Dispatches from the Poop Shelf: Moronic Reviews of Timeless Classics

The spectacular and talented Kate Beaton is responsible for the cartoon above, to which she added the following description on her Tumblr account:

I love reading bad reviews of classic books on Amazon and Goodreads.

That was all I needed to hurtle myself down this rabbit hole of ridiculousness, so today I bring you three amazing reviews of some of my favorite classics* from the fine connoisseurs of literature at Goodreads.

Michelle starts us off with a review of Moby-Dick:

WHAT A TRAGIC WASTE OF 625 PAGES. The book was 30% story, 70% treatise on whales, whaling, and whale boats. It was too rambling and repetitive, the portrayal of African-Americans was insultingly 2 dimensional, and not a single character struck me as sympathetic except Moby Dick himself, which I don’t think was the point.

If only Ahab hadn't skipped that important chapter on harpoons.

This first bit always bugs me: the whaling descriptions really do not take up that much of the book. Anyone who says otherwise got bored, stop reading and then tried to pass it off like they finished the book to up their cultural capitol.

Second, the descriptions of the African-American crewmembers aren’t particularly racist, but none of the generic sailors aboard the ship are really fleshed out. With that said, Pip is enormously sympathetic and I fail to see anything terribly stereotypical about him. But it was 1851. A little cultural context is necessary.

On to point three: there are plenty of characters to become attached to, even if you don’t necessarily like them. Ahab may be an asshole, but if you don’t tear up a bit during his final scenes with Pip and/or Starbuck, you’re a monster and I hate you. Especially: “Sir, do ye but use poor me for your one lost leg” and “Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterward are missing, Starbuck!”

But then that’s way near the end of the book, which Michelle here clearly didn’t read.

And yet old tenderhearted Michelle feels she’s alone in her sympathy for the whale? Really? Melville writes a story about a mad man who wants to kill a whale who bit off his leg because he thinks the whale might be God and somehow Michelle thinks she’s the only person who felt that Ahab might have that a bit off on that assumption and was possibly just punishing an animal for acting on its own natural and completely justifiable instincts? No, no, Michelle, you’re right — you’re all alone on this one.

Sara Taege offers her thoughts on Melville’s other famous work, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street:

Bartleby the Scrivener was an ok book. I found it to be boring, lathargic, unevenful, and in a way pointless. Rather than the only conflict being the fact that Bartleby was lazy and constantly said “I would prefer not to” as a way of getting out of doing work, and him not leaving the office, I would have liked for there to be more INTERESTING conflict. I wanted something unexpected to happen. I didn’t like how Bartleby died alone at the prison in the end, I wish the Lawyer would have been able to help him a bit and find out from Bartleby himself why he was the way he was. Bartleby was quite odd: he only spoke when spoken to, he was a hard worker in the beginning but became quite lazy to the point where he would just sit at his desk and stare at the wall, he never left the office (he considered it his home), he was stubborn and refused to do work that was apart of his job description. Until the end, we as the reader do not know why Bartleby is that way. We find out that he worked in a Dead Letter Office in Washington, and was let go from there when management changed. So although this novel showed us as the reader that we should accpet other people’s assistance when offered and not offer help to others in order to fulfill one’s own agenda, it could have been much more interesting. The plot line needed many more exciting events and a greater conflict.

Get back to work! Filthy hippie.

First of all, this is a novella short enough to have been printed in two parts in a newspaper. Several of my classmates in a Victorian short story course said that they found it way too long as well, incidentally. For clarification, it’s about 100 pages and whenever someone complains about page length in an English class, they didn’t read the book. Period.

Moreover, if lathargic were a word — which it isn’t, because it’s lethargic — it wouldn’t quite apply to a book, unless Sara thinks that the novella itself seemed a little run down. I admit that I do wish Sara had meant to make a portmanteau of uneven and uneventful, but sadly I fear that’s giving her a heap of undue credit.

Lastly, Bartleby’s not lazy. He’s not being a jerk. He’s not dumb. He’s making a passive protest against the loss of humanity in an Industrialized world. You idiot.

Elizabeth closes us out with Pride and Prejudice:

This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. I would rather read Twilight twelve more times than read this again. Why this book is so highly treasured by society is beyond me. It is 345 pages of nothing. The characters are like wispy shadows of something that could be interesting, the language that could be beautiful ends up becoming difficult to decipher and lead me more than once to skip over entire paragraphs because I became tired of having to stumble through them only to emerge unsatisfied, and the plot is non-existent, as though Austen one day decided she wanted to write a novel and began without having any idea what would happen except that there would be a boy and a girl who seemingly didn’t like each other but in the end got married. The story really probably could have been told in about 8 pages, but Austen makes us slog through 345 pages of mind-numbing balls and dinner-parties. I don’t care what anyone says, this is not great literature. This is a snore.

The word "ball" or "balls" appears 24 times in the text, but to be fair "bonnet" is only in there 3 times, so clearly these girls have their priorities out of order.

Ladies be shoppin’ and attendin’ balls was kind of the point, as it did serve to highlight the doldrums of everyday life as a woman in the late 18th Century. So… in some ways, fair enough. But even so, Twilight fans occupy a newly-minted level of Hell, and she used the phrase “wispy shadows” to describe characters, so eff this chick anyway.

I think Darcie Grunblatt said it best, though:

I read this book for the first time when I was 11. Now I am 13. But it does have to do a lot with maturity i guess…. Twilight is about 9999999999999999999999999999999999999999 times worse than this novel! Why u’d wanna read that more than this is beyond me.

Also, I love that most of the reviews of Pride and Prejudice unconsciously — or worse, consciously — incorporate some 18th Century Britishisms like “insipid” or “tedious,” which makes me imagine most of them lounging on a fainting couch and scribbling out these reviews with a feather pen on their iPads.

“Dearest Internet — this book was certainly a crushing bore on parallel with Father Lumpkin’s tedious and insipid sermon this morn. All the Starbucks in Seattle couldn’t rouse me from my restive slumber!”

Now, you could argue that the idea that we’re not allowed to challenge the canon is backward and silly and that reviews from 2012 are every bit as valid as reviews issued when the books came out. Which would be fine, if it weren’t for the fact that most present-day reviewers begin and end their critique with accusations that the classics are “too long” or “too boring.” At the time that the books above were written, reading was one of the major forms of entertainment, especially in the evening. That, and gambling, drinking and whoring. But when you can kick back with a book for 3-5 hours a day without the distractions of the internet, TV or your cell phone, you have a lot more patience for narrative and “long-winded” writing.

That doesn’t really apply here, though. I mean, come on — Twilight.

* My friend Leanne can give you a fourteen-page treatise on the problematic use of the word “Classics” and the canon in general. But the quicker version remains: “Who the hell decides what’s a classic and what’s not?”

13 thoughts on “Dispatches from the Poop Shelf: Moronic Reviews of Timeless Classics

  1. I love this post! I always read negative reviews of my favourite books/movies-both poorly written and well written. I like seeing the reasoning of people who I completely disagree with, for some reason I find it highly entertaining (and hilarious, as the case may be). Also, it helps me solidify my reasons for favouring a work.
    Don’t they tell you in grade 9 English class that if you want to write a good essay, you should be able to acknowledge the other side? Haha, or maybe I’m just weird.

    • Thanks again!

      Nah, I think most people miss the first rule of debate (whether it’s written or verbal) — anticipate the response and address it.

      Most negative reviews of classics fall under two headings:

      1) The snobby English major who feels that “the canon” should necessarily be questioned and that they should not like anything by default and, thus, conscious or unconsciously, set out to dislike something on purpose to highlight their individuality.
      2) Idiots.

  2. Heheh – I love that word “insipid.” I’ll have to find a way to use it in my conversation today.

    You make a very good point about the length and wordiness of some of the classics (Hello, Charles Dickens). For those good citizens, the internetz, phone or radio were called books. I, too, am guilty of bemoaning the length of some pieces– but not Melville. I haven’t read him yet. 🙂

    • Insipid is great, don’t get me wrong.

      And Charles Dickens was paid by the word, for goodness’ sake! You can hardly blame him for going on a bit. Also, I wish I had the opportunity to read Dickens in a serial form, the way his original audience experienced him. I imagine that only getting his stories one chapter at a time would avoid the apprehension at starting on one of his tomes.

      Melville’s rad as hell, but I read him in University (so many times) with the help of a handful of great professors. If I was to recommend Melville as pure entertainment reading, I would have to recommend the Norton annotated editions because the dude loved a good analogy and if you don’t get the references (there are SO many and a lot of them are really subtle), you’re only getting half the book.

  3. Oh, what a wonderful post. I’m never one to discourage readers from questioning the legitimacy of classics (some emperors have no clothes), but they’ve got to do it on the classics’ terms. Otherwise they come off sounding, um… insipid.

    • Sorry about the late reply. I was having my monocle re-fitted.

      Ultimately I think movies and books do get a bit of a pass if they were made or written in a certain time. There will come a point when The Matrix looks so dated and ridiculous that it will seem ludicrous that the effects ever blew anyone’s mind. Hell, the same will probably happen with Avatar. Some some respect has to be paid to a “pioneer” in a particular field for a particular time period.

      With that said, Herman Melville wrote timeless classics rich with historical, religious and philosophical references and concepts and anyone who finds that boring needs to take a long look in the mirror before assigning blame. (I really like Melville)

  4. “Also, I love that most of the reviews of Pride and Prejudice unconsciously — or worse, consciously — incorporate some 18th Century Britishisms like “insipid” or “tedious,” which makes me imagine most of them lounging on a fainting couch and scribbling out these reviews with a feather pen on their iPads.”
    HA! I love this, it’s so true! 🙂

    • I feel like everyone’s caught in an old-timey trance after finishing an 18th- or 19th-century book. I’m not sure what it is. It’s not like everyone comes out babbling nonsense after polishing off some James Joyce.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s