Let us begin with a reading from The Book of Woe:
Yea, verily, I went down into the City and asked all that I saw there “Tell me what was the worst book you ever had to read?”
And they snorted and spat and flung their eyes this way and that and dashed themselves upon the ground and rolled about in agony . . . .
Yet they answered me.
Yea, verily, I then charged unto them, those who had spoken to me, the task of identifying these books.
I asketh for the worst books, not just those they found to be poorly-written or bereft of interesting illustrations.
Nay, I sought those books that threatened to deform the readers’ very souls; those books that seemed to snuff out the flickering and uncertain light of their most precious dreams; those books that continued to hound them for the rest of their days, rendering them incapable of securing high-paying service industry jobs or of picking out birthday cards that do not invariably cause problems.
And yet again they answered me, but in their answers was much sorrow, and much use of profanity.
And Lo! Behold! Some of the more frequently cited works were those written by:
Millie the Dog (belonged to King George H.W. Bush)
Jack Canfield’s entire clusterfuck of Chicken Soup for the ________ (insert marketing niche label here) Soul
The high school math books written by Dolciani, Beckenbach, Donnelly, Jurgensen and Wooten.
Several heated debates broke out concerning whether the Affective Fallacy—a term used by literary critics to describe the error of judging a work of art in terms of its results, particularly its emotional effects—is actually a fallacy at all. Indeed, no one who reads Kafka’s short-story "Metamorphosis," for example, can ever step on a cockroach without wincing and saying “Sorry, Gregor.”
Similar arguments arose when trying to determine whether a book’s perniciousness should be based upon the intrinsic features of the book itself, rather than based upon the measure of harm caused by a woeful (and/or willful) misinterpretations of the book, e.g., The Bible; Sun Tzu’s The Art of Warfare; anything by Friedrich Nietzsche; E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web; Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs etc., etc.
Well, here are the top “losers.” Given the diminished holiday expectations of our nation, as a whole—that is, given our sense of paralysis that is largely influenced by the incessant, politically-motivated media cues that compel us to oscillate ineffectually between either cold hard commercial concerns or hot merciless war fears—these books would really make much more effective “Fuck You”-type of stocking stuffers than the old standbys of lumps of coal or piles of razor blades coated with shampoo.
THE WORST BOOK FOR CHILDREN
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, first published in 1964.
This is Conventional Wisdom, hereafter referred to as “CW” (blurbage borrowed from HarperCollins website):
CW: ‘Once there was a tree . . . and she loved a little boy.’ So begins a story of unforgettable perception, beautifully written and illustrated by the gifted and versatile Shel Silverstein.
KNS Maré: So begins a tale that epitomizes the unforgivable adult tasks of first scourging a child’s innate empathy for all of Creation, and then filling their painful void with a false sense of inevitability towards the treacherous and excessive demands of consumerism.
CW: Every day, the boy would come to the tree and eat her apples, swing from her branches or slide down her trunk . . . and the tree was happy. But as the boy grew older, he began to want more from the tree, and the tree gave and gave and gave.
KNS Maré: Uh, let’s not downplay the depth of this little shit’s betrayal and materialism, here, okay?
First the teenage boy hits the tree up for money. There’s an illustration that shows four legs lying together, behind the tree in a relaxed pose that any adult would recognize as an unmistakable post-coital one. You know why the punk wants the money: to buy a car so he doesn’t have to do it with his girlfriend underneath the beautiful tree anymore. The punk begrudgingly settles for all of her apples to sell-this time around.
Then, the young adult appears before the tree, brimming with false innocence. He proceeds to amputates the tree’s limbs, in order to build a trophy house. He doesn’t just take SOME of the limbs. He takes ALL of her limbs, leaving her to choke and to grasp in vain for the sun and the air for years! The illustration shows the man carrying off limbs with leaves—he lopped off the limbs during the growth season—so you can infer as to how much the tree must have suffered!
Then, the ungrateful, self-absorbed middle-aged man assails the solitary tree trunk with his self-pitying tales of a life lived in error. He demands her help in effecting HIS escape from the very consumeristic madhouse he has created for himself. He CUTS THE TREE DOWN TO BUILD A BOAT!
Finally, the man returns, a grumpy, crippled, unrepentant old fuck. Of course, no one thinks to ask the man where his boat is or why did he come back at all. His face clearly bears the marks of a lifetime of treachery and guile. There are no apples for his toothless mouth; there are no shade-giving limbs for his broken body to enjoy. There is only a low stump, the last vestiges of the once magnificent tree.
Does the old man weep? No.
Does the old man prostrate himself and ask for forgiveness? No.
Does the old man beat his breast and fall in a swoon, overcome by the vanity of his strivings and by the loss of a friend who only wanted to be loved?
No. The old reprobate simply pops a squat on top of the stump, and gazes meditatively far off in the distance, probably remembering the time during WWII when he cut some souvenir ears off of a dead Jap soldier he found on Tarawa and put them in shoebox somewhere when he got home, wonder wherethey ended up?
CW: This is a tender story, touched with sadness, aglow with consolation. Shel Silverstein has created a moving parable for readers of all ages that offers an affecting interpretation of the gift of giving and serene acceptance of another’s capacity to love in return.
KNS Maré: “Aglow with consolation?”
For whom? The craggy old fart, maybe, but not for the tree.
“An affecting interpretation of the gift of giving?”
By whom? James Watt? Gail Norton? Charles Taylor? That’s like George W. Bush’s “affecting interpretation” of the story of wildfires:
“Well, children, the trees were in danger of being caught up by fires set by pyromaniacs, and so, to honor their market value and open up new areas for speculative real estate, we cut them all down. Now go play on the plastic tubes and plastic nets and plastic cubes inside the totally enclosed McDonald’s Playplace and thank Monsanto when you're done.”
Hey, parents. Want some moving parables about the consequences to the desacralization of Nature and of the unbridled consumption of resources? Try Dr. Suess’ The Lorax. Try the fable of Erisicthon, in Thomas Bullfinch’s Mythology. Try Tolkien’s saga of The Ents in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Hell, even the vigilant apple trees in the movie The Wizard of Ozgive a more “affecting interpretation” of the consequences to our greed than does The Giving Tree.
THE WORST BOOK FOR ADULTS
The Way Things Ought to Be, by Rush Limbaugh III, published in 1992.
When this . . . this . . . this . . . (I’m fighting the urge to say “verbal defecation”) right-wing jeremiad landed on the public scene back in 1992, many reasonable and decent folks tried to ignore it completely, as if it were a fart loosed among the church choir.
I remember gingerly handling the book in the middle of an airport newsstand, holding my breath as I opened it to somewhere about 1/3 of the way into the text, and read Limbaugh’s assertion that the Savings & Loan Crisis of the 1980’s was caused by capital gains taxes.
I rapidly scanned through the pages, hoping this Angry White Male Media Muppet created by Roger Ailes and Co., might have even more outlandish explanations.
And, well, he did.
No, he never proved who cleft the Devil’s foot. He never explained how barnacle geese grew from barnacles, or how certain imps dwelling in butter churns caused women to have impure thoughts and stray from their husbands. But just about every other seemingly inexplicable sublunary phenomena—including the preeminent Republican obsession for proving that a camel might very easily leap through the eye of a needle—could be explained according to his stunningly clear and concise dualistic philosophy: Everything bad=Liberals. Everything Good=Conservatives. A Unified Field Theory for total political and social polarization.
I wrote a review of The Way Things Ought to Be for Mountain Xpress, indeed, picked it as the Worst Book of 1992. Here is what I had to say then:
Mr. Limbaugh did not intend his book to compete with the works of Steven King or with other notables of the horror genre, but I’d put if right up there with The Shining or Christine. In fact, this book is a lot like those two. Limbaugh thrills his audience with the blood-written messages that appear in his mirror: Intolerance. Hatred. Hypocrisy. Egomania. Then he runs down the reader’s sensibilities with his remorseless, V-8 powered, gear-grinding illogic and doublespeak.
If you fear for the soul of this nation, this book might be too scary for you. On the other hand, if you have always kicked yourself because you never had the chance to own a book as infamous as Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf (“My Struggle,” or more loosely translated, “The Way Things Ought to Be”), then buy it. But you will be disappointed. True, both Mein Kampf and The Way Things Ought to Be reflect the intense self-absorption and chronic self-justification peculiar to dictatorial people. But Hitler’s work conveyed real anger, whereas Limbaugh’s righteous sneering is only a mask behind which he can snicker and guffaw at the “working stiffs” while selling them their pain and confusion back to them at double the price.
Ten years later, here’s what I have to say about this book now:
I totally misread Rush’s book.
See, back in 1992, I kept thinking: here, alas, was our American Goebbels, all stuffed with righteous indigestion from Slim Jim’s, Ritz Crackers, CheeseWiz and Snapple, spewing his right-wing handlers’ agenda from AM radio stations that sounded like they were broadcasting from your bathroom shower while you were in there with them.
True, Rush didn’t have the Nazi Minister of Propaganda’s dwarfism and club foot, purportedly the primary sources of Goebbel’s bitterness, but Rush did have a butt pimple that kept him out of Vietnam, so perhaps his pettiness and rancor were not without a basis in a sense of real loss and disappointment.
Limbaugh seemed to me to be a modern, even more media savvy Midwestern reincarnation of Father Charles Coughlin, that megalomaniac Depression-era “Radio Priest” who so capably manipulated our country’s worst instincts for racial prejudice, conspiracy theories, and scapegoating.
But I am older now, wiser, poorer; I’m less inclined to believe my own eyes and ears, and I’m certainly more tolerant of eye-popping levels of bullshit, particularly when bullshit seems like the safest way out.
And, so, I’ve come to the following realization about Limbaugh’s book: Limbaugh was simply writing a fantasy to entertain those like-minded souls who were also afflicted with Attachment Disorder.
For those of you who are unaware (as I, too, had been unaware) of the symptoms of Attachment Disorder—and for those who have overlooked the most salient features of this book—I have listed below some of the shared symptoms of both:
Persistent nonsense questions and incessant chatter
Chronic, often obvious, lying
Lack of impulse control and cause-and-effect thinking
Superficially charming and engaging
Expert at pitting adults against each other
Lack of conscience.
Extreme control issues, often manifested in “sneaky” ways
Cruel to animals
Hoarding or gorging food; abnormal eating patterns
Preoccupation with fire, blood, and gore.
To Rush—hey, man, no hard feelings. I just didn’t know.
© Copyright 2002 by KNS Maré