I don’t suppose I really have grounds for complaint. They set out to make a list, and they made a list which suited them, and if it doesn’t particularly suit me, well, it wasn’t my list.
What I was looking at was another of these “Ten Best Books of the Twentieth Century”. (There was a list of “Ten Best Books of the Twenty-First Century” but I haven’t looked at that yet. At least with the Twentieth, there was a chance I’d read some of the books.) It was pretty much what you’d expect. Although you could argue with the order they put these ten in, the ten books they chose would not surprise you much: Catcher, Mockingbird, Gatsby, and so forth. All good, solid choices, bolstered by years of college English classes.
My objection came when with the thought, “But they didn’t say Ten Best NOVELS of the Twentieth Century.” They had specified only Books. That would have been a much more difficult list to build, since you would have to weigh and measure the whole realm of publishing in the twentieth century, and decide how Gatsby stands up to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings, The Royal Canadian Air Force Exercise Plans for Physical Fitness, and Bartholomew and the Oobleck.
They SHOULD have specified novels. It narrows the field of vision and makes the choices easier. And it leaves them with material for a lot of other lists. I might suggest:
Ten Best Books of the Twentieth Century which No One Actually Reads: Yes, I KNOW there are a few stalwart souls who have read Finnegan’s Wake. I may finish it myself one day. It’s only been forty years.
Ten Best Books of the Twentieth Century Which No One is SUPPOSED to Read: Webster’s Second International Unabridged Dictionary could go here, along with the edition of the Britannica you like best. Yeah, I’ve had the books by people who have read both of those right through, but there’s got to be one in every crowd.
Ten Best Books Your Parents Hid From You: My mother, a booklover virtually from birth, nonetheless burned her copy of Tropic of Cancer after she read it. I have a feeling she would not have been very thrilled with the first edition of Lolita I nearly had donated to the Book Fair, either.
Ten Best Books People Hate When Forced to Read Them for High School but Later Make Peace With: Everybody has their favorite, of course, but in general you have to wait until you’ve forgotten all the quiz questions and awkward classroom discussion over Lord of the Flies or A Separate Peace
Ten Best Books People Read Before They Find Out It’s a Classic: The trouble with The Lord of the Rings these days is that it’s kind of hard to discover it and tell your friends about it: they all already have the T-shirt.
Ten Best Books To Read When You’re Nineteen: I am just assuming, from the donations I get, that Siddhartha and The Prophet were once on this list. They may still be.
Ten Best Books to Read Once and Then Give to a Book Fair: I have been advised by my attorneys not to specify any of the bestselling authors whose bestsellers arrive regularly in pristine condition. But you can guess.
Ten Best Books to read Over and Over and Over and Give to a Book Fair only When the Rubber Band Holding Them Together Has Turned to Stone: You can probably guess who’d be here, too: if these authors simply wrote the same book twenty or thirty times, why do some of their titles come in with not one page still attached to the spine from frequent re-reading?
Specificity: That’s what we need for our ten best lists. Keep 6that in mind when sorting your printouts of this blog (Ten Best Blogs Where He Whines About Bags, Ten Best Blogs Where He Whines About Donations, Ten….)