the book of mormon

Tough Questions: What’s the Worst Book You’ve Ever Read All Of?

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Every week we ask everyone who hangs out around here to answer a tough question. This week:

What’s the worst book you’ve ever read all of?

Rules are simple: how’s your judgement? When did you last dedicate a significant amount of your precious, fleeting life to something you didn’t want to finish in the first place? This week we’re talking dedication for dedication’s sake. Let’s get to it, because wasting time in a thing about wasted time is just too much.

Alex Russell

I once got State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America as a gift. Look at this damned list of some of the contributors: Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Ann Patchett, Anthony Bourdain, William T. Vollmann, S.E. Hinton, Dave Eggers, Myla Goldberg, Rick Moody, and Alexander Payne. Those people can’t make a bad book, can they? They didn’t, but they all certainly wrote some essays that appeared in a bad book. State by State is a series of 50 essays, each written by someone with a connection to that specific state. Some of them are great. Some of them are not. I was going to put in my least favorite one here but it makes me way too angry. The precious, scientific ways people write about their own states in this tome can be the worst. They are the opposite of love letters. That said, “Kansas” by Jim Lewis is fantastic, though if you Google it the first thing that comes up is an article from my college town’s newspaper about how bad it is. No one likes anything.

Gardner Mounce

I generally have a strict 50-page policy. Life is too short to read bad books and if a book can’t impress me in fifty pages then I have no qualms about ditching it. However, I did stick with all of The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman. It was awful, but interesting in the awful choices it made.

Mike Hannemann

The easy direction to go is to name something forced upon you in high school, but All the King’s Men takes the cake. The book before I read was Grapes of Wrath and it was followed by Invisible Man. Both of those novels are some of my favorites of all time. Wedged in the middle was a political drama which played out exactly how you’d expect. I compare it to Dances With Wolves. You know exactly where the plot is going the minute you start reading the book. There are a few twists here and there, but it lacks originality. When the most fascinating character is a simple Irish guy who eats sugar cubes, there’s something wrong with your story. Maybe I was too young to appreciate it, but “noble politician becomes corrupt” isn’t exactly groundbreaking storytelling. That said, I do sympathize with the Irish. And sugar cubes.

Jonathan May

There are so many contenders for this question. The worst book I’ve ever read in its entirety must be The Book of Mormon, which Mark Twain called “chloroform in print.” Not to anger any Mormons out there, but damn if it isn’t the most boring thing I’ve ever read. Compared to other religious texts, the battles are lame and the language stilted. The Bhagavad-Gita this ain’t. Mostly centered in language borrowed from the Masonic texts and translations of The Bible available at the time, this product of the early American 19th century could really lose a lot of clunky verbiage and focus rather on its chronologically-challenged plot. While religious adherents may find it to be divinely inspired, I find more inspiration from even the most unreadable of Dickens’: The Tale of Two Cities, my close second-place choice. If you disagree (and I assume many will), please do yourself a favor and read The Bible, The Upanishads, The Bhagavad-Gita, The Heart Sutra, or almost any other religious text and get back to me.

Andrew Findlay

This is difficult. For most of the past decade, if a book was terrible or even just not what I wanted to read right then and there, I just didn’t finish it. Any truly terrible books that I finished before that time are terrible enough to be supremely forgetful. It was probably one of the ranked masses of Star Wars Expanded Universe books I read in middle school, before I knew enough to be like, “This dialogue is laughable. Han wouldn’t say that. Besides, it’s nerf herder, not nerftender.” You know what, I’m willing to bet $100 that it was The Phantom Menace, released alongside the movie so George Lucas could squeeze even more blood out of his gasping, mangled franchise.

Brent Hopkins

This is assuredly not the worst book I have ever read cover to cover, but I will say it left the most vivid disappointment in me in recent years. George R.R. Martin’s 4th novel in The Song of Ice and Fire series A Feast for Crows takes the prize for me.  As has been mentioned by many other reviewers and general readers alike, this book is the equivalent of a fluff episode. Most of the characters focused on feel like the B-list of the tale, and after the massive cliffhanger at the end of the previous book you will read these pages and feel teased. The concept of splitting the books into regions as opposed to chronological order is cool and all, but it works a lot worse when all the cool kids are in one place and the wallflowers are in another. This also led to a bit of a muddling of the 5th book because many of the references are things the reader already knows, so it isn’t entirely as new as you’d hope. Knowing the answer to characters questions works sometimes, but not constantly.

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The Book of Mormon Musical and Being Offended

The Book of Mormon

Jonathan May

The Book of Mormon was written by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez.

It took about three years for The Book of Mormon to arrive in Memphis from its original Broadway premiere. I didn’t listen to one second of the music during that whole time because I wanted to be surprised by the lyrics and story. Needless to say, the story itself is fairly simple; two young Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda for their two-year stint. Having lived in Zimbabwe as a child of Christian missionaries, I can safely say the experience the two have upon arrival is eerily and comically perfect. Africa, though presented by some of its worst qualities, shines through as a tough place where real shit goes down, which it is. Therefore the jokes about men raping babies made most in the audience uncomfortable because, deep down, they knew (or became aware of then) that things like this happen.

I was insanely entertained by the whole show, being a fan of South Park. Those who would claim that the show just attacks Mormonism are simply missing the point; the show ultimately posits an absurdity in holding any system of religious belief. Parker and Stone, like many before them, make the point that religions are nothing more than metaphors by which to guide one’s life. This idea comes up often during South Park: that strict dogmatism often leads to unhappiness. So while Mormonism is the prism through which this idea is viewed, I argue that the musical deals ultimately with much more than the one religion. People who take offense at such things often miss that the creators of South Park have taken great care over the years to offend everyone equally, regardless of belief-oriented affiliation.

The Book of Mormon parodied many elements and traditions of musicals, as the creators are wont to do. Many of the songs contains leitmotifs or riffs from other famous musicals in order to further the meta-narrative quality of the production. By no means is this a family show, in the traditional sense. Cursing and “real talk” are par for the course, and no one shies away from all possible outlets of sexual and religious conflation for comedic effect. (One line that stands out, regarding baptism, is when a female character states she is “wet with salvation.”) If you are easily offended, I don’t know why you would consider going in the first place, but you should go. It’s easily the funniest Broadway show I’ve ever seen, and it does challenge one’s sense of humor. I laughed out loud steadily, but several moments gave me pause.

The realistic portrayal of the hardship of missionary work and the even harder quotidian circumstances for Africans undeniably make this musical what it is; without those, it might amount to nothing more than the sum of its jokes. But the leads (the two Mormon missionaries and the young African woman they attempt to convert) and their doubts are some of the strongest moments of this unforgettable show.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com