By Sophie Lewis
Earlier in the year, Amazon.com editors released their “Top 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.” The list, which was made up of novels written during the 20th century, primarily, was an amalgamation of votes by users on the popular website, Goodreads.com. More important than the actual books represented on the list, which includes everything from Pride and Prejudice to The Hunger Games, however, is the idea that “best book lists” invoke in readers.
Why do we feel the need to categorize our reading experience? Why do we care so much which books make the cut and which don’t? And do these lists indicate a change in our attitude towards reading and the role of literature in society?
The desire to create lists of books is certainly not a new one. In fact, the desire to rate and categorize books famously lead to the banning of books throughout history. As early as 1559, The Index Liborum Prohibitorum, perhaps the original book list, was established by the Inquisition to prevent the reading of texts that were considered corrupting and heretical.
While the Inquisition may have come and gone, banning books and creating lists of “bad” books has continued throughout history: according to Airshipdaily.com, a daily blog about literature, art and culture, there are many famous books that are still banned in many contexts today.
Some titles, such as Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, The Da Vinci Code, and American Psycho, may be more familiar, while others, such as Irwin Schiff’s Federal Mafia, Joseph Lelyveld’s Great Soul, and Zhuan Falun by Li Hongzhi might be less so.
Regardless, all of these books were deemed “dangerous” in some way by those with the power to make decisions, and their legacy has been defined almost as much by not being read by wide audiences as by the ideas contained within them being spread to a readership.
Perhaps a more humorous take on “banned books” is the Telegraph’s list of “Not the 50 Books You Must Read Before You Die.” In this tongue-in-cheek list, Michael Gove tells us that George Orwell’s 1984 (number one on Amazon’s list) is “The finest dystopic novel of the 20th century, coining such terms as doublethink and thought crime, but indirectly responsible for the rise of reality television and the career of Davina McCall.”
Another Amazon favorite, number fifty on the list, is deemed “Directly responsible for too many newspaper articles starting: “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” by Gove. Beyond offering us a good chuckle, however, Gove’s satire invokes the question: what do we look for when deciding which books make the cut into the upper echelon of the literary canon?
Perhaps the answer lies with those books that are neither reviled nor praised, but rather forgotten. In “The Great Unread,” an August 2014 article in The Paris Review, Joseph Luzzi muses on what makes a classic work of literature:
“This contrast, between a celebrated and largely unread classic and an enduringly popular classic, shows that a key to a work’s ongoing celebrity is that dangerous term: universality. We hold the word with suspicion because it tends to elevate one group at the expense of another; what’s supposedly applicable to all is often only applicable to a certain group that presumes to speak for everybody else. […] The classic that keeps on being read is the book whose situations and themes remain relevant over time—that miracle of interpretive openness that makes us feel as though certain stories, poems, and plays are written with us in mind.”
We continue to make lists of books and attempt to find all the literature we should read in a lifetime because we are searching for something universal that connects our own experiences to those around us. The act of reading invites sharing ideas, this is why books that challenge the status quo have always been considered dangerous by those who wish to remain in power.
While in the present day these book lists inspire and promote this sharing of ideas and enable us to connect with each other, it is important that we remember that these lists cannot truly be definitive and we must always be on the search for the next great book that will enable us to continue to expand our horizons and gain new ideas.
Sophie Lewis is senior at Barnard College majoring in Music and English. Barnard College of Columbia University is home to the Delta of New York chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.