Those Ubiquitous Book Lists

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The internet is filled with lists: top 10 places to retire, 15 life hacks you will love, the 12 worst fashions making a comeback etc. I find these lists kind of interesting, but the ones that bother me a bit are the ones related to books.

Recently on my Facebook news feed, I have seen such lists as 23 Books You Didn’t Read in High School but Actually Should, 32 Books That Will Actually Change your Life, and the 18 Greatest Books Ever Written (or something to that effect). My reaction to all these lists was, Really? On whose say so?Purporting to know the greatest or most life-changing books strikes me as a bit on the arrogant side. Some of the choices seem so arbitrary.

Aside from the fact that people have their distinct preferences and tastes in types of literature, is there a way to determine which books throughout history are the best? When I was teaching at an elite girls’ school in Los Angeles, we in the English department would have disagreements about what works to include in our curriculum. One of the teachers asserted that there are certain “chestnuts” of literature that all students should be required to read. I disagree.

Often this attitude is used to justify a canon of literature that includes only “dead white guys,” so to speak. In the 80s in particular, so-called reformers like Bill Bennett took aim at more inclusive reading lists that featured writers of different colors and ethnicities. They revealed a clear bias in favor of a Eurocentric, Western approach to studying literature. I’m not saying that works like The Scarlet Letter or Plato’s Republic are unimportant. I just think there are so many different works that are rich in meaning and language that it is wrong to narrow our lists into those “chestnuts.”

So how do you judge a book? Not by its cover, certainly. As an example, a best-selling author named Kristin Hannah publishes novels with romantic-looking covers that make the books seem like light fluff, a beach read, if you will. Yet Hannah tackles serious issues, such as an injured pilot returning from Iraq, and detailed historical accounts of such events as the siege of Leningrad. Her books are deep, well-written, and anything but fluff.

I do think there are literary standards one can use to decide whether a book is good. (Hint: Fifty Shades of Grey doesn’t meet these standards.) But a book’s greatness can only really be judged by time. A good example is To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s only novel (though as I write this, news has come out that a second novel is to be published after all these years). Generations have loved this deceptively simple tale of a young girl growing up in the South and experiencing the narrow-mindedness and prejudice, along with the moral courage and kindness, that can exist in a small American town.

Still, if TKAM doesn’t float your boat, that doesn’t mean you are a literary heathen. There are numerous “classics” that I, a former English teacher, have no intention of reading. I find Herman Melville’s writing to be hopelessly dull and James Joyce’s to be impenetrable. I don’t think this makes me a philistine.

I guess there’s no harm in this never-ending parade of book lists. At least we’ve got people who spend a lot of time on the internet talking about books – and, I hope, powering down the devices and picking up one of them.

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