Up Front by Emma Hart


The Classics Are Rubbish Too

You’ve all been so terribly negative lately, have you noticed that, my poppets? You’re all with the moaning even when you're asked to be nice, and your debates have turned into who's crapper: Iain Banks or Iain M Banks. You've already pushed Graham over the edge.

Well, this is not going to be the only time I ever get left out of a bitch-fest.

Last year I ran a bitching competition on my blog. That one was about films:

Let's hear it: the worst films you've ever seen. To make the list, you need to have seen the movie in question all the way through. No slagging off stuff you haven't seen, or didn't make it all the way to the end... But I don't wanna see anyone getting all precious and bitchy about their poor little baby favourite film, okay? This is a flaming-only forum.

The only change I'd make to the list in that blog is to replace Forrest Gump with Die Hard 4. Here's a hint: when your movie is two hours long and you can remove an hour without losing a line of dialogue, you're doing something wrong.

That's largely shooting fish in a barrel, though. Movies are low culture, easy to hate. You wanted to spend more time talking about books.

I love books. It's not just good prose. I love the tactile experience of a well-made book. I love pretty covers and strong heavy pages and good type-setting with just the right amount of white space. I love the way books smell and the neat way they line up on my bookshelves. This may be some kind of illness, as I even like it when library books smell of the last reader's stale cigarette smoke.

Ploughing my way through an English degree I've read many of the classics. My shelves are full of Worthy Books, the kind that people always mean to get around to reading but somehow never do. And some of them are bloody awful.

The worst good book I’ve ever had to read is Robinson Crusoe. I believe reading it produced some kind of temporal dilation effect, slowing the passage of time in the same manner experienced by people trapped in a theatre during a Samuel Beckett play. I am older than my biological age because of that book.

I have a high threshold for heavy prose and slow plot. The book we read before Robinson Crusoe was Walter Scott’s Old Mortality, which I'd loved. So it couldn't just be the ponderous prose and the overt preachification that made me want to shove it through a mincer without necessarily letting go first.

No, what happened was that after two hundred pages of smug insufferability, I noticed something: absolutely nothing had happened. I know that seems an odd thing to say, what with the shipwreck and everybody dying and stuff, but that's how it felt. Solid eventless pontificating - now I think about it, the exact reverse of Die Hard 4.

After about a week, Robinson Crusoe achieved a singular honour. It became the first set text I didn't make it to the end of. It also became the second book to be hurled across the room, bouncing off my mantelpiece to the accompaniment of a hearty 'fuck’s sake!'. (The first was Robert Heinlein's Number of the Beast.)

I don’t mean to be too harsh on Defoe. There are plenty of other Worthy Books that suck almost as much as his. Imagine, for instance, that you're watching one of those very pretty Merchant-Ivory films, looking perhaps at long lingering shots of Venice with a slow score drifting along underneath, and you're just starting to think 'alright, nice scenery, but shouldn't something happen soon?'. Now imagine this goes on for three or four days and the scenery is all trees. Welcome to reading Last of the Mohicans.

Every now and then I get ruthless, and a few of the classics find themselves taking the Long Walk from the bookshelves to the garage. Last time it was The Rainbow and The Magus, joint winners of my Dullest Rude Book prize.

I must be mellowing in middle age, because it pains me to be so comprehensively negative about my beloved books. If you want a Worthy Book that's Worth Reading, I recommend Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. Its featuring a gentle piss-take of Robinson Crusoe is entirely coincidental.

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