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Why do I do what I do?

By that I don't mean "why do I study old quilts?" (because I like them) or "why do you have a 'Republicans for Voldemort' bumper sticker on your car?" (because I like it).  No, I mean the question that has been asked more than once recently:  

Why do I write about bad books, not good books?

It's a legitimate question.  It's obvious from reading these diaries that my reading preferences are, to say the least, eclectic; I've mocked a lot of bad books, but I've lauded quite a few good ones, among them science fiction, fantasy, thrillers, literary masterpieces, poems, histories, monographs, detective stories, comic books, children's books, medieval epics, and religious tomes.  Anyone who talks to me for more than five minutes becomes painfully aware that I have this annoying tendency to lard my conversation with jokes, references, and quotes from authors as diverse as Robert Benchley, Dorothy Sayers, and Rainier Maria Rilke, and I'm just as likely to be wading through a serious historical work as a favorite mystery on any given day.

So why do I devote a couple of thousand words every Saturday night to exploring the literary equivalent of Superfund sites?  

The answer is not quite as simple as one might think.  There's a surprisingly long and rich history of affectionate mockery of the silly, the inept, and the just plain bad; one need only look at the annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where actual Nobel Prize winners honor the pioneering researchers who publish work that "makes you laugh, then makes you think," to see that there can be value even in the ridiculous.   I was lucky enough to participate in the historical equivalent of the Ig Nobels when I gave a presentation exploring the legacy of the noble, the honorable, the utterly unbelievable Jean-Louis de Pouffeat the annual Pseudo Society session at the Kalamazoo International Medieval Studies Congress last May, becoming part of a tradition stretching back almost forty years of poking fun at the pretensions and conventions of my chosen discipline.  

What saves this solemn mockery from the sort of jibes perpetrated by drunken college students sitting around trashing whatever is on television with unseemly and alcohol-fueled glee is the note of genuine affection that permeates the Ig Nobels and the Pseudo Society.  There's a Japanese concept called wabi-sabi that honors the flawed and the broken as having its own sort of beauty by marking the repairs to a shattered vase with thin lines of purest gold, writing poems about the imperfect, or painting a portrait that points out the beauty in the sitter's scars and blemishes.  I genuinely love and enjoy terrible books, and I hope some of that love comes across in every diary.

Besides, there are books so silly, so poorly written, so ridiculously plotted, that not mentioning their flaws is almost missing the point.  Recent critics have argued that William Topaz McGonagall, the greatest bad poet in the English language, may have known exactly how bad he was and deliberately played on his reputation for literary ineptitude in an early sort of performance art.   This is the sort of serious play that makes reading and writing about bad books so much fun; the mere possibility that the author is smirking right along with the reader adds an extra frisson of amusement and delight to the experience…and given how awful the world can and too often is as the year winds down and the election approaches, we need all the amusement we can get.

There's another, more serious reason to write these diaries:  to combat the bad that is not simply inept or silly, but genuinely destructive.  Robert Clary, a French Holocaust survivor best known for his work on Hogan's Heroes, once said words to the effect that making the Nazis look like nincompoops was the ultimate revenge for what they'd done to him and his family, and it's hard to argue with him.  Stephen Colbert does the same thing in his brilliant parody of Bill O'Reilly and other broadcasting bullies, and so did cartoonists like Bill Mauldin, Herblock, and Tim Menees as they poked fun at venal politicians and pompous military brass.  I'm nowhere near their weight class, but if I can expose the hypocrisy behind a career woman like Midge Decter slamming feminism, or the junk science that made Erich von Daniken a rich man, I'll have done my part.  

Finally, and most important....

There are certain things, and types of writing, and people, that are completely off limits.  First and foremost are child authors, which is why you will never, ever see a diary devoted to Ally Sheedy's appalling She Was Nice To Mice even though it's possibly the single worst book ever written about Elizabeth I, because Sheedy was all of thirteen years old when she wrote it.  Ditto the likes of Opal Whiteley, Daisy Ashford, and other precocious youngsters who managed to get into print at an age where most of us mortals are trying to figure out subordinate clauses.  Kids get a pass, permanently, because they're children, and it simply isn't fair to hold even the most talented child to the same standards as an adult.

Also beyond the pale is amateur writing.  No, I don't mean self-published; if an author has the gumption to write a book, find a publishing site like Lulu or even an old school vanity press, persuade an e-publisher to purchase the rights, and/or actually get his/her deathless prose into print, clearly the author wants people to read and respond to the book.  What I mean is student work, fan fiction, or other types of writing that's done solely for pleasure, practice, or to continue a beloved story.  This work may there for the public to read at a site like or Skyehawke or Archive of Our Own, or at the author's own website, but holding work that is truly done for the love of writing up to ridicule alongside professional work is simply cruel.

Finally, and I know this is a toughie...but as tempting as it is, certain religions are off-limits.

I know, I know.  A lot of people on this site are atheists or agnostics - and seriously people, no pie fights in the comments, that's just rude and you really don't want me to get Meteor Blades involved, do you? - or simply don't have much use for religion.  Add in that certain religions are either very strange, very silly, or completely made up cough*scientology*cough, and one would think that I'd have a splendid time dissecting them.  

Well, no.  I may personally have no use for The Book of Mormon, but not only do millions of people regard it as sacred, by now the LDS church has been around long enough to qualify as a real, genuine religion, not a weird 19th century cult.  Ditto the Bible, the Qur'an, mainstream Buddhist and Hindu texts, Aradia, and other books that anchor the religious faith of so many.  I may personally not agree with all (or any) of these books, or understand why they inspire such devotion, but that doesn't mean I'm going to bring out the Ginsu knives.  Pseudopigrapha like The Aquarian Gospel of Christ or outright hoaxes are one thing, but the actual core texts?  

Negatory, Rubber Duck.  You wanna mock these, write your own diary.  I have no intention of making William Ellery Channing rise from the grave and lecture me on good manners while Hosea Ballou and Judith Murray shake their heads in sorrow at what a bad little Unitarian Universalist I am.

That said, those who've asked why I write about bad books and not good books have a point.  Mockery may be fun, and it may even be valuable, but there's more to life (and my library) than lousy books.  I've written about other things, particularly in the old "Books That Changed My Life" series, but beginning next year I'll be varying the menu a bit by including a diary on a book or author I've particularly enjoyed.  I'll also be making Authors So Bad They're Immortal a regular diary on the third weekend of the month, beginning this month and continuing indefinitely.  There are some amazingly untalented wordsmiths out there, many of them perched firmly at the top of the bestseller lists, so I doubt I'll run out of subjects any time soon.  

Finally, to whet your appetite for the next few months, here's the upcoming slate of diaries for the remainder of the year of grace 2012.  I will do my best to keep you informed, amused, and just possibly enlightened, and if sometimes I fail in my task, well, as Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot, "No one's perfect!"

October 13 - You Mean George Washington Didn't Die of VD?

October 20 - It Was a Dark and Stormy Opening Sentence.

October 27 - Ancient Gods and Literary Crackpots.

November 3 - Incest is Best-Selling.

November 10 - 101 Uses For Dirty Tricks.

November 17 - Not Tonight, Jacqueline!

November 24 - Ellid's Picks for Holiday Shopping.

December 1 - The Templars Did It!

December 8 - Sparkly Vampires and Rainmaking Hunters.

December 15 - Revenge of the Bleached Bland.

December 22 - Christmas Kitsch and Holiday Dreck.

December 29 - Defenestrating the Daughter of Time.

NOTE:  the author takes no responsibility for any of the following side effects of the above life of diaries:

Uncontrollable laughter, infections, Black Plague, hanta virus, monkey pox, erections lasting more than four minutes, uncontrollable excretions, loss of consortium, intentional infliction of emotional distress, laughing jags lasting more than four hours, divorce, uncontrollable vomiting, neighbors calling the police, shingles, rickets, yaws, boils, drug salesmen invading your living room, uncontrollable urges to dress up like a bat and fight crime, baldness, and addiction to video games and/or Archie Comics.

You have been warned.

Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule

DAY TIME (EST/EDT) Series Name Editor(s)
SUN 6:00 PM Young Reader's Pavilion The Book Bear
Sun (hiatus) 9:30 PM SciFi/Fantasy Book Club quarkstomper
Bi-Monthly Sun Midnight Reading Ramblings don mikulecky
MON 8:00 PM Monday Murder Mystery Susan from 29
Mon 11:00 PM My Favorite Books/Authors edrie, MichiganChet
alternate Tuesdays 8:00AM LGBT Literature Texdude50, Dave in Northridge
Tue 10:00 PM Contemporary Fiction Views bookgirl
WED 7:30 AM WAYR? plf515
Wed 8:00 PM Bookflurries Bookchat cfk
THU 8:00 PM Write On! SensibleShoes
Thu (third each month, beginning 9/20) 11:00 PM Audiobooks Club SoCaliana
FRI 8:00 AM Books That Changed My Life Diana in NoVa
SAT (fourth each month) 11:00 AM Windy City Bookworm Chitown Kev
Sat 4:00 PM Daily Kos Political Book Club Freshly Squeezed Cynic
Sat 9:00 PM Books So Bad They're Good Ellid

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Oct 06, 2012 at 06:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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