What really put me on to this theme was a line from Waugh’s Vile Bodies. In one scene he has his main character Adam Fenwick-Symes sitting near “a shelf full of unreadable books.”
First, it should be asked, where does one find bad books? The most obvious answer is: in office waiting rooms, the living rooms of elderly aunts, and academic lounges. But for a treasure trove of uninteresting and useless prose, nothing can top the library used book sale. It is the place of last resort. There you will find volumes that even the book dealers have finally despaired of. The reasons for literary obscurity are multifarious, and they do not always depend on the intrinsic merits of the work. In this category are reference volumes, almanacs and encyclopedias. Good enough in their day, these become “bad” simply because of the accidents of chronology.
No such excuse, however, can be made for most modern novels. They are indispensable to any ”unreadable book” collection. Put simply, they are a curse, a plague, and a vast nuisance. Even here there is a hierarchy of “badness,” with the most horrific exemplar of creative prose being the Reader’s Digest Condensed Book (which can be found next to the novels by Andrew Greeley and Danielle Steel). Second only to pulp fiction is the academic text. But among the very worst books for “dating” are those current events studies, most of them horribly biased, exploitative and sensational. They deserve the obscurity that has engulfed them. There are the “best-sellers” cranked out upon the death of every debauched celebrity or recurring scandal of the British Royal Family. Lumped in with this disreputable category are those hilarious books prophesying the Great Economic Crash of 1990 or 1980 or 1970.
One more category comes to mind. These are the books which do not really “date.” Rather, these titles are bad in se; they are intrinsically dire. Produced by the self-proclaimed expert and his garage press, they espouse amazing health cures, offer the latest in scriptural and gnostic revelation, or seek to unravel global conspiracies. In the days before desktop publishing, such titles were lovingly crafted on Smith Corona typewriters in non-proportional courier type. I wonder if the internet will see the gradual extinction of this genre in book form as cyberspace becomes the preferred medium for obscure polemicists and amateur polymaths. . . . But I have a strange feeling that this prediction will not come true.