Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Lists, Best Of and Must Reads

More than ten years ago my mother mailed me a newspaper clipping that listed the 100 best novels. Knowing that I am a reader, she thought I might be interested. I was amused, as I often am by lists like this. The fact that the "expert's" list was juxtaposed with the "reader's" list is most interesting. Many of the reader's (everyman/woman) titles didn't even appear on the expert's list, which leaves me wondering about the value of such lists to begin with. Who is to say what book will appeal to a reader? This is one of the things I find so troubling about buying books as gifts. I must always ask myself, "Do I know this person well enough to make the right choice?"

I can happily say that I've read more than half of the books on the 100 best novels list, though I did not like them all. Many were required reading in high school and college. Some I have picked up on my own, while others I still intend (hope?) to read. I still have the list my mother sent me, with titles highlighted, and others with TBR next to them. Wishful thinking, I know.

You see, looking at my TBR list and the physical pile reminds me of a post Julius Lester wrote last year. Entitled How Many Books Can One Read?, Lester wrote:
The words that changed my life were spoken by one of the principal characters who is in college:

“She was tortured by the thought of all the things she’d never have time to do. ‘I figured out that if I read a book a week for the rest of my life, and if I live to be eighty, I’ll have read about three thousand books.’ She clutched Sally’s elbow. ‘That’s not enough!’” p. 116

Until I read that paragraph I had never thought about how many books I would read over the course of my life. But only three thousand? I would have thought many more than that. I read a book a week, sometimes a little more, which means I read between 52 and 60 books a year. And she is right: “That’s not enough!”
As my TBR list/pile grows, I can't help but think of these words. Will I ever be able to read enough? Here I don't just mean quantity, but breadth. I want to read more broadly, eclectically, internationally, but there are so many books and so little time.

All of this is a long-winded preface to the latest book list that has tantalized and vexed me. The Guardian has created a list of the 1000 novels everyone must read. The list is broken down into seven categories. Here are some brief descriptions of them with links to the list of books in each.

Love - So, what makes a great love story? Initially, this seemed the easiest of the seven categories that make up our series. All great novels are essentially about love, aren't they? As it turned out, things weren't so easy. There is, as one of our panel remarked of Madame Bovary, often precious little loving going on in these famous love stories. With the exceptions of Jane Austen and sometimes Dickens there are very few guaranteed happy endings.
Crime - "When I heard 'Humpty Dumpty Sat on the Wall' at an early age," PD James once said, "I thought 'did he fall or was he pushed?'" The classic mystery story is about a crime already committed, a past event the investigation has to reconstruct. A thriller involves a future threat to Humpty — an enemy's plan must be stopped. A thriller's thrills are frequent, whereas a crime writer can get away with one corpse.
Comedy - Comedy is not humour. You shouldn't expect to be laughing all the way through these novels. Sometimes you will be, but at other times you will be crying. Every comic, it is said, wants to play Hamlet, and many comic novelists — Evelyn Waugh, archetypally — have a serious purpose. The world's hypocrisies and deceptions are targets that must be attacked, comedy the literary weapon of choice.
Family & Self - In a 1925 essay on Katherine Mansfield, the American novelist Willa Cather wrote: "… In those simple relationships of loving husband and wife, affectionate sisters, children and grandmother, there are innumerable shades of sweetness and anguish which make up the pattern of our lives day by day, though they are not down in the list of subjects from which the conventional novelist works." The novel was invented in the 18th century to explore the fate of the individual, and this often meant severing him or her from family. Family life was to be escaped, or to be laughed at. Thus Cather's sense that fiction was discovering a new subject in family relationships.
State of the Nation - What brings together Midnight's Children, Middlemarch and The Corrections? We think they can all be called state-of-the-nation novels. Like all the books listed here, they address social questions or political changes - they think about the way we live now.
Science Fiction & Fantasy - It is sometimes assumed that science fiction, fantasy and horror must mean spaceships, elves and vampires - and indeed, you'll find Iain M Banks, Tolkien and Bram Stoker on our list of mind-expanding reads. Yet these three genres have a tradition as venerable as the novel itself. Fiction works through metamorphosis: in every era authors explore the concerns of their times by mapping them on to invented worlds, whether they be political dystopias, fabulous kingdoms or supernatural dimensions.
War & Travel - The last booklet in our series is essentially about journeys. Some are journeys of leisure, the kind of expeditions into faraway lands and adventures in exotic locations we loved reading about as children: tall tales about treasure islands, daredevil pilots and colonial exploits. Many of them are journeys of warfare: novels that frequently draw on the authors' experience and capture the excitement as well as the horror of war.
There is a great deal to consider here, many titles unknown to me, and much diversity of thought. My only problem now is deciding where to begin.


  1. For many years I interspersed books I wanted to read with books I (or someone else) felt I ought to read. I've given up. Now I'll settle for the ones I want to read - there'll still be far too many. But since my idea of Heaven is a library and I don't think I've been bad enough to go the other way I guess I'm OK!

  2. Begin with the next one that strikes your fancy. Then look down the list and do the same thing again. And so on and so on. If you're reading it and it's not for you, toss it aside and try another. It's fun! Don't make it stressful.

  3. I don't like lists of Books you must read because there are so many books out there and any list is going to be biased in some way (even if its in the Guardian!). My tastes are very eclectic too.

    Having said that i find the Guaridan lists fascinating and am working my way through them...

  4. How pleased I was to find Richmal Compton's William books on the Guardian list under Comedy Part One! I remember them with great affection and must re-visit one soon.