There is a creeping competitive, credentialist aspect to this 100-greatest list business as well. The big daddy of these lists, The Guardian 1000 novels everyone must read, leads with the minatory question “How many of these have you read?”. (This aspect, of the 100-greatest lists as a test of character, is possibly related to the reading-is-good-for-you reason I identified in the previous post.) After working one’s way through this terrifying list, one could surely lay claim to being A Reader. Reading would then be something that one has objectively and verifiably “done”, and could tick off one’s list, for good! (Ah yes, as the uncle in The Cherry Orchard is fond of proclaiming, I went in for that a good deal as a young man.)
There has been a backlash against the whole idea of 100-greatest lists. An example is an article (also from The Guardian),”We should ban the ‘best of’ end of year lists – they make us feel guilty and old“. Criticism of Robert McCrum’s The Guardian 100 greatest novels published in English list is also contained in the Wikipedia article about it. This centred around the under-representation of women and Irish authors — 21 and 9 respectively. (Incidentally, two Aussies got a guernsey — Parick White and Peter Carey.)
My main objections to 100-greatest lists are the arbitrariness of the parameters and the subjectivity of the selection. Take the parameters first. These lists are usually, in practice if not explicitly, “100 greatest novels In English“. (Kudos to McCrum for being upfront about that.) But why limit the list to fiction written or published in one language? Okay, most native English speakers are monoglot. But why exclude fiction originally written in other languages, which has been translated to English? Can a 100-greatest novels list exclude Don Quixote, In search of lost time, Madame Bovary, The brothers Karamazov, and War and Peace, for starters?
The difficulty of the selection is more obvious when you set yourself the task of designing an English literature curriculum from scratch. Who would you put in? Most people would say, Shakespeare. After that, there is less agreement. Milton? Oh, yes, absolutely — although no-one actually reads him, any more, do they? Dickens? Yes, OK. Henry James? Ah — righto. George Eliot? Bit stodgy, isn’t she? Hang on, you have to leave her in. Otherwise you’ve just got dead white males. The Authorised Version of the Bible? That’s a bit political. As you go past Shakespeare, there is less and less consensus, and everyone will have their favourite candidate to include or exclude.
The commodification of reading that underlies many 100-greatest lists is one reason to be uneasy about them. The links in The Postmodern Mystery Reading List (the first list in the examples I give below) point to Amazon. Does this represent a potential conflict of interest for the compiler? Would he or she include a title that, for some reason, wasn’t available on Amazon?
These things don’t have to be monetised. The assumption that this is the only way to do it is part of the neoliberal agenda. How much better would it be if these links pointed to the local library? Literature-oriented web resources like LibraryThing include a link to a resource called WorldCat on most pages. See this page for an example; the WorldCat link is in the right hand side bar. (If you have no interest in searching your local library catalogue, skip the next couple of paragraphs.)
WorldCat may require a one-off registration, in which one’s location is disclosed. There is no problem with doing this. OCLC has been around since I did librarianship about fifty years ago. As they stylishly explain, OCLC is “a global library cooperative that provides shared technology services, original research and community programs for its membership and the library community at large.” Clear as mud? Just give them what they are asking for. You won’t end up on someone’s mailing list. (A tip — to find your library, try putting in the name of your local government area, rather than your suburb or town.)
Once you are registered, put in a book title. If it is held in a library within coo-ee, you will — with some persistence — see a listing for it. WorldCat is clunky as to use. But, and it’s a big but, it gives a low-cost or free alternative to Amazon for getting your hands on a book. You may have to use interlibrary loan, for which some less enlightened library services charge a few dollars. But that’s surely less than the book would cost to buy.
In having a shot at 100-greatest lists, I am not trying to be a literary snob, or implying that people should somehow just know what to read. The republic of letters is open to any literate citizen. I am fortunate enough to be able to do a lot of reading, and it is very important to me. People need to use whatever works for them to get the most out of their reading. If this includes 100-best lists, go for it!
“Great books” courses, to me, are another kind of 100-greatest lists. They are pretty popular in certain circles. Melbourne University is running a short course, 10 Great Books 2019. Wrong number, same idea. Sydney University was supposed to be running a Great Books program, funded by a neoconservative outfit, the Ramsay Centre. The article from the SMH traverses the culture wars controversy that accompanied the discussion about the course. My recollection is that the university and the Centre couldn’t agree on how it was to be done. I found a Honi Soit article (imagine Honi being online!) that seemed to cast doubt on whether the program was to proceed or not. If anyone can cast light on this, make a comment, or let me know.
Below are some examples of 100-greatest lists. These all open in a new tab. None of the articles they point to is behind a paywall, to my knowledge; some may require free registration. (To find more, just do a Google search on “books to read before you die”.)
Other questions that could be asked of 100-greatest lists include
- What are the criteria for inclusion? Are they just books that the compiler likes?
- What expertise does the compiler have in the topic?
- What is the rating system by which books are assessed?
- What did the process by which the list was compiled, involve? For example, how many books were read?
- Are only books originally published in English considered? Why?