More lists

We're having a little spate of "lists of best English novels," the newest entry being from Tyler Cowen.  I find that I have read and enjoyed half of his list, but lack the slightest inclination to read the other half.

As usual a spirited argument develops in the comments thread.  Surely the value of these things is not to settle once and for all which are the best books, but to find out something about books that other people are prepared to recommend wholeheartedly.  I'm often surprised when I finally get around to reading a "classic," but the surprise can just as easily take either of two forms:  (1) Why, this is delightful, what took me so long? or (2) What in the world do people see in this dreary mess?  I bogged down immediately, for instance, in the copy of "The Way We Live Now" that I downloaded on the recommendation of the recent Guardian List.  Oh, no, not another exhaustive examination of the wasted life of a young narcissist who spends beyond his income and can't face reality?  If I get 50 pages into a novel and still haven't met a character whose future I care about, I'm in trouble.  The narrative voice had better be something pretty special in that case, and I suppose Mr. Trollope and I don't see eye to eye.  Too bad, because a "drawing room" novel is usually just the thing for me.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I admired the writing of Tom Wolf's A Man In Full, and thought the plot deeply revealing of the culture he was describing, which is his strength. But I didn't care what happened to a one of them, and put it down.

"Good writing" has more than one meaning.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Wolfe. Sigh.

james said...

"Best" is notoriously hard to define: so hard some folks seem to abandon the concept entirely and teach Pop Culture Lit.

The chances are so great that some book will have had such an impact on you that you automatically include it among the greats, or that some other author's style is off-putting, or that you just haven't read (or not read at the right age) some others, that "best" books lists made by one person are not that valuable. Maybe they'll know something you don't; I'm always willing to hear of new possibilities.

Collections made by internet survey are also flawed. They skew very heavily to 20'th century and fashionable works.

Collections converged on by literary types might be useful, since they've presumably read very widely, but academia can be such a PC swamp that I'm not sure you can count on that anymore.

One possibility is to collect a few dozen such lists, weight them by the number of times each is mentioned, and throw out all books written after 1900 on the grounds that it is too soon to tell the good from the merely fashionable.

james said...

Wrt fashions, check out Dr Boli on Shaw.

Grim said...

Grim's List of Best English Novels:

1) Le Morte D'Arthur

2) Lord of the Rings

3) Ivanhoe

4) The Hobbit

Wait... #3 may not count. Sir Walter Scott was a Scot.

Wait... #1 may not count. It's too early to be properly a novel as opposed to a Medieval romance.

I don't have enough interest in the rest of them to work out an order. I've read a lot of Chesterton's polemics and apologies, but none of his novels. I couldn't get through Austen or Wilde or any of the rest of them. Wilde was a great wit, but brevity is the soul of that: it wanes after a page, let alone a novel.

Perhaps there aren't a hundred. Greatness is better fit for a few.

Texan99 said...

My criteria are simpler: the desert-island book standard, a/k/a the books to put in the bomb shelter. The list is unlikely to work for anyone but myself, as it has little to do with whether the work is technically brilliant or influential, things I'd be unlikely to know anyway. It's just a question of whether I loved reading it, and to a great extent whether it holds up to re-reading. There shouldn't have been any point at which I lost enough interest to have to force myself to finish. A lot of my choices would be pure unabashed pop lit, others more high-brow--a mix much like my taste in movies and music.

I do like consulting other people's lists, even though experience tells me most entries won't be for me, any more than they'd be happy in my bomb shelter. My husband is one of the few people who share my interest in any of my favorite books, and the overlap even there is quite small. Ditto for music. I think when I was younger I had an impression that there was more common ground on these things--not unanimity, of course, but more than a sliver of overlap. Now I realize that a shared passion for any work of art is a rare and wonderful thing. I still sometimes recommend a favorite book or piece of music, but I no more expect agreement on its merits than I expect to be dealt four-of-a-kind.

Grim said...

Now I realize that a shared passion for any work of art is a rare and wonderful thing.

That's a good point. I came to realize just Thursday that a man I've known for years had also loved the Three Musketeers novels. When I was younger, I really adored them (although after the first one, they do have a kind of drawing room quality -- they spent much less time than I liked swordfighting and riding horses, and much more time in fancy dress discussing the intrigues of court).

Texan99 said...

I've never read them, but I've always enjoyed the movie versions. Of course, liking a plot is not the same as liking a novel.

I got a couple of SciFi recommendations today at Maggie's Farm. We'll see!

jaed said...

There shouldn't have been any point at which I lost enough interest to have to force myself to finish.

I'd quibble with this by offering an exception: if I forced myself to continue, and then after finishing, thought to myself, "Damn, I'm so glad I didn't give up on this halfway through!"