23 February 2007

Making Lists of "good" books

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.


LK said...

Thanks, Cam, will check out. You raise some interesting points here.

At least, these types of list introduce dialogue -- and maybe generate interest in literature. And that I'm all for!

Personally, I look at the lists to remind myself what I have yet to read!

Ted said...

I really like your breakdown and comparison of the two lists. It would be interesting to mark up the Modern Library list in the same way -- I think there would be more I had on my shelf but hadn't read, since I'm always grabbing books I know to be "classics" if I see them for cheap.

It's certainly not possible to make a list that aims to objectivity without any controversy. Indeed, I think this is one of the best things about lists: they inspire controversy, discussion, and awareness. I don't think Steinbeck should be as high on ML list as he is, but in order to explain this I'd have to make a clear, well-reasoned argument that truly considered his text -- something I definitely don't feel up to now, and would take some time. This is one of the things that makes me love lists.

Emily Barton said...

It's interesting that I haven't read as many on the ML list as I had on that other list we did, but of the ones I have read on the ML list, there isn't a single one I didn't love when I read it. And I agree that it doesn't necessarily matter whether people agree or disagree on books, but it's great to find so many people willing to talk about them.

chiefbiscuit said...

I'm like you (at least what I have assumed from reading your blog) I am no longer prepared to waste my time reading something I don't consider enjoyable reading - no matter what others may say about it. And I tend to shy away from books EVERYONE is recommending ... puts me off - okay, I'm a bit of a snob!

Dorothy W. said...

On the positive side, lists DO get people talking -- they are a good starting point for dialogue. On the negative side, lists can make or break reputations, they can exclude certain types of writers from getting published or getting attention, they can influence syllabi for decades and possibly keep certain great people from getting read. We can't do without lists, of course, but the way they get used can be kind of troubling sometimes!

(un)relaxeddad said...

Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard. Is it possible the project of universal literacy has been a little too successful?

On the other hand, this is as good a time for people to read 'Dune' as ever, in a strange sort of way.

Cam said...

(un)RD -- your comment about universal literacy made me laugh! :) Why is now a good time for "Dune"? (Although I read it eons ago, I don't remember much about the specifics)

Dorothy, Emily & LK - Yes, lists certainly get people talking! Which makes blogging about books fun!

CB -- I'm a bit of a snob too, although I'm trying to get over it. I look at some of the titles on the book list meme and think eee gads! People read that trash?. But I have to remember that they may feel the same about some of my favorites and realize that I've probably overlooked some excellent works because I made the wrong assumptions about the work. On the other hand, a book better grab my attention early, because I won't waste time -- there are too many good books out there.

Ted -- I'm not sure about Steinbeck's inclusion either. I don't have strongly negative feelings about his works, but if I were composing such a list, I'm not sure that I would even think of Steinbeck, or several of the other authors included. I think it says something about the lists that there are so many repeated authors. What were the standards to describe 'great'? I'm not sure that I can describe what it is. It's a "I know it when I see it" sort of a thing.

(un)relaxeddad said...

Because a) it's a novel about ecology and the environment and b) it features a tribe of proto-Arabs who take on the might of the Imperial Empire and beat it using, er, giant sandworms. Perhaps Homeland Security should be paying more attention to classic 60s SF.

Litlove said...

Ahhh the argument about the canon. Well, it's one that keeps academics warm in winter. What I think is that the shifts in the canon are the interesting thing. So not the list itself, but the differences between the lists as they stretch across time. That difference shows how reading patterns change, and how our moral universe, ideology and political engagement alters. Now that's interesting.

Carl V. said...

I agree that any sort of listmaking like this is fraught with controversy. That doesn't take away from my enjoyment of reading them, however.

I too don't know how to define what a 'good' book is. I think it is a deeply personal definition, as there are so many factors that go into making a certain read, at a certain time, meaningful for the individual.

I like this quote from Jeanette Winterson that I saw on Dark Orpheus' blog yesterday:

"Reading is not a place to be one of a crowd, it is the place to be yourself. In our world of lookalikes and wannabes, being yourself amounts to a social service. Give books for good reasons – because you love them – and buy new books that can become part of a living library, a place where the unexpected still happens."

Cam said...

UnrelaxedDad -- About Dune: Yes, of course. It had been so long since I read it I only remembered the giant worms. I should re-read it I think.

Litlove: Last year, I blogged about how the Center for Middletown Studies was researching public library records from 100 years ago studying reading and library lending over time. I haven't followed that project, but I bet they eventually come up with some interesting data on reading trends.

Carl: Thanks for sharing the Jeanette Winterson quote.

danielle said...

I'm not sure what my fascination with lists is, but I look at them! I have varied tastes and I like picking up different authors from the different lists. I have wanted to make my way (or at least try) the ML list. I know it is not comprehensive (or maybe even balanced) in any way (I think they only did books in English and from the 20th C. and in my mind is way too light on women authors), but I just wanted to widen my reading horizons--pick up books that might be very good that I would not normally choose to read. I did pretty well last year, but so far this year I haven't read a single one! I do also like the Observers list (more varied!). Thanks for the heads up on the library study--that sounds interesting!