity Shop that,

One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears…of laughter.

and I could not agree more. The book oozes with sentimentality and the characters quickly become caricatures of themselves. It’s maudlin to the point of comedy, and lacks the subtlety of other works by Dickens. The Old Curiosity Shop has the feel of a Latin American telenovela, with its flat characters and exaggerated melodrama. Even my Penguin Classics edition does not love this book. The very first lines of the introduction read:

The Old Curiosity Shop has long been regarded as something of a black sheep in the family of Dickens’ novels. It has been consistent in its remarkable ability to alienate countless readers by its sentimentality, clumsy construction, and arbitrary melodramatic sensationalism.

initially serialized in Master Humphrey’s Clock, The Old Curiosity Shop was an instant hit, and there were even reports of masses of fans clamoring over each other at the docks trying to get the final edition to find out if Little Nell had died.  But to judge the greatness of a work based on its popularity with the masses is, I think, a dangerous thing. The story of its immense popularity reminded me that long before people asked, “Who shot JR?, they were asking “Is Little Nell dead?” and let’s face it, Dallas is not Shakespeare.

Anyway, I shall stop my rant against this poor book, and try to push the memories of having read it back into the recesses of my mind, and unless you are the most ardent Dickens fan, or are an avid watcher of soap operas, might I humbly suggest that you steer clear.

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10 thoughts on “Day 2: My Least Favorite Book

  1. Don’t worry, I can understand the dislike. Nothing worse than a book you think you should like (due to hype, author reputation, or iconic status), but end up loathing. I have a 3-way tie for least favorite book (I really did try to pick just one “winner”): Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (obvious choice, but it was Christmas break and enticingly lying around my sister’s house. BIG mistake!); the Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway (like Old Curiosity Shop, a required reading book. I remember crying because I hated it so much. It was that boring); and this is the most controversial – Extreme Loud and Incredibly Close – Jonathan Safran Foer (I really, REALLY, wanted to like this book, but I just found the little boy too annoyingly precocious. I know loads of people loved this book (especially due to the 9/11 connection), but I just think Safran Foer overwrote this character.)

  2. LOL… I think had I thought about it further, a few others would have vied for first, including Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (what a terrible book!!), The Old Man and the Sea was an intensely painful read, and I would have added to that list Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I think I hated Rand’s book more than Dickens, but I don’t think I could have tolerated having to write about it.

    • Haha! I just saw this comment now and I think it’s funny that I chose Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Fountainhead as my least favourite novels. And yes, it was very very painful even writing about her, but also in a sense, cathartic. 🙂

  3. Gosh.. I would find it impossible to name one book as I have read so many… ( luckily I tend to forget books fairly quickly after I read them.. ) so I thought I’d just jot down 2 that immediately sprang to mind. I do remember trying and trying to read Angela’s Ashes when it first came out abnd everyone in Ireland ( where I lived at the time ) was raving about it. I just thought it went on and on and on, misery upon misery… but I found that tedious. Also and I know most of you will throw your hands up in horror.. I really couldn’t get into The Time Travellers Wife… though I tried and tried! ( loved the film though)

  4. Difficult to pick one…far too much gets printed, and even becomes popular, these days, without any merit whatsoever. Marketing is all that one needs to succeed, it appears.
    I’ve always preferred reading sincere authors who aren’t very talented, to those who are lazy and who insult their readers’ intelligence. I’d pick Freakonomics – written by a professor who ought to know better, but who preferred to draw sensational but erroneous conclusions from his research purely because sensationalism sells better than the boring truth.

  5. Thanks for this post. I was actually trying to decide between reading Bleak House and The Old Curiosity Shop next in a switch back to the classics. Your post helped make that decision much easier. Cheers!

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