Saturday, January 23, 2016

10 Worst Books: Non-Fiction

In the previous post, I tackled the 10 worst fiction books I'd read in my ten years of book reviewing, followed by a long-long list of dishonorable mentions.  As it turns out, I actually disliked a lot of the fiction I'd read.
But fiction is a difficult form to pull off.  The reader expects to be magically transported into a completely new world inside the book, and this is very hard to do.  Or to put it another way, it's very easy to know when I'm not being entertained.
Non-fiction I'm much more forgiving of.  Even if the book is boring, even if it's not particularly well-written, if I learn a few things at the end of it, I count the book as time well-spent. And perhaps for that reason, I'm struggling to even get 10 books for this list.
The first 5 books on this list are truly awful, and deserve their place here.
But by the time we get into 6,7,8,9 and especially 10, then we're getting into books that I mostly enjoyed, but just had a few quibbles with.  (Because this book review project is mostly pleasure reading, I don't tend to finish that many books that I hate.)
As with before, I'm counting up, starting with the absolute worst books first, and then moving out into the "not quite as bad" territory.

1. The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel (original review here)

Part of the problem with religion is the amount of hucksters and snake-oil salesman that the field attracts.  It makes it incredibly hard to have an honest discussion of the issue.
The book is blatantly dishonest.  Given Lee Strobel's legal background, he must know what he's writing is blatantly dishonest.  And yet, like every true con-artist, he knows that there's another sucker born every minute, and that's all he cares about.
I could get really angry when I think about this, but what's the point?  The history of the world is filled with such con-men.  They're just a fact of life.

2. Globish: How English Became the World’s Language by Robert McCrum (original review here)

First of all, the title is absolutely misleading.  It is decidedly not about the phenomenon of Global English.  It should just be called: "random thoughts on the English language by some guy who couldn't be bothered to organize his thoughts into a coherent argument."
But then the many, many factual errors!  An embarrassment for any major publishing house to publish a book with as many factual errors as this!  The proofreader should be fired!

3. Introducing Chomsky by John Maher and Judy Groves (original review here)
Was this book proofread at all before it was published?  Perhaps not.  But if it was, I strongly suspect the following conversation took place:
"So, this book is supposed to introduce Chomsky's theories to the average person who doesn't have a background in linguistics, right?"
"Yep, that's why people will buy it."
"But it's completely incomprehensible.  Nothing is explained, the book just throws around linguistic concepts which are never clearly explained or defined for 120 pages.  Nobody in our target audience is going to understand a word of this."
"Don't worry.  When they see the book in the bookstore, they'll just see all the pictures and illustrations.  By the time they figure that out that the whole thing is gibberish, they'll already have bought the book, and we'll be laughing all the way to the bank."
...Well, they got my money out of me.  So well-done guys, I guess.

4.  A History of Malaysia by Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y. Andaya [Second Edition]  (original review here)

Ugh.  Just boring, boring, boring.
To quote from my 2012 review of this book:
 I wish I could say it was fun to read but unfortunately the thing reads like, well…. a textbook. It’s filled with dry prose that seems almost designed to put you to sleep. The authors seem more concerned about avoiding controversy than advancing any interesting arguments. It contains very few interesting stories, but is packed with statistics, figures, and analysis. The reader is overwhelmed with strange names, most of which appear briefly on the page, and then never re-appear again. Or worse yet, sometimes a name does reappear again several pages later, leaving the reader to try to remember which of the many characters this was. (The authors usually assume the readers have just memorized all these strange names they have been throwing at them, and offer the reader no help in remembering when one of the many names randomly reappears several pages later.)

5. A Hundred Years of Japanese Film by Donald Richie (original review here)

So, all due respect to Donald Richie (one of the foremost experts on Japanese film) but just listing directors and films does not make an interesting book.  Maybe it would be tolerable as a reference book, but I would not recommend anyone try to actually read this thing like I did.

6. A People's History of the World by Chris Harman (original review here)

At this point in the list, we're beginning to move away from books that I absolutely hated and into the books I have mixed feelings about.  I can't bring myself to completely hate this book.  There were one or two things it did well (I mention the positives at the end of my review).  And, I'm thankful to this book for introducing me to the Leveller movement.  (I probably would never have read this book or this book if Chris Harman hadn't introduce me to the Levellers first.)
But all of that doesn't excuse the many problems of this book:
Incredibly boring.
Written by a doctrinaire Trotskyist who was very dismissive of any other brand of leftism that didn't fit into his narrow ideological outlook.
And worst of all it's a history of the world written by someone who clearly wasn't interested in anything that happened before the modern period, and had a very limited understanding of anything that happened outside of Europe.

7. The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns (original review here)

Another book that I didn't completely hate.  It has the beginnings of an honest conversation.
In order to have an honest conversation about Christianity, we need to start out by acknowledging all the problematic areas of the Bible, and then work from there.  (In contrast to the blatantly dishonest Lee Strobel, who spends all his time trying to convince his readers that there are no problematic areas of the Bible.)
So I give Peter Enns credit for at least understanding the problem.
But his solutions are just gibberish and nonsensical.

8. Forged by Bart Ehrman (original review here)
I like Bart Ehrman a lot, so it pains me a bit to put one of his books on this list.  But this book had some problems.
In order to maintain good faith between the publishers and their reading public, a book's title should reflect what the book intends to cover.  If you violate this rule, you lose the good faith of your reader.  In this case, the book's subtitle, "Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are", does not accurately reflect the book's content, which is largely just a survey of apocryphal literature.
The parts of the book that do pertain to the canonical Bible are interesting, but most of the key information is just repeated from Bart Ehrman's earlier book Jesus, Interrupted.  Read Jesus, Interrupted instead, and give this book a pass.

9. Culture Smart! Cambodia by Graham Saunders (original review here)

As I said in my original review: The author is trying to convey a lot of information to you in a short amount of space, but you get the feeling he's not really enjoying what he's doing, and that this is just another chore for him.
And it's written by someone who, according to the publisher's own biography, never even lived in Cambodia, but just stopped by there from time to time.

10. Cambodia's Curse by Joel Brinkley (original review here)

Okay, I'll be honest, I largely enjoyed this book.  (Sorry, I guess I just didn't have enough books I really hated to fill out this list of ten).  But it did have some problems that really irked me.  At times,the author allowed his devotion to his thesis to cause him to lose perspective on what were actually complex issues.
And then, this part, which still makes my jaw drop one year later.  "His sense of humor was rare among Cambodians. In fact, it was quite rare to see Cambodians laugh at all. Given their desperate situation, they seldom even smiled.” (p.189)  It would have been an outrageous generalization applied to any ethnic group, but it's particularly egregious when applied to Cambodians, who are actually famous for their laughing and smiling.

A Note on Readability As Criteria
When I taught academic writing in Cambodia, I would have the students peer-edit each other's papers before I corrected them myself.  My main criteria in peer-editing was readability-- Can you understand what the author is trying to say?
One of the problems I would have with this exercise is that students were reluctant to criticize their peers for problems of comprehensibility.  Instead, they would assume that if they couldn't understand a sentence, it was a problem with their poor English, and not with their classmate's writing.  As a result, I would got tons of largely incomprehensible papers handed in to me at the end of every term.
So, I started really trying to emphasize this in the peer-editing process.  "If you can't understand something, never assume it's your fault," I would tell the students.  "Maybe you're a poor reader.  But it doesn't matter.  It's never the reader's fault.  A good author should have the ability to write something that everyone can understand."

And this is more or less my philosophy on reading in general.  I have little patience for the overly formal academic style which seems to be trying to actively punish the reader for attempting to read it.  (Oh, how I hated all the academic articles I had to read in graduate school--but that's another rant for another post.)

Whenever I get to the end of a book that I struggled to understand, I never feel like it's my fault for not being smart enough--I feel like the author was at fault for not writing in a clearer, more engaging style.

All that being said, however, readability is only one criteria out of many.
There are some authors whose writing style I really hated, but they didn't make it onto this list because I found their content interesting enough.  There are many examples of this, but the most obvious one is Eric Hobsbawm.  I really struggled  to read him.  And yet, the ideas contained in his book were fascinating.

Conversely, Lee Strobel, Robert McCrum, Peter Enns, Bart Ehrman and Joel Brinkley are all very talented writers, and all write very readable prose.  But because I reacted badly to their content, they get placed on this list.

Anyway, this is the end of all my negativity.  Tomorrow we'll start getting into the "best of" lists, starting with my top ten fiction books.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky on Free Will

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