In Defense of Bad Books

By Karl Schudt 

Here at Online Great Books, we read books that are, well, great. The books have stood the test of time, are hefty enough to bear repeated readings, and make some contribution to the ongoing conversation that we humans have been having with ourselves ever since we learned how to commit our thoughts to the physical world in writing. But does all of our reading have to be weighty? Is there room for lightweight reading, for books that aren't great, for books that aren't important? Maybe even for books that are bad?

Here at Online Great Books, we read books that are, well, great. The books have stood the test of time, are hefty enough to bear repeated readings, and make some contribution to the ongoing conversation that we humans have been having with ourselves ever since we learned how to commit our thoughts to the physical world in writing. But does all of our reading have to be weighty? Is there room for lightweight reading, for books that aren’t great, for books that aren’t important? Maybe even for books that are bad?

At least it’s not television!

I like reading bad books because it’s not visual. It grants more scope to me in my own entertainment. Granted that you’re going to want some entertainment in your life, do you really want it to be primarily screen-based? Current practitioners of the visual arts are very good at grabbing your attention and keeping you watching. They know what they are doing, and the best of the shows are excellent. But while you watch, you aren’t being active. You are passively receiving a series of images, like the prisoners in Socrates’ cave. Maybe the shadows you see are good, but it’s all you see. The continuous nature of it, one image after another, means you are unlikely to stop. In fact, they mean you not to stop. Books, even bad books, are not so demanding.

It’s like an unhealthy romance with a beautiful woman. She’s so beautiful, and so present to you, that you never actually take a moment to stop and think, or even to talk. You’re filled with her beauty, and you don’t care what her greater intentions are. She might be as mad as Daenerys Targaryen, and you won’t care.

Indulge another analogy: the current screen-culture is like chain-smoking fine cigars. The tobacco is really quite good, but after a while, you can’t smell anything else. A whole garden will smell just like the tobacco.

Books leave room for thinking

Books don’t do that. You may get very involved with a novel, but it’s much easier to pause. In fact, if you look away from screen-entertainment, the action continues, and you’ll miss something. If you look up from your book, it doesn’t keep being read. It will wait for you to finish your thought.

They also leave room for the imagination. If you watch Game of Thrones, you know exactly what every character looks like, you know what the dragons look like, and you see what the great city of King’s Landing looks like. You even get to see the Wall. But I tell you that they are all grander and more impressive in your imagination. The thought dragon is much scarier than the CGI dragon.

You also get to ‘hear’ what the characters are thinking, depending on the choice of the author. Writing from each character’s point of view is an exercise in creative empathy by the author, and reading it requires reconstructive empathy from you. What Rashomon does through cinematic tricks, every novel can do with words.

I’m not arguing that there’s no time for screens, for TV and movies, just that the time might be spent better. I don’t even mean morally better. I think it’s better from an entertainment standpoint. No matter how good A Series of Unfortunate Events was as a TV show, the books are better.

So what do you read, Karl?

I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy. I always have. My dad read lots of Isaac Asimov, Clifford Simak, Alan Dean Foster, and the like. I remember reading Tolkien while I was sick with a fever in grade school. My brothers and I would trade our books. Lots of Piers Anthony, Larry Niven (whom my brother actually chatted with on an early internet precursor), Jack Chalker, Stephen R. Donaldson, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Lieber, Anne McCaffrey, Patricia McKillip; you name it, we read it. We had subscriptions to the magazines, too.

Here’s some stuff I’ve recently read. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny, whom I actually met once. What if, on a far-future planet, the powers-that-be use technology to style themselves as members of the Hindu pantheon? Why, Buddha would have to show up again. His name is Sam. It’s a fascinating story that I read on the recommendation of my friend Jonathon Sullivan. Zelazny’s other work is great fun, too, especially the Amber series.

Craig Alanson’s Expeditionary Force series is a sprawling space opera. What if aliens came to earth and attacked, and then other aliens attacked them, and then we allied with the second group, but it turns out that the universe is much more complicated? Throw in a sarcastic alien AI, and there is much fun to be had. I have been devouring these as soon as he writes them.

Larry Correia’s Monster Hunters series is also good fun. Monsters are real, and there are people whose business it is to fight them. Lots of drama, long-term plots to destroy humanity, and plucky heroes. It’s occasionally touching. Correia is an excellent writer and knows how to keep interest and emotional involvement. Don’t be put off by the silliness of the concept.

This is what I do when I’m not reading for Online Great Books. Again, I don’t have any particular objection to television and movies, but if your recreation is only television and movies, you may wish to reconsider. Try out some books! 

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