There seems to be list for everything these days, many of them designed to make us feel inadequate. 1000 must-do’s before you die, 50 craps towns in Britain, 100 albums you must have in your music collection, the top 10 best cafés you should visit in Paris, the 5 must have pair of shoes for your summer collection, the 10 tropical diseases you should experience before you die.
Okay I made some of those up, I’ll leave it to you to decide which, however hopefully you get my drift. Everything can now be compressed and reduced into easily digestible lists, and reading is no different. There seems to be a constant stream, a babbling brook of bullshit if you will (thanks to Larry David for the nice turn of phrase), of the 100 books you should read before you die. Even more worryingly there seems to be some sort of arms race going on with lists now featuring 500 or 1000 books. This is definitely an inflationary trend that should be resisted; to find out more about inflationary trends check out the Financial Times list of the 10 highest levels of inflation recorded in Western Europe between 1900-45.
Anyway, being a slightly autistic middle-aged man, I cannot deny my attraction for a list of things, how else is a fellow supposed to know what shirt to be wearing this summer, where to get his gourmet burger, or where to go to get the best trim for his explorer’s beard. I should like to state at this point in my article, just for the sake of clarity, that my books and records are stored alphabetically, and I don’t care. I’m prepared to shout it loud and proud at one of the 5 best public speaking locations in England. Although lists can be fun, even I’m starting to weary of being told what I need to have read before I slip off this mortal coil to be buried in one of the top twenty most picturesque graveyards in the West Midlands.
I’m up for a review, and I love arguing the toss about the merits of books and authors, otherwise I wouldn’t be inflicting my opinions on you via The Word Runs Through It, one of the ten best blogs on writing and reading in the UK. However, I’m beginning to suspect that this isn’t what many of these lists are about. The clue is in the title, must or should, the 100 novels you should or must read before you die. It’s this insistence which implies to me that if you haven’t got these books under your belt then you are somehow less than you should be, that you are intellectually diminished. What these lists are feeding is the notion that there are some books that you have to have read to be regarded as a fully rounded individual. They are a form of intellectual snobbery that promotes the idea that there is worthy and unworthy literature. And because we have a weakness for one-upmanship, we are all drawn to these lists.
Another side-affect of these lists is they increase the tendency to lie about what you have read, although this is nothing new the lists reinforce the perceived wisdom that some books must be read to allow the reader to be regarded as complete. The same exaggeration has been noted on dating websites, men consistently exaggerating how tall they are and woman are not completely truthful about their age. Clearly it’s easier to lie about which books you’ve read than your height because you’ll very rarely get into a detailed discussion about the merits of Richardson’s Clarissa, while you can’t really disguise those lack of inches.
In the end there’s nothing wrong in appealing to human vanity and lists do offer a easy way to summarise, however they should never be more than this, and they should never become a guide to what is good and essential literature and what is bad and unnecessary, even summer potboilers have some literary merit.
So my suggestion is to have different kinds of lists, how about one for those books that you wished you’d never read, that took from you hours and days that you will never get back?
My top 5 would be:
- “Sons and Lovers” by DH Lawrence: Psychobabble of the worst kind about the status of love and relationships between men. Do you know what, I don’t care. Watch the film, it’s 100 times better.
- “To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Wolfe: I was hoping for a nice holiday story and instead I got second-rate stream of consciousness, my life is dull enough without being forced to read about imaginary characters’ dull lives.
- “The Inheritors” by William Golding: For god sake someone say something.
- “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis: I know it’s a satire but I don’t need to know how to kill people in such imaginative and painful ways.
- “The Sound and the Fury” by William Faulkner: What’s going on, actually I don’t want to know because it wouldn’t be worth knowing.
Tell us about those books that it was a mistake to have picked up and why, or even the books that you claimed you’ve read to impress.