“The Worst Book I Have Read in the Past Three Years”

In today’s edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, you will find my review of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Let it be known that I did not arrive at my assessment lightly. I am an ardent lover of ambitious literature, and I realize when taking on any review assignment that an author has probably sweated for years on a project. As such, I do everything in my power to attempt to understand a book on its own terms.

But this novel was so atrocious that I was forced to record a video presenting just how this atrocious book left me vitiated. If you haven’t yet seen the video and you’re on the fence about Littell, I strongly urge you to see what it might do to you. For if you have any decent literary standards, you may very well find yourself incapacitated in a similar manner when you reach the end. (I still don’t know how Orthofer got to the end, but his review is also worthy of your attention.)

One other side effect of reading Littell: I was forced to spend half a day staring into space in order to recover from the book’s sheer awfulness. You can find out the specific reasons why in the review. But I must stress that, even if I didn’t possess some modest spirit of decency, I could not possibly recommend this book to my worst enemy. The Kindly Ones still rests in the stacks of spent tomes, sullying the fine offerings of other skilled voices. I have strongly considered burning it.


  1. that was truly a riveting video. I hope it goes viral and leads to a Nickelodeon sitcom starring you and the kid who played urkel.

    Honestly though, it was great to put a video with the voice.

  2. I think I’m going to have to read this one, though I usually abjure books receiving a lot of attention till all the fuss has died down. I’m fascinated by the differences of opinion, especially because I thought Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a very insightful review:


  3. You’ve totally convinced me to pick this up.

    Really. What would you rather read: something mediocre-to-good, or something so shit-your-pants bad it caused a relatively knowledgeable palate to recoil in horror?

    I fully expect your assessment of this thing to be accurate, but honestly, if I was the author of this book, I’d put this stuff in the press kit right beside whatever positive copy I managed to cadge out of my immediate relatives and whoever I was schtupping.

    Thanks for the tip.

  4. I saw the video. It was one of the better moments in lit crit I’ve encountered in a long time. A kind of honest sheer gut reaction one doesn’t get, because even if the reviewer had this reaction they’re rarely so blunt in their actual written reviews.

    So I had wondered what book your video had been about. Now I know. It confirms my intuition, when browsing some time ago in Borders, to steer clear of that one.

  5. The narrator is a “doctorate of law” who is “recused from rumination”? What book were you reading? The novel seems to me to be an honest attempt to understand why cultured people (whether germans, cambodians, sudanese, american) do despicable things in wartime. The question of how otherwise reasonable individuals rationalized genocide is pertinent.

  6. Ed, you have a very pleasant, deep, rich, resonant, dulcet voice. You ever thought of working in radio?

  7. 900 page Holocaust novel translated from the French. Based on those three things, I wouldn’t read it. I do, however, have ADD. And I’m patriotic. Patriotic in that I hate the French openly and secretly hate all the Jews. I’ve seen Schindler’s List, though. It was OK.

  8. In the review you link to we find:

    “Littell repeatedly shows how the Nazis are, in essence, fooling themselves — most obviously when Himmler tells Aue:

    I’m beginning to know you. You have your faults: you are, excuse me for saying so, stubborn and sometimes pedantic. But I don’t see the slightest trace of a moral defect in you.

    Aue is, of course, a walking moral defect — specifically in the way Himmler means it (most notably — but certainly not solely — as a homosexual who has also slept with his sister !).”

    So, having *Heinrich Himmler* say to a deeply depraved character, “I don’t see the slightest trace of a moral defect in you” is the sort of joke the reviewer doesn’t get, then.

  9. I’ve been reading the Kindly Ones, and I can’t say I have a great knowledge of the Holocaust (I’m a highschool student) and I’m just taking the book as it is (a work of fiction); not being quite so history-savvy I’m finding it to be a very good character study, and generally, a pretty interesting story.

    I haven’t got a problem with the narrater, he’s obviously romanticized (or the opposite, in this case), but he’s an interesting person, so I’m not adverse to hearing his side of things.

    Anyway, even if you did not enjoy the book, you have to admit, it’s extremely well-written.

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