August 12, 2018
It’s interesting, although in my case humbling, to run through lists of the hundred greatest novels (or hundred books everyone should read, etc.), and keep score. I did that earlier this year, and found that the lists do not reveal any criteria for inclusion or any obvious pattern to their choices, except for “BBC's Best Loved Novels of All Time.” Even it includes many I’ve never heard of.
There is bound to be some variation, as not all of the lists have the same format. Four of the ten that I found included only novels, and another only British novels. However, the rest contained mostly novels (with various combinations of classics, plays, essays, children’s books or collections of short stories added), so there is good deal of overlap.
Only one entry made every list; appropriately in an age of doublespeak and perpetual war, it is Orwell’s 1984. Jane Eyre appeared on nine. Animal Farm, Catch-22, David Copperfield, Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby made eight.
Brave New World, Emma, Great Expectations, Lolita, Mrs. Dalloway, Midnight’s Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, On the Road, Pride and Prejudice, The Catcher in the Rye and Ulysses made seven lists.
Included on six were A Passage to India, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Anna Karenina, Brideshead Revisited, Crime and Punishment, Heart of Darkness, Madame Bovary, Middlemarch, Moby Dick, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird and Wuthering Heights.
Many of the other choices seem quirky, an impression reenforced by the fact that, of the 486 books which made up the lists, 271 appeared only once. Of those, I counted 212 novels or novel series. Several others are novellas or collections of short stories.
The oddest choice by far, appearing once, is Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s tale of a wandering guru. Although I had read some of Nietzsche in college, and some later, I had avoided Zarathustra because of its obvious oddity. When I discovered it on "99 Classic Books Challenge," I read it in an attempt to determine what could have led to its inclusion. It certainly isn’t due to literary merit, at least in the translation referred to. Nietzsche wrote it in antique German, which reaches us in a form of English suggesting, in style, a bad first draft of the King James Bible. (There are more modern translations, entitled Thus Spoke Zarathustra). As to content, it often is incoherent, and when it makes sense, it is reprehensible.
Although the lists aren’t, or ought not to be taken as, a collection of what one “should” read, they do serve as a reminder that there are good books out there that otherwise are forgotten, overlooked or postponed. I’ve noted a few. We’ll see.