world literature

A list too far

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.

BucketSome 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 GoodbyeGreat 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?


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

14 thoughts on “A list too far

  • I enjoy looking at lists but I take them with a grain of salt because they always reflect the opinion of the person/s who wrote them. While I might discover a new book or two or be reminded that oh yeah, I wanted to read X, lists like Amazon’s have ceased to actually mean anything.

    • it’s just the sameness of so many of these lists that gets me down. Same authors, same titles. Oh for something different

  • If i had a list I might name it 100 Books You Could Read Before You Die. But let’s face it, not every list will suit everyone, so just read 100 books before you die and I will be happy.

    • Yes ma’am. Should we start calling you ‘she who must be obeyed’ Tanya? 🙂

  • The lists are always interesting. I did do a brief look at the new Amazon list and I don’t mind there’s nothing older than 200 years :-D, but what I found most interesting was the gender and racial diversity of the list, but what I found MOST interesting about this list was the reading levels from children’s to super complex translations, that’s the only thing that really stood out on this list to me.

    I’m sure it’s not as broad as it could be and none of them ever are but what I also found interesting was that this is one of the lists that I’ve actually read an overwhelming majority of.

    • I’m also not surprised as that list was voted on by Goodreads members. So it’s not surprising it’s mostly mass-market Western fiction.

  • I looked through that Amazon list and it seems so generic. It’s just a list of most popular reads I think.
    Browsing through lists is fun but I have always found lists by genre more helpful (like 50 classic crime fiction, or something like that). It’s more useful I think for a reader unfamiliar with the genre to make some reading choices.

    • Genre lists could indeed be of more use – less likely to get the obvious candidates maybe?

  • You mean you haven’t made that Amazonian trek yet? I’m ashamed of you!
    I wonder a lot about lists, especially because I have sometimes been in the position of having to compile them. “Don’t you think we ought to send the Freshers a reading list on this, that or the other?” Usually turns out to mean you put one together and get it out. If they’re going to have any real value they are not as easy to compile as you might expect and I have agonised over many a contemporary novel or children’s literature list before now. Maybe that is the reason that these days I don’t do anything more than give lists that I’m fairly certain are just there for the sake of publicity more than a cursory glance.

  • I’ve lost my love for these lists too, lately there has been a rash of them. Also, I find the books that I enjoy the most tend to be books I have come across myself. If you were to slavishly read these books you’d never find that book that’s perfect for you!

    • Slavishly following them would also mean that you just read the same as everyone else Cathy.

  • The Amazon list has made me think about books I should read. It prompted me to browse the web and look at other lists again as well. I have come to a similar conclusion as you and other readers: I am better off doing my own research to decide what I should and shouldn’t read, based on my taste and my desire to learn about other cultures. The lists might be a good starting point or discussion prompt, but thankfully, I can otherwise ignore them.

    • Some of them would be good starting points as you say – but its far more rewarding to then go and look for yourself and to browse in the bookstore.


We're all friends here. Come and join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: