Thursday, July 22, 2010


I am a sucker for lists. Ten best this, ten worst that, just give me an article with a list in it and I'm almost guaranteed to read it.

I'm particularly fond of lists of books. I check the various New York Times bestseller lists - fiction, nonfiction, paperback, trade paperback, etc. - at least once a week. Then there are those lists of "1001 books you MUST read before you die" and similar lists.

Today, while tooling around the Internet, I came upon one of those lists. It is the Modern Library's 100 best novels. It is not just one list but two. The first list is the Modern Library board's list of the best 100 and the second list is a reader's list, apparently compiled from a survey. I went through both lists to see how many I had read. I found that on the board's list I had read 27 of their favorites, while on the reader's list, I had read 22.

It's interesting to compare the two lists. They have some titles in common but overall they are quite different. For example, the first three titles on the board's list are Ulysses by James Joyce, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I had read the first two of those, not the third. The first three titles on the reader's list were Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, and Battlefield Earth by L. Ron Hubbard. I've not read a single one of those and I don't expect I ever will, but the fourth book on the reader's favorites list is Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and that one I have read multiple times.

Ulysses, The Great Gatsby and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man do actually make the reader's list as well. They are number 11, number 13, and number 57 respectively. But Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Battlefield Earth do not appear at all on the board's list of favorites, probably with good reason. Neither, however, does Lord of the Rings, which just seems a gross oversight to me - but then, that's just me.

The bias of these lists is obvious. Books written in English only comprise both lists. There are whole libraries full of wonderful books that were not written in English. I've read at least four this year - Eva Luna by Isabel Allende and the three Stieg Larsson books. Surely some of them should make the "100 best" list.

I guess this just points to the futility of such lists. Sure, they are interesting to look at, but in the end, how can you really know what are the 100 best unless you have read and evaluated every single one in the world? Which, of course, is an impossible task, so I guess I will remain...listless.


  1. I guess if you're a real fan of lists, you're aware of the 1001 Books spreadsheet and have a copy of the new v4 edition, right?

    If not, head over to the spreadsheet page on Arukiyomi.

  2. Hey, thanks, Arukiyomi! I'll check it out.