Can I (re)read this?
December 28, 2021 5:27 PM   Subscribe

A.k.a. What books haven't been visited by The Suck Fairy?

The other day The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy came up, and I thought to myself, "I could use something light. Maybe I should read it again? It's been ages. That it was funny as hell is about all I can remember about it. Something about being aware of the location of a towel at all times, Belgium, and Vogon poetry." But, then I thought, maybe that is precisely why I shouldn't read it, so I can just remember how hilarious it was without discovering bigotry or offensiveness that I skated right over (or even worse, thought was funny as an ignorant youth) forty years ago....

What are some popular books you read growing up that we can unconditionally enjoy today without cringing?

(Note: Please do not list up all of the well-known offenders. Which oldies are just plain good to read?)

P.S. Thanks to two MeFites, Ghidorah and Strutter Cane - United Planets Stilt Patrol, for encouraging me to post this and helping frame the ask in a more useful way than just, "Is HGTTG safe to read these days?"
posted by Gotanda to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Watership Down.

Although I know it's supposed to be a kids-type book (or at least that's how I've always seen it), I first picked up Watership Down as a 12 year old - a battered paperback copy purchased at a yard sale in California while visiting my father. I am now 55 years old; I still have that battered copy, plus at least one other "good" copy. To me, it's a book that I don't get tired of. It still "reads" as well to me today as it did all those years ago.
posted by annieb at 6:09 PM on December 28, 2021 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I find HHGTTG to be pleasantly re-readable. I go back through it every few years for a nostalgic, relaxing read.

I also feel the same way about Lord of the Rings and the Earthsea books.
posted by gnutron at 6:16 PM on December 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Anything by Ursula K le Guin or Terry Pratchett are my go to golden oldies that I just simply enjoy reading. I can simply loose myself in a Terry Pratchett book. Also HHGTTG I like the whole series, though am the first to admit the later entries aren't great I still like them.
posted by wwax at 6:48 PM on December 28, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: I loved and still love The Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper, first read it as a teen and still re-read occasionally decades later. It isn't as popular as the other series about a 13 year old boy who turns out to be magical and fights for good against evil with his friends, but the writing is much more refined and, I daresay, glorious.
posted by wicked_sassy at 6:56 PM on December 28, 2021 [15 favorites]

Best answer: L.M. Montgomery's entire catalog will never not be wonderful for me, especially the Emily of New Moon series, which is surprisingly dark and adult-oriented.
posted by something something at 7:17 PM on December 28, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: Good question. I am second-guessing myself almost every time I think of something to suggest. Like I LOVE Ellen Raskin so much that I reread her books all the time. I However, there are moments when I wince. I am in the middle of rereading Figgs & Phantoms which is my fave of hers. The words that make me wince now are words that were considered totally cool at the time she wrote the book. The ideas are still good and the words are used appropriately for the time, but still I find a few of the words are discomfiting.

So I'm hoping my memory serves me that the following are not at all in any way shape or form problematic:

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede

Tatterhood and Other Tales

Beverly Cleary, especially any books featuring Ramona Quimby.

Seconding Watership Down and The Dark is Rising.
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 7:21 PM on December 28, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The Phantom Tollbooth is still wonderful.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 7:33 PM on December 28, 2021 [11 favorites]

Best answer: I reread Hitchhiker's Guide often and it holds up remarkably well. And Terry Pratchett has only gotten better. I used to appreciate him mostly for the humor, but it's honestly extraordinary what a strong, clear-eyed humanist he was and how much bite there is behind the gentle satire. The Night's Watch series is arguably copaganda but if you're able to look past that, it has some lovely points to make about justice. The same is mostly true of T.H. White's The Once and Future King, but there are some startling moments including one instance of racist terminology (clearly cast as ignorant, but basically the ideas hold up but if you're looking for something that will never jar you, skip this one).

I didn't get into it until my mid-teens, but Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad has continued to do right by me, and has a little of that Hitchhiker's Guide feel. Ditto Daniel Pinkwater—I haven't reread everything, but he has a lot of the Terry Pratchett love for humanity about him and I'd be surprised to find any mean-spirited jokes.
posted by babelfish at 8:12 PM on December 28, 2021 [10 favorites]

Best answer: A Wrinkle in Time is still pretty good but my money's on HHGTTG if you're looking for light. However, while it's not particularly easy-going, I've read Borges' Collected Fictions enough in the last twenty years that I've gone through four copies.
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 8:14 PM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Earthsea Trilogy is great, but only if you follow it by reading Tehanu, in which... Okay, I won't say it because it's potentially a spoiler, but really, if you have concerns about Earthsea you should reread it just so you can read Tehanu and see how your concerns get addressed by a brilliant writer.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 8:29 PM on December 28, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: I would say that Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man hold up almost entirely. There are some dated ideas to be sure but nothing that made me put it down and think "huh" last time I read it!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:32 PM on December 28, 2021 [3 favorites]

Even the ones that aren't actively problematic, I now find they almost all depend on the reader's ability to skate past one or more pervasive non-inclusions: male default, everybody's white except to make a point, everybody's straight and cis.

Phantom Tollbooth is pretty heavily male-default, I found when I reread it to an audience who pick up on that. Watership Down is 98% male rabbits doing anything (all-male party must acquire does). Lem: scientist dudes. Le Guin of all people famously absorbed sexism into her writing.

It's writing from a different time. You can find examples that are inclusive on one or maybe even two axes, but :shrug:.
posted by away for regrooving at 9:34 PM on December 28, 2021 [14 favorites]

Best answer: I recently reread Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry for the first time since I was probably 7 or 8. I hardly remembered the book at all, just that I thought it was good and it made me cry. It was even better than I recalled. Way better. The story is just as relevant today as it was when it was written and I think it should be required reading for all Americans.

(Without exaggeration I credit Mildred D Taylor's Logan family books with saving me from the brainwash of growing up white in the south. It wasn't until rereading Roll of Thunder just a few weeks ago that I realized how much those stories had stayed with me. What's the opposite of suck fairy...the high priestess of poignancy?--because that's what visited these.)
posted by phunniemee at 9:37 PM on December 28, 2021 [12 favorites]

There's no real way to know till you try. It depends so much on the book and on you. Also there's "wow I did not realize how much this sucked" vs. "this doesn't suck but it doesn't speak to me like it did once." And that's fine, you've changed, it doesn't mean all the good memories go away. I don't spend any time remembering the plots of the terrible Xanth books I once devoured, but I do remember how much I loved going to the used bookstore and getting a new one, plus some other new books, with my allowance. Anthony is a garbage dude, but most of that garbage sailed over my head at the time, I just wanted to read about dragons and other magic critters.

I reread some of the Anne McCaffrey books last summer and I can still see why I liked them, while also seeing the big 'ol plot holes and sexism that she also had in there. But the whole idea of mind-melding with a dragon and flying around, that's good shit, and it still is fun to read about it.
posted by emjaybee at 9:39 PM on December 28, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Diana Wynn Jones is great, as are Pratchett and Gaiman of course.

Brandon Sanderson is safe.

C. J. Cherryh is almost certainly safe.
posted by Jacen at 10:32 PM on December 28, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Pern is Problematic but the Harper Hall Trilogy, the ones about Menolly, hold up nicely and were a delight for me to reread a few years ago on a vacation.

For a gothier take on teen girl coming of age, the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix (Sabriel, etc) remain amazing. Bonus, the fifth book was published this November! So if you just read the first one back in the mid nineties, or the original trilogy, you’ve got at least a couple new books to read.
posted by Mizu at 11:13 PM on December 28, 2021 [5 favorites]

Different kind of classic: Sapkowski's Witcher books have held up surprisingly well, with diversity and strong advocacy for women and ethnic minorities. Rereading recently, I realised I completely forgot about a nonbinary character in the last book of the saga, which for something written in the mid-90s in Poland was absolutely boggling.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:13 AM on December 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

I recently picked up an old Mercedes Lackey trilogy (the Last Mage trilogy, though it was the Arrows of the Queen one I'd read when younger), and I thought her work holds up quite well. Her oeuvre includes main and side characters who are women and/or queer, not just straight men, and even the straight men usually have healthy relationships with their and others' emotions and sexuality, or when they don't it is seen as a problem, not just dudes being dudes or whatever.
posted by solotoro at 4:40 AM on December 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I hate to have to say this, I love the book dearly - but Watership Down contains a racist story! When I read it as a kid, I had no idea, because as an American I was not familiar with the slur "w*g." "Rowsby Woof And the Fairy W*gdog" is a very funny story told by Dandelion, but yeah, that slur, and it's definitely intended, as there's also a lot of talk about the "mysterious East." It's still a brilliant book, but that part does make me cringe now that I understand it.
posted by tomboko at 5:50 AM on December 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

A note on The Dark is Rising - I was recently going to recommend it to a kid I know when I started reading the first few chapters of Over Sea, Under Stone to see if it was as good as I remembered. Early in the book the kids start playing some game where they're brave colonialists exploring a "savage land" with primitive "native" servants and whatnot. Since the kid was themselves a "native" of one such "savage" land, I ended up not recommending it, even though as I recall the rest of the book didn't have that kind of crap in it.

(Also iirc there was a bunch of casual "girls are stupid" stuff from the boys, which is clearly not meant as the author's pov, but still is one of those things that has some effect on readers.)

Still a great book in many ways, but.
posted by trig at 6:01 AM on December 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

I read the Hobbit to my then 9-year old, and it mostly held up, but she was crushed to realize partway through that Fili and Kili were male (she had decided somehow that they were girls), and then I realized that there were no meaningful female characters at all. I never even noticed as a little girl that only boys were having adventures in my favorite books, so I suppose it’s progress?
posted by chocotaco at 6:42 AM on December 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

I do love LM Montgomery, but Rilla of Ingleside is very pro-Great War and anti-German.
posted by rikschell at 7:59 AM on December 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

and then I realized that there were no meaningful female characters at all.

I was rather blown away as an adult when I read Treasure Island -- not just for the entirely engaging characters and the tautness of the tale but also the prose itself. Perhaps because it was intentionally written for adolescent readers, it chose to skip a lot of the excess verbiage which (for me) bogs down so much 19th century literature, so the whole thing really clips along, ends up feeling very modern. And in the end, there isn't even a moral. You've got to work that out for yourself.

But yes, beyond the kid's mom at the beginning, I don't recall there being a single female character.
posted by philip-random at 9:22 AM on December 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I love LM Montgomery, and I re-read her often, but there are a lot of racist asides in her books and she wrote at least one completely terrible and very racist short story.

Non-racist reads: anything by Laurence Yep. I just made a post about Lois Lowry, and remember her books being quite good.
posted by toastyk at 9:45 AM on December 29, 2021

Best answer: Elizabeth Enright's books hold up quite well considering they were written a full lifetime ago.

Further back, Nesbit is still fairly readable, though not free of the gross "[Roma but the G word]" and "savage" material that many books are chock full of.

More recently, Alexander Key doesn't have active cringe moments that are coming to my mind.
posted by away for regrooving at 10:53 AM on December 29, 2021

I do love LM Montgomery, but Rilla of Ingleside is very pro-Great War and anti-German.

I find that to be a strange assessment - I've read that book several times (as a child and as an adult), and I would have said that it was the book that shaped my understanding of WWI as a horrible, pointless war that dragged on for no good reason (famously ruining what were to have been Rilla's "golden years"). The characters may start as pro-war (and anti-German), but they change over the course of the book.

There are plenty of racist or questionable bits in Montgomery (e.g., how she depicts francaphones), but pro-war sentiment isn't one of them.
posted by jb at 12:11 PM on December 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: "A Wind in the Willows" should be safe, and is definitely lightweight.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:11 PM on December 29, 2021 [3 favorites]

I was surprised and very disappointed when I read Babar the Elephant to my child, but Ferdinand the Bull held up beautifully.
posted by metonym at 3:20 PM on December 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Betsy-tacy and deep valley companion the 50s Lovelace also wrote The Trees Kneel at Christmas, a contemporary book about the Lebanese Catholic community in Brooklyn.
posted by brujita at 3:50 PM on December 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Adding to the chorus that the Hitchhikers Guides hold up (though the last one is pretty iffy - but it was just as skippable when it was new), and loudly seconding all of Ellen Raskin.

The Last Unicorn is still magical every time I revisit it.
posted by Mchelly at 6:48 PM on December 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn holds up.
posted by telegraph at 11:39 PM on December 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

> Sapkowski's Witcher books have held up surprisingly well, with diversity and strong advocacy for women

There's a scene in one of the short story collections where a sexual assault against Yennefer (I think, I don't have it on hand) is played for laughs.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:15 AM on December 30, 2021

I'm pretty sure Harriet the Spy holds up well (and probably the two sequels as well).
posted by kristi at 6:04 PM on December 30, 2021

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