The 10 Most Notorious Parts of Famous Books

Gabe Habash -- January 31st, 2013

A little controversy goes a long way in the book world, where tweets from prestigious publishers resembling Kanye West lyrics cause people to flip out. In the case of the books below, notoriety and controversy have added an extra facet to their reputations, propelling discussion and (in some instances) fierce debate that involved censorship. Here are our picks for the most infamous passages of famous books. Some spoilers follow.

1. The talking poo in The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

If you read The Corrections a long time ago and forgot all about its industrial-to-tech themes, the particulars of its familial strife, or even the characters’ names, you probably remember Alfred, as he descends further and further into insanity, hallucinating that his poop is out to get him, hanging from the ceiling and marching on him. It’s hard to find a review of Franzen’s book without a take on the scene. Some examples:

“The passage is amusing, but it reduces Alfred to something of a ventriloquist’s doll.” – Yale Review of Books

“Alfred’s hallucinations of turds were grimly funny, too, though Franzen is well aware that humour like this carries a risk.” – The Guardian

“Franzen manages to take it to the point where we don’t worry about his mental state, because he is simply providing us with comedy gold.” – A Novel Approach

Nearly a decade after the book’s publication, people were still talking about it: Ron Charles of The Washington Post hinged the opening of his review of Freedom on Franzen’s scatology.

2. Leslie’s death in Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Katherine Paterson has been challenging adolescent emotional stability for over 30 years with Bridge to Terabithia, a nice tale of friendship in which Jess and Leslie pal around in made-up sanctuary Terabithia, which is actually better than their real lives. Thing is, Terabithia is only reachable by this rope swing, and this rope swing hangs over a pretty dangerous creek. And, one day, while trying to get to Terabithia, let’s just say Leslie doesn’t make it all the way across. Hey, kids, here’s your lesson: everybody dies!

3. The part with the prostitute in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Antsy kids can surely find more titillating outlets for their hormones today, but for decades you could find them under beds and in closets, hiding from their parents and reading The Catcher in the Rye for its juicier bits, which they heard from all their friends were juicy indeed. Holed up in the Edmont Hotel in New York City, Holden spends an ultimately unfulfilling evening out with older women, before inviting Sunny up to his room. Never mind that his invitation also goes unfulfilled, The Catcher in the Rye has experienced more censorship and controversy than just about every other book published in the last century.

4. “The Part About the Crimes” in 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Taking up about 1/3 of the 900 pages of Bolaño’s messy epic is a clinical section that systematically and coldly enumerates hundreds of brutal murders of women in the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa. The Guardian‘s Chris Power called the section “the most bluntly violent piece of writing I’ve ever read.” Giles Harvey of the New Yorker went so far as to warn readers to start somewhere else when starting Bolaño’s work, saying the book is “neither horror nor sympathy. It is exhaustion” and that 2666 is a “desert of negative space.” As with most of Bolaño’s work, there’s a sense of dread and unease throughout 2666‘s long trek, and that’s mainly because of the black hole of “The Part About the Crimes,” which seems to drag the novel’s four (less black holeish) other sections slowly toward it, pulling them under.

5. The “My mother is a fish.” chapter in As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

The most famous five-word chapter in literature is also, approximately, the moment when frustrated teenagers around America, assigned the book for school, give up trying to make sense of Faulkner’s obfuscating narrative and go back to playing Call of Duty.

6. Winnie not drinking the immortality juice in Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

Another children’s book notorious for its themes of mortality, Tuck Everlasting makes the list not because of its ability to cause devastating sadness, but because of Winnie’s decision to turn down the spring water given to her by Jesse, who wants her to drink it when she turns 17 so she can live forever with him. She doesn’t, eventually dying at age 78, blowing minds of children sort of like how the ending of Se7en blows minds of adults.

7. The ending in Atonement by Ian McEwan

She made it up.

8. The pig sex scene in A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck

Though A Day No Pigs Would Die could’ve made this list for its pig slaughter scene, in which Robert is forced to hold his beloved pet Pinky down so the pig can be turned into sausage, Peck’s novel is probably more notorious for a jarring scene involving the mating of a boar and a sow. A Day No Pigs Would Die was one of the American Library Association’s most challenged books in the 1990s; about the scene in question, the ALA citation said “it’s written like an animal version of a woman getting raped rather than a description of natural animal behavior.”

9. All that whaling in Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Melville’s classic is a difficult journey, and perhaps the most frequently recognized part is the book’s attention to the details and minutiae of whaling, and its most commonly cited offender: Chapter 32, “Cetology.”

Here a few quotes from unhappy readers:

“I recommend this book if you have an incrediably [sic] boring life to begin with that couldn’t get much worse and a lot of time on your hands.” (link)

“Words cannot express how deliriously happy I am that this ordeal is over. In short, which I’m sure is a word seldom used in a review of Moby-Dick, go rent the movie.” (link)

“Redburn was a stupid failure, Mardi was hopelessly dull, White-Jacket was worse than either; and, in fact, it was such a very bad book, that, until the appearance of Moby Dick, we had set it down as the very ultimatum of weakness to which its author could attain. It seems, however, that we were mistaken.” – Democratic Review, 1852

10. The deaths of Old Dan and Little Ann in Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

Bridge to Terabithia and Where the Red Fern Grows make up the Master Blaster of children’s book trauma. A lot of kids have been messed up by Charlotte’s death and Old Yeller’s death, but it’s hard to top the trauma caused by the end of Where the Red Fern Grows. Looking back on the book, it seems most plot points are specially designed to set up the ending for maximum sadness: little Billy saves up for the dogs for two years (two years! that’s roughly 10 years in adult time), sweetly names them after a tree carving he finds, has extended playing and training sessions, notices their individual, lovable personalities, hunts with them every day, wins the raccoon hunt because Old Dan and Little Ann chase a raccoon until they’re covered in ice. And then a mountain lion puts the lights out on Old Dan, who saves Billy’s life in the process, and then Little Ann dies–from sadness. Where the Red Fern Grows even tops the ultra-official “Saddest Book Ever” list.

8 thoughts on “The 10 Most Notorious Parts of Famous Books

  1. albawhall

    I read Melville’s opus while a student at Clover Park High School in Lakewood, WA circa 1962 and was enthralled by the opening sentence: “Call me Ismael…” until its majestic diapasonic ending: “…Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” I then proceeded to compare it to Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea in an essay contest under the aegis of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut and won $200, the prize for first place.

  2. Ellen

    Spoiler for “Heart is a Lonely Hunter”.
    Two books sit on my desk, and I re-read them every so often: “Catcher in the Rye” and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”. For me, the moment I understood that the mute Singer was about to end his life in Carson McCuller’s coming of age novel, I felt such a betrayal. I was only 17. I needed to read that book several more times, and grow up myself, before I understood that he needed to die in the story. The moment I read “he brought out a pistol from his pocket and put a bullet in his chest,” I felt like Mick. Growing up could not be stopped.

  3. cathy gillette

    secret to reading MD is to read every other chapter….skip all the fishy naratives and go for the meat of the story. A bit easier to swallow like that!

  4. Marcia

    I found Moby Dick slow sailing considerably before chap. 32, which was a dead stop (no, I did eventually restart, getting a decent grade being a good incentive to finish)

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