Home >Opinion >Views >The great books we’re expected to read that turn out unreadable

A couple of weeks ago, activist Shefali Vaidya asked on Twitter: “Which is the most overrated book that you tried to read coz everyone was raving abt it, but couldn’t go beyond page 5 coz you were bored out of your mind?" Vaidya has more than 500,000 followers, and hundreds of anguished people replied with their choices. Sadly, many of them named Catch-22, which, I think, is one of the greatest war novels ever. Well, to each his own, and my picks will also no doubt outrage many. So here are six “important" books in alphabetical order that I haven’t been able to get past 50 pages.

A Brief History of Time: The late Stephen Hawking’s worldwide bestseller aimed to explain cosmology, including the general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, to the layman. The publishers boasted that the book contained only one mathematical equation, e=mc2. Problem is, for all Hawking’s sincerity, only a super-bright PhD in physics can understand what he is talking about. Imaginary time and 11- dimensional space, anyone? I used to go to bed with the book, read about 20-25 pages and fall asleep. Next night, I would again have to start from the beginning, because I’d totally forgotten what I read the night before. After a week, I gave up.

Atlas Shrugged: This may enrage the legions of Ayn Rand fans, but I junked it because of the atrocious quality of her language and one-dimensional characters. Yes, I know her philosophy of “objectivism", whose essence she described as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute", and that her novels are merely vehicles to propagate her views. But I can’t stand poorly written books, except maybe the first three Harry Potters and an occasional Dan Brown.

Capital In the Twenty-First Century: In 2014, American mathematician Jordan Ellenberg created the Hawking Index (HI), referring to A Brief History of Time, perhaps the most unread bestseller ever. French economist Thomas Piketty’s much-celebrated book came up tops. Its 816 pages can be distilled into one sentence: The rich have been getting richer at a rate faster than world gross domestic product, and that’s not fair.

Lord of the Rings: Again, this will have masses of people up in arms, including friends who have the 1,100-page trilogy nearly by heart, along with its 200-page appendix. They know that the shards of the sword Narsil were taken to Rivendell and reforged into Arundil, and Aragorn’s childhood elven name was Estel. I tried reading it several times, failed, and then, after watching each of Peter Jackson’s splendid films, I tackled the book each film was based on. I soon realized that Tolkien was particularly bad at describing action and avoided doing so, while Jackson mostly filmed only the 100 pages that had action in them, while keeping the fantasy world intact and vivid for cultists with exceptional computer-generated imagery.

Sapiens: How many of you can place your hand on your heart and say that you finished Yuval Noah Harari’s history of human evolution that Barack Obama and Bill Gates claimed to love? I do not suffer from the compulsion to appear “up-to-date" by buying books that are in the news, but fell for Sapiens. Harari’s scholarship is impressive, but the opinionated prose gets tiresome pretty soon. So I read the reviews, figured out the main themes, and gave the book to the gifted teenage son of a friend.

Satanic Verses: This one is simply unreadable. With its extraordinarily self-indulgent linguistic flourishes, after about 10 pages, I felt like I was wading out into the sea through shoulder-high water with the tide coming in. I returned to shore.

Here’s a guide to safety—both in terms of time and wallet—to reading “big" books, and appearing (actually, even being) knowledgeable about the latest tomes that are being touted as must-reads. These methods can be used individually or in combination.

Read a few reviews on high-quality media websites (but check the critic’s credentials) and author interviews, pick up some interesting stuff (the mysterious structures at Gobekli Tepe). And take part in posh conversations. Of course, if you feel sufficiently intrigued, buy and read the full book.

If it’s non-fiction, borrow the book and read the first chapter or the last—all of it will almost certainly be summarized in either of these—and you’re done. Example: Poor Economics by Nobel laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (last chapter).

In books on economics or management theory, look for a chart in the first or last chapter. That could be all there is to know. Starting from the mid-1980s, for about two decades, reading Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy and Competitive Advantage was deemed critical for managerial excellence. But these two books, totalling maybe 1,000 pages, were essentially just two charts, and both could fit in one A4 sheet of paper. Imagine the number of trees cut down only for that.

So, wish you all smart reading this housebound festive season! You can always let me know on Facebook or Twitter which books wasted your time.

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