Why bad books are good for you

So today, because it’s Sunday and all, I will write about something a bit less serious: why I think it’s necessary to read crappy books.

First of all, I think literature generally considered as “poor” has an undeserved spot in our society as something that is either frowned upon or a sign of stupidity. But when you analyze it, what makes a bad book? It’s a concept as personal as a good gift, or how you like your eggs in the morning.

Sure, we can agree on some traits that are common to all less-than-great novels: weakly devised characters, implausible storyline, artificial dialogue, incomprehensible writing and, of course, the typical grammatical errors/misspellings. You are sure to find those in any paperback you pick up at the super-market. Guaranteed.

Another emblematic slip of bad books is overwriting. That is, writing so many words it renders the phrase unintelligible. Cynthia Crossen from the WSJ hilariously quotes this example: “The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains.” Huh? This quote actually won a contest as the third worst sentence ever published in academic prose.

The Twilight series is another example of literature commonly referred to as poor, if it is even called literature. Its author is a hopeless victim of what we call purple prose. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, purple prose can be best defined as writing that is characterized by sumptuous, flowery, exaggerated language. Here’s the example that epitomizes it, from Paul Clifford (1830):

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

If you managed to get through that paragraph, it is the infamous “it was a dark and stormy night” quote. Much like Stephenie Meyer’s style, which uses the word chagrin so repetitively it withdraws all literary meaning from it.

But we’ve all been there: stuck with that book you don’t want to finish but you still want to give it a chance, hoping that the book will pick up towards the end. Almost never happens.

There’s also the novel recommendation from a friend whose taste you respect. Sometimes the book turns out to be a catastrophe, but you finish it anyway because you are so puzzled by why your friend would enjoy something like this, and you are persuaded the answer is also towards the end. It never is.

But, if bad literature is so difficult to describe, defining good writing is an even harder task. One example that comes to mind is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a book I love despite its horrible prose. I swear, every time a character broke into a 20-page speech-monologue, I wanted to throw the book at my window. So, let’s just say it belongs to a gray area.

Likewise, Madame Bovary, often considered to be Flaubert’s masterpiece, is deemed as plain bad by a collaborator for the American Book Review. He even takes on The Little Prince and The Great Gatsby! No book is safe.

So how do we expect our children to develop a reading habit in the midst of all this confusion? That’s where crappy books come in.

When I was a little girl, my mom acquired a bookstore inside a university campus. So growing up I liked to spend my summer vacations helping out the family business, immersed in this world of books and ideas. There was no area that escaped my curiosity. Law, medicine, psychology; basically anything I could get my hands on.

But it wasn’t all textbooks. There was also a “best-seller” section with popular literature books. So naturally, my ingenuity led me to dive in the not-so obscure world of self-help books, romance novels, and the occasional literature classic. My passion for literature was thus developed thanks to books that I would probably be embarrassed to admit today.

I wish I could say it was a love-at-first-sight kind of affair with books and me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. During our reading class at school, we would read some of the following novels:

  • Poem of the Cid, written sometime between 1195-1207
  • Lazarillo de Tormes, 1554
  • María, 1867
  • Platero, 1917
  • Bodas de Sangre (Blood wedding), 1932

These are great works and classics of Spanish literature. The problem was, I couldn’t relate to any of that stuff. Heck, I could barely understand it. Here is a timeline so you can have a bit of an idea of how foreign all this was to me:

That was until we read Platero, a sweet story about a donkey. Before that, the most recent novel we read was already over a century old. How do you expect a 12 year old to create a reading habit when you force him/her to read old books he/she does not understand?

I believe there is not a single person educated in Spanish that doesn’t know by heart the words that follow “Platero es pequeño, peludo, suave …”. Platero y yo was like a breath of fresh air in the midst of all this titanic literature from a past I couldn’t relate to.

Maybe the problem wasn’t that we started with the classics. Maybe we should have started with more recent ones. In my case, I’ll never know. But I will give credit where it belongs, and acknowledge the role “poor” literature had in my education.

So the next time you’re in the metro, wrapped up in the last chapter from that vampire saga you’ve been reading, don’t try to hide it under your papers: show it with pride.

After all, how can you know what good feels like if you’ve never experienced bad? How can you appreciate wealth when you’ve never been poor?

Don’t get me wrong, you should probably not read every novel that crosses your path. But my passion for literature was born and nurtured by doing so. Until I developed taste, and then a voice of my own.

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