Shimer College

May 06, 2013

Great Books Revisited… or is it Great Lists?

One way of thinking about what great books are is to think about lists. (Yes, people make lists… perhaps they always have?)

For example, the collection of great books created by those at the Encyclopedia Brittanica (think Mortimer Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins) was, in some ways, a list with a delightful index called a synopticon. The books include Freud and Artistotle, Homer and Darwin, Thucydides and Chaucer and much much more. Wikipediaeven has an entry on the books, complete with a picture. As you will learn there (or if you have a set) it was not until the second edition that any women were included (and yes, Jane Austen made the cut as did George Eliot, Willa Cather,Virginia Woolf and, well, that is it for women. Unless I missed Sappho?). 

The works chosen have been criticized. Lists themselves, often labelled (and occasionally libelled) as canons, have been criticized. And yet, the game of listing continues. (Ok, ok. It is not a game.)

Here, for example, is a list of The 100 Best Nonfiction Books of All Time – from Ms. Magazine. Virginia Woolf makes their list (though a very different book than that included above – here we have A Room of One’s Own and there To the Lighthouse.) Simone de Beauvoir makes the Ms. list but not the great books of the west list. Likewise, Wollstonecraft makes Ms. but not… I am not sure I like the list – either list – but the contrast is interesting as are the methods each uses to create their lists. 

Here’s a list of global works, from the 25 years prior to the creation of the list by international writers. The only book to make the list twice is by Gabriel GArcia Marquez. And, I admit to loving that Elizabeth Bishop makes their cut. 

The Guardian has done the top 100 books of all time. Here we get Job (yes, the biblical Job not the job you are looking for) and Doris Lessing, Walt Whitman and the Ramayana, Chinua Achebe and emily Bronte, to note a few. (The list was compiled by Norwegians. And, I have to say, it is a pretty darn global list.) (If you want Time’s list, try here.) 

There are, of course, lists of great scientific books. (See this example). And there are lists of the top books of a given time period; I like this one on the 20th century – in part because it feels Shimerian in a somewhat challenging way. (Not to mention that there is a one degree of separation thing her and the pictures are great.) Lolita, though, is not MY pick for top book of the 20th century. 

And, I admit, while googling away I found this – a “slow school” focused on global great books. Hmm. Who knew? And what exactly is a slow school? 

I know that the notion of great books is not merely about lists (and that reading does matter not to mention writing). But still, I am asking: what is your list? On what basis do you make it? And, on what basis do you criticize lists? 

Is “who’s in and who’s out” part of it?

Do the lists make communities? And, as they do, are we proud of who “we” are?

If we want to build a more just world, what is the role of such lists in accomplishing this goal? Must we share “our” works? Must we read “their” works? And who are we/they anyway? 

What’s your list?