Why bad books get read, praised: a casual psychological account

Why do people read bad books, particularly bad books that are extremely long, extremely incoherent (or just poorly written, or deliberately incomprehensible), and sometimes even full of stupid ideas? Moreover, why do so many of the people who read those books end up praising them? Even smart people who exhibit passable taste in other things? Examples: Atlas Shrugged, Infinite Jest, anything by Derrida.

1. The sunk cost fallacy. You get fifty, a hundred pages into Atlas Shrugged or something and you’ve bled so much — you’ve invested so much into getting through this book, tortured yourself with so much bad writing and so many stupid ideas! How horrible would it be to waste all that effort! Better grind on and finish. Or so we tell ourselves. Because we’re irrational.

2. Cognitive dissonance. You’ve read all of Of Grammatology! Holy shit that was unpleasant. It was so much work just to get a vague idea of what he was talking about. It took an hour to get through ten pages! You struggled through paragraphs like this:

On the one hand, true to the Western tradition that controls not only in theory, but in practice (in the principle of its practice) the relationships between speech and writing, Saussure does not recognise in the latter more than a narrow and derivative function. Narrow because it is nothing but one modality among others, a modality of the events which can befall a language whose essence, as the facts seem to show, can remain forever uncontaminated by writing. “Language does have an oral tradition that is independent of writing” (Cours de linguistique générale). Derivative because representative signifier of the first signifier, representation of the self-present voice, of the immediate, natural, and direct signification of the meaning (of the signified, of the concept, of the ideal object or what have you). Saussure takes up the traditional definition of writing which, already in Plato and Aristotle, was restricted to the model of phonetic script and the language of words. Let us recall the Aristotelian definition: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.” Saussure: “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first”. This representative determination, beside communicating without a doubt essentially with the idea of the sign, does not translate a choice or an evaluation, does not betray a psychological or metaphysical presupposition peculiar to Saussure; it describes or rather reflects the structure of a certain type of writing: phonetic writing, which we use and within whose element the epistémè in general (science and philosophy), and linguistics in particular, could be founded. One should, moreover, say mode, rather than structure; it is not a question of a system constructed and functioning perfectly, but of an ideal explicitly directing a functioning which in fact is never completely phonetic. In fact, but also for reasons of essence to which I shall frequently return. To be sure this factum of phonetic writing is massive; it commands our entire culture and our entire science, and it is certainly not just one fact among others. Nevertheless it does not respond to any necessity of an absolute and universal essence. Using this as a point of departure, Saussure defines the project and object of general linguistics: “The linguistic object is not defined by the combination of the written word and the spoken word: the spoken form alone constitutes the object”.

You’re not sure whether you actually learned anything enlightening, or whether old Jacques was just spitting jive. But wait! You’re a rational person! You’d be a fool if you’d spent a hundred hours and endless tears trying to make sense of that stuff and it turned out to be nonsense. Therefore, it must be very wise and you should defend it and demand others read it! Or so we tell ourselves. Because we’re irrational.

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16 Responses to “Why bad books get read, praised: a casual psychological account”

  1. eric Says:

    tl;dr :P

  2. Hux Says:

    Given your usual cynicism and misanthropy, I’m surprised you didn’t include the most cynical scenario:

    3. People want to at least sound intelligent and cultured. They mostly don’t want to tell people, “yeah I got like 100 pages in and just couldn’t understand it,” because they think they’ll sound dumb.

  3. ben Says:

    While it’s true that I wasn’t sure what the second half of that Derrida excerpt was tending towards—it has been removed from its context, though, so why should that be surprising?—it didn’t seem particularly hard to follow.

  4. FUG Says:

    Sometimes I think a book just somehow makes a quantum leap to this realm of “Books you have to read because it’s one of [i]those[/i] books”. That’s why Atlas Shrugged is on my list — not from any distinct love of libertarianism or Randian ideology.

  5. JIGG Says:

    You’re forgetting a very basic reason which is that people already agree with the work/whatever.

    People will gladly overlook obviously bad arguments and false premises if they go in already agreeing with the conclusions.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    Ben, it may be one of the less incoherent paragraphs, but I suspect that those who are less sympathetic than you are to the whole continental shebang will still find it totally incomprehensible…

  7. sroz Says:

    argh, you brought it all back! I slogged my way through “the Magic Mountain” when I was 16.. halfway through, I started skipping paragraphs, later, entire chapters.

    OTOH, some people actually think Mervyn Peake is unreadable, so go figure.

  8. Steve M. Says:

    Then there’s the Robin Hanson answer: it’s all about the signaling.

  9. Paul Gowder Says:

    But who would want to signal that they’re Ayn Randites, except people who have already read the books and drunk the koolaid?

  10. ben wolfson Says:

    A surprising number of people who aren’t randroids themselves are under the impression that Rand’s books are intelligent works containing a cogently presented philosophy.

  11. Steve M. Says:

    On an unrelated note, I think there’s unexplored grounds for Randian pickup lines, as in, “Hey baby, you’re as cool as the Rearden metal.”

  12. goldnsilver Says:

    Haha, good post.

    I’m having this problem with two books at the moment.

    1) Demons (aka The Possessed) by Dostoevsky. I’ve decided I’m going to ditch it, because it’s surprisingly boring so far. I was having the ‘but i paid money!’ dilemma.

    2) Torments of the Traitor – Ian Irvine. It’s a piece of shit fantasy story, but I had read the other two series (before I was introduced to good fiction). The third series has turned out incredibly bad, but I need to know what happens! I’ve come so far! Argh!

    I’ll probably ditch it.

  13. Why is poor communication popular? « Meteuphoric Says:

    [...] from for hours on end seems like a fantastic mountain of understanding. Why is this? I think Paul Gowder’s explanation for people liking bad books probably extends to partially explain: Why do people read [...]

  14. Constant Says:

    Problem is, I don’t think any of those three examples are good ones. The argument might have been more compelling if they had not been mentioned as examples. As it is, they say rather more about Paul Gowder and rather less about the topic that Paul Gowder probably intended.

    A phenomenon both more important and more common, I think, than some readers liking objectively bad books, is books that are genuinely appealing to some readers while being genuinely unappealing to other readers because of a difference in reader background.

    That doesn’t mean Derrida isn’t wrong or a bad writer. I think he probably is both. But a writer can be bad while attracting a significant audience – just read some of the fiction being sold in supermarkets (I dare you). And a writer can be wrong while attracting many real followers. Take any sizable religions. At least one of them is wrong (for sure if at least one of these is a religion that holds others to be false), but they both have many true-believing followers.

  15. Constant Says:

    “A phenomenon both more important and more common, I think, than some readers liking objectively bad books…”

    should read:

    “A phenomenon both more important and more common, I think, than some readers fooling themselves (for reasons of sunk cost or cognitive dissonance or whatever) into thinking they like books which they don’t genuinely like…”

  16. Lemmy Caution Says:

    Most people like most of the books that they read. People don’t tend to read “Of Grammatology”, “infinite jest”, or “Atlas Shrugged” by accident. Not everyone reads these books, but the people who do are predisposed to like these books from the start.

    I certainly was predisposed to like, and did like, the big books that I have read. Except for “Remembrance of things past”. That one was surprisingly mediocre.

    There is also a kind of network effect to popular books. If you read a popular book, you can likely find someone to talk about it with. This is valuable if you like to talk to people about books.

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