A few weeks ago, I put together a list of underrated books, ones that haven’t received the attention or acclaim that I think they deserve. Now, I know literary appreciation isn’t a zero sum game, but it got me thinking: it stands to reason that, if there are books out there that aren’t feeling enough of the love, there must be some that are feeling too much of it. Right? So, here, I present a counterpoint: 8 of the most overrated books of all time, as determined by me.
Pssst: this is not to say that these books are “bad” necessarily, or that they’re not worth reading. I’m just saying that they get TOO MUCH hype, at the expense of other great books that deserve a bit of that limelight. So, y’know, don’t @ me.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This might be my most controversial choice, so I’m getting it out of the way early: The Great Gatsby. Why, oh why, do we hold this story of a wealthy borderline stalker in such high esteem? It’s not as though there aren’t other great Jazz Age novels out there (there are). And yet, this is the one that we force teenagers to read and analyse in high school, and salivate over in creative writing courses. Reader, it’s not that great. Read my full review of The Great Gatsby here.
The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan
The premise and setting of The Narrow Road To The Deep North aren’t bad. The unflinching account of the life of a surgeon in a POW camp is admirable, even jaw-dropping in parts. But damn, if this wasn’t one of the most overwritten books I’ve ever read! Flanagan’s editor really needed to have a stern word: he could’ve cut off the whole first third of the book, like a gangrenous limb, and it would’ve been a much better read. I still can’t quite believe that it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Booker Prize in 2014… Read my full review of The Narrow Road To The Deep North here.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Even now, fifteen years after its release, I still feel like every time I turn around I bump into someone saying that The Book Thief is AMAZING, that it is HEARTBREAKING, that it will CHANGE MY PERSPECTIVE on WWII… piffle. It’s narrated by Death, which is a pretty cool way. of telling a story, but other than that…? The main message is that Nazis are bad and literacy is good. I thought we could take that as read! The same goes for All The Light We Cannot See, too. The recent boom in WWII historical fiction really irks me. It feels like they’re only rehashing what has already been beautifully accounted in books like Diary Of A Young Girl. The Book Thief would be a fine read for teenagers who are just starting to learn about this chapter in history, but it got way too much hype overall. Read my full review of The Book Thief here.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In my experience, every single reader who lists Fahrenheit 451 as their favourite book read it for the first time as a teenager. Everyone who, like me, read it as an adult had much the same reaction as I did: a huge feeling of underwhelm. This book is like dystopian-lite: dystopian fiction for people who haven’t read much (or any) dystopian fiction. The idea of firefighters who burn books is a good one, but there’s better-imagined and better-written books out there now that are far more worthy of our time and attention. Read my full review of Fahrenheit 451 here.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Let me sum up The Sun Also Rises for you: a guy with a malfunctioning doodle convinces himself that he has no hope of happiness or sexual satisfaction, so he traipses across Europe with his drunk friends feeling sorry for himself. Ugh! It’s so woefully repressed (and grossly colonial in places). It’s not even a good example of Hemingway’s whole “show, don’t tell” fly-on-the-wall writing ethos. Papa was a brilliant short story writer, but I wish I could forget all about this novel entirely. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I actually quite liked Don Quixote. It was a whopping great book, but I read it slowly, bit by bit, and found it quite enjoyable. I think it’s overrated as a comic novel, though, and that’s why I include it here in this list of the most overrated books of all time. Everyone kept telling me “Oooh, Don Quixote! It’s so funny! It’s so funny!”. Yeah, except that it’s the story of a man with a severe, undiagnosed, and untreated delusional disorder. No one tries to help him, no one steps in when he’s clearly a danger to himself and others – they treat him like a circus attraction. My heart broke for Don Quixote, and I barely got a chuckle out of this book. “Comic” my arse… Read my full review of Don Quixote here.
The Fault In Our Stars by John Green
John Green might’ve won himself a legion of fans with his stories of teenage love and melodrama, but come on. The Fault In Our Stars was just a blatant attempt to make me cry, and I reject that outright. It was so transparent, I found myself rolling my eyes at every plot point. The “love interest”, Augustus, is so high on his own fumes, it was infuriating. If the protagonist, Hazel, had been just a few years older and just a little less sheltered, she would have kicked him to the curb long before any of the rest of it. Read my full review of The Fault In Our Stars here.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Lady Chatterley’s Lover has the distinction of being one of the most banned, censored, and challenged books of fiction in the history of English literature. On that basis, I naturally expected it to be very smutty. I’m sorry to report that there was barely any filth at all! A couple of heaving bosoms, a few c-bombs, and that’s it! I have no idea what all the fuss was about… Read my full review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover here.
And there we have it, my list of the most overrated books of all time. All of them are hills I’m willing to die on, so give it your best shot 😉 And don’t forget to add your suggestions in the comments below!
March 2, 2020 at 12:10 PM
Haha, I agree with you on the ones I’ve read, and considered myself well warned about the ones I haven’t. Gatsby is a face palmer indeed. I know what you mean about The Book Thief too. It seems so many people were sold on Death as narrator, yet I found him very plot-spoilery, telling us early on who would die! I might still read Don Quixote, but approach it more as a thought provoking personality study rather than the comedy it’s supposed to be.
March 2, 2020 at 8:27 PM
Yes, definitely re: Don Quixote. I’ve been thinking about it, it might be the translation I read – translation is the absolute hardest when it’s comic, it would seem – and maybe that I didn’t have enough context on the historical period, I came at it through a very contemporary lens. Still, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it (as always)! 😀
March 3, 2020 at 12:30 PM
I agree with a lot of these, but truly I continue to really like The Great Gatsby. I reread it last year (or the year before maybe?) and was still totally into it. I STRONGLY agree about goddamn Ernest Hemingway though. The only good part of that book was that last line about “wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” That’s a solid line. The rest of it can go in the bin. :p
March 3, 2020 at 12:37 PM
Hahaha I’m very aware that I’m in a minority when it comes to Gatsby, I’ve had more than one robust conversation about my feelings on it, so I don’t begrudge you that at all 😉 And YES, when it comes to Hemingway, the less he says, the better he is, right??
March 4, 2020 at 7:16 PM
Blimey a few I liked in there, not least the book thief. Well at least I know some of the ones that receive harsher critique might well be the ones that I like! So I’ll look out for those
March 19, 2020 at 8:59 AM
Agree with you on Great Gatsby – just never can see what the big deal is about the book. But I’ll defend Narrow Road to the Deep North which I loved…..
My list of over-rated books would have to include Moby Dick. If I wanted to learn about the plankton eating habits of a whale I’d just get a natural history book
March 20, 2020 at 4:58 PM
Bahahahaha you’re not alone there!! Moby Dick is practically six Wikipedia entries back-to-back…
January 7, 2021 at 11:47 AM
Well, you never know when having read the correct way to tie off a drogue to a harpoon, and launching it off in a crosswind over looming swells will come in handy, right? 😉
September 1, 2020 at 12:44 AM
Just came across your site, so I’m a bit late with comments. My thoughts on just the books I’ve read:
Gatsby. Didn’t actually finish this one. That speaks for itself really. Can I also put in a bad word for a couple of others I hated/didn’t/couldn’t be bothered to finish. You’ve mentioned All The Light We Cannot See. Add to that The Secret History – Donna Tartt takes a college class in writing and publishes the result – predictable and formulaic.
Don Quixote. Enjoyed it as a straight story. Yes, I feel sorry for Don Quixote but also a slightly envy for his capacity to imagine romance in the mundane. Didn’t think it was a comic novel, more a satire that does not require laugh out loud moments.
Fahrenheit 451. A favourite book. Yes, I was 14 when I first read it. Yes there are other fatter books of highly realised dystopian fiction. This is a simple, thought provoking story with a single concept of the firefighters – maybe if we just called it a short story that would manage your expectations better?
Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Also read when I was 14 so I was looking for all smut I could get. Waded through the turgid prose for very little reward.
Narrow Road to the Deep North. Thank heavens someone is prepared to call this out! I live in Tasmania where criticising Flanagan may be a hanging offence. Clearly his success means no editor has the guts to tell him when to pull his head in. There’s a good short story in the middle about the Burma Railroad. The rest is redundant. See above re. wading through turgid prose.
September 1, 2020 at 12:39 PM
Hahaha cheers David – always love to find a fellow Gatsby-skeptic, plus the others!
January 7, 2021 at 11:34 AM
I’m a pretty prolific reader. Yet I’m not a big fan of Dickens to begin with, mostly because the prose just doesn’t flow well with modern English, to me anyway.
But I really wanted to gouge my eyes out with GE. After I persevered through it to the end, I just needed to take a break from reading for a good long while.
To any young student/person who’s ever assigned it, save yourself from 500+ pages of agony and torture. Just read a wiki type article on the plot and general themes – that’s all you’ll ever read.
January 7, 2021 at 6:30 PM
Or you could read my review… Just saying! 😉 hahaha
August 25, 2022 at 6:48 AM
Don Quixote definitely overrated.
Most Spaniards have never sat and read the entire book.
The Spanish are only taught extracts from the book and less that 2% of Spaniards under 18 have read it in entirety.
Gatsby isn’t great from an English literature point of view but it is the quintessential American novel through the symbolism, metaphors & themes used and there are many passages that are doing evocative of both US culture and the age in which it was written as to maker it stand out. I therefore think it deserves its place.
August 28, 2022 at 9:10 PM
To be honest, I doubt more than 2% of English readers of any age have read Don Quixote in its entirety, so fair play to the Spaniards 😅
September 12, 2022 at 4:41 AM
You can add “Catcher in the Rye” to that list as far as I’m concerned A lot of immature guys can relate to it, apparently but I got halfway through & was too bored to finish
September 14, 2022 at 11:02 PM
Hahaha excellent point, Cynthia! Thank you!