Monday, July 21, 2008

Globe and Mail's 50 Greatest Books

The Globe and Mail Books section has been doing an interesting, ongoing, feature that I've been following, but have failed to blog about to date. The feature is called 50 Greatest Books. Each week they reveal a new book on the list.

This article gives you the shtick. Read that for an explanation of criteria.

Basically, their position on what makes a great book is as follows:
"Our view is that a book is not simply a searchable database, and a great book is adjudged a great book over time by virtue of offering things — astonishing ideas, unforgettable characters, imaginative sublimity, glorious prose — that cannot be got elsewhere, and that tell us something new about the human (or other) condition."

Their premise is that, while the idea of 50 "greatest" books may be presumptuous, it is also more controversial, and will spark further conversation. Furthermore, it does require that the books have something of an enduring quality and importance - you won't be seeing today's bestseller of popular appeal but questionable quality on the list. The list is unranked, with the 50 being announced once weekly in no particular order. The list is being created by a panel of judges whose identities (other than Martin Levin) are top secret. This is an interesting discussion piece about the program.

Some things I've noticed about the list to date:
  1. It is very much a list of great books from the Western Canon (with potentially a few exceptions)
  2. Because it encompasses the past 2500 years of literature, it is pretty much a list of books by dead men (with a very few exceptions - go Jane Austen!!!). Blast that whole not allowing women to get an education/learn how to read or write thing, not to mention publish anything, thing.
  3. The creators of the list might as well have cribbed much of it from the reading list of The University of King's College's Foundation Year Programme (FYP).

  4. So here is the list, as it stands right now. Each announcement is accompanied by a rather interesting article by someone who knows rather more than I do about the books, so I will leave it to them to comment for the moment:

    First entry: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
    Second entry: In Search of Lost Time
    Third entry: On the Origin of Species
    Fourth entry: The Divine Comedy
    Fifth entry: The Republic
    Sixth entry: Don Quixote
    Seventh entry: Ulysses
    Eighth entry: Das Kapital
    Ninth entry: The Confessions of St. Augustine
    10th entry: Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince
    11th entry: The Great Gatsby
    12th entry: Middlemarch
    13th entry: The Wealth of Nations
    14th entry: The Interpretation of Dreams
    15th entry: Gulliver's Travels
    16th entry: One Hundred Years of Solitude
    17th entry: King Lear
    18th entry: The Critique of Pure Reason
    19th entry: Pride and Prejudice
    20th entry: The Iliad and The Odyssey
    21st entry: The Brothers Karamazov
    22nd entry: T. S. Eliot's Collected Poems, 1909-1962
    23rd entry: Lolita, unsweet and Lo
    24th entry: The Koran, words beyond worth
    25th entry: Our Mutual Friend
    26th entry: Ficciones
    27th entry: The histories, by Herodotus

    Edited to add:
    I missed the next one...
    28th entry: Moby Dick
    which also lists next week's book as Madame Bovary
    That is, in my opinion, two unexpected titles, which further shrink the remaining space for my must-haves...

    Some thoughts:

    1. The Brothers Karamazov practically killed me. I can't think of it as being the greatest in any respect but perhaps weight. Or despair.
    2. I've never understood the appeal of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I read it. I enjoyed the story. But why is it considered so great? Someone please tell me.
    3. Some of the choices of which book to include by famous authors are intriguing - why King Lear? why Middlemarch? why Das Kapital? why The Interpretation of Dreams?. Not that I argue those choices. They are just intriguing.
    4. Ulysses. I feel that perhaps I'm a cretin, but I cannot read this thing. I have tried. I can't do it. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I can do, Ulysses, no. 30 pages in I fall asleep and cannot force myself to reopen the thing.

    I will be interested to see how the rest of the list plays out. There's a lot of great stuff here, but there are way too many books missing to make up the remaining 21. Here are some of my must haves, on the basis of their changing my life upon reading them, or their ongoing importance, in no particular order:

    1. The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir
    2. Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
    3. Meditations on First Philosophy, by Rene Descartes
    4. The Phenomenology of Spirit, by G.W.F. Hegel.
    5. Beyond Good and Evil, by Friedrich Nietzsche
    6. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
    7. The Social Contract, by Jean Jacques Rousseau
    8. Of Grammatology, by Jacques Derrida
    And likely many others that are simply not coming to mind right now. Probably it will contain a Greek tragedy - likely oedipus Rex. I would also make bets on their including The Canterbury Tales, Summa Theologica, Paradise Lost, Mathematical Principals of Natural Philosophy, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Faust (Goethe version), Candide, something by Kafka, Thomas Mann, A History of Tom Jones, Foundling (if you're looking for world changing novels). See. Far too many for the last of the 21.

    Now - the creators of this list make it clear that they are purposefully excluding writings that are specifically for young people. I think it might be fun to come up with my own list of the 50 greatest books for non-adults (only from the Western Canon because children's literature is chronically under-translated). Anyone want to help!?!?


False Prophet said...

The whole point of "best of" lists, whether they're compiled by academics or MTV-watching teenagers, are to generate arguments. ;-) Though I find it telling that Michael Ignatieff is championing The Prince.

Aspersions aside, has there ever been such a misaligned book in history? Machiavelli, lifelong crusader for republicanism, is forever linked in the English-speaking world with tyranny and crass political manipulation. His sin? Telling us how the world actually is instead of what we would like it to be. Well, those in power have never liked sunlight exposing their dirty deeds, I suppose.

As for rounding out the list, if they're going to include an existentialist work, my vote would be for Gabriel Marcel's Man Against Mass Society, but the Globe judges would almost certainly pick something by Sartre. Also, I'd pick something by Kierkegaard to round out Nietzsche, but that'll never happen. And if there's going to be a Greek tragedy, I'd prefer Sophocles' Antigone or Euripedes' Medea, but I'm sure they'll go with Oedipus Rex as you said. (Why do the Iliad and Odyssey count as one book, btw?)

I might also cast a vote for Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, if only because if neoconservatives and Dominionists don't like a book, it's probably worth looking at. :-) (Predictably, the comments section of Origin of the Species on the Globe site has been invaded by creationist nutbars.)

And if this list is really about finding books that "tell us something new about the human condition", then it needs to include a) something by Marshall McLuhan, and b) something written in the last twenty years.

I don't have a lot of insight into children's books, but I'll think about suggestions for your list.

MadJenny said...

I was wondering about the whole merging of The Illiad and The Odyssey thing too. Very strange.

Now - in the discussion article Martin Levin was indicating that it would be hard to put on something too recent because it won't have had a chance to stand the test of time. I can't think of any books from the past 20 years that have caused a true paradigm shift as of yet. There is nothing I can currently think of that I can see living up to the promise of some of the other books on the list. But then, a lot of these were ignored in their own time, and really only appreciated much later - including one of the newest books on the list The Great Gatsby which didn't really become part of the cultural ethos until into the 1950s. So who knows?

Canadian Economist said...

Thank you for this wonderful posting! You have inspired me!

Why Das Kapital? I have attempted to answer this question in my open letter to Mad Jenny here .

MadJenny said...

CE - I responded on your blog. Thanks for the enlightening economics perspective!

Canadian Economist said...

The thanks is all mine. Your letter was greatly appreciated. Your posting inspired me!