15 Books Everyone Gets Wrong
It’s hard to write a book, and it’s even harder to write that one that people don’t completely misunderstand. The literary canon is full of great works that were unrelentingly labored over by their authors, only for generations of college students to come away with the exactly wrong message -- and, in some cases, arguing it to the author’s face.
The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus is a “cautionary tale of the decadent downside of the American dream” that intensely criticizes the 20th-century class system and ends with a bunch of murder, but the main thing people seemed to take away from it is “parties in the ‘20s ruled.”
Likewise, Fight Club was an absurd satire that punched holes in the idea of the American dream, but that message got a little lost in a sea of washboard abs. “Ideally, each person would leave Fight Club and go on to live whatever their dream was,” author Chuck Palahniuk has said. “It wasn’t about perpetuating Fight Club itself.” The people who did -- like Tyler Durden, who everyone seems to forget is a villain, and his alter alter ego, who ends up institutionalized -- didn’t get very happy endings, but they did make domestic terrorism look super cool.
Thinking a story about actual book burning is about censorship is an easy mistake to make, but it turns out Bradbury was thinking way more literally. According to him, Fahrenheit 451 is about the ‘50s television boom destroying interest in literature, but the misinterpretation is so pervasive that he was driven out of a UCLA lecture by people who kept telling him he was wrong about his own book.
Thus Spake Zarathustra
It’s similarly easy to read about some great king daddy and “master races” of “blond beasts of prey” and think that’s some Nazi shit right there, and that’s not entirely unintentional, but it wasn’t Nietzsche who intended it. It was his sister, who edited his work after his death and happened to be a big fat Nazi. Her brother hated her and all her Nazi friends, and his idea of the ubermensch had more to do with individual moral determination than any particular skin color. In fact, he described “the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings” as all “sharing the need” to “go back to the wilderness,” which he meant super literally. It turns out those blond beasts were lions.
Dictators have long been fans of Machiavelli, particularly The Prince, which would have no doubt tickled him senseless because he was very obviously making fun of them. He was actually a big believer in democracy.
Alice in Wonderland
The favorite book of every high school senior with more than one lava lamp in the year of our lord 2022 was actually written by a huge dork who was mad about math. Although originally just a silly story told to a little girl he was maybe a little too friendly with, it eventually became a satire of what Lewis Carroll, a mathematician by trade, saw as the introduction of nonsense rules and abstraction into the field. Basically, it’s a book about how much algebra sucks.
The Works of George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four was more about the power of language than censorship or surveillance, Animal Farm was more about the pitfalls of violent revolution than any particular political belief, Orwell himself was a staunch socialist, and no one on Twitter knows how to read.
Vladimir Nabokov’s exploration of the unreliable narrator was never supposed to be a book you couldn’t read on the bus without everyone getting ideas about you. In fact, Nabokov wrote the narrator as a sexual predator specifically to show the audience what a horrifying guy he is.
On the Road
The whole point of On the Road was that Kerouac never found what he was looking for out there, but he made it sound so fun that he inspired a group of people he completely hated as a traditional Catholic to drift similarly aimlessly.
Sure, Stephen King’s ode to how much Colorado sucks in the winter is about ghosts and furries, but that’s really all just set dressing for a story about the dangers of alcoholism.
Venus in Furs
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch ended his spicy novella by explicitly declaring the moral of the story, that the modern woman of the 19th century could “only be slave or his despot, but never his companion,” which could only be achieved “when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work,” but people were so busy furiously jerking it that they completely missed his message about equality and named the concept of pain as sexual pleasure after him.
A Clockwork Orange
The American publishers of A Clockwork Orange initially omitted the final chapter in which the unrepentant protagonist simply gets bored of rape and murder and starts considering settling down and having a family as the ultimate ultraviolence, meaning English and American audiences were reading completely different books.
Upton Sinclair’s behind-the-scenes peek at how the actual sausage is made was supposed to illustrate the horrors of American factory work under capitalism, but instead of converting the country to socialism, it only led to specific reforms of the meatpacking industry. Teddy Roosevelt, who was president at the time, dismissed Sinclair as a crackpot even as he enacted those reforms.
Into the Wild
Like Kerouac before him, Chris McCandless went off into the great unknown to find the meaning of life and completely failed, although in his case, it wasn’t just spiritually. He died a horrible death thanks to his undue focus on escaping the trappings of modern life and not enough research on how to actually do that, but that hasn’t stopped tons of fans from embarking on their own journeys to the place where, it cannot be overstated, nature murdered his ass cold.
Mary Shelley was certainly inspired by the creepy scientific developments of the 19th century in the creation of her monster, but she was also a teenager and probably less concerned with the consequences of playing God than the responsibilities of parents to their children. Yes, the book that invented science-fiction was largely a temper tantrum.
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