Reverse Humiliation

by Henry Farrell on December 17, 2005

“Scott McLemee”: wrote a little while back about reading Colin Wilson as a teenager.

bq. But I have a certain fondness for that novel [Wilson’s _The Philosopher’s Stone_], having discovered it during Christmas break while in high school. It set me off on a fascination with Wilson’s work that seems, with hindsight, perfectly understandable. Adolescence is a good time to read The Outsider. For that matter, Wilson himself was barely out of it when he wrote the book.

I too had a Colin Wilson thing when I was a teenager; something I’m a little embarrassed about today. But nowhere near as embarrassed as I am about the “Erich von Daniken”: phase I went through when I was ten or so. Which seems a nice topic for a weekend discussion thread. What is the most embarrassing book that CT readers idolized when they were teenagers or pre-teens? Painful confessions welcome.



Matt 12.17.05 at 1:17 am

I’ll confess to having had a strange love for Robert Heinlein books- the Lazarus Long ones especially. That might not be so embarrassing except that I largely liked them for what I took to be deep insights in to philosophical questions.


PhilosophyABD 12.17.05 at 1:25 am

I suppose my love of bad fantasy, horror, and sci fi is pretty embarassing, for several reasons. First, Piers Anthony’s Xanth series – who knew one could make a career out of puns? Second, how about Robert E. Howard’s disturbingly racist Conan series? And – dare I say it? – I even had an Anne Rice phase, reading the first three of her Vampire books before the intervention. Incidentally, this embarassing period of my reading life corresponds with an embarassing perior of my film-viewing life. I also know my way around a 20 sided die, if you’re wondering.


M. Gordon 12.17.05 at 1:30 am

Piers Anthony. Hands down. Between the ages of 12 and 14 I read ever scrap of drivel he ever produced. I wish I had had a scifi/fantasy guru to direct me to something more worthwhile. Heinlein would have been far better.


Vance Maverick 12.17.05 at 1:47 am

Narnia. This would have been somewhere around 8 to 10. I remember weeping inconsolably at the realization that the world of those books could not be reconciled with the real world. I was raised Episcopalian (Anglican, more or less), and took a very earnest attitude toward the faith — and though I didn’t think much about the Christian content of the books, the disillusionment I felt when coming down from them certainly presaged my later disillusionment from the faith.

I can hardly remember a thing about the books now, and have little desire to visit them again.


Jared 12.17.05 at 1:47 am

Why is it all Science Fiction? Mine is the Ender series, by Orson Scott Card. I’m not sure that ANY teenage obsession wouldn’t be embarrasing–at least Heinlein and Piers Anthony have sex in them, which is entirely appropriate for teenagers. Ender doesn’t get laid until (spoiler!) long after he commits genocide.


Rob Rickner 12.17.05 at 2:17 am

Dr. Doolittle. Every damn one of them. I must have taken me 3 years…


Zarquon 12.17.05 at 2:43 am

T. Lobsang Rampa: The Third Eye et seq
Mysterious psychic powers, the importance of regular bowel movements and communicating with your cat.

Turned out it was a plumber’s son from Devon.


Matt Weiner 12.17.05 at 2:53 am

I would have to go with the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. I even had an opinion about which author was better.


Mike Molloy 12.17.05 at 3:19 am

Not really embarrassed by the books I liked–I mean, I read Heinlein and Piers Anthony and all manner a crap, but as far as I recollect I recognized its crappiness at the time…not that there’s anything wrong with that stuff….

But if I can mention music instead a books…at one time I was convinced Joan Baez’s “Diamonds an Rust” album was the work of the greatest female singer of modern times (–that Billie Holiday–what a fraud!). The memory is still painful.

Forced to pick a book I’d go with the Foundation Trilogy. Fine stories. Maybe not as profound as I thought at the time.


Brett 12.17.05 at 3:21 am

To Erich von Daniken and Piers Anthony, I’d have to add Eric van Lustbader and Charles Berlitz. Man I read a lot of crap! (Please note that’s past tense … I hope …)

I’m not embarrassed about Heinlein (except the later ones from his dirty old man phase). And I won’t hear a bad word said about the Choose Your Own Adventure books. They were way cool. (And the Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks were ever cooler!)


Nick Fagerlund 12.17.05 at 3:36 am

AHAHAHA, Piers Anthony! Ayyyup, that’d be mine too. And here I’d almost forgot about him.

I admit—as a 13-year-old, I didn’t see anything wrong with a fixation on 13-year-old girls. Three years later, not so much. Ack.


Kenny Easwaran 12.17.05 at 3:53 am

I’m not at all embarrassed about my Däniken phase, though maybe I should be. I also had the Piers Anthone phase. Probably the Ayn Rand phase beats both of those.

My embarrassment about Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books should probably be increased by the fact that I used to “undo” choices that went badly. And if I’d done a book a few times, I would read through from the back looking for good endings and try to find out how to get there.


bad Jim 12.17.05 at 4:06 am

I feel no embarrassment confessing my fondness for the Dr. Doolittle books. We had dogs, cats and rats as pets. In one fashion or another we managed to communicate. Nancy Drew is another matter…

As a child I was inordinately fond of Johnny Tremain, and I remain a fan of three-cornered hats and the eighteenth century in general. When I encounter one of Houdon’s merry busts of Diderot I want to kiss the tip of his nose. Ah, the Enlightenment, l’esprit de l’escalier. It seems so far away from the war on Christmas Terror.

Pre-teen and teen I was reading Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov. I’d still recommend them to anyone who hasn’t read them. I’ve never gone back to Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life, and I doubt I’d recommend The Interpretation of Dreams, but Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious is essential. “Life is like a suspension bridge.” “What do you mean?” “How should I know?” Priceless.


bad Jim 12.17.05 at 4:22 am

“Christmas” was supposed to have been struck out. Maybe it reads better as it stands (Santa Claus is gunning us down).

Thomas Wolfe (Look Homeward, Angel; Of Time and the River; The Web and the Rock; You Can’t Go Home Again) is no longer read, could perhaps only have been read by pretentious adolescents, and once at most. I got through three of the books.


Chris Bertram 12.17.05 at 4:41 am

I’m embarrassed to say that I feel no embarrassment at all about any of the books I liked as a teenager, not even G.A. Henty. But, in response to Vance, I can’t understand anti-Narniaism. The Narnia books are _fantastic_ , notwithstanding the religious not-very-subtext.


duaneg 12.17.05 at 5:05 am

Famous Five. Read every one, many times. Enough said.


duaneg 12.17.05 at 5:08 am

Ah, maybe not enough said — FF were pre-teen guity pleasures for me. Hardy Boys, then?

Nancy Drew was and remains cool.


Enon Zey 12.17.05 at 5:38 am

I’m not embarrassed by my pre-teen love of the Dr. Doolittle books or of Asimov’s fiction or, when even younger, by having read every one of the Oz books (several dozen, written by a handful of authors after Baum wrote several).

What really mortifies me is that as a teenager I slogged through Ayn Rand’s novels and actually took her seriously. I do owe a debt of gratitude to my junior high librarian who noticed my obsession with Rand’s “philosophy” and planted a seed of doubt by calmly pointing out that her worldview couldn’t be very realistic as her novels have no children in them.

At least, once I awoke from that particular dream, I had learned the important lesson that people who treat life and politics as deductive sciences (i.e. ideologues and fundamentalists) are apt to lead one astray.


derrida derider 12.17.05 at 5:52 am

Biggles – until I finally noticed that all the villains were either Huns or “swarthy”.


Vance Maverick 12.17.05 at 5:56 am

Chris, I didn’t mean I’m embarrassed that I read the Narnia books — rather, I’m embarrassed by the way I read them, with an abandonment that still shocks me in retrospect.


Tim Worstall 12.17.05 at 6:28 am

The Affluent Society.

Believed every word of it.

Soooo embarrassing.


Simstim 12.17.05 at 6:59 am

Hey, at least “Choose Your Own Adventure” came in a variety of genres, unlike say “Fighting Fantasy” which I bought and read avidly for the first dozen or so titles. The format has its merits though, I rather like a friend’s boardgame review in that style.


kutsuwamushi 12.17.05 at 7:03 am

Did I miss the mention of Anne McAffrey? It must be there. It’s a law.

I didn’t idolize her Pern books, but I was certainly addicted to them when I was thirteen or so. I didn’t realize until I tried to reread them years later that they were full of misogyny and homophobia in addition to just plain bad writing. Now I cringe whenever I think of them.


SusanC 12.17.05 at 7:21 am

I’ll confess to once having owned an alarming number of books (by various authors) where the heroine has a talking cat. Perhaps it’s just as well that I wasn’t into manga and anime back then, or who knows how much of the “Magical Girl” genre I’d have collected… (“Kiki’s Delivery Service” is just so cool)


Carlos 12.17.05 at 7:55 am

I like the rest of McLemee’s article. The BTK guy a possible Wilson fan, who knew?

There’s nothing wrong with liking this sort of stuff when you’re a teen. What, we emerge into adolescence with mature critical sensibilities? It’s like the mumps. Get over it while you’re young, so you won’t be rendered sterile by it as an adult.

On the other hand, the forty-something man who thinks Piers Anthony is the hottest thing since microwave burritos, and finds no fault at all in Anthony’s fixation on 13-year-old girls… him, I would worry about.


Dirk 12.17.05 at 8:40 am

Erich von Daniken. Yes, me too.

*hangs head in shame*

But at least I was never into Ayn Rand!


Laura 12.17.05 at 8:43 am

I have far too many to list since I would read anything I could get my hands on. I was obsessed with my share of sci-fi: Stephen Donaldson and Frank Herbert. Then there was the World War II series by Herman Wouk, Winds of War wasn’t it?


Cosma 12.17.05 at 8:49 am

Joseph Campbell.


Scott Martens 12.17.05 at 9:14 am

Mostly Heinlein, who led me into a mercifully brief flirtation with several rather discreditable schools of conservative political and economic thought, much to the chagrin of my leftist parents. It ended with two books: Friday, whose ending was such pure, utter, hopeless crap that even at 15 I knew Heinlein had absolutely no relevance to the real world; and Neuromancer, which totally changed the way I read SF by doing away with self-congradulatory rocket fantasies altogether. After that Heinlein seemed pretty lame.

The other shameful favourites I read as a teenager I kept well into adulthood.


Jackmormon 12.17.05 at 9:30 am

Hermann Hesse.


KCinDC 12.17.05 at 9:49 am

How many of these embarrassments required rereadings? I mean, it’s possible I’d be embarrassed about reading Narnia, or Foundation, or the Camber of Culdi series, or any number of other things if I read them again as an adult, but I’m not planning to do so (partly because I’m afraid of the disappointment).


Jonas Grumby 12.17.05 at 10:06 am

It’s been several hours since someone named Piers Anthony. That guy wrote the same lame book over and over. I made it through several Xanth books, many (most?) of the Split Infinity series and 2 or 3 of the Incarnations of Immortality before packing it in. At least I realized how lame they were before I finished high school.

I loved the choose-your-own-adventure books, and am not embarassed. Hypertext of the 80’s.


Henry 12.17.05 at 10:07 am

De gustibus etc – but a lot of these books (Narnia, Heinlein etc) don’t strike me as embarrassing at all. I don’t think that there’s anything bad or awful about them in the same way as there is about Von Daniken’s stuff – I suppose when I was writing this post I was thinking less about stuff that you read in your teenage years and couldn’t/wouldn’t read today (which is necessarily voluminous, and not really embarrassing – some books are good for teenagers and not for adults), and more about really awful, dreadful books that were wrong directions. Von Daniken or (for those of a more recent generation) David Icke would count; Ayn Rand at a pinch; but I don’t think Heinlein (unless like Matt you read him as a philosopher) would. He wasn’t a great writer, but back in the day he was a pretty good one.


Maria 12.17.05 at 10:13 am

The truly embarrassing phase has to be Tom Clancy. (It did overlap with other, less embarrassing choices such as Asimov, Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle). My dad used to give them to me so I would learn some “real” English (i.e. not just the regular language lessons).

I might be giving myself away – I was 12 when I read almost all of the novels up to “the sum of all fears”. Then, at 14 I realized that the quality of Clancy’s English was less than great; and that Agatha Christie and (especially!) Tolkien were more likely to improve my English – and were far more enjoyable. When at 15 I discovered the latest book was dedicated to Reagan… that is when the real embarrassment kicked in!


Vryl 12.17.05 at 10:17 am

(The Horror! The Horror!)



des von bladet 12.17.05 at 10:19 am

I would humbly like to submit Maurice Cornforth’s belligerently Staliniste three(3)-volume introduction to dialectic materialisme (featuring genuinely Lysenkoiste biology!).

But irritatingly I can’t, because I didn’t even know it existed until last week. Gah!


deviousdiva 12.17.05 at 10:25 am

Enid Blyton for crying out loud. Sad.


NPCurmudgeon 12.17.05 at 10:35 am

I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 13, and became a complete bore for about 6 months. I snapped out of it when my mother told me that — if I intended to live my life as a great inventor in some remote, hidden location in the Rockies — I’d better learn to clean the bathroom.


Elliott Oti 12.17.05 at 10:39 am

I don’t see that having read von Daniken as a pre-teen is all that embarassing. I also consumed a great deal of von Daniken\UFOlogy\Bermuda Triangle stuff back in the day. Books in this genre are superficially plausible and really require more hard knowledge and a more advanced bullshit-detector than most kids (and a lot of adults, too, judging by the endless There Are Mysteries series on the Discovery Channel) possess. Chariots of the Gods pushes a lot of the same buttons as Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, after all, and it takes a while to acquire enough proficience to distinguish between the artist and the con-artist.

T. Lobsang Rampa, on the other hand …


Jett 12.17.05 at 11:22 am

I devoured all the James Bond novels, thinking they represented some accurate take on the war between the forces of good and evil in the world. I still believe that the war is ongoing, but now see Bond and all other willing publicists for imperial power as residing on the dark side.


GKurtz 12.17.05 at 11:29 am

Speaking of the 20-sided die: while I feel the pain of the Piers Anthony ex-fans, it seems like the worst of the worst were the straightforward D&D knockoffs–anyone remember Dragonlance? As close to factory-produced as fiction can get, I think. And not a shred of humor to cut the acrid taste that you get when you combine epic self-importance with unabashed cross-marketing.


jake 12.17.05 at 11:48 am

In defense of pre-adolescent reading tastes, allow me to paraphrase Ursula leGuin: “Kids love to read junk. It’s good for them, in fact. What they can’t put up with is plastic. You give one of them Jonathan Livingston Seagull, they’ll fix their beady little eyes on it, and recognize it for exactly what it is, something worse than junk.”

That said, I still love some of Heinlein’s writing, in fact in my 30s I reread Farmer in the Sky. But it probably would have been better if his last book had been Moon is a Harsh Mistress.


Mary Kay 12.17.05 at 12:24 pm

I’m with Henry — most of this stuff isn’t really embarrassing. It’s just what teens and pre-teens read. You want embarrassing, I’ll give you embarrassing: I read nine, NINE, of John Norman’s Gor books.



xavier 12.17.05 at 4:54 pm

Enid Blyton. In spanish translation. Some of them several times.


Henry 12.17.05 at 5:15 pm

bq. In defense of pre-adolescent reading tastes, allow me to paraphrase Ursula leGuin: “Kids love to read junk. It’s good for them, in fact. What they can’t put up with is plastic. You give one of them Jonathan Livingston Seagull, they’ll fix their beady little eyes on it, and recognize it for exactly what it is, something worse than junk.”

Exactly what I was trying to say – although I’ll add that my own beady little eyes were less discriminating than those of LeGuin’s ideal pre-adolescent. When I was writing this post, I wasn’t thinking at all of authors like Heinlein, Card etc, let alone Hugh Lofting. All of them have written good stuff – Heinlein’s juveniles are nearly perfect of their kind. If they’re junk, they’re _good_ junk. That there are creepy aspects to Heinlein’s or Card’s politics seems to me to be irrelevant to the virtues that made me enjoy the books so much when I was a kid. Ditto for H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and G.A. Henty (whom I suspect is nearly forgotten these days – unless Niall Ferguson or someone has tried to get him back into print to stiffen the American imperialist backbone). Even Piers Anthony had his moments.What I was looking for was less books that people would have difficulty in going back to and enjoying now that they’re adults (although I have no qualms in going back to Heinlein’s juveniles) so much as books that were _dead ends_ of one sort or another – where there wasn’t much to the book besides genuinely bad ideas.

I had a fun conversation with Teresa Nielsen Hayden about this a few months ago – we agreed that a healthy ecosystem of books has to have a solid proportion of junk. Kids begin to read by picking up trash, some of which is, well, trashy, and some of which is actually pretty well written stuff in garish covers. By accidentally coming across these pearls, and learning to distinguish them from irredeemable junk, they then develop their own tastes, which can, with a bit of luck, lead them in 1001 different wonderful directions as they grow older. Junk as gateway drug – but not only gateway drug, as some junk is actually hidden treasure. I feel strongly on this – I usually find that people who haven’t had a decent quotient of junk reading at some point in their lives aren’t very interesting, for my own idiosyncratic values of ‘interesting.’


Henry 12.17.05 at 5:18 pm

Yep, I think John Norman has to count.

(cue “Parakeets of Gor”: )


Slocum 12.17.05 at 5:25 pm

The Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth”. I’m now embarrassed that, as a teen, I actually believed we were all headed for disaster. The spectacular failure of all those dismal predictions over the decades since has been an eye-opener.


yabonn 12.17.05 at 5:27 pm

I read nine, NINE, of John Norman’s Gor books.

Lol. Maybe not nine, but essentially : me too. I still find the two or three first ones rather good, in their style.

But i read a few of the later ones – i swear – out of wonder at all the sudden dopeyness of it all. Some “if i could only locate exactly when it started to smell like this?” kind of feeling.

I feel more embarassed with the Silmarillion – my attitude to it more than the book itself. I remember vividly snapping out of it, conciously telling me to get real and this is only an old english guy’s work, godsdammit.

I was only ten or twelve, but the retrospective embarassment was recently renewed when i found some hilarious parodies on the net. That’s what hurts more : to realize it’s the shtick that made you tick.

But then i that post provides some comfort at least : a big Ha, ha!! to all the Rands and Enders :>


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.17.05 at 5:33 pm

I think I had read too many science fiction books by the time I got to von Daniken. I figured he was just another fiction author who was using the “this really happened” trope. So I guess the embarassing thing is I didn’t realize he was serious until much later?

The Pern books were embarassing though. I read those at eight or so and then tried to read them later in my teens. They were really bad. I remember the first Xanth books being fun, but the punning got old by book three or so. I think I read them when I was thirteen or fourteen.

I still think Card can be fun. His world-building is interesting even if the Ender series got a bit didactic by the end. I remember really liking the Elric series at about 15. I wonder if that would stand up now.


MJ Memphis 12.17.05 at 5:55 pm

I suppose I should put Michael Moorcock (the Elric and Corum series) to fit the tenor of the discussion. But I can’t honestly say I am embarrassed by that.

Now, the National Review subscription I had from about ages 12-15….


Cryptic Ned 12.17.05 at 5:56 pm

There are numerous writers that I read five or more books by, and then, in the very middle of a book, I was plowing along nicely, enjoying it as I had enjoyed all the rest, and ALL OF A SUDDEN had an overwhelming realization that:

A) This book is the same as all of the author’s other books!

B) That means that the author has fraudulently fooled me into wasting hours of my time. I hate both this author and myself. How could I have been so stupid? I must throw this book away at once and ignore this writer forever.

This happened with:

R.L. Stine (c. age 11)

Robert Asprin (c. age 14)

Dave Barry (c. age 15)

M.C. Beaton (c. age 16)

P.J. O’Rourke (c. age 18)


paul 12.17.05 at 6:12 pm

Gee am I the only one that read the Conan the Barbarian series? Way before Der Governor made the movie. Can’t say I am embarassed about it – hmmm maybe that right there says something.


Aidan Kehoe 12.17.05 at 6:12 pm

I read stacks of terrible books, but I’ve no embarrassment about it because I was, well, a kid. Kids do stupid stuff.

I am mildly embarrassed at the extent of my aviation fixation when I was was about 12 to 15, in large part I can still tell the difference between a Spitfire V.B and V.C and can list the weaknesses and strengths of the F-4 Phantom in a second, and neither of those are conversation material for polite company.


Kieran Healy 12.17.05 at 6:16 pm

Jane Austen.


Gene O'Grady 12.17.05 at 6:16 pm

How about Joseph Altsheler? Fifty (nearly) years later I wonder if there was much real history there or just a bunch of dubious attitude. At least I preferred the 18th-century ones to the Confederate sentimentality. Or maybe there was some real history in those and I just remember the sentimentality because I’m embarrassed by it.


John Quiggin 12.17.05 at 6:19 pm

I’m embarrassed in retrospect by my mid-teens Kerouac phase. Not that he’s a bad writer, but my uncritical reaction to the whole Beat mythos indicated a poorly functioning bullshit detector at a time when I already prided myself on same.


harry b 12.17.05 at 6:52 pm

I’m shocked that people are embarrassed by reading enid blyton. Read them to your kids, and you’ll understand the appeal (but only read one to them — it is like wading through treacle, without the nice smell).


anatoly 12.17.05 at 6:59 pm

Oh, this one’s a no-brainer. Richard Bach. Whenever I recall myself being enthralled by his books I wish I could reach back through time to the teenaged me and strangle the little moron.


eudoxis 12.17.05 at 7:04 pm

One of my favorite authors was Hector Malot. The sadder, the better. Not embarrassing, but I no longer look for literature that makes me sad.


Jared 12.17.05 at 7:12 pm

After reading Henry’s comment #45 I’m less sure what he meant in the original post. Most of us seem to be embarrassed over the obsession and fanaticism with which we read all this “good junk,” instead of the fact that we read it in the first place. It’s not that junk is bad for you, it’s that we didn’t realize it was junk.

Someone mentioned Dragonlance, and the obviously mercenary origins of it. A lot of that stuff read like someone played a game of D&D and then wrote down what happened. “Character development” was something the authors did before they started writing, instead of something inherent in the book. This was a dead end of a sort, but a useful one: reading a book in which all the stuff that happens somehow doesn’t add up to a plot taught me to understand a real plot when I saw it (in Earthsea, for example.)

Heinlein and Anthony and Card, on the other hand, weren’t things I rejected, just things I outgrew. Precisely because they WERE full of bad ideas, whereas Dragonlance, ex., had no ideas at all.


Neil 12.17.05 at 7:23 pm

Jane Austen, Kieran?! How can anyone be embarrased about that? A great prose stylist, a great wit, and I would have thought fascinating to a sociologist for the attitudes toward class, reflections on the status of women (think of P&P, with the characters forced to marry to keep from sliding into poverty) and especially the transition from a society in which rank was the most important factor to a bourgeois individualism.

My biggest embarassments are the Tarzan series (Edgar Rice Burroughs), and – worse – the Lensman series by EE ‘Doc’ Smith. The misogyny of the latter still pains me whenever I think of it.

Also the Castaneda series. I read them thinking I was adopting an ironic attitude to them, but I took them at least half seriously.


yabonn 12.17.05 at 7:27 pm

A propos of Dragonlance : is there a source somewhere for hidden gems in mass produced dope? Gifted pseudonyms writing for a few episodes, that kind of things?


Danny Yee 12.17.05 at 8:08 pm

When I was at school (early 1980s), I read pretty much all the sf and fantasy in my local library… probably several thousand books. (I had an exemption from doing any work in maths classes, so I had 8 extra hours a week to read.)

So I read pretty much all the books of Heinlein, Piers Anthony, Larry Niven, EE Doc Smith, Anne McCaffrey, you name it. And before that, in primary school, I read the Famous Five books, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Narnia, etc. And I read some Velikovsky in there, too. (And the works of Henry James, EM Forster, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and scores of other novelists!) There were only a few authors too terrible for me to deal with: Terry Brooks was too obviously and pathetically a Tolkien imitator.

A lot of those books I’ve never looked at again (my sister and I were Narnia fans until age 8 or so, when we discovered Tolkien and I never looked at Narnia again), and it’s a hard choice as to what is (retrospectively) the most cringe-worthy.

Maybe the techno-wankery of Niven and co. Maybe the dreck that is Anne McCaffrey. Maybe some of the dreck I read later on in life: Orson Scott Card or William Gibson, perhaps.


Liz 12.17.05 at 8:14 pm

Virginia Andrews (before she became Virginia AndrewsTM): the Flowers in the Attic series, all of which were in our high school library.

Cryptic Ned: I still get hooked on authors, devour three or four, then suddenly ‘see through’ them and ditch them. Ruth Rendell; A.S. Byatt; Ian McEwan; Robin Hobb, to name a few. Can’t tell if I’ve simply overdosed, or if I’ve rumbled their game, or if I’ve exhausted their good works.


Kieran Healy 12.17.05 at 8:32 pm

Jane Austen, Kieran?! How can anyone be embarrased about that?

Sorry, I was only joking.


yoyo 12.17.05 at 8:55 pm

i read a lot that i still rather like to one degree or another, such as asimov or cs lewis or lloyd alexander.

far worse was ayn rand; i also read every word Rush Limbaugh put to print, and was a faithful listener. i did manage to run into a milton freidman book around that time though.


Laura 12.17.05 at 9:08 pm

I can’t believe no one has mentioned the horrible Flowers in the Attic books. I read them for the sexual content mostly–when I was about 12 and had no idea what sex was. God, those were awful. Shiver.


dc 12.17.05 at 9:09 pm

The Roots of Coincidence by Arthur Koestler.


Jonathan Kulick 12.17.05 at 9:13 pm

Any paperback with a metal-foil, embossed, or die-cut cover, about a natural disaster. Floods, ants, continent-rending quakes, mutant viruses…this seems to have been a very fertile genre in the 70s.

Even more shameful: the complete works of Kurt Vonnegut.


theogon 12.17.05 at 9:16 pm

I also read EVD in elementary school, but realized it was bullshit and appreciated it ironically. Which, given my current views on ironic appreciation, is somewhat embarassing.

Ayn Rand: cusp of adolescence. The fact that I was converted for about 2 or 3 days isn’t really too bad, since I went back to being a charmingly precocious socialist right after, but the inexplicable belief I had that they were good writing WAS. Of course, this was back when I thought the Offspring were the height of musical achievent.

As for D&D, and moreover, roleplaying in general: the paperback factory produce sucks, but there’s genuine artistry to be found in the actual game worlds themselves. Or maybe that’s just the geek in me overenthusing.


Bryan Frances 12.17.05 at 10:39 pm

When I was in college studying physics and should have been studying philosophy, I read all those stupid ‘physics shows that everything is spiritually connected’ shit. Blew my mind, as I knew of no philosophy. Ah well.


Walt Pohl 12.17.05 at 10:52 pm

Kieran has successfully trolled his own site.

Embarrassingly, I have read almost everything mentioned by everyone so far, including Colin Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone (the only reason I know the meaning of the word chthonic). Even more embarassingly, I didn’t realize most of these books are bad. Clearly I should put out a list of every book I’ve ever read to serve as a warning to others.

I just finished Mr. Norrell and Jonathan Strange, so the members of Crooked Timber are sure to wake up any day now with that familiar sense of shame…


Matt Weiner 12.17.05 at 10:58 pm

Liz, IMO you overdosed on Rendell, or maybe hit a bad patch. I still devour her books (page-turners if anything) and while she reuses some tricks there’s a lot of ones that I’d guess stand up to rereading. Maybe only about a third of the ones she’s written, but that’s still an awful lot of books. (I do think she’s been mailing in the Wexfords lately.)

Is Robert Cormier embarrassing? I think Robert Cormier is probably embarrassing. They seem really deep because they have unhappy endings, but they’re really just about how everyone else is picking on poor misunderstood me, to the point of martyrdom. I suspect–I haven’t reread them since I was a teen.


Jim Flannery 12.17.05 at 11:00 pm

I know it’s hard to believe now, but Piers Anthony did actually write some good books before the braineater got him.

Nothing, nothing is as embarassing as Atlas Shrugged. I think #38 and I must have unknowingly had the same mother on time-share.


mister fister 12.17.05 at 11:16 pm

Readers Digest.

Every week, a new one. I particularly liked the humor pages.
And the “I’m Joe’s Uvula” stories.


Alex Earl 12.17.05 at 11:19 pm

I think most of my trash reading phase was burnt out on vast number of Star Trek novels, for better or for worse.

I’m proud to say that by the time I read McAffey, Ayn Rand, Robert Jordan, etc., I could hardly maintain interest. (Can I get a show of hands of how many people read Atlas Shrugged all the way up to and then stopped exactly when they realized that John Galt was about to give a 60 page monologue?)

Then again, here’s a set of writers which maybe I should know better then to like, but still like:

Asimov, Cherryh, Kay.


djw 12.17.05 at 11:30 pm

Gertrude Chandler Warner (boxcar children series)

(intellectual embarrassment, late teens) Some of the more misanthropic strands of deep ecology (Dave Foreman’s mid-80’s blatherings…)


Alopex Lagopus 12.17.05 at 11:47 pm

Just a couple of months ago I read William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. I’m embarrassed to say I actually finished the damn thing. What a waste of time.

Oh, back in the day, “von” Daniken and a pile of ufologists. And Castaneda a bit later. And Anne Rice at some point. Oh, and a couple of years ago I spent some weeks reading those awful Honor Harrington books.

I listened to Baccara and Boney M and had sinful thoughts.


dr ngo 12.18.05 at 12:24 am

How about Joseph Altsheler? Fifty (nearly) years later I wonder if there was much real history there or just a bunch of dubious attitude. At least I preferred the 18th-century ones to the Confederate sentimentality. Or maybe there was some real history in those and I just remember the sentimentality because I’m embarrassed by it.

What a blast from the past! I read all of his civil war series, and though I bet they wouldn’t stand up to re-reading, I don’t as of the moment feel any embarrassment. They were “sentimental” towards both sides, not just the Confederacy, as I recall, and in that sense depicted a falsely rosy past, in which men of good will tragically fell out, not one in which there were the evil of slavery and, on both sides, cases of arbitrary cruelty.

But I think he got most of the straight fighting right, and it gave me a sense, if nothing else, of the depth and complexity of military history: it’s not just one “winner-take-all” battle, but a grinding series of engagements over four years (and 8 books), with the eventual losers winning many individual battles, and the eventual winners fumbling for a strategy of victory. Basic narrative, which might in the fullness of time be augmented by analysis of the underlying causes of the war and appreciation of its subtler psychological dimensions. Good training for a boy who eventually became a historian–albeit not a military historian–IMHO.

(Possibly, however, I should avoid seeking them out today, less my “sentimental” memories be too rudely shattered.)


Mary Kay 12.18.05 at 12:41 am

Sebastian: A while back I had the idea to do a paper for Mythcon on the development of Elric over time. I started rereading and discovered that it could, alas, be summed up in one sentence, “Elric is the whiny teenage angst incarnation of the Immortal Hero.” Sigh. I so used to love those books…



Anonymous 12.18.05 at 1:42 am

Enid Blyton. In the original Hebrew. Nah, not really. Perfectly decent reading for a preteen.

Then I read all of the Burroughs Tarzan novels. Still, good yarns, all.

Then, because I had seen the English version of Flowers In the Attic on my mother’s bookshelf from as early as I can remember, at age 12 I decided I wanted to know why the zombies on the cover stared at me all those years. So I read a Hebrew translation of it.

But for truly warping a mind with badness? Shortly afterwards, also in Hebrew, Quo Vadis.

Good thing I was too young to have any understanding of sex at that age, so it mostly just went right over my head.

Naturally, I’m going incognito to make this confession. It takes large amounts of alcohol to get me to admit this otherwise.


lalala 12.18.05 at 1:46 am

Maybe it’s because I was always reading too many different things to become overly, embarrassingly invested in any one that I see no reason to be embarrassed by having read Anne McCaffrey, indeed by STILL re-reading some of her books (not the sci-fi/fantasy ones) occasionally. Maybe I just have no shame – at least about liking “bad” fiction. I think that by focusing on a particular kind of quality of writing, these discussions ignore the ways we read, which are in my opinion at least as interesting. What do you read to accomplish? Are you looking to identify with a character or to be challenged by one? Is the ending definitive for you, or do you care more about the body of the book? And so on.


Liz 12.18.05 at 2:22 am

Matt-yes, I was thinking of the Wexfords! The Barbara Vines on the other hand are consistently enjoyable. But how does one know when one has overdosed on an author, or is about to overdose? A great-uncle of mine said one should always leave a party half an hour before one stops enjoying it. He never said how to know when that would be.


John Quiggin 12.18.05 at 2:53 am

I thought the first Anne McCaffrey dragon book justified its existence by actually coming up with an SF-style justification for having stone castles and so on rather than just sticking the Middle Ages in outer space as usual. But she should have stopped at one.


fred lapides 12.18.05 at 7:25 am

Sherlock Holmes and The Bible (NOT as literature but as revealed TRUTH)


sharks 12.18.05 at 8:12 am

john (#84): except I don’t think that they were written in that order.

Well, that’s already got McCaffrey out of the closet, ummm, David Eddings? Only the first nine thousand or so, though. Stephen Donaldson? Loved those books at the time, they seem a bit silly now. Oh, RAH, although even back then the post brain-eater stuff was just a bit too much. Thank ghu I was never a Randite.



anonymous_person 12.18.05 at 9:47 am

Even after all these years I still blush with shame when I think about all the hours I spent whiling away at the local bookstore in eager anticipation of the next Star Trek novel, then the next Star Trek: TNG novel. Fortunately, things petered out around the Star Trek: DS9 show and I can proudly state that I have never read a Star Trek: Voyager or Enterprise book although I have to confess to moments of temptation.

As an aside, an interesting question is what book published in the last 5-10 years will make the list of the next generation of Crooked Timber readers? I’m betting on a tie between anything by Dan Brown and the Harry Potter series.


Matt Weiner 12.18.05 at 10:26 am

Liz (83): If you discover the secret, let me know. Is it “Oh this is nice but some of these devices are repeating?” Yet if you were to read A Dark-Adapted Eye, The House of Stairs, and Grasshopper in succession you might have that feeling, and yet there would still be a lot of good Vines out there.

The non-Wexford Rendells are also often extremely good–check out Talking to Strange Men and (horribly disturbing) Master of the Moor. Although the ones that are straight-up mysteries and don’t have Wexford in them are usually fairly weak.


jw 12.18.05 at 11:06 am

I’m with John Quiggin on Anne McCaffrey. Dragonflight contains a number of intriguing ideas, combined together into an original setting, but she should’ve stopped before Pern became a genre in itself.

While there is some embarrassing fantasy out there, like the Tolkien imitators (like Eddings and Dragonlance), I’m not sure why good books that are explicitly children’s fantasy like The Chronicles of Narnia should be grouped with them. And for Alex above, Kay and Cherryh are definitely not authors to be embarrassed by.

As for my embarrassing reads, I’d have to say Ayn Rand. Asimov’s Foundation is dated, but it was a fun retelling of Gibbon’s masterpiece in space, and not bad enough to be embarrassed by, unlike a fair bit of Heinlein.


SusanC 12.18.05 at 11:10 am

A major cause of adult embarrassment seems to be the racism, sexism and dodgy politics in the books we read as adolsecents. “How could I have not noticed that at the time?”

I’ll ‘fess up to having read A. E. Van Vogt’s “The Weapon Shops of Isher”


willie mink 12.18.05 at 11:15 am

>(Can I get a show of hands of how many people read Atlas Shrugged all the way up to and then stopped exactly when they realized that John Galt was about to give a 60 page monologue?)

Not this hand–I read that whole monologue, and then The Fountainhead too! Gawd, to think what I could’ve read instead. I’m not exactly embarrassed, though. Reading such big bricks was part of my budding sense of myself as a mighty reader. Also, my Cold-War-product father got me to read them in pursuit of enlightenment on “the virtue of selfishness.” The New Yorker expose a couple years back of Rand’s obsession with big strong men was a good laugh. When I had my father read it, he didn’t put two and two together. And he still loves Bill O’Rielly. Sigh.


Anthony 12.18.05 at 12:12 pm

I’m sorry to say I had a Michael Crichton kick in middle school where I read something like 7 of his books, starting with Jurassic Park (before the movie came out, mind you). Needless to say, just hearing about State of Fear makes me a little sick at the thought of my earlier fandom. At least I never got into Tom Clancy books.


rea 12.18.05 at 12:29 pm


Who, I must point out, taught english in my high school . . .



jw 12.18.05 at 12:40 pm

Given how much I’ve learned from Cherryh’s writing about writing on her web site, I would’ve loved to have had her as a high school English teacher.


pedro 12.18.05 at 12:57 pm

I’ve read Herman Hesse and Vonnegut (though only one book by the latter), and I’m not quite ashamed of it. Other than those two, I haven’t read any of the other people mentioned in this thread. But I’m pretty ashamed of my Emilio Salgari phase.


Gavin 12.18.05 at 1:13 pm

John Carter of Mars – Howard in an even skeerier series.

And the Mack Bolans.

What can I say – testosterone was necessary and manly in the early 80’s.


Anonymous for once 12.18.05 at 1:26 pm

I agree van Daniken was silly (I went through the UFO, Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Abominable Snowman phase also), but it’s always struck me as interesting how close he and Carl Sagan actually were, much as Sagan denied it. Sagan and his Russian co-author beat van Daniken to the punch, after all, in their book Intelligent Life in the Universe when they speculated about an old Babylonian myth as possibly being a description of a visit by extraterrestrials.

And there’s the Fermi paradox–if there’s intelligent life out there, where are They? Sagan tended to be very optimistic about the possible numbers of intelligent civilizations just in our galaxy. I don’t have one of his books handy, but I think he thought in terms of thousands or even millions and most of these would be technologically advanced far beyond our level. Sagan and his co-author (or was it Freeman Dyson?) came up with this ranking system for civilizations, based on how much energy they could control–Type I, II, and III. The intermediate type would be the sort that was capable of dismantling planets and constructing Dyson spheres. Type III could control the power output of entire galaxies. If you take this stuff seriously, then it’s not at all silly to think that there might be unimaginably powerful ET’s who know about us already and one of the “answers” for why we don’t see ET’s is that maybe the earth is some sort of game park.
Another answer would be to claim that interstellar travel is impossible. Always, for all time, no matter if a civilization has been around for millions of years. Sounds a little implausible to me, and once you allow for interstellar travel and exponential population growth, the galaxy is not such a big place after all.

So I agree that van Daniken is silly–why would ET’s come to Earth and build pyramids or statues on Easter Island? But it always struck me as funny how hard Sagan worked at separating his views from those crazy UFO-ologists and ancient astronaut fanatics. If you take his views on the prevalence of advanced civilizations seriously, then chances are good we’re a wildlife refuge and then you’d
wonder if we ever might catch sight of the park rangers. Which is either an argument for thinking that ET’s are in fact very rare, or else that we shouldn’t be so quick to laugh at all the UFO nuts. (Though probably most of them are nothing more than nuts.)


Bruce Cleaver 12.18.05 at 2:16 pm

I cannot believe we’ve gotten to this point without someone mentioning ‘The Late Great Planet Earth’ by Hal Lindsey. At the very least, he provided his best guess as to the date of the Apocalypse (1988) which made his thesis kinda falisifiable.


fyreflye 12.18.05 at 2:35 pm

Well, all the books I read as a child and teenager were “bad” books judged by the standards of literary criticism and scientific rationalism. Nothing wrong with Dr Doolittle, though, (he was Richard Dawkins’ childhood hero, too) and Bob Heinlein was a great story teller until he went “serious.” My favorite author at 15 was H P Lovecraft, but even then I knew his prose was awful even if his imagination was unsurpassely creepy.
The only reading I’m actually ashamed of now is my uncritical acceptance of LRH’s Dianetics and a carload of flying-saucers-are-real books (“Watch the skies!”) And that even into my ’30’s I was still capable of taking Carlos Castaneda seriously.


willie mink 12.18.05 at 2:38 pm

I read lots of Vonnegut as a teenager, and I’m glad I did. What the hell is embarrassing about reading Vonnegut????


PersonFromPorlock 12.18.05 at 3:05 pm

Most of these comments suffer from excessive refinement, kind of like saying “I thought my Mom could really cook, but then I realized she didn’t even know who Escoffier was.”

But what’s wrong with a book that’s just ‘a good read’? Heinlein’s juvies are brilliantly done. Granted, his later books seem to consist entirely of people flying around the Universe pontificating about sex and who’s in charge but even Homer nods, and sometimes Homer’s head falls off.


Maria 12.18.05 at 3:17 pm

anthony: That was just mean, mean, mean. :)


Tad Brennan 12.18.05 at 3:29 pm

Isn’t it in Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” that a group of party-goers agree to a parlor game of narrating some embarrassing episode from their past?

Each one tells something that makes them look slightly bad, but mysterious, or intriguing, or flawed in some romantic-sounding way. Except the one schlemiel who misunderstands the rules of the game and tells a story that makes him look simply slimy and despicable.

And when everyone recoils from him, he feels utterly betrayed!

(This story brought to my mind by Kieran’s good quip above, i.e. pretending to offer an embarrassing story while instead trumping everyone else with an unimpeachable credential. Sort of the reverse of the poor schlemiel who misunderstands the rules in the Idiot. Which leads me to ask–why is this post titled “Reverse Humiliation”, rather than simply ‘humiliating recollections” or the like?)


Karen Cox 12.18.05 at 3:38 pm

I read Riane Esler’s “The Chalice and the Blade” and Merlin Stone’s “When God Was a Woman” and bought the whole thing. This was my early 20’s, when I should have known better, having completed a BA in a subject requiring some familiarity with Mesopotamian archaeology. I vote myself Most Easily Duped for having the information to understand this was nonsense and believing it anyway.

As for Hal Lindsay, that book has the distinction of being the only thing my parents ever flat forbade me from reading. Judith Krantz and Jaqueline Susann were fine; some nutbar predicting Apocalypse definitely NOT.


wolfa 12.18.05 at 3:49 pm

Dean Koontz. I read a very large series of them when I was about 12, all that the library had, having unluckily started with the only one that is vaguely passable, which might have been called Lightning. I also read the VC Andrews books — which my GRANDMOTHER suggested to me — at the same time.

Christie, but I think she’s not so bad, especially for that age.


RS 12.18.05 at 4:19 pm

Can I be the only one around her who is ashamed for having actually read “Battlefield Earth”, by L. Ron Hubbard?? Geez, Piers Anthony is frickin’ Jane Austen in comparison…


Matt Weiner 12.18.05 at 5:23 pm

why is this post titled “Reverse Humiliation”, rather than simply ‘humiliating recollections”

In David Lodge’s Changing Places, there’s a game called “Humiliation” which is about books it’s embarrassing not to have read–you name a book you haven’t read, and you get a point for everyone in the group who has read it. So this. “Books you’re embarrassed you have read,” is the reverse of that. (I believe that’s the idea, anyway.)


we-name 12.18.05 at 6:21 pm

I was born a nerd. i read uncle tom’s cabin in fourth grade and never went back to kids books (i’m not bragging… seriously, i think i was kinda weird). it fueled my rage over racism (i lived in Alabama). i read mein kampf in fifth grade trying to understand how someone could be so evil (no, i didn’t really get it). everybody thought i was thinking of becoming some neonazi… anyway, at least as much though is everything by Ayn Rand. Started in seventh grade. First Atlas Shrugged, then the Fountainhead, Anthem and We the Living (frankly, her best, most “literature” like writing–I guess I’m not embarrassed by this one. Great stuff on the Soviet Union in the twenties) and all the philosophical and political writings I could find (back then it was relegated to used book stores mostly). I’ll give her this: she made me interested in precise thinking and philosophy and writing. I can’t give her too much else though. She was one of those people who, even when she was right she was wrong. plus, could the writing be more like bad propoganda comics? i wonder. she was an anti-feminist, homophobic, global-warming naysayer, completely rejected ALL modern psychology, sociology, etc. … it goes on and on. maybe once a month something will come up and I will be able to see the weird ways in which she still sometimes has a grip on this super liberal pragmatic leftist that i am. huh.


dave heasman 12.18.05 at 6:32 pm

Readers’ Digest too.
Hank Janson
William Saroyan for glutinous sentimentality (which however left me with the permanent preference for the short story over the novel)


Matt McIrvin 12.18.05 at 7:12 pm

My pop introduction to quantum physics, which I eventually ended up studying through grad school, was Fred Alan Wolf’s Taking the Quantum Leap, a National Book Award winner which, among other things, promoted Stapp’s claim to have found the specific molecular locus on the neuron where nonmaterial consciousness interacts with the body. I took every word seriously and figured that the parts that seemed obscure were lapses in my own understanding. It was several years before I figured out that Wolf was just spinning claptrap.


Matt McIrvin 12.18.05 at 7:19 pm

…I think that reading nonfiction junk and taking it seriously is far more embarrassing than reading fiction junk, because you’re supposed to think that nonfiction is true.

But in the fiction category, Isaac Asimov experienced this particular embarrassment himself. One of the first SF books I ever read was the first volume of Before the Golden Age, the Asimov-edited anthology of Thirties stories that he read and loved when he was a kid. In his introduction, he said that, reading them again in adulthood, he was so shocked at the intense racism in some of the stories that he was seriously tempted to bowdlerize them, then decided that erasing that part of history wasn’t a good idea. But the racism had never registered to him on first read.


Matt McIrvin 12.18.05 at 7:32 pm

As for that Ursula Le Guin quote, she’s a wonderful writer, but she’s wrong about Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I read it when I was a kid and I loved it. That bit where he teleports to the alien planet with the green sun… oh man, I thought that was so cool! Makes my gut churn to think about it now.


John Quiggin 12.18.05 at 7:49 pm

We had a discussion of Hal Lindsay here. My bullsh*t detector was working with that one.


BroD 12.18.05 at 7:52 pm

I’m not embarrassed by anything I’ve read: what embarrasses me is that I’ve read so little.


claire 12.18.05 at 7:58 pm

i’m not embarrassed about any books i’ve read, either. and i loved burroughs’s tarzan books (right up until #6, then they all seemed the same), enid blyton, boney-m, choose your own adventure books, and later hermann hesse and zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

what i’m actually embarrassed about was the time i spent in adolescence, looking complacently at my bookshelves and counting off all the “big books” i had read that made me seem like an intellectual to myself. although, i have to say, if i hadn’t had the motivation to read difficult books so that i could say i had read them, i definitely wouldn’t have read so much mind-bending stuff, that incidentally DID bend my mind and stay with me into adulthood. so i guess that’s not really embarrassing either.

really, all this is about learning. why is that embarrassing?

ps. a friend of mine draws “choose your own adventure”-style comix for adult math geeks. check it out:


Gary Farber 12.18.05 at 8:15 pm

“Ursula leGuin”

Le Guin. Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. Not “leguin,” or “leGuin,” or “LeGuin,” or “le Guin” or “Leguin,” or any of several other people constantly referr to. (I only mention this because if people keep using variant spellings without the proper spelling being noted, yet more people will keep on not realizing they’ve got her name wrong. See also “Tolkein.” And “Ghandi.”)


Tad Brennan 12.18.05 at 8:41 pm

Matt Weiner–
Thanks–that sounds like a plausible explanation.

“Changing Places” is one of the books I am not embarrassed not to have read.


Gary Farber 12.18.05 at 8:51 pm

“John Carter of Mars – Howard in an even skeerier series.”

If this is a reference to the mention in the post of Robert E. Howard, no, actually Edgar Rice Burroughs was not Robert E. Howard. If it’s not such a reference, never mind.

I do have to say that I’m entirely unclear why a healthy adult should find the fact that their tastes will change by their adulthood from their childhood to be embarrassing.

But I don’t even know why one can’t like “junk” work, along with fine work (or high art with low, or bad stuff with good, or name your variant), just as even a fine food connoisseur might still enjoy popcorn at times. True, enjoying such different kinds of work won’t be for everyone, and that’s fine, too, but what’s wrong with the alternative? Is it actually bad to like stuff that is obviously imperfect in several ways, but that also clearly nonetheless has attractive qualities? And if it’s not bad, why be embarrassed?

Another approach is to observe that there are a variety of kinds of rewards we can take way, or virtues we can find, in a given work, and there’s something to be said for being able to find the good in a clearly flawed work, as well as the bad, and for appreciating a thing for what it is, rather than what it is not. Again, not a mandatory approach, but an invalid one?

As I noted in a discussion elsewhere on this topic, the only aspect of embarrassment about love of a bad work that immediately leaps out at me as
less dubious is that any degree of embarrassment seems to me to be far more dependent upon the degree of seriousness we ourselves bring to the given work, and that’s something we’re bringing to the work, not vice versa.


garymar 12.18.05 at 9:09 pm

I read Colin Wilson’s The Philosopher’s Stone as well as The Mind Parasites which was even better from a this-conspiracy-of-evil-conformity-is-holding-me-back-from-becoming-a-god-so-I’ll-just-have-to-become-a-serial-killer standpoint.

Wilson was always good at making horror sound like a particularly dreary, cold, rain-sodden autumn day in some nondescript industrial town in the English Midlands. He adored Lovecraft too!

I won’t admit shame at reading his fiction, but I register deep embarassment at taking some of his purportedly nonfiction works at face value, and in my early 20’s at that! He seriously considered the possibility that a medieval monk actually flew — going so far as to state, ‘what could be the motivation for lying about something like that?’! O sancta simplicitas!

I even found a brief treatment of his literary work in our university library (can’t remember the title) in which the author concludes that ‘Wilson’s best evidence for his ideas is his own life,” the up-by-his-bootstraps persistence that propelled him out of the working class. Doesn’t make his ideas any less ludicrous.


Liz 12.18.05 at 9:15 pm

This is a fascinating thread. Gary (116), you’re right, why should one be embarrassed by one’s changing tastes?

I recall being mortified, as a teenager, by overhearing an adult whom I admired, saying something very scornful about the book I was reading (A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle), and rushing off to read something ‘proper’, to avoid being laughed at again. My choice? The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott, excellent books, and I’m really glad I did read them. But I might have enjoyed them more if I hadn’t decided to read to prove myself a serious person! These days, I don’t particularly care if people know I read ‘rot’, or if they think what I read is ‘rot’. But it does raise the question about what one should recommend to children/young adults to read. How much of the bad stuff ‘sticks’? Does it matter if, like some of my students, they think the Da Vinci Code is the best book ever written, or if they’re all trying to write like John marsden? Isn’t it better if they’re reading something, anythying, rather than grimly pretending to read canonical works? These are questions I ask myself when I’m teaching, as I like to find out what students are reading for pleasure, but am then horrified by their answers!


Henry 12.18.05 at 9:38 pm

bq. Each one tells something that makes them look slightly bad, but mysterious, or intriguing, or flawed in some romantic-sounding way. Except the one schlemiel who misunderstands the rules of the game and tells a story that makes him look simply slimy and despicable. And when everyone recoils from him, he feels utterly betrayed!

The title of the post refers to the “Humiliation” game in David Lodge’s _Changing Places_, which has a precisely similar denouement (and which I’ve only just realised is most likely riffing on the short story). And yes – but to the extent that this is what characterizes the thread it’s really not what I’d intended (I don’t think that there’s much romantic-sounding or impressive about a previous Erich von Daniken fixation).


John Casey 12.18.05 at 10:23 pm

Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, I can’t remember if I read the whole 12 volumes, or a multi-volume abridgement. It’s embarrassing because I bought the whole feed-the-people-into-the-machine-and-out comes-a-civilization shtick, with predifined stages of development and life history.

Oh, and Rand too, but not for very long. I skipped most of the middle of Atlas, thank god.



Kieran Healy 12.18.05 at 10:58 pm

To make up for the Jane Austen joke above:

Here’s something that I feel is genuinely indicative of what I was like as a teenager, but also could be interpreted as still within the ultimately-self-serving rules of the game we’re playing. (As Clive James says somewhere, we can try to tell autobiographical stories that put us in a bad light, but the ego arranges the bad light to its own advantage. This idea is covered at much greater length by Pierre Bourdieu.) Anyway, when I was 15 I bought the Faber & Faber paperback edition of _Finnegans Wake_ from the Collins Bookshop in Cork, for (in retrospect) two and only two reasons: (1) It was a beautiful book — as a physical object I mean: it was a paperback, but had a soft dustjacket in a subtle pinstripe blue in a matt finish, which covered a plain white volume with a small portrait of Joyce on it. I still have it. (2) It was somewhat cheaper than the Gabler edition of _Ulysses_, which had just come out in paperback (1987 I think), and which I bought the following year. This was a decisive point at the time, as eight or nine quid was a pretty substantial amount of money.

Of course, I barely understood a word of it. But it’s not as if I wandered around the town (or even the house) with my copy of it in my hand, either. There was something of the mysterious, hidden text about it. In a way that only accentuated its beautiful design. I read Anthony Burgess’s _Here Comes Everybody_ to illuminate the former point (easily the best introduction to Joyce for my money — especially if you’re 15!), and got sucked into the world of typography as a consequence of the second. For this reason I think I’d rather be designing the typefaces of books than writing the text of them, and I would be doing something like this were it not for an absolute absence of talent in that department.


Alex Earl 12.18.05 at 11:11 pm

In light of what Matt McIrvin said, I realize I should be honest.

By far the most embarassing reading related element of my past is the fact that ‘The Dancing Wu Li Masters’ is what inspired me to take physics as an undergrad.


GWest 12.18.05 at 11:42 pm

I cut my SF teeth on “Tom Swift, Jr.”, thank god for it. Started me on a lifetime of reading.


ralph jones 12.19.05 at 12:41 am

Being embarrassed about reading Ayn Rand says more about how screwed up you are today, than it does about where your head was back then.


NPCurmudgeon 12.19.05 at 1:54 am

Ralph, you’re kidding, right? Rand’s notion that the world’s (or at least America’s) intellectual and creative elites can hide themselves away in an undisclosed Rocky Mountain location, live luxuriously without a significant industrial base for an extended period of time, and then eventually emerge to remake the world in their image has the same general level of credibility as Bart Simpson’s monkey butlers.


daelm 12.19.05 at 3:05 am

Louis L’amour. Big time thing. Didn’t recognise them to be awful. No amount of penance will atone. Yukio Mishima later on. Because it was Japanese. (Not the short stories, which are reasonable. Not the painful studies of character. Not the Noh plays, which I could still have passed off as being boho. The sturm, the drang the runaway horses.)


daelm 12.19.05 at 3:14 am

…and michener. oh, god. michener. james michener. those enormous books that start off with 150 pages of plate tectonics, and then get duller. I read’em all. and worse, I thought his ‘Drifters’ was a meaningful extended essay on the 60’s. i had repressed these memories. i must go die now.


Gary Farber 12.19.05 at 4:19 am

“Being embarrassed about reading Ayn Rand says more about how screwed up you are today, than it does about where your head was back then.”

If you were less selfish, you wouldn’t say that.


rollo 12.19.05 at 4:23 am

It sounds like most commenters are ashamed of who they were when they read the books they cringe at now.
I think Le Guin’s on thin ice talking trash about Richard Bach, considering the flat didactic pc cant of some of her stuff – but then when she’s good, she’s really good, and so’s Bach.
There’s a nasty version of false maturity that takes its weight from the scorn it can express for simpler things and naive attitudes, it’s contagious and virulent and needs to be defended against.
That’s what I think causes most of the shame at past affinities.
Yes to Gary and Liz above on that.
And whoever was dissing Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, folly to you, sir!
I cried while reading that book.
Not wept but experienced the physical aspects of sorrow. Not all through it, but at one specific passage.
Robert Heinlein walked 9 y.o. me up and into and through infinite spatiality at exactly the moment my mind was ready to go with him, and that’s always going to make up for any amount of over-compensating masculine swagger, or technocratic chauvinism.
There were books I regretted reading when I was young, but I’ve forgotten them. These days I’ve learned to bail early.
And any shame I had later for books I earlier liked was part of a further developing – once past that there is no shame.
Books other people are embarrassed or scornful about as unliterary or pulp or whatever – Louis Lamour, Michener, the thriller guys like Grisham and Forsyth – I’ll read if they’re what’s around and not be ashamed, and am often pleasantly surprised at their skill and vision.
Someone who’s not as popular as he might be that I would like to give a gratuitous but admiring plug here is Paul West. Terrestrialsat its best is fine writing.
I read Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp when I was a confused teenager, and went through periods of shame later at having loved a book written by a public homosexual – when I read it I hadn’t known at all who he was. But in its time and place, for me it was a perfect thing to read. Like To Kill A Mockingbird was, or later on Faulkner’s The Bear.
Or Joyce Carol Oates’ The Falls last year.
Ballard, Budrys, Cordwainer Smith, Tiptree, Russ, Sturgeon, John Crowley, Lucius Shepherd, The Thieves’ World collective…the legion of SF makers who earned my loyalty, they all have their vulnerabilites, maybe none as exposed as Bach to Le Guin’s facile rapier, but none of them are masters outside their genre either.
So what?
No one’s ever arrived at perfect awareness and needed something to read afterward.
We’re all incomplete, most especially when we’re young, and the books we read are too.
The vertices of personal growth and understanding and the coincident availablity of appropriate literature won’t always dovetail – but how lucky we are when they do.


Nick 12.19.05 at 9:34 am

What Gary said. And it’s Dr Dolittle, with one ‘o’, unlike Eliza who had two.


James Wimberley 12.19.05 at 9:34 am

Kieran in 123, on Finnegan’s Wake: “Of course, I barely understood a word of it.” Now, of course, he speed-reads it while listening to his favourite John Cage records.


Dave Caithness 12.19.05 at 12:12 pm

How about Denis Wheatley? Some of the occult tales were fairly enetertaining, but why did I slog through those weird, dense WW2 spy thrillers?


Troy 12.19.05 at 12:20 pm

I read the Narnia series, Tolkien, and some Vonnegut in junior and senior high school and loved them. They certainly hold up well.

I read Clancy in high school and college and I loved the techology and action, but I tolerated the incredibly wooden characters and the right wind politics, so some embarassment. His later books were just too bad to read, though I tried for awhile.

I shudder with horror that as a kid I read Jack Chick comics (his tracts and his Crusader series) and completely imbided the worldview. Madness.

I, too, had an Ayn Rand phase; it was in 11th grade and it changed everything! Well, not really, but I thought so for a few weeks or months, then it passed.


John 12.19.05 at 12:44 pm

Man, Piers Anthony. I never realized there were so many like me! I read like 15 Xanth books, the whole Incarnations of Immortality Series, and several others before I realized that the whole thing was soft-core porn for middle schoolers…I believe I was onto the sixteenth Xanth book, which was actually just a promotion for a computer game, before I realized how crappy and repetitive the whole thing was. Looking them up now, I see that that book came out in 1993, when I was probably still 12 (or possibly 13), so I suppose it’s not so bad, after all. I see though, that there are now almost as many Xanth books that I haven’t read as ones I have…

I read a bit of Velikovsky when I was a kid, but I was always kind of aware that he was a fraud.

As a historian, I’m now rather embarrassed at my admiration for William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I read in my youth. Some other books on the Nazis in the same vein (Lucy Davidowicz’s The War against the Jews, Telford Taylor’s book on Munich) fall into the same category.

There’s a whole ton of crappy fantasy I read beyond Piers Anthony, but none of it embarrasses me as much as the 15.5 Xanth books I read…jeez…and I’m not really embarrassed about the Hardy Boys, either. That was good stuff.


michael 12.19.05 at 1:29 pm

Exodus by Leon Uris – at about 11, without an inkling that Palestinians might have a somewhat different take (had I heard of Palestinians? – almost certainly not)…

I can´t believe Watership Down has not yet been mentioned.

And Lobsang Rampha, also pre-adolescence – I remember fervently lying in bed willing myself to levitate (and I´m sure that I managed it too).


Bill Gardner 12.19.05 at 1:39 pm

I urge the management to start a new thread — what transfixed you as an undergraduate, to your regret today? We probably need to know when you graduated (1976)….

* The Philosophy of Right
* The 1844 Manuscripts
* History and Class Consciousness

These are extraordinary books — the only thing that I am ashamed of is that I pretended that I had mastered them. I regret them because they are inescapeable mazes. They absorbed me for years, with huge opportunity costs in what I might otherwise have learned.


Liz 12.19.05 at 1:46 pm

I suppose part of the ‘shame’ comes from having been an uncritical reader, of swallowing something hook, line and sinker. (And, in my case, of having been ‘shamed’ by someone into abandoning a book I was enjoying, however silly it might have been.) Most of the books mentioned here (that I have read, at any rate) have rip-roaring plots, and are indeed page-turners. Perhaps there is a childish desire for plot-based narrative in all of us. Why else are the Harry Potter books, so brilliantly plotted, so popular? (And is it more shame-worthy to be caught reading Harry Potter, or to be caught reading Harry Potter with one of those carefully designed covers for ‘adults’?)

Generally speaking, I find literary enjoyment to be a bit of a crap-shoot: much depends, these days, on mood, time of year, time of day, whatever is going on in my life. I’ve abandoned a few books lately, because I’m in the wrong mood for them. The same is even more true for me of films. I don’t think my filters were so arbitrary as a teenager, I simply read whatever came my way. And on reflection I’m not sure I’m embarrassed by the VC Andrews books any more, terrible as they were, though I do wonder what teen-incest-gothic novels were doing in my high school library.


Gary Farber 12.19.05 at 3:03 pm

“There’s a nasty version of false maturity that takes its weight from the scorn it can express for simpler things and naive attitudes, it’s contagious and virulent and needs to be defended against.”

I agree. There have been many comments on this offshoot thread at Unfogged, by the way.
(Embedding the link didn’t seem to work in preview, inexplicably.)

Among other comments I made:

I find it interesting how nearly universal the number of citing in the CT threads of works of sf and fantasy are made, some far more flawed than others. Not at all surprising, though. It’s not news how many adults still find the genres embarrassing. (How many folks are bothered, in contrast, that Sherlock Holmes is no less of a complete fantasy, or Nero Wolfe, or that neither cozy mysteries nor hardboiled are any more “realistic”? Not so many, it appears.)


“I’m kind of embarrassed about all the Nero Wolfe stories I read. ”

Okay. I’m not embarrassed by all the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe’s you, I mean I’ve read (I’ve not read any non-Stout Wolfe). They’re certainly not badly written. They do what they came to do, and did it well; they’ve amused and entertained millions of people. They’re not the most beautiful prose ever written, nor offering of greatly deeper pleasures, but is that the standard of what we’re embarrassed to enjoy?


Non-sequitur, I might clarify that for all my various “what’s to be embarrassed about” observations above, I certainly amn’t oblivious to the simple emotional reaction of looking at something one once really liked, and concluding that it was really quite awful in ways that didn’t bother us then, but do now. I’m just distinguishing, or trying to, between an understandable emotional response, and what’s possibly actually rationally defensible about it.


“The embarrassing thing about a lot of bad science fiction I loved as an adolescent was its wish-fulfilling quality and the callowness of the wishes it attempted to fulfill.”

I left out my thought here, which runs along the lines of, so you’re saying that adolescents are callow? But, you know, I’d want to say it in a gentle and kind way.

Yes, there’s definitely a ton of callow and shallow wish-fulfillment in much — though certainly not all — science fiction and fantasy. In particular, much popular sf has featured themes of persecuted smart people, particularly persecuted, unappreciated, smart kids.

But I’m unconvinced this is anything to be embarrassed about. If anyone could use some wish-fufillment, well, actually, there are plenty of other candidates than unappreciated smart kids, but not so many who would find and obtain books that make their lives seem a little less hopeless and miserable and totally not understood!

I think that’s a good thing, overall, that there are books and stories that provide that support and wish-fulfillment fantasy, and such callow messages as that it’s okay to be different and it’s okay to be smart, and you are not alone, while also providing some pleasure and thrills and sense of wonder at the possibilities of this and other universes, and maybe even some crunchy knowledge, or cool ideas, besides, like sprinkles. (Sometimes a bit deeper.)

That we won’t have identical emotional needs at age 30 as age 13 doesn’t change my mind.

As a general rule, I might find that “reading or not reading something based upon what you imagine other people will think of it may not be the best way to go” to not be the worst possible advice.

“We probably need to know when you graduated (1976)….”

Not everyone here is necessarily a college graduate, oddly enough.

The seeming implication by some, incidentally, that there is some sort of Objective Standard Of “Good,” in terms of literary virtues, bothers me no end. Standing on that high horse to sneer will result in entrapment in quicksand, methinks. And it’s turtles all the way down. We choose our measures, but choosing them for someone else is another sort of act, as is letting someone else choose them for it. (Simply later realizing the flaws of something one did not when younger is merely to be human, however, and might be similarly non-astonishing or embarrassing to some.)


yabonn 12.19.05 at 4:04 pm

The seeming implication by some, incidentally, that there is some sort of Objective Standard Of “Good,” in terms of literary virtues, bothers me no end.

Yes, yes, yes, i can understand that, but why does it come up in this rather playful thread?

The standards of Bad are less tricky than the Good ones. It’s rather straightforward to poke fun at mass produced dope like Eddings’, simple freaks like Rand or wackos like Clancy.

You can do that without being some True Art bore, i’m sure.


Gary Farber 12.19.05 at 5:59 pm

“It’s rather straightforward to poke fun at mass produced dope like Eddings’, simple freaks like Rand or wackos like Clancy.”

Possibly a background in mass-market publishing gives a different perspective.

Not that there’s anything wrong with enjoying a good sneer at an appropriate time and place; it’s the implication that there’s some serious weight to one’s subjective reactions that may strike someone who doesn’t share the same feeling as less “playful” than intended.

And what you’re asking is why, in a thread about emotional responses to text, a slightly emotional statement about text is made?

What people are posting about is either books/text that “bothered them,” or their own reaction eventually bothering them. So I’m unclear why it’s a nonsequitur for me to a) comment on this; and b) mention something textual that bothered me.

Doesn’t really mean anyone is “wrong,” but simply that, yet again, emotional responses differ. One person’s “playful” sneer isn’t necessarily another’s. So if someone happens to have a different emotional response to someone else’s “playful” sneer, well, if that “comes up,” it’s precisely as valid a reaction as the “playful” sneer. I mean, you wouldn’t bridle at my less-than-sneering remark simply because it wasn’t your own reaction, would you? (Sure, you might; so that’s why such things “come up”; because not everyone is ourself. Since you asked; I’m going to be lazy and not edit this down to the more concise version it yearns to be.)


Tlazolteotl 12.19.05 at 6:19 pm

Marion Zimmer Bradley, without a doubt worse than the Pern series!

Oh, and I used to read my grandma’s True Detective magazines when I was a kid.


Paula 12.19.05 at 11:46 pm

Jim Corbett: Space Cadet. Enough said.


daelm 12.20.05 at 2:40 am

clarity: i speak only for my own comments, but i suspect what i say may have bearing on others – i’m not ashamed of the books i read. they’re just books, and there as as many lousy books in any genre, and any stratum of written work, as any other. good luck to them all.

i’m ashamed (and only mildly, really – more like embarrassed), at the reasons i did so (for some of them) and at the breathless, guileless swallowing of hooks, lines and sinkers that i was prepared to do.

the thread is not lit-crit, as some seem to think – it’s self-revelation.


daelm 12.20.05 at 3:08 am

back to lurking


jeet 12.20.05 at 4:18 am

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho until I realized it was little more than Ayn Rand for progressives.

They (and Joseph Campbell) pretty much all share the same message: “Do what you want without thought for the consequences to others.”

Follow your bliss, my ass.


Steve 12.20.05 at 6:08 am

This thread is like some glorious reminder of my youth: Asimov, Scott Card, L Ron Hubbard, all those and more!

One thing it all reminded me of, and I’m not certain whether this is shameful or just silly, is a theory I formed (aged 11?) about the reasons why sci-fi was brilliant and fantasy novels were rubbish. Roughly, my reasoning was that sci-fi novels were set in the future and therefore not obviously false. Fantasy novels, by comparison, seemed to be set in some made-up past, but we know that the past wasn’t like that, therefore they were false and a waste of time. (I also really enjoyed historical novels, which muddies the waters here). I wish I could say that my adult self is far more sophisticated about such matters, but I suspect that I’m just as prone to spurious theorising about why my tastes are highly rational now as I was then.

On a different note, I do remember an old english teacher of mine explaining that there was something useful about kids enjoying sci-fi. Roughly, it provides a teacher with an easy way into “proper” grown-up literature, via books like 1984 and Brave New World. I’m not certain whether this theory works, but it’s certainly how I moved from Asimov to Orwell, and then from Orwell it’s a quick step to Lawrence, and so on. So, I say let the kids read Asimov, L Ron, etc.


Seth Gordon 12.20.05 at 11:22 am

When I was in 7th or 8th grade, I had an English teacher who based his class’s advertising unit on Wilson Bryant Key’s Subliminal Seduction. I read the book, believed every word, and went on to read his sequels, Media Sexploitation and The Clam-Plate Orgy. My mother tried to get me to read some Ralph Nader instead, to no avail.

Much later, it dawned on my that my ability to see “SEX” written into the patterns of wall-to-wall carpeting might not be a sign that the carpet manufacturers had embroidered subliminal messages into their products.

But I didn’t read Atlas Shrugged (until this year). Even as an angst-and-hormone-laden teenager, I had standards.


yabonn 12.20.05 at 1:57 pm

G. Farber, 142 :
[…] emotional responses differ.

If it was for you an emotional response, then my remark falls. I had read in your post a reaction to genre-bashing. While i’d agree on the principle, this thread didn’t look like the right place to me.

Now i know i have to try one Piers Anthony, and i’d like to keep them coming, y’know :)


MoXmas 12.20.05 at 2:35 pm

Weird. I’m not ashamed or even particularly bothered at all the product I have read and continue to read. The only authors I’m embarassed about reading are ones I read only because I wanted to be sure I was justified in NOT reading them. Which is the strangest kind of literary hairshirting.

Generally, they fall into specific categories.

Romance potboilers: Danielle Steele, Jackie Collins.

Best-selling SF/Fantasy: Stephen Donaldson.

NYC Cocktail Party Smalltalk Books: Philip Roth (except for PORTNOY), Saul Bellow, Updike, Cheever, both Wolfes. The only one of those I am actively hostile about is the relentlessly inadequate Salinger. But the rest of them have that sort of dated “isn’t that quaint” quality of wrestling with big ideas from the squeezed sphincter POV that that comes from excerpts from sophomore philosophy class as translated through the transcendence of one’s own cock. Kind of like Kingsley Amis, except replace “cock” with “glass of gin”.

But you know, that’s no better or worse than the often stilted “word from the streets” style of writers I like, like Algren, Farrell, London, or Dreiser. but I came to those on my own, not from some sense of obligation to literary culture and distrust of my own taste.

The writer whose dated race-writing most embarasses me is Vachel Lindsay, especially his poem CONGO.


Alejandro 12.20.05 at 6:32 pm

I am much less ashamed of having been an Asimov fan than I am of having been a Michael Crichton fan. I believed as gospel every single word Malcolm says in “Jurassic Park”, and deemed “Sphere” a masterpiece. By the time “The Lost World” came out I had grown out of it, luckily.

I also was fascinated, a couple of years earlier (age 12) by Charles Berlitz´s books, to the point of writing an article for my school newspaper about Atlantis and all the evidence that it had existed. That article is one of my most shameful secrets; some day I plan to track and find all surviving copies and make a bonfire with them.


Gary Farber 12.20.05 at 7:07 pm

“Jim Corbett: Space Cadet. Enough said.”

Perhaps not. Any relation to Tom Corbett, Space Cadet?

“the thread is not lit-crit, as some seem to think – it’s self-revelation.”

Quite so.

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