I am taking a big risk here, knowing there are authors and avid book readers looking at this post.
Columbia University Press polled hundreds of editors, writers, booksellers, librarians, literary critics, and general readers in order to produce a list of the ten most boring books of all time among the great classics. The winners were:
- Pilgrim’s Progress, Bunyan
- Faust, Goethe
- Don Quixote, Cervantes
- Ivanhoe, Scott
- Silas Marner, Eliot
- Pamela, Richardson
- Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell
- Faerie Queene, Spenser
- Paradise Lost, Milton
- Moby Dick, Melville
Now, before you throw our morally bankrupt society under the bus and yearn for the simpler days of yesteryear when all the children behaved, the women were strong and the men were hard working…you should probably know that this poll was conducted in 1950! If you are between the ages of 90 and 120 you should be ashamed of yourself.
Twenty years ago in 1993, Chicken Soup for the Soul was first published and launched a successful and still-active line of products under the brand. The line just sounds good…and good for you.
On the other hand, some books are like castor oil or cod-liver oil for the soul. My wife’s grandmother ate a tablespoon of Vicks Vaporub for a chest cold, which would cause most modern mothers to call the poison hotline if their child did that. This is why they put “for external use only” on the jar. (Sorry, I lose focus once in a while, so now back to our regularly scheduled blog).
Every publisher and agent have seen manuscripts that are strong medicine, but written in a manner that truly makes them feel like castor oil for the soul. As if the author is saying, “You will read this and you will like it because it is good for you”. Be careful of falling into that trap with your writing.
Sometimes when chicken soup is not enough, we need a dose of strong medicine, but it can be handled in a manner that makes it a little easier to take. I am not talking about Mary Poppins and her spoonful of sugar. I am talking about writing about tough issues and difficult problems with a sense of humility and grace… knowing that we are all sinners saved by Grace trying to help other sinners grow closer to God, sometimes by clearing away the junk that messes up our lives and gets in the way of growth. Not an easy or painless task.
Certainly the Bible is not candy-coated…it is gritty and real. It is sharper than a two-edged sword. But there are stories…wonderful soaring stories of great heroes and villains. There are parables and prophecies of amazing things yet to happen.
Always keep in mind that you earn the attention of readers. There are a lot of different things vying for their attention and you need to be that light in the darkness they desperately need. Don’t be boring.
Heather Day Gilbert
I agree. Some of the best classics get the message across without shoving it down your throat–Silas Marner, for example. And the Bible is the ultimate guide for storytelling, I believe–it handles tough, real issues head-on, by showing us how people LIVED. I think if your characters are believable, it’ll make your message that much more relevant in readers’ lives.
Joy Avery Melville
Tough times/tough issues call for tough writing. It’s not easy in today’s “thriller” world to write that tough stuff without trying to be God. We need to LET the Holy Spirit do His work in the life of our readers through the stories we’ve been called to write.
Heather, I ditto your comment about the Bible being the ultimate guide to storytelling! Plot, character arcs, romance, war, conflict, love, grace, healing…you name it, it’s in there. What a beautiful, raw and “gritty” blue print for life indeed! I can’t stand how much I love that God uses stories in his Word to teach us about Him, and to show us how and how not to live. What a blessing!
What a fantastically wonderful gift we writer’s have been given by an great great God. May we let the Spirit take our writing wheel so He can drive our God given story down the path He has envisioned. Be still…
And then run the race without looking back!
Eating vapor rub=straight up tough. I wonder if it was organic? Hmm… 😉
Diane T. Ashley
Great insight and advice for those of us who are trying to write compelling stories. And wow–really? Vicks Vapor Rub? Did it work or did she end up in the ER?
Grandma passed away in 1983 at a nice old age…so maybe it’s like the 130 year old person who credits eating a pound of bacon a day and chewing tobacco to their long healthy life!
What a thought provoking post, Dan. It is interesting to consider the culture we live in today and how the belief systems almost make it more difficult to share truth in a compelling yet inviting way. It seems like writers need to be more creative than ever to share stories that convey timeless truths in an engaging way.
I like the analogy, although I have to admit a few books on the list bored me out of my skull (I’m an unwashed literary pagan). The book I found most difficult to read but healthiest for my soul was Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. It was so good but so full. Writing that takes that level of content and delivers it with stories I can grasp easily is real chicken soup for my soul.
Most of the books on this list bored me out of my skull. That’s why most of them have been paraphrased or re-written over time so the messages are not blurred by antiquated language.
Johnnie Alexander Donley
I’m making my way through Don Quixote now. Sure, it’s long and some parts are boring. But there’s some funny stuff in there, too. Interesting list — the only other book I’ve read is Pilgrim’s Progress. Thanks for the post.
Esther McDowell Thompson
My Grandfather kept a jar of baking soda water in the ice box and drank a glass every day. If a bee stung me, he put a compress of soda on the sting, then I swallowed a spoonful of dampened baking soda. Excellent advice–sugar coated books are boring. I relate to real life situations and write accordingly.
Very entertaining post with excellent points. Books with great moral messages or even great characters can lose their impact when they’re boring and/or patronizing. I love classics, but too often I’ve had to raise the white flag on a book considered “timeless” because it took too much time to get hooked.
I’ll never look at Vick’s Vaporub the same again.
Message received, don’t writing boring stories. If I do my part to write a good story with a spiritual message, I’ll let God do his part in changing lives.
What a great post. Thanks!
Dogmatic castor oil is definitely hard to swallow. On the flip side, I did read “Ivanhoe” and can attest that it is one of the top ten most boring books. 😉 But I still feel relatively proud that I muddled through it.
Sorry to see that “Great Expectations” didn’t make the list.
One of the most beautifully written books with the Gospel woven in was Heidi..timeless, nourishing and satisfying. My husband read it out loud to our kids and I remember hearing his voice catch with emotion when he came to the Biblical truths so tenderly penned.
I agree that we need to write about the hard stuff. Not just because it sells, but because that is where people find truth. God’s truth.
I’m a senior in high school nodding my head at that list. (Please don’t tell me I’m just part of the modern culture or something like that. I’d probably have a heart attack just thinking of myself anywhere near a Shady Lala – oh, excuse me – Lady Gaga concert.) I have learned through required book report reading that “classic” is definitely not synonymous with my definition of “good book.” Can’t we all agree to the possibility that what was considered great writing a century or two ago is just plain boring or sub-par based on today’s standards?
Now, if The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, or Pride and Prejudice were on that list, I would be having a fit. So I’m not saying all classics are boring. Just that saying you didn’t enjoy or – gasp! – didn’t even finish a classic does not disqualify you from the book lover, writer, avid reader, or literature aficionado position. It just means… well… that you didn’t like a book.
And who does love every book they ever read?