What Books Make You Cringe To Remember?

First book crushes: The feelings are so strong and obsessive. The books seem smart, sophisticated, cool; the characters in them say and do such great things, they seem like guides sent to teach you how to be that way too. But then the crush goes, and the object of one’s former affection becomes an embarrassment—or at least the memory of you quoting them so seriously does. To explore this phenomenon, we asked an assortment of literary-inclined people to revisit the books they loved back in the day, the ones that make them absolutely cringe today.

Sam Anderson, New York Times Magazine

Oh man, I suspect you’re going to be hearing this answer a lot, but: the complete works of Ayn Rand. I discovered them toward the end of high school and walked around for a couple of years giving Howard Roark-like speeches to everyone about “the highest blazing good of selfish free-market epistemology” or something. In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that my Objectivist phase had more to do with the subjective agonies of post-adolescence (insecurity, narcissism) than it did with pure reason. (And you could argue the same thing about Ayn Rand’s relationship to it.)

Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh: A Novel

In high school I read a brisk mix of science fiction, fantasy and gay potboilers (Mass Effect 3 now is perhaps the best way to imagine my brain then). So, the novels of Marion Zimmer Bradley—I still can’t look at Mists of Avalon—plus the Darkover novels, which all had some gay potboiler action, now that I think of it. And hello Gordon Merrick, famous for The Lord Won’t Mind but I am thinking of The Great Urge Downward.

Yes, that is the title.

Nicole Cliffe, Lazy Book Reviewer/Classic Trasher

The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran: It blew through High Anglican summer camp like cholera, and I was uncontrollably pooping myself over it like everyone else. Ugh. Now I sometimes hear it at weddings and I want to die of embarrassment. Anyway, I think I read Sylvia Plath later that summer, which set me up for a lifelong obsession with Ted Hughes, so… um… how did we get here?

Maureen Corrigan, NPR

I’ve been wracking my brain, but honestly it’s hard to suggest any without feeling disloyal. In fact, at the risk of sounding sentimental—oh, what the hell, I’ll be sentimental—to dis those embarrassing young adult faves now feels like snickering at the friends I had in high school and college whom I’ve “outgrown.” I loved them and needed them at the time and, for that, I’ll always be grateful to them.

Sloane Crosley, author of How Did You Get This Number

I loved The Vampire Chronicles series by Anne Rice. They all blend together now but there’s a scene (in Queen of the Damned?) where all these ancient vampires have a kind of vampire board meeting beneath a volcano. It’s great. Those books were a guilty pleasure at the time but with the popularity of Twilight, they’ve become tweeny with age—like they keep getting younger. Which is fitting.

Stephen Elliott, The Rumpus

I don’t know that any books I loved make me cringe now. I loved the early V.C. Andrews books when I was in third and fourth grade, Flowers In The Attic, Petals In The Wind, If There Be Thorns. What makes me cringe is how much I hated certain authors in college that I learned to love in my late twenties. In particular, Raymond Carver, who I thought was boring and wrote stories about nothing. I was uneducated and wore my ignorance like a badge of honor. Now, if I don’t like a book, I blame myself first, and know there might be a time in my life where I learn to like something that I hated very much.

Max Fenton, The Believer

In high school, I tried to read all the books by Robert Heinlein. I’m sure I missed a few but I found at least 40 or 50 back when finding books took effort. Even as I read them—but more now—I cringed at something in the way he wrote women. There’s an undercurrent I recognized, but haven’t wished to return to in order to unpack or explore.

John Freeman, Granta

None of them, really. Jack Kerouac, Kurt Vonnegut, they’re all starter drugs for reading. Without these sentimental and less sophisticated early passions, I probably would have wound up having a very different life, one missing the strange and beautiful pulse that books require: of your mind powering another world, another planet to life.

Matthew Gallaway, author of The Metropolis Case

When I was in junior high I went through a pretty heavy Stephen King phase, which as much as I love a good horror story now makes me cringe a bit, because I think that his “war on adverbs” is idiotic.

Emily Gould, Emily Books

“What is the book equivalent of your 1998 fondness for ska,” basically? I tried to reread In The City of Shy Hunters by Tom Spanbauer recently and it turns out to be so much better when you’re 19 and living in Ohio and dreaming of living in a fantastical NYC where everyone is a heroin-addled drag queen angel. It’s still good, of course, but for me its magic was gone.

David Grann, The New Yorker

Many of the stories and books I read in my youth I still love and reread, such as “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.” But in high school I went through a mortifying Ayn Rand phase, which thankfully went away along with my pimples.

John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars

I remember my freshman year of college, I briefly dated a junior (not to brag!) and told her that On The Road was my favorite book, and in my opinion the greatest achievement in American literature. “You’ll find that statement embarrassing in a couple years,” she said. I thought she was being so holier than thou, but… yeah.

Justin Halpern, author of Sh*t My Dad Says

I was obsessed with the movie Tombstone to the point where I purchased the book which was BASED ON THE MOVIE. That’s right, the movie came first. A couple years ago I was cleaning out a storage locker and I found a copy of it, and it almost seemed like the writing had been farmed out to someone in China, written in Chinese, then put through an English translator without anyone checking if it was correct. Solid lines like “Doc Holiday pulled out his gun and it went bam.” At the time, though, I was like “Fuck yeah, it did. Nobody fucks with Doc Holiday.”

James Hannaham, author of God Says No

Sophomore year of high school, I think, I happened across Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Catch Trap. This is a somewhat ridiculous epic set in the circus world of the 1940s and 50s, about trapeze artist Mario Santelli, of the Flying Santellis, and his protégé, Tommy Zane (oddly, the exact same name as a classmate of mine) the son of the lion tamer. The older and younger man are both in love with their craft. As they soar above the crowds, they soon discover that they’re in love with each other too, but they must keep their passionate feelings secret because of the era and because of their ages. I suppose the book’s about trust—imagine, two men, in very tight clothing, secret lovers, risking their lives as they grip each others’ wrists and somersault around the big top, so to speak. But I sure dogeared those sex scenes.

Heather Hartley, Tin House

As a sophomore in college, in the hopes of gaining insight into myself and fellow coeds—while at the same time polishing my poor French—I ambitiously bought a copy of Claude Levi-Strauss” La Pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind). I quickly learned that it was out of my reach, not so much in terms of where I stashed it less than 24 hours after purchasing it (in an upper corner of my closet behind grunge-inspired plaid shirts and artfully ripped jeans, a cultivated look of studied savagery inspired by the Mall), but rather in its structure, language and ideas. I’ve still got the copy somewhere and hope someday to get beyond the first words of Chapter One: “The Science of the Concrete.”

Anna Holmes, Washington Post contributor

Camus’ The Stranger. It was the spring or summer of 1986 or ’87, and I was eager to impress a boy—a Doc Martens-wearing, shaved head, and punk music-listening boy named Stewart in my high school sophomore class. Stewart spent a lot of time after school sitting under trees in the park near my mom’s house reading serious books and scowling at passerby and I desperately wanted to be deemed worthy of his formidable intellect. (And, of course, to kiss him.) I was 15 years old at the time, and it took me a few years—until my junior year in college—to realize that pretentiousness didn’t equal intelligence, and that the philosophical musings of men (real or fictional) were actually kind of boring.

Boris Kachka, New York Magazine

AP English convinced me that any book worth reading had to be 1,000 pages long—which explains my obsession with finishing Stephen King’s The Stand (unabridged, of course) and his abysmal 752-page Tommyknockers. When I decided to flirt with Ayn Rand, naturally I read Atlas Shrugged, and was well over my libertarian phase by page 1088.

Benjamin Kunkel, n+1

I don’t know if I want to condescend too much to my slightly New Age-y younger self, with his taste for Hermann Hesse and even Robert Bly. Egregiously earnest as that kid was, he would be right to look at me and ask: “You’re not interested in wisdom anymore? And have you become the least bit wise?”

Thessaly La Force, Girl Crush

I get the sense that this is an attempt to find the literary equivalent of celebrity shame-lust (i.e. finding Ryan Reynolds attractive, which I do). My literary cringe moments are many, but they were more because of my utter lack to comprehend the true value of the work. Or because I was unwilling to admit I wasn”t well read. I remember telling a famous writer that I admired John McPhee for the “sheer beauty of his prose.” Or informing Lorin Stein when I interviewed to be his assistant at Farrar, Straus & Giroux that I thought Nadine Gordimer was the best short-story writer alive. I had read one. Those memories still make me blush.

I suppose if there was a writer that I’ve outgrown, it would be Raymond Carver. We’re all over Raymond Carver, right? He’s like the Kate Moss of fiction. I wish I could go back and look at whatever I put as my interests on Facebook when I was first on there. But—and maybe this is cheesy to say—the truth is that when you find a good book, and you love it, it can stick with you for the rest of your life. The Mists of Avalon is still the shit. I will reread Motherless Brooklyn any day. I’m still telling people to buy A Moveable Feast. It’s the bad stuff that you inevitably forget.

Ariel Levy, The New Yorker

I was obsessed with Sweet Valley High. I remember that Jessica—or maybe it was the other hot, blond identical twin protagonist—had a cream-colored chaise lounge in her room and I always wanted one. I think eventually my parents got me an off-white carpet remnant to shut me up.

Mark Lotto, GQ

The Beats: When I was 16 and 17, I was so nutso about the jumpiness of On the Road, the weariness of Big Sur, the big sadness of “Kaddish” and “Howl,” even the nonsense of Dylan”s Tarantula, that I briefly but seriously considered applying to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by Ginsburg in 1974 and a part of Colorado”s Naropa University. It’s too hard to imagine what That Me—goateed, trench-coated, Gap-khaki-wearing—would have done at “the only fully accredited Buddhist-inspired university in the United States.” But This Me—unshaven, suit-coated, baby-having—would high-tail it right the fuck off the campus as quickly as humanly possible. And nowadays when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New York and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, I never think of Dean Moriarty.

Holly MacArthur, Tin House

Shirley MacLaine’s books.

C. Max Magee, The Millions

Like many suburban teenagers, I was entranced by the Beats, especially, of course, On the Road. The idea that wild road trips awaited me in adulthood was part of the draw, but I was also infatuated with the idea that the Beats were just a bunch of guys hanging out who became a cultural movement by doing their thing. I thought, maybe my friends and I could do the same. Time has certainly mellowed this notion for me, and the Beat classics are not very relatable any more, but it’s fun to think now about my younger self.

Laura Miller, Salon

When I was 16, my brothers and I devoured the entire oeuvre of Erich von Däniken, a Swiss crank who made a fortune off of “proving” that the monuments of ancient civilizations were either built by aliens or built to communicate with them. CHARIOTS OF THE GODS? was our bible, and we solemnly discussed the “persuasive” evidence in it, all of which I have since entirely forgotten. So I felt a sentimental thrill recently when I received an email explaining that von Däniken was still at it, weighing in on the whole Mayan Calendar apocalypse question and explaining that “the Greek myths are real!”

Christopher Monks, McSweeney’s

When I was in college I really liked The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love because it seemed exotic (Cuba!) and hip (Latin Jazz!), and was loaded with pages upon pages of raunchy sex. I haven’t read the book since, but given that I only remember the pages upon pages of raunchy sex, It’s hard not to wince (and blush) just thinking about it.

Maud Newton, The Awl

At eighteen I read The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged in a great, self-satisfied, gleeful rush, smugly scrawling quotes in letters to friends, while in the midst of dumping my boyfriend of three years for a guy who already had a girlfriend. Their relationship had nothing to do with me and so wasn’t my problem at all, according to Rand’s selfishness gospel. Some time later I regained my senses, critical faculties and ability to feel remorse. Ouch.

David Orr, New York Times Book Review

I cringe at most of my adolescent reading preferences, but especially at my 14-year-old self’s fondness for the five books of The Belgariad by David Eddings.They’re like The Lord of the Rings plus sitcom mugging. And the author was so lazy that when he spun off another five-book series, he just duplicated the plot of The Belgariad, right down to the magical rock that could only be carried by one particularly annoying kid.

Nicole Pasulka, The Morning News

I was one of those self-satisfied teenagers who partied and read classic literature, so that’s pretty embarrassing, but my taste in books was solid. When I was younger and less pretentious I remember reading a bunch of books by Lurlene McDaniel. Have you heard of these? There are dozens of them. Some beautiful, gifted teenager has life snatched away—by cancer, by car accident, by organ failure—and then you cry. I think there’s also some creepy Christian thing going on. At least I know I hid them from my liberal Jewish mother. Whoa, I am totally embarrassed thinking about that, guess that was your point.

Lisa Jane Persky, LA Review of Books

I’ve never been ashamed or embarrassed to have read anything at any age even with hindsight. One exception might elicit a slight blush from an 8-year-old me: I was a Mad Magazine obsessive and you could not pull me away from anything Kurtzman and Elder, even if it was inside a not-too-cleverly-hidden issue of the then mysterious (to me) Playboy. I read with amazement, Little Annie Fanny but “back in the day,” they called these magazines “books.” Didn’t they?

David Rakoff, author of Half Empty

On The Road. At age seventeeneighteen, I pored over it—in truth, primarily looking for evidence of homoerotic activity between him and super-dreamy Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty—and remember grooving on the language and unfettered lighting out for the territory. Three short years later, I couldn”t shake the feeling that the heroes seemed virtually indistinguishable from the Trustafarian poseurs I learned to assiduously avoid in college. There is an extended sequence, as I recall (it’s been over a quarter of a century), where they go to see a performance by jazz great Slim Gaillard and Kerouac describes some mind-meld between Slim and Dean—that Dean had some heightened understanding and privileged appreciation of jazz and race and Cool and that Gaillard feels it, too!—that is frankly just embarrassing.

David Rees, author of How To Sharpen Pencils

MEMPHIS: Research, Experiences, Result, Failures and Successes of New Design by Barbara Radice. Watching “Miami Vice” in 7th grade, I was acutely aware of how little my parents’ aesthetic overlapped with that of Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs. Our modest Episcopalian home was completely devoid of pink Armani suit jackets and Ferraris, alas. But that didn’t stop me from filling sketchbooks with my own fashion designs, automobile designs, and furniture designs! I was captivated by anything pastel and ostentatious—which led me to the MEMPHIS design group and their ridiculous junky furniture (basically, it’s like IKEA on LSD). Looking at the MEMPHIS book now, it’s no mystery why I was attracted to the furniture: The pieces look like they were designed by 13-year-old boys, in the same way Shanghai’s skyscrapers look like they were conjured from the fever-dreams of toddlers.

Lizzie Skurnick, That Should Be A Word columnist

All of the works of Raymond Carver. It’s not his fault—they were imitated so heavily they have been made palimpsest, and read as satires of themselves. This holds true, sadly, for so much of the short story boom of that period. And you can probably cry Toni Morrison a river on the same score. Still good with Twelfth Night, though.

Sadie Stein, The Paris Review

Wow, that’s tricky: I tend to kind of revel in the bad stuff I read, and I never had, like, an Ayn Rand phase! But! I did go through a period where I would covertly—but slavishly—read every book I could lay my hands on on how to be sexy/chic/mysterious/alluring like a French woman. This in turn led to the purchase of several very unflattering striped shirts and one of those stove-top espresso makers.

Oh, and I once came across a “Felicity” novelization in a thrift store, and devoured it. I wish there had been a hundred: it totally went into the summer she leaves Noel for Ben after season 1! Oddly, it also contained recipes.

Lorin Stein, The Paris Review

It doesn’t make me cringe, exactly—I just have no idea what I thought Being and Time was about.

John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead

This’ll seem like a prissy or joy-killing answer to your question, but I have a no-cringe policy when it comes to books I’ve loved in the past. I just refuse to cringe over them. It’d be like running into an old girlfriend on the street and refusing to speak with her because you realize now that she had a deformity or something. On the Road is the book I always think of in this context. Or really all the Beat stuff. It changed my life when I read it at sixteen—there are hundreds and hundreds of good books I might never have read if I hadn’t read those, if some movie I saw hadn’t convinced me I needed to—and sure, now I look and see that much of the work there was very or in some cases even comically bad, but to cringe at it would imply, I don’t know, regret for the early judgment. That I don’t feel. Some books were written especially for young, pretentious people—Look Homeward, Angel is another—and they have their own strange greatness, one that in order to live requires you leave it behind. What they show us about the evolution of personal taste counsels greater skepticism toward future judgments. Also forgiveness of yourself, which Lichtenberg said is the first duty of every writer.

Emily Temple, Flavorwire

At fifteen, I admit I secretly thought The Perks of Being a Wallflower was written just for me—I penned a gushy inscription in the front and pressed it gravely into my high school sweetheart’s hands when he graduated. Duncan, I take it back—we all did enough navel-gazing of our own in high school to need any literary assistance.

Baratunde Thurston, author of How To Be Black

Sorry, I have thought about it but love almost everything I read. Maybe I just have better taste or few regrets in life!

Stephen Tobolowsky, actor

Any Cliff Notes. I am embarrassed about all of the time I spent on the test and not on the work itself. (The Red and the Black, the Iliad and The Republic were my victims).

Edmund White, author of Sacred Monsters

I used to love Virginia Woolf and read her as one of the premier Modernists. Now she seems to me Edwardian and snobbish and precious.




Related: What’s Your Most Played Song? and What Movies Make You Ignore Everything Else?


Nadia Chaudhury was, at one point, obsessed with everything that Francesca Lia Block wrote, and soon after, Chuck Palahniuk.