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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