“This book has scarred me for life” or On the Negative Impact of Books

When I was younger I believed that books could change your life. To the good or the bad. My belief in the power of the word was almost infinite.

I suppose this belief in the power of books lies behind censorship, banned and burned books and the like. I also suppose that each of the parties banning, burning or forbidding books have different reasons. I personally think very little of banning books. I still belive in their power though.

While reading Nick Hornby’s House Keeping vs The Dirt I was reminded of this when he mentioned he bought Georges Bernanos’ book Journal d’un curé de campagne or The Diary of a Country Priest due to a negative amazon review. He posted the review but the way he wrote about it made me think, he made it up. Being the curious person I am, I checked and to my amazement there it was. On amazon.co.uk

1.0 out of 5 stars Dont read this book, 17 July 2003
By A Customer

This book has had an enormous impact on my life. Having had to read it as part of my French A level course (in French!)it left me psychologically scarred. Grinding through each passage was like torture, making me weep with frustration and leaving me with a long-burning and deep-felt resentment against my French teacher and the A level exam board. This resulted in a low grade for my French lit paper, which offset a decent language paper, resulting in a ‘C’ which wasn’t good enough for my chosen university. So I had to switch from French to business studies, so changing the course of my life. To say I detest this book is an understatement. So he’s dying, but the main protagonist is a drearily introspective little creep. The pace is crawling and the whole vibe simply turgid.

Is he really serious? I don’t know but it made me think of books that had a negative impact in my life and I found three. One was a one of my parents’ books. A short story collection with illustrations by Japanese painter Hokusai. I think it was relatively valuable and I was forbidden to touch it. Like Bluebeard’s wives,  I disregarded the interdiction and opened the book. Finding the book with wide open pages  – I had run off to hide – told my parents later that I had been at it. I don’t think I was punished. It wasn’t necessary as the drawings had terrified me enough. The ghostly figures haunted me in my dreams. Mind you, the drawings, not the text. I was too small for reading.

But what about the written word? What about stories? Have there been books that had a huge impact? Yes, I would say so. I have read two books as a young teenager that had a profound impact. I think they managed to take away my innocence forever. Maybe it was about time. The world isn’t a perfect place and there are a lot of bad things happening, the sooner you face it, the better. While I know why the first one had such a negative impact, I’m not so sure about the second anymore.

Choderlos de Laclos’ famous epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons (1782)  was the book bomb that blew up in my young girl’s life. Before reading it I had thought that people fell in and out of love, unfortuntely often not at the same time which could cause great heartache but that was about the most negative I was aware of. That someone could pretend to be in love, to manipulate and deceive in order to achieve something was a concept that was utterly new to me. New and deeply shocking. I remember I was really depressed and became quite mistrustful. There is also a make-believe friendship in the book which meant you couldn’t even trust friends. Once your eyes are open you start to see and my teenage self became aware of similar things happening around me. In the end I was glad I had read Les liaisons dangereuses. Better to learn from a book than through pain and heartache. I must add as well that I loved this book. I was shocked and depressed but also fascinated and amazed by the story.

The second book was not a novel but a philosophical text by Julien Offroy de La Mettrie. The idea that we are just machines acting and reacting, not much different from a robot, as he described it in Machine Man – L’homme machine (1747) – depressed me incredibly. After having read it, life felt quite pointless for a while and I had to come to the conclusion that he was maybe just plain wrong, before I could enjoy it again.

I wonder if it’s a pure coincidence that all the examples which had a negative impact on my life are from the 18th century? And three of the four examples are French books.

Luckily some books have had a very positive impact but that will be the topic of another post.

Have you ever read a book which had a major impact? And what do you think about banning books?

Dangerous Liaisons (Penguin Classics)

On Negative “Reviews”, Bookmark Ripping and Nick Hornby

In German a slating review is called a “Verriss” which comes from the word “verreissen” – pull to pieces. When I discovered yesterday what the kitty had done to one of the free bookmarks I got in the bookshop, I thought it was somehow apt to use a picture of it for this post.

I’m not the first nor the last who will mention the debate that was raging on Goodreads, Twitter, a few blogs and even in the newspapers last week. Some of the discussions, although heated, were interesting, while others were alienating or downright offensive. In any case they got me thinking about “reviews” in general and “negative reviews” in particular.

The first incident started on Goodreads where a reader posted a negative review of a YA novel (see here). For reasons I do not understand this triggered a massive response from YA novelists who slagged her off collectively. More and more people entered the debate and in the end it looked like some sort of author versus reader war. I have read her review and while it was easy to see that she didn’t like the book, I didn’t think she was offensive. A lot of these debates were going on on blogs and twitter and were picked up by mainstream media like the guardian here. The guardian article then triggered further responses, one from the YA novelist Maggie Stiefvater (here) which annoyed many bloggers but which I personally find very interesting and balanced.

The next incident happened on the page of the speculative fiction magazine Strange Horizons where a reviewer posted a very negative review (you can find it here) of a Fantasy novel that many like. This has created a response and an intensity of response I found amazing in itself. I was so captivated I could hardly stop reading. At some point a lot was censored.

Sure, the question comes up whether such heated debates only happen when it comes to genre but I do not think so. When you write literary books you even may end up being torn apart by professional critics which may prove to be more fatal. In the cases mentioned above, there were at least people supporting the author.

Much of the debate was circling around the notion of “proper review” and taking into account what a “proper review” is or should be. It was said that a review can be negative or positive but it shouldn’t manipulate the reader or be guided by intense emotions. With this interpretation of review in mind, it was stated that one shouldn’t write an emotionally charged negative review. If you do so, it’s rather an attack than a review.

I for one do not enjoy writing too negative or snarky book reviews. I have seen too many positive reviews of books I didn’t like on other blogs to find it appropriate to be snarky. Why would I want to ridicule a book? That’s like ridiculing someone’s taste in books. Very often I find that negative reviews are not balanced and are used to make the reviewer look good. They often work along the same lines and are aggressive and offensive. They also often rely on saying negative things about the author and ultimately about his readers.

Still this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say what we like or don’t like but there is always so much that works in a book anyway or that we know will work for others that we should try to emphasize it. I have found wonderful books through someone else’s careful and thoughtful negative review.

Last week, instead of reading The Savage Detectives, I spent a lot of time with Nick Hornby’s wonderful essay collection Housekeeping vs The Dirt which he wrote for the magazine Believer. One of their mottos, as he writes is Thou Shalt Not Slag Anyone Of. As he explains further

As I understand it, the founders of the magazine wanted one place, one tiny corner of the world, in which writers could be sure that they weren’t going to get a kicking; predictably and depressingly, this ambition was mocked mercilessly, mostly by those critics whose children would go hungry if their parent’s weren’t able to abuse authors whose books they didn’t like much.

When I visit a new blog I read a few posts here and there and I’m very glad if I see the writer has written about books he/she likes and about some he/she doesn’t like and I will pay extra attention when reading negative reviews. Not too long ago I was on a blog who reviewed a book that another blogger had recommended as being particularly great. Said blogger not only hated the book but found it to be insulting his/her intelligence. The blogger went on and on how weird it was that another person did recommend this. He/she took it apart in minute detail, making herself/himself look good and witty in the process and of course that person got a lot of applause. People loved the snark, couldn’t get enough of it. I wonder if anyone else felt as bad as I did. What about the person who did recommend the book (mercifully the name wasn’t given)? Funnily it is a book that I have read and think in its genre it is a very good book. If said blogger only reads romance or even only literary fiction he/she wouldn’t get it and shouldn’t even bother reading it. Reading it and then emphasizing that this isn’t what we would normally read because it is beyond us, is a bit shameful. Maybe the person did sound intelligent, she certainly didn’t sound kind.

There is an instance in which I find a negative review acceptable and that is when the book is morally unacceptable. When it glorifies oppression, racism, sexism, or is a vehicle of harmful propaganda. In that case the negative review could serve as a warning for the reader and is even necessary.

Another instance in which I find it acceptable is when a literary writer who is extremely smug in his utterances about others and dismissive of other’s craft writes something that is bad. In that case you can say, he or she had it coming.

How about you? Do you like to read snarky reviews? Do you write them?

To end on a positive note, here is a picture of  the bookmark ripper and, no, that’s not my bed, excuse me, that’s one of his own. Fluffy and comfy, original Icelandic eider-down.

On the History of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac



About a year ago I inherited my mother and my grandmother’s books. They fill up more than one cellar. We are talking about thousands of hardbacks as both never bought paperbacks. They didn’t think they were looking good on the wood shelves. And they removed all the dust jackets which is not helpful as there are so many that may or may not be good but I have no clue what they are about.

To cut a long story short there are also innumerable classics and collected works of many an author. You can find the whole works of Goethe, Schiller, Romain Rolland, Upton Sinclair, John Galsworthy…

I remembered that I had seen a 50s edition of Stefan Zweig’s Balzac somewhere and – oh wondrous moment – found it within a minute. Dusty and with a somewhat musty smell but nicely intact. What surprised me more than the speedy recovery of the book was the afterword and I realized I had had no idea how the book came to be, let alone that Stefan Zweig meant this to be his magnum opus, his most important work. Considering that literary biographies were something he excelled at we can easily deduce how important his Balzac must have been for him.

The afterword in my Balzac edition has been written by Richard Friedenthal, Stefan Zweig’s friend who got to be the literary executor of the manuscripts that had remained in Europe after Zweig fled to Petrópolis where, in 1942,  he ended his life together with his wife.

It took Stefan Zweig over ten years of working, compiling, taking notes and rewriting but when he died, Balzac was still not finalized, or so he said. He managed to finish Die Schachnovelle or Chess in Petrópolis and his autobiography. However he had wished to finish the Balzac as well and had asked Friedenthal to send the manuscript to Petrópolis, which he did, but the papers never reached Zweig. By the time it arrived in Brazil, Zweig had already ended his life. The mansucript was sent back to Friedenthal who then sorted and edited what was, according to him, almost finished anyway.

Zweig had written the last draft of the Balzac in Bath, where he had stayed before emigrating to the US and from there to Brazil.

Zweig’s book Drei Meister or Masterbuilders of the Spirit already contains an essay on Balzac, together with essays on Dickens and Dostojewski. But that was just like warming up. Clearly the topic of Balzac was far too important to him to be left in the form of an essay only.

As Friedenthal points out, Balzac was of supreme importance for Austrian literature. It was the reception of authors like Hugo von Hofmannsthal who contributed to a large extent to Balzac’s fame during his lifetime.

Hofmannsthal said about him that he was “the biggest substantial imagination since Shakespeare”. The Austrian authors thought of him as the incarnation of literary potential. Zweig thought pretty much the same and despaired many times during the composition of the book, it seemed almost too enormous an undertaking.

When Friedenthal, who lived in London during the Second World War, looked at the manuscript, after Zweig’s death, he saw that it didn’t need a lot of changes and undertook to edit what he got. Reading what he writes about it makes you think that it is a miracle this book was ever published. Friedenthal describes how it was literally ripped out of his hands twice when, during the Blitz,  the house he lived in was bombed. Apparently one can still see bits of plaster and little splinters of glass in the original manuscript. On the papers are numerous notes and remarks of Stefan Zweig’s wife who helped him correct and edit his works. Zweig had already written “For the editor” on the front page which led to Friedenthal’s assumption that Zweig himself considered it to be fairly finished.

I am not sure when I will start to read Zweig’s Balzac, but I  know I will. These two authors seem such opposites. I know I’m simplifying things but it seems as if one of the two was so avid for life that it killed him and the other one so tired of it that he ended it.