Guest Blog: On the Relative Worthlessness of Book Lists

I’m relatively nonplussed about ‘books you must read’ and other lists of that sort. I like to know what one must read in order to keep up with the Joneses, but the fact that many of the books are repeated gets, well, repetitious. It’s understandable, of course, that the lists are similar, and the books may stand the test of time, but I can’t help feeling there is so much more to a reading life.

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The most obvious point that springs to mind is that these lists are curated by specific people with their own specific interests. Naturally the classics make up the majority of the lists, and there are always those so-called ‘popular’ books that few would have any intention of reading otherwise. You know from the very repetition that the lists originate from a specific sort of person or people. These lists tend to be comprised of the best books according to academics, or copied from academic lists, and let’s face it, many of the books are dull. And whilst not every book is written to entertain, you want the majority of your leisure time spent in enjoyment.

Of course reading to these lists keeps you knowledgeable of the literary world, to an extent. You’ll be able to converse about books everyone has read without feeling left out because you haven’t read them. However that’s my next point – there will be less to say that hasn’t already been said. With a new group of people you might get away with discussing which ending of Great Expectations is more fitting, but you’d end up having roughly the same conversation each time. This said, because lots of studies have been undertaken and so many people have been interested, there is a lot more to discuss overall than your average mid-list contemporary.

In choosing to follow the lists you have to acquaint yourself with your reason. Reading from a list will help your grades in class, aid your knowledge of popular books, and it will provide you with wonderful primary sources – but it won’t help you understand where the New Adult trend began or aid you in recognising lesser-known authors today.

What about the choices themselves – surely there are more deserving books out there? I think Jane Austen is wonderful, but what about Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle, that would likely be enjoyed by Austen fans for its many references? It is older and well-known, true, but I’m yet to see it on any lists. That is an obvious example, so what about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which may be partly experimental but which provides the common German man’s experiences in the Second World War?

Often the way to create a discussion of a new book is to start one yourself. How else will others converse if you haven’t introduced them to the book? The thing about famous books is that you’re sure of an audience and conversation because statistically more people have read them. That does makes Becky Sharp far more appealing than Sookie Stackhouse.

Talking of Sookie Stackhouse, so many lists are literary fiction only. The reading of genre fiction is a whole new post by itself so I won’t go into it further, but suffice to say you’d be sorely lacking in mermaid lore if you stuck to a ‘greatest’ list.

If I were to assume I’d say that those who read this post read very broadly so I expect my thoughts will come as no surprise. Yet the prevalence of these lists in the literary world requires discussion.

What are your thoughts on reading lists?

twitterCharlie blogs about books at The Worm Hole and offers manuscript critiques for authors at Carnelian Valley. Her twitter handle is @CarnelianValley.

6 thoughts on “Guest Blog: On the Relative Worthlessness of Book Lists

  1. Nice post, Charlie! I think the list impulse comes from the feeling that there are too many books and you’ll never read all of them. Reading a list of the 100 greatest books of all time or the 1,000 books you must read before you die at least gives you a sense of completeness and satisfaction. That said, I generally avoid them, as I prefer to discover books on my own, ones that are less well known but of equal or greater merit than the list-inhabiters.

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  2. I totally agree with you Charlie, who even makes these lists and why do we have to trust their authority – what makes these books enjoyable to read by their standards.

    And, if it isn’t about enjoyability, I think each book should come with a description as to why it is significant to literature – I only know because of my degree.

    An excellent topic Charlie, thank you so much for agree to guest post.

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