Monday, November 7, 2016

The Cozy Book Corner No. 11: Writers' Choices of Top Ten Greatest Books of All Time

Welcome to my Monday 
bookish feature!

In each weekly post, I explore 
my thoughts on several 
book-related topics.

My email provider, (actually associated with AOL), has a home page containing links to many interesting -- as well as not so interesting -- articles. The ones I find most interesting are those dealing with either scientific research or psychological data. However, just the other day I came across one dealing with a literary topic. Specifically, it concerned a writers' list of the top 10 greatest books of all time. 

The first thing I noticed about this list was that there were actually TWO lists of "Top 10 Books" mentioned in the article. The first one was for 20th-century authors, while the second one was for 19th-century authors. This seemed too arbitrary to me. If any list of "greatest books of all time" is to be compiled, then why limit it only to the last two centuries? Weren't there other great books written in previous centuries?

It turned out that these lists were excerpts from the book, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, by J. Peder Zane. This book is available for purchase on Amazon; the article discusses the two lists mentioned. 

According to the article, as well as the Amazon synopsis, one hundred twenty-five of today's greatest writers were asked to submit titles. Writers such as Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates are mentioned among the 125 names. 

I seriously think that compiling such lists is an exercise in futility, because personal biases cannot be ruled out, especially where writers are concerned.

I was appalled and surprised to see Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita at the very top of the list of "greatest" 20th-century literary works. Then there's the 'definitive' list, titled, "The Top Top Ten List". I have excerpted it below. The novel Lolita is in fourth place on this list. (The list can be viewed by opening the Amazon preview reader for this book, clicking on "Table of Contents", and then clicking on the title below.)

The Top Top Ten List 
(from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, by J. Peder Zane)

1.)  Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
2.)  Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
3.)  War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
4.)  Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
5.) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
6.)   Hamlet, by William Shakespeare
7.)   The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8.)   In Search of Lost Time, by Marcel Proust
9.)   The Stories of Anton Chekhov
10.) Middlemarch, by George Eliot   

While I have never read the Nabokov novel, I have for a long time had a cursory knowledge of it. In the interests of fairness, I therefore looked up the Wikipedia article on it. Such articles always contain a plot synopsis of the novels in question. 

The plot of this novel involves pedophilia. There's no doubt about it. The male protagonist, who has the ridiculous name, Humbert Humbert, is a middle-aged literary scholar who becomes totally infatuated with a 12-year-old girl, whom he privately nicknames "Lolita". One disgusting scene briefly described in the novel involves Humbert secretly ejaculating in his pants while Lolita is sitting on his lap. 

In short, this novel is merely a reprehensible glorification of pedophilia, an act that is considered a crime in today's society. I fail to see the logic in lauding this novel on the one hand, and vigorously criticizing the Catholic Church's attempts to cover up its own cases of pedophilia by its priests. But this is probably what some of these writers have done, although perhaps unwittingly.

For some strange reason, erotica is considered by many writers to be a legitimate form of literature. Why this should be so is a total mystery to me. Reducing human behavior to sexuality, and portraying this in so-called 'literature' actually reduces such behavior to an animalistic level. Humans are more than mere animals. Erotica is nothing more or less than literary pornography. Why, then, should it be so highly valued?

Going back to the "definitive list", there are also some very obvious omissions. I must ask, where are the novels of Hemingway and Steinbeck, for instance? Surely books such as A Farewell to Arms and The Grapes of Wrath should have been included on this list of all lists. While I must admit to not having read either of these novels, they have a very strong reputation among literary critics.   

Further compounding the problem is the fact that there is very little diversity on this list. Where, for instance, are the novels of The Harlem Renaissance? Surely Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, should have been included. What about The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, and Beloved, by Toni Morrison? What about Black Boy, by Richard Wright? And there's only ONE female writer included on this so-called 'definitive' list -- George Eliot, who, at first glance, appears to be a male. And what happened to Austen, and the Brontë  sisters?

Speaking of female writers, why haven't there been any novels by women dealing with the female experience? Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary are examples of the misogynistic portrayal of women as unfaithful, manipulative, and shallow, and both novels end in tragedy for these female characters. Why include novels that obviously denigrate women? I did try to read the Tolstoy novel a couple of years ago, and could not finish it, as it was just too repugnant to me. As for the Flaubert novel, I have read the Wikipedia synopsis, and totally detest the stereotypical depiction of the central, female character.   

Since Shakespeare and Eliot have been included on this "Top Top Ten" list, I would have to ask about the non-inclusion of other great British writers, such as Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, and Anthony Trollope. Or are they not considered "great"? 

There are SO many omissions on this so-called "Top Top Ten List" it's totally incredible. Many Nobel Prize winners are totally missing, which is unpardonable. Hemingway won the Nobel in 1954, for The Old Man and the Sea, while Steinbeck won it in 1962, "for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception". Where is Hermann Hesse? This German writer won the Nobel Prize in 1946, for his masterpiece titled Magister Ludi, also known as The Glass Bead Game. Another writer of note is William Faulkner, who received the 1949 Nobel "for his powerful and artistically unique contribution to the modern American novel". I've read Faulkner's Light In August; surely it should have been mentioned on the "Top Top Ten" list. Why, oh, why, weren't any of these novels and writers included on this 'definitive' list? (The quotes above are from the website; please see links below.)

There are several more glaring omissions: fantasy and science fiction writers are not represented on the "Top Top Ten" list. What about Kurt Vonnegut? How about J.R.R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke? Surely these writers deserve to be considered "great"! They have each written masterpieces, and not just one each, but several. Certainly Slaughterhouse Five, Fahrenheit 451, The Lord of the Rings, The Foundation Trilogy, Stranger In A Strange Land, and 2001: A Space Odyssey should have made this list.   

I see nothing wrong with each individual writer making up their own list, but I do object to the choices for the 'definitive' list. Also, I think it's very arbitrary to have ONLY TEN books on this list. Why only ten? There are literally hundreds of brilliant writers across the centuries. It seems to me that a definitive list of ONE HUNDRED greatest books would be MUCH more appropriate. If that sounds like too many, then perhaps fifty would be fine. But certainly not only ten.

In short,  it seems much more in the interests of fairness and objectivity to me to pick the 50, or 100 greatest books based on a compilation of the lists of these 125 writers. Surely THAT many writers should be able to agree on at least 50 greatest literary works!

I know this post sounds like a review of a book that I haven't even read. It's just that, on the very surface, there are obviously some very objectionable things going on, and I'm sure I'll find more when I actually read the book, if I ever do. If I end up reading it, I would then also like to search out other books with similar lists, to see what other compilers have to say on the subject. As far as Zane and his interviewed writers go, they are by no means the last word on this subject. While it's true that writers can judge the quality of other writers' work, again, they can be just as biased as any of the most highly respected literary critics, or, ironically, any of us readers, for that matter.

Online Links
 (Amazon link)

What are your thoughts 
on this topic?
Please leave a comment
and let me know!