Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Simply the best?

Yet another bloody list, this time from the Telegraph. But at least with this one it's difficult to argue with the core concept: 110 books that changed the world. Although the headline deploys the infuriatingly fuzzy adjective "best", it's really about importance, and any arguments are cultural rather than critical.

Another advantage is that there's no assumption that you need to have read any of the volumes to have a view on their relative importance. At the age of 15, I had it drummed into me by my history teacher that Diderot's Encyclopédie kick-started the European Englightenment, and I've never felt the urge to peruse any of its 35 volumes.

That said, I think the division between 'CLASSICS', 'LITERARY FICTION' and 'ROMANTIC FICTION' seems pretty arbitrary: couldn't Madame Bovary or Tess of the D'Urbervilles have slipped into any of those three camps? And there seem to be some howling omissions, as picked up in the comments: The Bible; The Qu'ran; Dostoevsky; Adam Smith; Graham Greene; and if we're looking at impact over quality, where's Valley of the Dolls?

Never mind, the concept's sound, even if the execution leaves something to be desired. But what do you think are the truly important books? Or, conversely, the books that you love, but know to be utterly unimportant.


Unknown said...

Hmm, David Hume's "A Treatise on Human Nature" springs to mind as an important book which I've never read.

No female authors in the "Books that changed the world" section.

"Little Wolf's Book of Badness" by Ian Whybrow - the audio books, read by Griff Rhys-Jones, are particularly hilarious but not one of the important contibutions to the canon of western literature.

Geoff said...

Where's A Clockwork Orange or anything by William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, John Fante, Ira Levin...?

And no Salman Rushdie? I'm shocked!

I enjoy reading books and I'm glad I've read them and I may read them again but I'm absolutely hopeless at talking about them.

Rosie said...

i've read more of them than i thought, usually these lists leave me looking like a right philistine.

as for cultural importance, i nominate Peig (if translations are allowed?) - the most vilified book in the canon of Irish lit. the original Irish version was compulsory on school curricula for years and the poor whingebag has been blamed ever since for the decline of the language.

"I am an old woman now, with one foot in the grave and the other on its edge. I have experienced much ease and much hardship from the day I was born until this very day. Had I known in advance half, or even one-third, of what the future had in store for me, my heart wouldn't have been as gay or as courageous it was in the beginning of my days..."

cheery stuff.

Jun Okumura said...

Changed the Anglophone world, DT means.

Seriously, any list that does not include Huckleberry Finn is pretty much worthless. And why was Lewis Carroll left off the list?

FirstNations said...

Updike needs to GO.
sub: To Kill A Mockingbird

'Neuromancer' yaaaaaaaawn
sub: UBIK

Renaults trilogy? huh? wha?
sub: The Count of Monte Cristo

Poe: go to the bottom of the class, anonymous list compiler. Poe's Solar Pons was the model for Dupin.

i dont' even know why i read these things, truthfully; they only piss me off.

Mangonel said...

Oh, the things you find out late in life - I may just have to read Ulysses now.

llewtrah said...

I guess I'm a philistine as I dislike Dickens, abhor Austen and am not enamoured of the Brontes. I am reading 100 Years of Solitude (Marquez) at the moment and I can see where de Bernieres got some inspiration for his South American Trilogy.

Wilkie Collins "The Moonstone" and Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" were founding tomes in the crime genre. My list would have one or more Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books.

On the sci-fi side Yevgheny Zamyatin's "We" is more dystopian and much earlier than Orwell's "1984" (and Forster's "The Machine Stops" is another classic, but a short story rather than a novel).

Rimshot said...

I abstain from commenting on THE LIST as I'm in no position to judge what literary works are truly earth shaking. However, the first three book that come to mind when compiling my list of printed matter that makes my heart go pitter-patter are: The Once and Future King, Watership Down and Of Mice and Men.

I did think Rainbow Six was very entertaining, too.

Mapeel said...

Canterbury Tales; something from Kipling (I just saw Masterpiece Theatre's "My Boy Jack" or When Samantha Jones met Harry Potter); Crime & Punishment; Atlas Shrugged (not as great literature, but for its influence on many people of power, e.g. Alan Greenspan)

Anonymous said...

Given the premise, Lady Chatterley's Lover seems like a glaring omission, as does Oroonoko, widely considered to be the first English novel.

Rimshot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Footman said...

Well, that told 'em.

Being the Torygraph, though, I suppose we should be relieved the Thatcher Diaries don't make a showing.

Annie said...

I once went on an interview at HarperCollins to be assistant to an editor. The interviewer asked 'What makes you angry?' Er, um, er, politicians, I answered. It turned out to be the editor of the Thatcher Diaries. Wrong answer.

Maybe it's a gender thing, but any sort of canon or list like this makes me anxious, and seems to take all the fun out of reading...

Annie said...

Though having said that, I'd vote for Roger Hargreaves' Mr Tickle.

Christopher said...

Well said, Annie. I think you've got your sense of proportion absolutely right. (Tho' Mr Silly might be worth a mention.)

Tim Footman said...

I've always been partial to Mr Greedy, personally. Although maybe my memories of him have elided into The Very Hungry Caterpillar.