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On reading unbelievably bad books

9 July 2019

Odtaa.Odtaa. by John Masefield
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I actually read this book twice, even though I thought it was one of the worst books I had ever read.

I read it the second time just to see if it was as bad as I thought it the first time, and it was. The blurb made it sound interesting, but it simply did not live up to the blurb. There are a few books i have read that have been unbelievably bad — so bad that i could not believe they were as bad as I thought they were, and I’ve read two of them twice because I didn’t think they could really be as bad as i thought they were, but they actually were, and I must resist the temptation to read them yet again to see if they were really that bad.

The other one I read twice was The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard. and another, which I’ve so far resisted the temptation to re-read, is Tehanu by Ursula le Guin. I had read the Earthsea Trilogy a couple of times and enjoyed it, so when I saw The Earthsea Quartet I bought it and re-read the first three books. Somehow on the third reading they didn’t seem quite as good as they had the first time I had read them. but the fourth book, Tehanu, was utterly boring. Like Odtaa it seemed to be just one damn thing after another.

Odtaa is about dictator in a Latin American country (fictitious) who proclaimed that he was God. It is strange that all British novels about dictatorship are extreme and far-fetched, like George Orwell’s 1984, or Huxley’s Brave new world, or the book I read just before reading Odtaa, Mandrake by Susan Cooper. Cooper’s book was actually OK, only I’ve never seen another copy of it since I first read it. It is a kind of fantasy/sf dystopian novel about apartheid in England, where the government tries to force everyone to go back to their “homelands”.

Perhaps these books exaggerate to make the point more strongly, or perhaps it is just that they have no real conception of living in a dictatorship at all. They miss completely the ordinariness of it, the complacency of the people, the acceptance of the situation as part of everyday life. They show the ordinary people as the unconditioned, who become aware of the dictatorship, while those who accept the status quo are presented as being in some way extraordinary.

I wrote the previous two paragraphs when I was in the UK, just after reading Odtaa for the first time. That was in 1966, when South Africa was still in the throes of apartheid and Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, had just been assassinated, with the prospect of Vorster, the man who turned South Africa into a police state, taking over as prime minister (which he did).

The Crystal World, like Odtaa, has no real plot, and the characters have no real motivation or goals. It too is just “one damn thing after another”.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 July 2019 12:57 pm

    I think it would be hard to re-read a book I didn’t like.

  2. 15 July 2019 7:11 pm

    I love Le Guin and the Earthsea books, but Tehanu is not the greatest of these.

    • 19 July 2019 5:03 am

      It’s strange. I loved them when I first read them, but liked them less on rereading (though Tehanu I only read once). That’s different from Lewis & Williams, whose books I like more when re-reading. .

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