The Five Worst Books I’ve Ever Read—And Why You Should Read Them Too

candide isi ir1. Candide, by Voltaire

This preachy Enlightenment novella examines the deepest question—why God permits the innocent to suffer—with all the mature wisdom of a high school sophomore. Voltaire sets up as a straw man “Dr. Pangloss,” who offers glib and unconvincing answers, and engineers the plot to refute Pangloss point by point. Call this book the archetype of the smug New Atheist tract whose real goal is to convince readers of the superior cleverness of the author.


2. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce

A_Portrait_of_the_Artist_as_a_Young_ManA brilliant execution of a jejune, self-indulgent project: rejecting God, family, and country in order to invent a new form of art and reforge the human imagination . . in James Joyce’s image. The author said that he expected his readers to spend their entire lives learning how to read his novels. In fact, his later “masterpieces” are now read only when they are assigned—if then. Compare them to the magnificent myths painstakingly crafted by the humble traditionalist J. R. R. Tolkien.


3. The Outline of History, by H. G. Wells

isi ir wells outline of historyThe forward march of human history, from the caveman up through President Woodrow Wilson, through the rose-and-jaundice-colored bifocals of the “Whig” view of history—which assumes a natural, almost inexorable progress from the primitive to the enlightened. Hence every religion but humanism and every culture but Western are doomed to the trash bin of history. Also read the refutation it provoked by G. K. Chesterton—The Everlasting Man, a profound Christian meditation on human nature and Western civilization.


4. The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand

The perfect book for teenagers who imagine that they are the first people to think every “big TheFountainheadidea” and that the world will wink out when they die. The protagonist, Howard Roark, is an architect who nobly refuses to be influenced by other artists, the needs of future residents, or even the wishes of his funders. When a building project is diverted from his artistic intentions, Roark dynamites it and triumphantly defends his actions in court. Yet this model man is emotionally stunted, self-righteous, pompous, and finally insufferable—like his creator.


5. The Long Loneliness, by Dorothy Day

0060617519This autobiography by the foundress of the Catholic Worker movement has a dark, unexamined subtext: long before she’d ever encountered any actual poor people, Day already hated the middle class. She followed that loathing into the Communist Party, whose influence and members she never fully renounced. St. Francis, to whom Day is often compared, grew up detesting lepers—so after his conversion he went to serve them. By contrast, Day indulged her antibourgeois feelings all through her life. The grimmest scene comes when Day nods with approval as her handpicked spiritual director tries to deprive a bedridden nun of her only consolation—a transistor radio—because it is an unseemly luxury.




John Zmirak is Senior Editor of the Intercollegiate Review, and author most recently of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism. Read more of him at The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall.


  • Jean Baptiste

    Can’t call you one-sided.

  • Phil Runkel

    >The grimmest scene comes when Day nods with approval >as her handpicked spiritual director tries to deprive a >bedridden nun of her only consolation
    In the autobiography Day reports that the priest urges the nun to “mortify” herself in this way, without indicting whether she approved or disapproved.

  • John Zmirak

    Phil, I think it was clear from the context–she was touting him as a spiritual master, and complaining about those who opposed him–that she approved.

  • jakeslaw

    Not having read the Day autobiography, i cannot comment. However you score 100% on the rest. I often wondered if yours was the reason my great English teacher, Fr. Renna, S.J.( old school Jesuit who recently passed, God rest his soul) had us read some of these tomes. I remember after we all read the negative utopias, his subtle but obvious references to Ignatian reflection of the two standards. I could never stomach Rand – although I did enjoy the Gary Cooper – Patricia Neal – Raymond Massey movie.

  • Albert

    First article I’ve ever read that says James Joyce should have tried to emulate Tolkein… What nonsense.

    • Dang

      Actually, it doesn’t say that. It just alludes that Tolkein was the better writer.

    • TheAmishDude

      Joyce was such a pretentious twit. I’d add Nathaniel Hawthorne to that group. The preface to The Scarlet Letter was one of the most arrogant things I’ve ever read. And I read stuff on the Internet.

      Also, add “Catcher in the Rye”. Just stop with that, American schools. Just stop.

    • mtwzzyzx

      You’ve gotta love that the publisher was
      “The Egoist, LTD.

      Fitting. Joyce wrote something meaningless and convinced a bunch of people that finding meaning in it was the ultimate in academic rigor, as some sort of critique of traditional forms of storytelling. The ultimate snipe hunt. If you’re still on it- sorry to ruin the game for you.

  • wolfram_and_hart

    I don’t know what this says about me, but I rather enjoyed Joyce’s “Portrait” (assigned reading as a college sophomore) and loved “The Fountainhead” when I stumbled upon it at 19. For me, the great part was not Roark’s story but Rand’s depiction about how critics and “the right people” can manipulate and corrupt art and society.

    I read part of Wells’ “Outline” before boredom set in, and truly celebrate the musical version of “Candide” for its wonderful score by Leonard Bernstein and laugh-out-loud humor. I didn’t read the book, though.

    Thanks for your insights.

  • mtwzzyzx

    Without confronting the hatred in her life (apparently)? That’s a rather difficult thing to do, isn’t it?