Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Don't Croak Before You Read These Books

According to The Guardian and a bunch of librarians,* these are the thirty books everyone should read before they die:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Bible
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by JRR Tolkien
1984 by George Orwell
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
All Quiet on the Western Front by E M Remarque
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Phillip Pullman
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Middlemarch by George Eliot
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzenhitsyn
Now, you all know I love a list as much as the next person. And mere words will never do justice to how much I adore the librarians, but I'm afraid I have to call shenanigans on this little exercise.

Oh, not with most of the picks. They're okay by me. I mean, who's going to argue with To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice? Or with 1984 and A Clockwork Orange? Or with Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows (both of which, coincidentally, I've written about recently)? Not me, that's for sure.

I can also see the point of including some titles that don't exactly set my house on fire. I prefer East of Eden to Grapes of Wrath, but the latter had a profound social and political impact that probably renders it a More Important Book. And Tess of the D'Urbervilles? Well, you know my feelings about that particular book, but I guess Hardy HAD to be included somehow, so may as well go with poor Tess. And everyone probably should read A Christmas Carol, or else they're going to be really confused by the plots of the Christmas specials for pretty much every North American sitcom.

But (and at the risk of offending some of you, for which I apologize in advance)... but... The Lovely Bones? The Time Traveler's Wife? The Life of Pi? Er, ahem, The Prophet?

I can see that the librarians tried to take into consideration recent popular favourites, and I think it's sweet that they made the effort. And heck, in my opinion, The Poisonwood Bible definitely belongs on this list. But some of the other contemporary picks (and I've read most of them), just don't ring with the clear clarion tones that say "This book will live on throughout the ages. The ages, I tell you!" Not to me, anyway. I'm not being needlessly harsh, either. I mean, I really, really LIKED The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. It's just... well... you know.

Shenanigans! Shenanigans! Somebody get me my broom!

*What do you call a group of librarians, anyway? (No, this isn't a riddle.) There's a parliament of owls and a murder of crows, but it strikes me that, if any group deserves its own nomenclature, it's librarians. A shelf of librarians? A collection of librarians? Help me out here.

(Link via Raincoaster)

65 comments:

Wayne said...

Shenanigans indeed!

Also, and I say this gently ... but I cannot stand To Kill a Mockingbird.

I think there's maybe one other person in North America who doesn't like that book, either.

Cat said...

A dewey of librarians.

K Jones said...

Cat is probably right on with the Dewey of librarians, but I will respectfully offer up Gaggle of Librarians as I believe they are birdlike with their pompadour hairdos and their strutting and cooing.

Anita said...

A list like this just begs to be ripped apart doesn't it?

Frankly, as I'm finding in my own quest to read some great literature before I turn 40 (which is in a very short amount of time unfortunately) - - some of the supposed greats really aren't so great anymore.

I'm sure they were in their time and all, but now, compared to the writers of today, where you not only need to be able to write, but you need to stand out amongst an enormous freakin' number of new books published each year, I don't think they hold up so well.

Their reputations live on.

So I suspect, some books that are relatively new to the shelves truly will go down in history as classics. But I rather agree with you that The Lovely Bones and The Time Traveler's Wife aren't two of them.

I loved Grapes of Wrath so now you've really got me looking forward to East of Eden which is sitting on my shelf waiting for me.

Jennifer R said...

I'm reminded of a Remington Steele episode where they featured the five top bachelors in LA, most of whom claimed The Prophet was their favorite book. (Transcript of it here.) Steele says he hasn't read it, but he'll go get a copy.

Jenny said...

Cat picked my number one choice of a "Dewey," so I'm going to offer up a "hush" of librarians.

Lists like this are just breeding grounds for dissension, aren't they? I'm a bit leery of contemporary selections on a list like this because they haven't been around long enough to know if they'll have a Lasting Social Impact or whatever will make them a Very Important Book. For instance, I can't stand Lord of the Flies but it's become so imbedded in our culture that you probably should read it (your A Christmas Carol effect).

Anonymous said...

According to the Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms (by Ivan G. Sparkes), you can choose from "catalogue" "sheaf" or "shush." And yes, I'm in library school, and I even had this question as part of my reference homework last semester.

-c.

Michael Bevel: British Adventuress said...

First off, I've never even met Wayne, and already there is bitter enmity between us. You don't like To Kill a Mockingbird? Can I then assume that you just categorically hate everything that's true and good in the world? Because by hating To Kill a Mockingbird, you do.

You, sir (or madame as the case may be), have killed a mockingbird.

Now, on to that facockta list.

"I mean, who's going to argue with To Kill a Mockingbird" -- >glares again at Wayne "and The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice? Or with 1984 and A Clockwork Orange?"

I'll argue with A Clockwork Orange. Burroughs has been in a time-out in the Bevel household since pretty much forever. I think one can live a long and fruitful life without having to slog through any permutations of his crazy madeup language.

I'm also pretty sure that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime isn't necessary for happiness. It's a good book; it's just not a meaning-making book.

Also, the Bible? And not the Koran? Or any other holy book? What about Bullfinch's Mythology?

Finally, I agree. Tess should have been replaced with Jude the Obscure. It's a better book

gillian said...

Thanks to high school, I don't have too many books to go before these librarians would approve of my reading history. Though I can't see myself going through the entire Bible. I tried once, but never got past Genesis.

I agree with you about Tess. Why that one, over any other Hardy book? Maybe they think rape makes a book more interesting.

Teleri025 said...

Since we're mostly like ravens, what with the wearing black and being attracted to shiny things, I'd prefer to go with a murder of librarians. Although a hush is acceptable, as is a stack.

If you go with the dewey of librarians, then you might get overloaded in certain areas since Dewey doesn't really have the depth ability to fully express the wide range of librarians that exist. All of our numbers would be limited to the 020 area. LC is much better at expressing that with much shorter call numbers.

And I'm right there with you on the Tess hate.

Anonymous said...

Boring, but accurate: a collection of librarians

Anonymous said...

And I'm jumping in to defend Dickens "A Christmas Carol" which I re-read every year around that time. . .who knew Dickens could snark?

Meepers said...

Dickens: The man could snark with the best of 'em, surely. Thank you for this list - it is both exciting (am reading the Wind in the Willows to my husband right now, actually) and challenging: I still need to read eleven of those books. However: Why not Moby Dick? They've got college courses on it...but no book list love? Mind if I link this entry?

Matthew E said...

An ook of librarians?

Diner Girl said...

I'm okay with about 50% of what's on this list, but my word... The Curious Incident of the Something of the Dog of the Whatever? That book was one of the worst ever. Same goes for Lovely Bones. Gag me. And the Bible? Isn't that a bit much? I can see the populace of China and Saudi Arabia rushing out to pick that up right away to read before they die.

martha said...

Holy shit. The Alchemist is one of the worst books ever written. Ugh. And if we're going for collective nouns here, check out this site:
http://users.tinyonline.co.uk/gswithenbank/collnoun.htm
Although alas, they don't have anything for librarians.

Wayne said...

In response to Michael Bevel: There's actually nothing very wrong about TKAM, except I think it's more about white people feeling good about their progressive attitudes than it is about the plight of black people. I think of Lutie Johnson, who is upset that Jem and Scout are at her church, First Purchase -- and she should be! White people use her church as a gambling hall all week long, and here on her one day of worship are two white kids! Of course she's mad. But the book is remarkably unsympathetic towards her -- she's put down very sharply and then dismissed in less than half a page. The black characters who are celebrated in TKAM are meek, humble folk; they do not speak out for themselves, but let white people do that for them.

I'm not saying it's unrealistic. It just kind of irritates me, because it seems that all of this is supposed to make ME feel good too, and it doesn't.

But then again, Michael Bevel, I throw darts at penguins for fun and eat puppies for breakfast. What do I know?

Nessa said...

I am with michael bevel on Mockingbird and Jude. Wayne, did you hear that crunching sound? That was my soul being crushed.

That being said, thanks so much for defending The Poisonwood Bible. I am enjoying it very much right now.

I kind of disagree with having so much contemporary stuff on the list, but it's an OK list. I would've added The Jungle if we're talking social climate and the like.

I looove lists like this. So conversation-worthy.

J said...

I wasn't that impressed by the list - no Hemmingway, no Beckett, no Kafka.

I actually posted so I could say how wonderful Martha's website is. I was very pleased to learn that a group of lawyers is actually an eloquence of lawyers - and that several widows are best described as an ambush of widows. Excellent things to know!

P.S. If you're feeling like a heathen or like a very complete version - try Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible. It's probably out of print, but I didn't have any trouble finding a copy.

Em said...

Life of Pi. Now there's four hours of my life I regretted wasting. Just wasn't all that nuts about it. And the annoyance factor ups itself when my fellow-students feel they can toss around the title and instantly win my respect for their steady intake of nothing but scholarly and inspiring fiction. I want to sneak a bodice-buster into their bookbags and watch them scream in horror.

Anonymous said...

This is what is so much fun about lists such as this: people jump up and down, waving their arms, defending their most beloved book ever. Or bemoaning the inclusion of the book which they loathe above all others. To make my own contributions, I agree with all who have already posted a dislike of Thomas Hardy. Personally, I think he hated women. Tess needs a spine transplant.

Lord of the Rings. Best fantasy story. Ever.

And this is cliche, but I like a collection of librarians. Dewey just doesn't have enough to encompass all of us.

Jenny said...

Oh, my lord, Em, I think you're my hero.

Also, I'm going to try my best to work "a glozing of taverners" into conversation.

Tobias said...

For some reason, I want to go with an index of librarians. Don't relly know why, but there it is.

And really, why shouldn't the Bible be included? I mean, look at what it's got: violence, sex, a really trippy ending... what's not to love?

And, as much as I love it, thank god Gatsby wasn't on that list.

Wayne said...

I don't care for Gatsby much, either.

[ducks]

Now that I have no credibility, has anyone read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami? I'm about halfway through, and man oh man, this book belongs on someone's list of things to read before you die.

raincoaster said...

I dunno, I think Gatsby belongs there. Also, of course, Hemingway and Kafka, but I can understand their leaving Beckett off, as plays don't seem to count. But no Joyce??? NO JOYCE??? Oh god, I was struck blind by the horror of the three Dickens titles on the list and didn't notice that the first time.

If you're going to include contemporary books, I'd put A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius on there. It's generation-defining, possibly the most creative book of the past 20 years. And The Secret History also deserves consideration, although to judge from her sophomore effort, it was a one-off.

I still say you could lose Hardy entirely and not miss him. Yes, he was historically important. No, he wasn't that good.

Dimestore Lipstick said...

I'd prefer to see The Mayor of Casterbridge on there before Tess. And a list without Victor Hugo is no list at all. I know the musical distorted the popular understanding of Les Misérables, but the book itself is a true classic.

raincoaster said...

It's not hard to tell the book was put together in England. It's basically Englit, plus a few foreign books in translation, all but one of which are available at aromatherapy shops.

(and thanks, btw, to our lovely hostess, for giving me credit for the link. I wuv me some credit!)

raincoaster said...

Book = list. Sorry, I get carried away when I've had a pot of coffee.

Jilder said...

Forgive me, but I liked Life of Pi. I thought it was quite charming. Must be an antipodes thing.

I want to know where The Handmaid's Tale is on this list. If they feel they must add some vaguely contemporary stuff to the pile, as least make it good literary stuff.

Anonymous said...

a little too white, male dominated for me. (two token non-whites and 70% male). it's not about being pc... it just misses what most of the world has to share...

Antipodean said...

I actually quite like The Lovely Bones, but I can see how it would divide readers. The His Dark Materials trilogy is a worthy inclusion, but Tess? Not so much.

Also, 1984 never lived up to the hype for me. I thought that John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids was much more engaging.

I'm loving a pomposity of professors' - as for librarians, the google consensus seems to be a catalogue.

Doppelganger said...

God bless your moxie, Wayne. I was spluttering, not with rage but with incomprehension, at your first post. I mean, I've heard rumours that there are some people who've never read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I've never met any. But to say that you've read it and didn't LIKE it... well, that takes cojones. And actually, when you state your argument later, I can see why the book might not work for some people. Point scored! But I insist that you desist with the puppy-eating post-haste.

Just to randomly throw in my two cents about one of the books you guys are talking about, I didn't hate Life of Pi, but I also didn't see where it was so amazing and groundbreaking that it trumps all but twenty-nine of the books that have EVER been written. And as the only representative of Canadian literature? I call big-time shenanigans. Like, yeah, as Jilder points out, why not Handmaid's Tale, which WAS amazing and groundbreaking?

Also, I should mention that, when I copied and pasted this list of books from The Guardian site, I found THREE typos/misspellings in the titles and the names of the authors. Tsk, tsk.

I like a "shush" of librarians.

Cap'n Ganch said...

Wow. What a fracas over here. What's funny about this list is that it's not only the Top 30 Books of Importance (something which can and will change as circumstances arise), but books you need to read before you die.

I mean ... really?

***

Life of Pi? Can suck me. That was a prime example of why buying a book by its cover can screw you over. It was so glossy! How could I not own that?

And now, really, how can I not own it? Anyone? I'll mail it to you.

Andrea said...

I think the title of this list is telling. These suggestions aren't meant for voracious readers. For this reason I can understand not including Joyce, even seasoned readers have trouble with his stuff (Same goes for not having 'Moby Dick' on there).

The inclusion of contemporary fiction is probably an attempt to appeal to the masses. Somebody sees 'The Lovely Bones' mentioned (Which I wasn't impressed by, but judging by book sales *somebody* was) and thinks, "Oh, I read that," and proceeds to check out the other entries. Maybe 'Life of Pi' doesn't deserve a spot, but I think the average person is more likely to stick with it than, say, 'The Dubliners'. And I'm all for unfair, arbitrary lists that get people reading.

And I completely agree that they should have included 'The Handmaid's Tale'.

K Jones said...

I regretted not taking this list to task before when I posted but reading throught the myriad comments, I have to add my two cents. I think the Anglo-centric nature of this list is regrettable (as someone else suggested). I would have included a Don Quixote along with a small dusting of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy and a touch of Hugo, Zola, or even Mann. As for contemporary fare, how about The Nazarene by Sholem Asch or Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I like my Dickens, but I don't need three of his books to read before I die.

Em said...

Life of Pi? Can suck me. That was a prime example of why buying a book by its cover can screw you over. It was so glossy! How could I not own that?

I totally understand that. The only reason I didn't buy it on sight and then read it as opposed to getting out of the library for free was because I was in a BC Ferries gift shop and knew I'd consider myself screwed out of twenty-five bucks even if the book turned out to be okay.

Michael said...

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA! That is one of my favorite books of all time! It is totally a read before you die book.

I too liked Life of Pi, the story was kind of cool, and I too totally picked it up because of the pretty cover. And mine was the American one. I didn't even see the awesome Canadian cover until I was in a little tiny bookstore in Lake Louise. But "Read before you die?" I'd definitely put many, many other books before that one.

But Wuthering Heights? SUCK!

Anonymous said...

The larger question, I suppose, is why should one read any particular book. Because it tells a good story? Because it is exceptionally well-written? Because it is a classic? Because it will make one think about something in a new way? Any two of the above?

Anonymous said...

The Time Traveler's Wife? Heavens...that book was terrible. If Niffenegger wanted me to root for a particular couple, she probably ought to make the characters sympathetic and not a manipulative dickhead (the time traveler) and a spineless Mary Sue (the wife). Furthermore using words like "cock" and "cunt" in one's writing does not make one edgy and modern, it just looks like the author is trying way too hard to look edgy and modern. (Especially since the characterization was crap and the characters did not seem like the type to use those words.) Anyway, it was incredibly overrated.

However I LOVED A Curious Incident of A Dog at Nighttime, and I'm glad it made the list. I'm probably not super well-read, but I though the narration was interesting and innovative and it was one of the better takes on the unreliable narrator. I think it actually could be timeless because the narrative style was so different. However, since I probably need to read more, maybe the narrative style was not so different and there is some great work that did it better. Is there?

Kristin said...

I'm amazed that so many people seem to dislike Life of Pi. Of all the recent works on there, it, The Poisonwood Bible, and His Dark Materials are the only ones that I really think have a claim to significance (though I haven't read The Time Traveller's Wife). Would someone who dislikes it, or even felt ambivalent about it, mind telling me why?

Anna said...

The collective noun depends on the type of librarian:
Collective Nouns for Groups of Librarians by Biblia, Warrior Librarian

Jenn25 said...

Okay, to all of the poeople who asked why the Bible should be included in this list, I feel I must reply. The Bible has probably had a more profound effect on our society than any other book -ever. It has been around for over 1,000 years. It is alluded to more often than any other piece of literature. And many people believe that it holds the answers to Life the Universe and Everything... How can you complain that other books on the list haven't been tested by or become as embedded into our society as A Christmas Carol, but still doubt the importance of the Bible?

Killer said...

Alright, the three Dickens are QUITE more than enough! I can follow the Christmas Carol argument, but if they were going to pick any other Dickens (which I also doubt) they should have gone with A Tale of Two Cities. Often quoted, referenced, copied etc. Although the foreshadowing wasn't exactly obscure, it was a good story of what love is, which the world (including literature) often fails to grasp. The only Dickens I would be willing to re-read.

Don't even get me started on The Grapes of Wrath over Of Mice and Men! Who give Librarians the right to decide these things anyways . . .

Jean said...

Such lists have been around for a long time. I just bought Clifton Fadiman's "The Lifetime Reading Plan," written in 1960. It is "a stimulating and irresistible guide to one hundred books and authors which will help you understand what the greatest writers of Western civilizaiton have thought and felt." Not only a list, there is commentary written on each of the recommended books. Of Thomas Hardy's books, the list includes "The Mayor of Casterbridge." Seven by Charles Dickens are listed,though not "A Christmas Carol," as is "Wuthering Heights" and George Elliot's "Mill on the Floss" - not "Middlemarch." None of the other authors listed by these librarians are included; so I guess it just goes to show that times change and opinions vary. I like the lists, though, because it gives me ideas for books to read in order to be "well read." I, personally, disagree vehemently with "The Lovely Bones." Nothing lovely about that book, or necessary, or uplifting, or enlightening, or helpful - hated it. I like the "Life of Pi," but I don't see why it's a necessary read or one that will become classic. I suspect I would feel the same about a lot of these. I vote for definitely keeping "The Poisonwood Bible," though.

Anonymous said...

I really liked the dog book and i also think harry potter is a lot better than lord of the rings!!

Anonymous said...

Okay, the Bible is number one; TKAM is number two; where oh where is my number three: Huckleberry Finn? Even Wayne would like that one! Maybe somebody could read it to him???

Anonymous said...

Although there are many good books on this list (yes even the Bible,which has some great stories, but at times isn't very well written *blasphemous indeed*) however, I do not think that the selection is very diverse!

Anonymous said...

I'd take Farenheit 451 over 1984 any day of the week.

Anonymous said...

Farenheit 451? I read that in the fifth grade - before I knew it was somewhat popular. I don't remember much of it - should i re-read it or start fresh with Great Expectations? (I LOVE Dickens)

CEETTN said...

Fahrenheit 451 is the best out of your standard collection of "I want to be angry at The Institution" books for a plethora of reasons, the simplest being that it was written by a legitimately legendary author, who's actually good.

No one actually needs to read 1984. Those who merely read it you have no reason to have a conversation with, and those who understand it won't bother talking about it.

Anonymous said...

A book that should be on every "books to read before you die" list is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Where is it?

Anonymous said...

Why no Catch 22? Anyone who can finish it before they're dead will want to die before finishing it anyway... only book I didn't finish, can you tell? Just a little bitter.

superhuman2021 said...

Well I am quite young, only 20 years old. I have read most of the books on the list as well as many others. In my opinion Jane Eyre was a womens book and since women read a lot I can see why its on there.
While I think many people forget that such a great author is still alive and will be well known after his for at least a couple centuries, Steven King should have a title here, and I propose all to read The Dark Tower series (7 books) which have a story full of pretty much every aspect of literature you could have.

Anonymous said...

Why all the hate on the Bible you dont have to be religious and definitely not Catholic to enjoy it

Anonymous said...

What about Anton Chekov?

Anonymous said...

Wayne, I believe I am the first to say this: I agree. It's not that To Kill a Mockingbird is a bad book, but does it live up to the hype? I think not. I read it a while ago, and I don't think it has ever taken me so long to get through a book.
By the way, I think puppies are better suited to dinner. Try hamsters for breakfast....

Anonymous said...

By the way, "the Bible, which has some great stories" - do you realise how offensive that is?

Anonymous said...

Maybe one of the reasons a list like this is senseless for collective approval is the fact that (fortunately) everybody interprets what she reads in an individual way based on ones own personal experiences. Having said that, I personally think that books like the Life of Pi and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime bring new flavors of emotion to the literary world.

aslee said...

i'm also going to track my progress for this list in my blog. sending my encouragement and hoorays :)

Sandra Danby said...

Am I the only one who can't get on with Bulgakov?

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