Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Guardian's 1000 Novels

I've mentioned before something that might be called listophilia - give me a list and it's time to check up how I did. So for The Guardian's "1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list" I can't help but do a quick count: 198. Those are ones I'm sure about - didn't I read The Guns of Navarone in junior high? Absolute Beginners right after college? Or am I confusing the movies? Am almost positive I read The Female Man and both those Tom Sharpe novels but since I remember pretty much nothing about them they don't count.

The list itself is a bit odd. Done they claim by the "Review team and a panel of expert judges" it's hard to imagine this being very useful. Who really needs to read Finnegans Wake? Or for that matter The Bourne Identity? If the first is of any use to you then you already know about it and has anybody anywhere ever claimed a Ludlum book is essential in any sense? La Comedie Humaine is of course a cheat since it's not a novel but a gigantic, loosely connected group of novels that I think has only been translated into English once (though the better-known individual ones have been several times). Why give Perec's books their French titles instead of the English translations? Why would Brewster's Millions be included? Are there really five (five!) essential Michael Dibdin novels? Interesting that there are Asterix and Tintin books but no Alan Moore or other comics except Maus and Jimmy Corrigan (though maybe I overlooked one or two).

It's really not the choices and details that I'm questioning - I'd do that to a list I made myself. But what purpose will anybody get out of this? "Hey honey, can you grab me some of those Thomas Love Peacock books while you're out? Thanks a bunch." Probably 100 choices seemed too small and 500 not round enough a number. So a 1000.

One of the points of any such list is that the biases and unstated criteria should be somewhat visible so that any reader can make adjustments. Somebody who considers Saul Bellow a major writer will also over-estimate similar work as far as I'm concerned so I don't need to trouble about them. Or if they're including R.A. Lafferty (not here) then I'll pay more attention to their other choices. But a list this size and with a seemingly almost random selection process doesn't allow for any of that. That's where the listophilia stops.