How I Came to Terms with the Fact that One of My Favorite Literary Characters is a Moron

Sherlock Holmes Illustration

An original 1891 illustration of Holmes and Watson by Sidney Paget. Notice how Watson is staring blankly into space, probably trying to remember if he’s wearing pants.

There is a phenomenon in the reading community where readers hate on other people for liking a film adaptation of a book if they haven’t read the book first. I have to admit that I am guilty of both hating people for not reading the book first, and of being one of the people who didn’t read the book first. You can call this hypocrisy, because it is. My love of Sherlock Holmes is the perfect example of when I was guilty of this crime against literature. Up until recently, my exposure to Sherlock Holmes was limited to movies, television, and one short story that I read in high school. Yet, I consider Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to be two of my favorite literary characters of all time. What can I say? Didactic displays of logic and intellect thrill me.

Additionally, thanks to the BBC’s Sherlock (2010-present) and Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes (2009), I fell in love with the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. In my mind, they are the ultimate bromance: a perfect example of two very different people who can work together to do good while exchanging witty banter. Because I can never get enough Holmes and Watson in my life, I decided that I was [finally] going to read all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and novels. I had no idea that this decision was going to ruin everything. During my journey through Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels, I had to come to terms with a very hard truth: the original Dr. Watson is a complete moron.

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Wilkie Collins: Master of Mystery

The Moonstone Book Cover

Many critics consider Wilkie Collins’s novel The Moonstone (1868) to be the first detective novel in the English language. It created many of the tropes that we still see in detective stories today.

Dear Wilkie Collins,

This may come as a shock, but I don’t want to fight with you. No, I want to fight for you. While critics remember you for your two best novels, The Moonstone (1868) and The Woman in White (1859), hardly anyone outside of a college-level British literature course has even heard of you. Meanwhile, your buddy Charles Dickens is read every day by high school students across the globe. This is criminal.

First of all, I have to tell you that I like your books a lot. You know how everyone has those topics that make them freak out with enthusiasm? Well, Wilkie, you’re one of those topics for me. People see me thumping my copy of The Woman in White and start running. I, as a matter of course, run after them yelling , “Did you read it yet?” This may be why I don’t have many friends. Yet, if I’m being fair, I must admit that I’m also a fan of Dickens.

Dickens was the first classic author I ever remember reading on my own. My middle school nickname, Pip, came from Great Expectations. In the eighth grade, I’m pretty sure I was in love with David Copperfield. My point is: Dickens was a very important part of my life as a reader. So, this is not just an excuse for me to hate on Charles Dickens. Honestly, and this is difficult to admit, Dickens is an overall better author than you are. I mean, look at how many of his books are still remembered and discussed over a hundred years after their publication. His track-record is incredible. There’s Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and that’s just off the top of my head. He produced consistently good work, most of which will still be read two hundred years from now. But, Wilkie, here’s your consolation prize: at your best, you are so much better than Dickens.

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“Pamela:” Hardly a Humble Servant

Pamela Book Cover

Pamela by Samual Richardson, first published in 1740, was a best-seller for its time.

Pamela, you stand as an eighteenth century tribute to the traditional fairytale belief that any woman, as long as she is humble and virtuous, can marry a “prince.” As a poor servant girl, it is a credit to your character that you win the affections of Mr B, your master. Sure, he kidnaps you and tries to rape you multiple times; but, he’s a wealthy gentleman, so good for you (I guess?). If you’re happy with your marriage, then who am I to remind you of the time he dressed up like a maid in order to sneak into your bed. Or how he hid in a variety of different closets so that he could jump out and surprise you into having sex with him. Or how he had you held captive in one of his houses, and all of the neighbors were so terrified of him that they wouldn’t help rescue you, a fifteen-year-old kidnap victim. Or the fact that after you got married, he made you agree to a bunch of insane promises, including one that said that you must always believe that what he says is right, even when it’s obvious that it’s wrong. Yeah, I’m not going to bring up any of that stuff, because it’s really none of my business. You don’t see a problem with any of those things, so who am I to judge? What I really want to talk about is your assertions that this gentleman “blessed” you with his love because of your virtue and your humble nature.

I’m not going to question your virtue. Your resistance to Mr. B’s attempts to seduce you verbally was impressive. You truly didn’t want to willingly give up your virginity before marriage. However, once Mr. B began his attempts to rob you of that virtue using brute force, you have to admit that you got lucky. The way that you fainted every time Mr. B popped out of a closet or bonnet with the intent to rape you, while effective, is not something you can take credit for. Who would have guessed beforehand that Mr. B would lose interest in the woman he was trying to sexually assault the second she stopped screaming in horror and went limp? Regardless of any luck that was involved, you are right to say that your dedication to your virtue helped win Mr. B’s genuine affection. It turns out, he’s really impressed by any woman who can resist his many charms.

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“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”: Are You Sure We’re Thinking of the Same Jane Austen?

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

The way-too-promising cover for “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (2009) by Seth Grahame-Smith.

I’m a big fan of parody. I love parody because it combines two of my favorite things: humor and social commentary. There’s something so refreshing about seeing a familiar thing turned on its head to get laughs. That’s why when a student mentioned you, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, in a parody course, I immediately added you to my reading list. I’ve read all of Jane Austen’s novels, and while I enjoyed them, I could easily imagine all of the ways she could be successfully parodied. Additionally, I, like most people, am quite familiar with zombies and their current, substantial place in our culture. Therefore, your combination of the two was something that I found very intriguing. So, upon finally getting the opportunity to read your story, I was disappointed to find a small problem with your parody: it’s not funny.

Now, this is where I have to admit that I only read your first ten pages. Before chastising me for not giving it a chance, let me tell you something about myself: I don’t leave things unfinished. When I read a book, I always read all of the introductions, prefaces, author’s notes, and appendixes, because otherwise I feel guilty. When I start playing a video game, I can’t play anything else until I beat that game to 100%. Hell, I even eat only one box of cereal at a time, including most of the crumbles at the bottom of the bag. (Except for with Mini-Wheats, because gross.) Knowing this, how awful does a book have to be for me to justify giving up after only ten pages? (more…)

Robinson Crusoe: Helpless Victim or Parrot Overlord?

**I address this post to Robinson Crusoe, a fictional character from Daniel Defoe’s book of the same name. I know that Crusoe is not a real person, and that the book is not actually a factual story. However, according to Wikipedia, Daniel Defoe told people that Robinson Crusoe was actually a real person and that Defoe himself just edited the text. So, by addressing my argument to Crusoe himself, I believe that I am preserving the true spirit of the text. Besides, it’s easier, and more fun, to say, “You’re an idiot,” than it is to say, “You’re an idiot for creating a character that is also an idiot.”**

Robinson Cruose

An illustration of Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson – may I call you Robinson? (This is a rhetorical question. I am going to call you Robinson. Consider it a semi-hostile power play.) Well Robinson, I am not sure how to approach this topic, as I cannot confidently say whether you are delusional, stupid, or just egotistical. I think the most likely answer is that you are a frightening combination of all three. At least, all three of these characteristics show themselves in your tale of shipwreck and life on a desert island. You are the first person, besides maybe Tom Hanks and Gilligan, that people reference when they talk of someone stranded on an island. Here’s the problem though, Robinson: your boat never really stranded you on that desert island. That’s a lot of fame for something that never even happened.

It turns out that the dictionary defines the word “stranded” in a few different ways. The definition that is implied in my assertion reads, “to bring into or leave in a helpless position*.” As in, “You keep insisting that you were stranded on a desert island, and I keep insisting that you’re wrong.” The alternate, stupid, definition is “to drive or leave (a ship, fish, etc.) aground or ashore*.” As in, “When your ship sank you were stranded on the beach, but you were never stranded on the island, you idiot.” You see the problem.

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“The Inferno” by Dan Brown: Please, Get a Grip (Part 2: Let me Roogle it on my oPhone)

The Inferno

An alternate book cover for Dan Brown’s “The Inferno” (2013).

Okay, so you might be able to argue that your story takes place in some alternate universe where professors are rock stars and people who have read one of Robert Langdon’s books somehow automatically know his entire life story and bibliography by heart. Fine, I’ll give you that; I can suspend my disbelief. However, as someone under the age of 50, I cannot overlook your complete lack of understanding when it comes to smartphones and the internet.

The sections involving these technologies read like advertisements directed at old people. “Look at this elderly woman with bad eyesight using her iPhone to listen to her emails.” Who is emailing this elderly woman, and why is it so important that she listen to her emails in a museum? These are questions that you never answer. While having your phone read your emails is a real feature of this kind of technology, not everything you depict works with the ease you describe. You’re the reason the elderly completely misunderstand the functions and limitations of technology. Take a moment to think about that. Your duel portrayal of technology as both a tool that is ruining society (Langdon repeatedly talks about how technology negatively affects his students) and magic is contributing to the ever-widening generation gap and confusing old people. You confuse old people.

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“The Inferno” by Dan Brown: Please, Get a Grip (Part 1: The World’s Only Academic Rock Star)

The Inferno

“The Inferno” (2013) by Dan Brown is the fourth of Brown’s books to feature Robert Langdon.

Listen, Inferno, we need to talk. No book is flawless, but some of your flaws are a bit more concerning than most. I can accept your unrealistic characters. Although, come on, not everyone is a genius, and not every genius knows crazy amounts about Dante. I can even come to terms with the fact that you actually use amnesia as a plot device. What I can’t deal with is your complete lack of understanding concerning how basic aspects of the world work. Everyday concepts like fame, technology, and sex seem to be a mystery to you. I know that criticism is difficult to handle, and I don’t want to offend you. I just want to take the opportunity to point out some of the ways in which you are out of touch with reality, and explain to you why you are a gigantic, jumbled moron of a book. That’s all.

What does fame mean to you? I figure you must have thought a lot about the concept of fame since your protagonist, Robert Langdon, is a Harvard professor who is famous in his field. You state this fact at least a dozen times on the first page alone, so it must be important. In reality though, what does being a famous professor mean? Do me a favor: find some random people on the street and ask if they went to college. If they did, ask them to think back to their field of study. Regardless of their majors, you can bet that each field has at least a few famous scholars. Can they name one? Unless they’re in some field that names ideas after the people who come up with them, like mathematics or psychology, chances are, they can’t.

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