When Amazon came out with a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime earlier this month, the members of LibraryThing took umbrage at the fact the oldest book on that list was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. So they created their own list of 100 books older than 200 years.
I confess that until last summer every time I saw a list like this I couldn’t resist doing a count of how many of the titles I’d read myself. As if was giving myself an end of term report card. What I was really hoping of course is that I would end up with the marks of an A student not a D. Mostly though I landed somewhere in the category of ‘should try harder’.
But part way through the summer months I began to go off lists. I’d glance at them but didn’t feel compelled to grab a pen instantly and start doing the count.
I’m not exactly sure what caused the turn around. Maybe it was just a case of one list too many. Summer and Christmas seem to be two points in the year where we get a plethora of lists — what to take to the beach, books to read at the poolside, books to read on your Amazonian trek (ok I made that one up); 12 Christmas stocking filler books; Books of the Year … and on and on it goes.
Some of these lists are clearly confectionary dreamed up by creative folks in marketing departments desperately thinking of some new initiative that will get the number crunching accountants off their backs.
Some seem bizarre — I don’t know when I’m going to die so how do the creators of the 100 Books to Read Before You Die list, know? They can’t possibly know either how quickly I can read so I might get through 100 books in a couple of years but you might romp through them in one. So what happens then, is there a follow up — a kind of ‘100 Books part 2.’
And others are ones that irritate me. They’re the ones that have the word ‘must’ in the title. For example:
50 Must Read Novels
100 Novels Everyone Must Read
25 American Novels Everyone Should Read in their Lifetime
Must Read Books Around the World
I object to the somewhat hectoring tone of these. Who are these people to tell me what I must or must not do? ‘Recommended’ or ‘Suggested’ I can live with but not ‘must’ I object i suppose to the idea contained in that word must — that if I don’t follow their prescription and read all of these books then I can’t be considered well read or educated. Thanks for making me feel inadequate! At a time when we want to encourage people to read anything, giving the impression that you have to read 50 or 100 books is surely the wrong message?
I also question the choice of books. I know each of us has our favourite novel or writer and can’t believe they are not included in the list. Reddit has a discussion thread on the Amazon list in which there are multiple comments bemoaning the exclusion of particular authors and the ephemeral nature of some of the choices (Gone Girl and Hunger Games are hugely popular certainly but do they really have enough staying power to be on the list along with the likes of The Long Goodbye, Great Expectations or The Sun Also Rises?)
Even more of a turn off for me is that these lists have a very narrow lens on the world of literature. Predominantly they come from the canon of Western literature — you might be lucky and find a few well trodden paths into French, Russian or Spanish literature via the tried and tested stables of Dumas, Tolstoy or Cervantes but beyond that there are slim pickings. Little from the East even though it’s Japan that’s often considered as providing us with the first ‘novel’ (The Tale of Genji) and nothing from India or Africa. As I’ve found through bloggers writing the View from Here series on this blog, these countries do have a literary vein that would be worth opening up to the world. Until someone is creative enough to develop a list of recommended reading from Africa, or India, from China or Japan and other parts of the world, I’m going to ignore lists.
What’s your view on this? Do you have a fascination with lists? What value do you think they have that I may be missing?