Disappointment by the Book

Cat Book Reviewer

Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?

Prince William upon being presented by Gibbon with a copy of a volume in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

(I originally posted this at The American Catholic.  I thought the book mavens of Almost Chosen People might enjoy it.)



My co-blogger Darwin Catholic at The American Catholic has an intriguing post on the subject of books that a reader is supposed to like but didn’t.  Go here to read his post.  My response:

Piers the Plowman-Never have been able to make my way through that boring field.

Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories-I attempted to read them when young but got stuck in A Study in Scarlet.  The odd thing is that I love Holmes as a character in film and in books written by other  authors which feature Holmes.

Stranger in a Strange Land-I have read everything Heinlein wrote and I was saddened to read the story that began his “dirty old pervert” phase.

Douglas Southall Freeman’s Lee’s Lieutenants-I made it through all three volumes on the third attempt.  Freeman’s erudition is vast and his scholarship impeccable, but he managed a near impossible feat:  he made the Civil War seem dull to me.

Utopia-Perhaps it reads better in the Latin.

Kipling novels-I adore Kipling the poet.  Kipling the novelist leaves me colder than a dead mackerel.

Paul Johnson’s America-I loved Johnson the British historian.  I found this volume pedestrian and error filled.  It is always a mistake to read a favorite historian when he writes a volume on a subject where your knowledge is evidently superior.

Burke’s essays and monographs-I love Burke’s speeches and quote them frequently.  I can never make my way through his other writings with the splendid exception of his immortal Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Join in.  What books did you think you would like that disappointed you?

Published in: on September 25, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (10)  


  1. My dad died three years ago. In going through his library (Bible study, local history central West Virginia, Lincoln and Civil War) I found a very few with the ‘skull and crossbones’ drawn by hand on the front fly leaf. It took about three of these finds to figure out these were books that opposed his beliefs, chuckle. He considered them poison.

    • “I found a very few with the ‘skull and crossbones’ drawn by hand on the front fly leaf.”

      A succinct and effective review!

  2. Don,

    You abandoned Sherlock Holmes?! Skip Study in Scarlet, and go back! I devoured the entire Canon (as Holmesians affectionately call it) before I was 16. Part of every year since has been 1895.

    Letsee, there are several, but I think the most significant that’s disappointed me the most are the Patrick O’Brian novels. I’ve desperately wanted to read them and desperately wanted to like them. I’ve even tried skipping around a bit. I can read and enjoy plenty of paragraph dense, actual 18th century stuff like Burke and Johnson and Boswell, but I can’t for the life of me penetrate O’Brian. Ah, well…

    • “I devoured the entire Canon (as Holmesians affectionately call it) before I was 16.”

      Same for my son who is a Holmes enthusiast.

      I had a similar reaction to O’Brian. Loved the movie though!

  3. Amazing how widely we disagree. I like most Kipling prose and am an enthusiast for Kim, one of those books I will read again and again. Paul Johnson is ALWAYS sloppy and ignorant, the difference is that on America you could catch him out. (His references to Italy are especially shameful, almost Alan Clarkish in their boorish national vanity and lack of any research.) As for Sherlock Holmes, NEVER start with “A study in scarlet”; in fact the only novel that is a complete success is “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. The short stories are perfect, every one of them, even those where – as in “The Speckled Band” – he broke every rule in the book.

    Books I hated: I loathed Philip Pullman from the first chapter I read of his and long before I found out that he was an enemy of Christianity. As far as I am concerned, he was not writing for an audience, but for literary critic; his style was the equivalent of a peacock wheel.

    Richard Watt, The Kings Depart. Incredible that at this time of day a supposed historian should have swallowed every bit of old German propaganda.

    CS Lewis, Till We Have Faces. I loved almost everything else by Lewis, but this one leaves me cold.

    • I quiet enjoyed Johnson’s Modern Times and Intellectuals. In his history of America, among other errors, he did not seem to know the difference between General Albert Sidney Johnston and General Joe Johnston, and he had the Texas Rangers storming ashore on Utah Beach. (I do appreciate the imagery of Texas Rangers, six guns blazing, emerging from the surf to invade Festung Europa.)

      In regard to Kim, I’ve made three attempts to get through it and could never manage it.

      I did read the Hound of the Baskervilles, followed by a study in scarlet where my progress stopped.

      Philip Pullman I would loathe as a writer even if he were a militant defender of Catholicism.

      Richard Watt’s book I have in my library although I have not gotten around to reading it.

      CS Lewis-yeah, that one left me cold also.

      • “Modern Times” is one of those I meant. He would have had a good thesis – a very good thesis – had he not spoiled it with charlatanry and ignorance. As it is, he set the cause of re-evaluating the meaning of modernism back twenty years, because those who are rooted in the traditional (modernist) way of looking at things, and yet are knowledgeable and well steeped in events, will simply throw the book across the room when they come upon one of his many enormities. If you want to attack an entrenched view, you had better get all your facts right, and also not show evidence of the worst kind of national prejudice.

        “Intellectuals” is not bad, but it has some major flaws in conception. |f it wanted to be simply a book on the influence of public intellectuals on the culture, it should have taken into consideration the likes of GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, George Orwell, or even Winston Churchill – a great writer whose writing had widespread influence. As it is, he is only about one specific kind of intellectual, and the difference in value between those he uses, from an immortal like Tolstoy to a temporary phenomenon like Tynan, tells us that he is not speaking about the phenomenon of the public intellectual as such, so much as about one specific branch – the branch that may be described as “progressive”. And once we accept that, we have to say that Johnson misses the point – not that these men were odious, but why were they, or were they held to be, significant, who did, how, and why? Who listened to them, and why? Furthermore, Johnson has skewed his list towards characters like Shelley or Brecht who are personally contemptible; but not all “progressive” intellectuals were personally contemptible. HG Wells, Andre’ Gide, and even GB Shaw, who counted as much in the “progressive” galaxy as any of the characters Johnson mentions, are left out, I suggest because there weren’t enough personally odious details to be told about them. In other words, as an analysis of the “progressive” intellectual, “Intellectuals” is designed to make them all look detestable. GK Chesterton would have done things differently.

      • In regard to Intellectuals I think this was payback time for Johnson, who started as a man of the Left, although he was always viewed on the port side, correctly as it turned out, as something of a heretic. Modern Times I think still has value, simply because other attempts to produce a general history of the last century have been so poor. I am aware of some of the factual errors in it, although parts of it are quite good. His sketch on Francisco Franco is one of the best summaries of the man I have ever read.

  4. about Modernism, this article, though on a connected subject, sums up my idea of European history and the error of progressivism well enough: http://fpb.livejournal.com/380876.html

    • “What I am saying is that the whole progressive mindset is built on sand. They imagine that all history – at least, all recent history – is a moral progress from worse to better, from tyranny to freedom, from racism to egalitarianism, from sexism to feminism. That is basically nonsense. The reason why the political progression that took place across the face of Europe and related countries for the last two and a half centuries felt so much like a progression from bad to better is that it was a restoration of the natural values and structures of Western civilization – societal openness and mobility, independent associations of tradesmen and workers, representative government, carrière ouverte aux talents including women. These were all things that were practically universal in Western Europe about 1200, and reduced to a few surviving outposts in 1750. In Spain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, old and traditional liberties had been squeezed out of existence. Russia is universally regarded as the home of reaction, caste government and autocracy; few people realize that the notorious Russian caste state was only really established in law by Catherine II “the Great”, Russia’s “enlightened despot”. And this corresponds to developments across Europe; from Spain to England to Italy, caste features were more firmly in place, and inequalities more profound and rooted, as the sixteenth century moved into the seventeenth and eighteenth.”

      Bingo. Absolutism was a post Medieval development, and a heresy to which Western Man keeps returning to as the bloody twentieth century demonstrated in an almost fatal manner.

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