Monday, February 10, 2014

Two "100 Book" lists

In 1898 a scholar and sometime editor named Clement K. Shorter came up with his list of the 100 best novels.  I find these type of things, no matter how canon-defining they're attempting to be, fascinating.  Partly because they track shifts in taste and partly because they can show how limited our own might be.  Many older lists include Walter Scott, a choice for canonical author that's baffling today when he's considered more of an entertainer and only barely read at that.  Lists might also be more inclusive and not like so many today mainly focused on novels, drama and lyric poetry.

Shorter's list feels a bit eccentric even by what I know (or think I know) of tastes from that period.  Bunyan's The Holy War instead of Pilgrim's Progress?  Gil Blais?  Clara Reeve?  And starting with #18 (Lady Morgan's The Wild Irish Girl) are a few books that I've never even heard of.  Who was Jane Porter?  G.P.R. James?  Theodore Hook?  James Grant?  Certainly some of those are works that feel into scholarly interest but at the time were more current.  At the time Shorter was writing they were about as far into his past as the 1950s and 1960s are to us - in other words pretty modern.  Interestingly there are a larger number of women than I think most of us would have expected - 32 unless my count is off.  The list also seems to lean a bit toward adventure in a broader sense.  I've seen Marryat praised for his style but he's generally considered (rightly or wrongly I don't never having read the book) a precursor to sea stories like Hornblower.  It's also heavily British with a few French, American, German and Italian writers.  And then the choices.  Not just the Bunyan but Salammbo for Flaubert?  Bracebridge Hall for Irving?  The Last of the Barons for Bulwer Lytton?  Or maybe just "Bulwer Lytton?!?"

Still I'd like to check out a few of these obscurities, not because they may be lost classics but because they might just be overlooked but worth reading.  Open Library has some that I checked.  The book about Richelieu by James ("doyen of historical novelists") sounded promising but flipping through looks a bit drier than I'd like.  Or maybe it finally is time to read Marryat.

The other list has appeared in many news reports this week - Amazon's 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.  (No, I didn't forget the link - if you want this one you'll have to look it up.)  The purpose is unclear.  The banner says "to create a well-read life" but it misses so many of the truly important books that apparently they're assuming you've already read those.  The inclusion of kids books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Where the Wild Things Are goes against "well-read".  No matter how charming or developmentally important children's books are, they are also by definition of no real artistic value.  The non-fiction titles are almost random (Unbroken? Born to Run? Daring Greatly) and there are far too many recent books that simply can't be evaluated yet.

The real purpose of the list is clearly those news reports - it's just more marketing.  The list is carefully chosen so that most readers will find a decent number that they already know and more that they know about.  Nothing too off-putting or obscure or difficult. There are some books that I think are irrelevant or even bad on it but for the most part people could do worse and that is more or less the point.  It's not a serious list in any respect but one like, say, the Oscars or Grammys to make readers feel comfortable rather than acknowledge genuine accomplishment.