Searching for the Ultimate Book List

This weekend I did some Googling to see if I could find the “ultimate” book list. The Telegraph recently published 110 best books: The perfect library. As is the case for most other list I’ve looked at, this one met will much criticism in the comments section — starting with the choice of the books and authors, the facts that it has strong anglocentric and Western biases and that modern writers are poorly represented. Among the many mentions of “books and authors that should have been included”, such as Virginia Wolfe, Dostoievsky and Kundera, to name just those three, a great number of readers were predictably offended that the bible hadn’t been listed. Ayn Rand’s books were also sorely missed by her legions of American fans.

Finding a “definitive” book list is an impossible quest. A list of 100 books can hardly cover all the amazing literature that’s been written since the 18th century (if we decide to limit at that) and there’s bound to be a bias according to who has compiled the list. There are a number of lists based on “Dr. Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” (from the book by the same name) to be found on the internet, but even with this significant increase, no one seems to agree on that list being complete either. Some lists lean heavily towards the classics while some tend to favor modern novels (more rare, though seems to be the case on the “1001 Books” list). Lists can greatly differ depending on whether they’ve been established by experts or by a poll of readers — such as BBC’s The Big Read compiled in 2003.

One of the more interesting lists I found while doing research for this entry is The Guardian’s Top 100 books of all time (compiled in 2002), which is a “list of the 100 best works of fiction… as determined from a vote by 100 noted writers from 54 countries.” Again, with that number of books, the selection is quite limited, but it’s refreshing to find selections from Nigeria, Portugal and Iran in the mix.

After spending quite a bit of time looking at all these lists, it hasn’t escaped me that I could make better use of this time by actually reading. The book which is currently holding my interest is called My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. Although Pamuk is a winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, I have yet to see him listed on a “best of”, though I would definitely add this book to my personal list of greats. Based on all those lists, I can hardly consider myself “well-read”. But then again, there’s a large portion of classics that I either don’t remember reading, or that I have no interest in taking up to begin with — whether they are “must reads” or not. For some bookworms, bragging about how many or the “right” books they’ve read seems more important than the enjoyment of the books themselves, turning even the act of reading into some sort of race. As for me, I’m sure no one will mind if I take a few cues here and there and then make up my own list as I go along.

Advice from Mark Twain on how to start a library from “Mark Twain was not an enthusiast of Emma and Pride and Prejudice. ‘The best way to start a library,’ he advised, ‘is to leave out the works of Jane Austen.”


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