Everyone has his/her favorite books, and it is a common practice to make-up lists of the [fill in number] Books to Read Before You Die. Recently, the online mega-bookseller Amazon published their list of 100 books to read. I enjoyed Jay Parini's opinion piece about the list, especially the observation, "are these the 100 books you must read before you die or the 100 books Amazon will probably sell you before you die? The latter, I think." I also liked his advice about looking elsewhere, but I think the place to look is, probably, a lot closer to home than some arbitrary list compiled by someone who probably has some sort of agenda.
If I were going to make a list, for instance, I would be stupid not to include Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs: the Thrivalist's Guide to Life Without Oil and/or Browsing Nature's Aisle: A Year of Foraging for Wild Foods in the Suburbs ... except, when we talk about the best books to read, the point is to choose ones that have life-affirming or life-changing messages. Either of my books might fit that definition ..., but are they literary masterpieces?
Maybe I shouldn't go there, right?
Certainly, if one is just coming to the topic of self-reliance in an energy depleted society, Surviving ... is an excellent title to get the pump primed - so to speak. Likewise for those who are new to the idea of foraging. Browsing ... is a great title to get one thinking about the possibilities.
And I guess that's what makes a good book, a book that one should want to read, because it opens up the mind to possibilities.
I don't think I could make such a list, because, first of all, "the best of literature" is very subjective. I have no love for either Stephanie Meyer or JK Rowling, but I thought Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy was brilliant, both the concept of a dystopian future that is all too plausible and the descriptive and gripping writing style. I really, really didn't like Stephanie Meyer's simplistic writing style and third-grade vocabulary (and I feel the same about Edward Cullen that I do about Nabokov's Humbert Humbert - both are child predators and neither should be celebrated. What makes Lolita a classic, though, is that not only is the writing much better, but that in the end Humbert recognizes the damage he had done and repented, and Edward never does. We're supposed to believe Twilight is a *love* story. Gag!).
Of course, I prefer dystopian fiction to vampire fantasy and whatever genre Lolita falls into (some sources call it erotica). I've read several of dystopian novels (enough that I taught a class on the subject), and, certainly, if I were going to make a list of the 100 Books to Read ... at least one or two of them would be included (like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and A Handmaid's Tale - two frighteningly possible futures, neither of which I hope to see). Not everyone would agree that those types of novels should be on the "to read before you die" lists, but one of the reasons I'd include them is that if we don't open our eyes to the worst case possible scenarios, we might find ourselves in that worst case (witness Orwell's 1984, which is very much too real today - was he a prophet, or are we just all too apathetic?).
Speaking of dystopian futures, I would *not* include Cormac McCarthy's The Road on the "must read", although it's a very good book, simply because it's more about human struggle to survive under extreme duress, and I think there are a lot better books about the struggle of being human in an inhuman world. Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place (not fiction) is an excellent example of the indomitable human spirit, and for the survival of the fittest, I prefer Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear (and the research that must have gone into this novel is daunting!)
I think I'd also include The Red Tent by Diamant and The Poisonwood Bible by Kingsolver.
Interestingly, the Amazon list includes Stephen King's The Shining, which was both a great book and a great film, but I don't know why it was included. For the record, I am a long-time Stephen King fan. I picked up my first King novel when I was a teenager (The Dead Zone) and from there I was hooked. I read The Stand when I was sixteen, and read the unabridged version - all 1700 pages - (the one he wanted to publish originally, but couldn't, because his publisher said it was too long) when I was in college.
King had some better books than The Shining, I think. Pet Sematary and Cujo, while not better, per se, are the same sort of psychological study of what happens when a person is thrust into an extreme situation. What makes the two latter better than the first, in my opinion, is that the implication in the first is that Jack has been possessed by the spirits of the hotel - he's completely lost his senses, and he is not in control. In the two latter stories, that's not the case. If I had to include a King novel in my 100 best, I'd pick The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, because it's truly about survival. Or I'd pick his serial novel The Green Mile, because it was such a good story and so well done. I read it as a serial novel, and I loved it!
I'd also pick The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck and Sister Carrie by Dreiser. I read both of those novels in college ... a lot of years ago ... and both of the stories have stayed with me. I often make reference to both novels, in fact, and I believe that they have both helped guide me to where I am. Both novels were deeply moving for me at a time when I could have, so easily, ended up in the kind of situation in which the characters found themselves. I read about their lives and knew I wanted better for myself.
I'd probably include The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, because we do need to read about other cultures - non-European cultures - and even though Ms. Buck is a European, and it's likely that the story is colored by her Western slant, it is a good story to give us a clue as to values that we don't see much here. I'd also include Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman or Twenty Chickens for a Saddle: The Story of an African Childhood by Robyn Scott. The first is a memoir written by a Peace Corps worker stationed in Africa. The latter was written by an African woman of European descent about her life growing up in the southern part of the African continent. Both were wonderful memoirs and great stories. And as long as we're looking at other cultures, The Kite Runner was also a really good story, and kind of gives a tiny glimpse of the political and social struggles in the Middle East (but only a glimpse, and again, probably with a Western bias).
The main point of such lists seems to be to preserve some societal ideology or, perhaps, to warn us, or, perhaps, to open our eyes. Maybe the lists are an attempt to boost the egos of a few bibliophiles into thinking they (we) are some intellectual elite, because we've read most of them. I know, I often get a strong sense of self satisfaction when reading through the list of what someone else deems are the best and discover that I've read a significant number of them.
Like all lists, the Amazon list includes books I'd never include, and many books I haven't - and probably won't - read.
I won't make a list of the 100 best, but I will make a suggestion on how one can ensure that one has read the "best" books, and my suggestion is find ten books for each of the following categories:
- Explain a hobby you enjoy and/or would like to learn;
- Tell a story about someplace else (can be fiction or non-fiction);
- Tell a story about a lifestyle you hope to avoid (again, fiction or non-fiction. I read a lot about homelessness and poverty so that I can better understand the issues people in those situations face);
- Best sellers in the decade in which you were born and/or books written about where you're from (either where you were born, if you have a family history there, or where your family originated. I read a lot of books about the Appalachian region of Kentucky);
- Books that someone else says are "the best" (but don't get too bogged down by this category. It's not more important than the others);
- Books that highlight issues about which you are passionate;
- Contemporary fiction (that is novels written about the times during which they were written, and not necessarily current fiction. Huckleberry Finn was a contemporary novel in Mark Twain's time, for instance);
- Historical fiction (books written in the present about a time in the past, like The Red Tent)
- Memoirs or "A Year in the Life ..." story (I love fiction, but the real stories, well-written, are so much better);
- Speculative or dystopian fiction(because sometimes the worlds they describe are where we end up).
When it comes to books, we should read what captures our attention, but we should read.
We should definitely read.