Recently, I posted a list, a book meme that has been circulating, of 100 selected titles. I commented regarding the oddity of the list. There seemed to be no underlying pattern to the works selected. It contained both classics and popular fiction; high brow and low brow and everything in between. Several commented here or on their own blogs about how eclectic the list was (Anne, Pinky, Gayle, Sassy).
Then I came across Myrtias's blog with a listing from the Modern Library's identifying their picks for Best 100 Novels. (Danielle posted this list too.) At first I thought I could do the same thing, marking those I had read, those I was unfamiliar with, those that I wouldn't touch with a metaphoric literary 10-foot pole, those that I owned, as if their presence on my shelves accrued some additional value or meaning. I scanned the list and realized that the stats for my reading (or not reading) was similar for both lists. I had read a few more works on the 100 books meme (23 vs 35) , there were about a dozen works on the Modern Library list that I might want to read in the future (vs 9), those that I was unfamiliar with was about the same (11 vs 15) and there were 5 fewer works on the ML list in the keep at least 10-feet away category.
The more interesting thing, though, was to analyze these two lists, not what I had read. There were only 8 works in common (The Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, Catch-22, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, and Ulysses). The first list was dominated by women authors -- 42 works by 38 different authors; the Modern Library list had only 9 works by 8 female authors. 42% of the Modern Library list represents 17 authors, almost exclusively male. The ML list does not include works in translation; the first list does (e.g., Tolstoy, Garcia Marquez, Saint-Exupery, Hugo, Dostoyevsky).
Maybe the point is, it doesn't matter who compiles the list. Is the Modern Library list any less esoteric than the other? Like the other list, it reflects a certain perspective, a bias of the list-makers. One could argue endlessly about the makings of a literary canon and the gender biases (or ethnic, cultural, etc. ) of those who establish that canon. I think those discussions are important ones in terms of understanding the inherent biases, but it doesn't mean that such a list in invalid, only incomplete, or not in harmony with many people's experiences.
I prefer to read "good" works of fiction, but I don't know that I can define what that is. A trek through my bookshelves would certainly yield an interesting and esoteric list. Some of what I have read is good, some bad, some "trash" that I loved despite not having any lasting value beyond the fun of reading and the actual content of the work forgotten moments after closing the cover.
You will find The Modern Library's complete list posted here, along side the 100 Best Novels list by readers. The reader list has several works by Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged is ranked #1 on the Reader List), L. Ron Hubbard, Frank Herbert, along side Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Hemingway. This explains the origins of the lists, developed in 1998. The goal of the "100 Best" project was to get people talking about great books. We succeeded beyond our wildest imaginings — more than 400,000 avid readers rushed online to cast votes for their favorite books...."
Perhaps it isn't possible to make a list without some controversy, with an unbiased perspective. But, if the goal is to talk about books, does it really matter? Does it matter if what I consider a good book is different from yours?
I don't think so.