Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 119 in August, 2009.
The Worst Book I Ever Read
by The Unbearables
(Autonomedia Books, 2009)
Review by Anitta Santiago
The Unbearables have been known for pulling the Persian rug out from under the literary establishment. Their newest anthology, then, The Worst Book I Ever Read, where each of the Unbearable contributors, self described as ‘poetic terrorists,’ are given the opportunity to eviscerate a dearly despised book promises to be bloody. Indeed, the centerfold, displaying, according to its introduction, “a few of the many ways a ‘bad’ book can be deconstructed,” shows several ‘bloody’ images and blood can at least be inferred in nearly all of them. The play, of course, is on the deconstruction. What’s the difference between deconstruction and destruction? Somewhere in between, there’s a con.
What you begin to realize while reading the worst book is that rather than pulling the Persian rug out from under these worst books, it’s rolling out the red carpet. It does this not in a cheap tabloid sense where bad publicity boosts fame, but in a sneakier way. First of all, it must be said that no blanket claims can be made about this book. Each contributor approaches the theme differently, and the books attacked range from the usual suspects to books you’ve never heard of, to books you wouldn’t think of, to books that don’t exist. While there is rhyme to the anthology’s organization there’s no reason to read it by order of appearance. But be careful with what you skip. A piece on dictionaries taught this inexperienced dictionary buyer a valuable lesson, and Nicosia and Vitale’s footnotes are not to be skipped. The individual character of each contribution promises a different experience each time you approach the book. That being said, over the course of reading you do start to see, if not a pattern, a notion that collects some amount of steam. The thing you begin to notice is that these books are the worst not necessarily because of any deficiency but because of their tremendous power. The worst books have the power to make a not-very-wonderful man rise to the occasion, to cause natural disasters while reading, to end relationships, to hurt and eat you, to teach you the power of “bad” words, to give birth to doppelgangers, to ruin you on movies that could have been horrible in their own right instead of being horrible by comparison, to win Pulitzer in spite of themselves, to inspire a creative rancor. Most of all, the worst books have the power to live on after their death/destruction—the first page of the book is the worst book’s tombstone.
We’ve still to deal with the title. The anthology declares itself The Worst Book… If it would seem that we go from bloody terrorism to humbly, self-deprecating testament to the power of literature, even at its worst, the con doesn’t end there. The power of literature, as clearly displayed by those worst books is a dangerous power, and The Worst Book as a title goes from self-deprecation to usurpation of that dangerous power of worst books. The bloody terrorism returns and we realize the carpet is red for a reason. “A final aporia,” Zummer offers in “I Play My Guitar The Way I Want,” “once again, it is often the case that the very worst books that one reads also open onto, and even reside among, the very best.” The Worst Book takes this to its very extreme. The best of literature resides in literature at its bloody worst.