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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Books, Tastes, and Economic Realities...

I can't hide the fact that I am a "list" person. What I mean by that is the fact that I depend on lists to organize my life in more ways than one. Having said that, I suppose that I am not all that completely nuts about categorized literature lists in general, only those that help to educate and edificate. Perhaps technology has made us dependent on lists rather than liberate us from them. My reading lists are based on what I want to read, not what I need to read or what I consider "good." In that sense, it is important to have a clear idea of what these so-called "reading lists" or "bestsellers" really advocate.

Yesterday, I described my great distaste of B.K. Myers' "A Reader's Manifesto," and today I must point out another one of the many debates going on (albeit somewhat silently) on the topic of literature nowadays. On May 23rd, "The New York Times" ran a review by one William Grimes entitled "Volumes to Go Before You Die." The column was an open critique of Prof. Peter Boxall's effort to put together the list of 1,001 books to read before you die. Grimes' problem with the 1,001 book list is the fact that 1) it is a British effort, 2) that the British love lists and the fights they provoke, and 3) that most of the academic sources which supported the inclusion of some of the books were "mostly obscure." Going by what I wrote yesterday, I must continue to ask--and ask earnestly--what is going on with literature nowadays?

This past winter I was part of a committee of academics that was to decide upon the selections our students were to read in the coming summer. I quit the committee after the first day. The sessions were mostly bickering about the merits of this author and the lacking of an other. In a room full of seemingly intelligent people, dialogue was put to rest and what ensued was a gripe session, a verbal war that surrendered to nothing and yielded far less. I had decided to join the committee with the interest of playing a "role" of sorts. I wanted to be the one (I assumed correctly beforehand that I would be the only one) advocating the inclusion of the "Great Books" in the list for summer reading. This fact I made clear on the first day, when, in the only sign of politeness, we introduced ourselves and gave the reason as to why we wanted to be part of the committee. I said openly that I was there to advocate the "Classics," books despite the fact that the liberal-oriented/politically-correct interpretation might consider them racist, colonialist, imperialist, anti-semetic, sexist, oppressive, etc. There's merit to these books, I continued, because they fulfilled a part of society and stood the test of time. We all could recognize that and read them for what they mean today--not as support for unpopular policies, politics, philosophies and/or beliefs. The argument didn't go far. This is the reason why even the American political process has become a hard to endure joke: we are offending each other to absolute silence in the name of "political-correctness."

At any rate, Grimes main argument (much like my own in the committee) is that why the list included so many books from recent and contemporary writers but failed to include writers from what he calls "the age of Balzac, Dickens, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy." I agree with him (to a certain extent), but I have to recognize that ALL literature, regardless of what its aim is, should be included in the list. Therefore, we wouldn't have a list of 1,001, but rather a numberless list from which to read the rest of our lives. Wouldn't that be a better option? Wouldn't that be a better learning experience, not limited by choices or narrow paths? Isn't the effort to read in order to experience things that are beyond our own lives enough? Wouldn't it be better not to categorize books in lists of "best to read," "must reads," etc.? Grimes makes (in my biased personal opinion) a fatal mistake. He states: "Something is wrong here. Paul Auster gets six novels. Don DeLillo [gets] seven. Thackeray gets one: 'Vanity Fair.'" Of course, my guard went up. In two days I have read two unreasonable critiques of Paul Auster, my favorite writer. Of course I am going to go on the defensive. But what I don't have to do is defend Auster. His works speak for themselves, and if you know Paul Auster's work, you would know what I am talking about. He is not, like Shakespeare, beyond criticism, but the fact that he draws so much unfair and unwarranted critiques perhaps means that he is so good those who cannot compete then criticize. Then the old adage must be revised: "Criticism is the most sincere form of flattery." I am advocating both Thackeray and Auster, Garcia Marquez and Hesse.... I am advocating both Shelley and Rushdie, Wharton and Murakami. Grimes goes on to state that if you "[d]rop a couple of Austers, and there would have been room" for titles like Dreiser's "An American Tragedy." The question then becomes: Should we do away with these blasted lists? What about the so-called "bestsellers' lists?" Are they really bestsellers, or is this type of list another capitalist/corporate effort to promote one book over another? As I pointed out earlier, why take the opinion of a talk show hostess over that of professor emeritus Harold Bloom? I suppose he would know more about what "good" literature is, wouldn't he? A further complication can be seen when one examines (closely) the list of bestseller in the U.S. throughout the years. It can be considered a deterioration of "taste," or intellectualism, etc. It can be correlated to the rise of television, etc. It could be read from different angles and make it justify about any argument put forth. What are these lists for? Really?

I make no sense, really, and I'll be the first to state it. There's, however, a great discrepancy between the bestselling volumes of today, and the same category for, say, the year of Our Lord 1946. It is clearly a shift in economics, taste, education and lifestyles... and Grimes should take that into account, as should the rest of us...

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At 7:07 PM, Blogger Lezlie said...


Great post! I am a defender of the "1001 Books" and "Great Books" lists, but they are by no means the only books I read. I think the critics take these lists far too seriously, as if the people who actually read off the lists never think to round out their reading experiences with other things. There are lists that I think I just silly (the US bestseller list being one of them!), but I then I pick and choose as I please. Just like the list-makers did. ;-) Speaking only for myself, I have discovered some amazing authors by dabbling with lists like "1001" and "Great Books". Paul Auster being one of them! :-)



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