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!


Brian Joseph said...

Great post Maria.

As you know I love book lists.

I agree that the arbitrary number of ten creates all sorts of problems. Among everything that you mentioned the omission of women authors from the above is glaring.

I also agree that Shakespeare really does not belong on a list of novelists.

With all that I think that any list will cause some controversy.

Maybe some day I will try to put together my own.

Have a great week!

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

"Thanks for the good word!" This is a very nice expression you have. :)

You know, I have a major "Oops!" to address here....I took a closer look at the title of this book. It doesn't mention favorite novels specifically, but favorite BOOKS. So I went over to the Amazon preview, and found the following, in the Introduction: "Where previous surveys have queried small groups of authors, 'The Top Ten' draws from the responses of 125 leading British and American authors who were asked 'to provide a list, ranked in order, of what you consider the ten greatest works of fiction of all time -- novels, short story collections, plays, or poems.'" So I was entirely wrong to criticize the inclusion of Chekhov and Shakespeare on this definitive list.... I will have to revise this post accordingly.

However, my other objections still stand. Choosing a 'definitive' list of ONLY ten greatest works is totally ridiculous. Also ridiculous is having only ONE woman on the list, and not a single minority author. Also, it's just absurd not to have included ONE single Nobel Prize winner on this so-called "Top Top Ten" list! So these objections are still valid.

I really don't think that writers are always good judges of what constitutes great literature. The inclusion of "Lolita" on this list really bothers me, for instance. And Nabokov never won the Nobel Prize! And by the way, how about SF and fantasy authors? Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind here. So do Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, and Tolkien. So I think I'll add them to this post. Of course, the 125 authors who participated in this project must be predominantly mainstream writers (with the possible exception of Stephen King, who was also included). So it's to be expected that they would pick mainstream works.

I would be very interested in a list of great literary works you came up with! I think that we readers can pick great books just as well as these leading writers!

Thanks for the nice comment!! :)

Literary Feline said...

I think it's impossible for any list of "bests" to be without bias. Best of and favorites lists, after all, are far from objective. Different books speak to different people, and while you or I may not think a particular book is worthy of being on a best of list, it may be someone else's absolute favorite. My favorite quote, and the one on my blog is "No two persons ever read the same book," by Edmund Wilson (who just happens to be a friend of Nabokov's). Well known people's favorites tend to get more press than the rest of us, but that doesn't mean their lists are any better--or worse--than ours might be.

I listened to the audio version of Nabokov's Lolita, pushing past my comfort zone. Child molestation is a topic I generally try to avoid reading about, but I really wanted to know what all the fuss was about in regards to Lolita. I have a love/hate relationship with the book, and count it among my favorites. I think it's brilliant and yet it is also a book that I felt physically ill as I read. I disagree with you about it being a glorification of pedophilia. I personally found it to be anything but. There is nothing racy, erotic or sexy about it, especially if taken in context. I also take exception with the character of Lolita being portrayed as a temptress in the media sometimes--it's a total misrepresentation of the character and the book. As someone with a psychology and social work background who has worked with both victims and perpetrators, I found Nabokov's book especially fascinating. I know not everyone agrees with me (like you). I think this book is a good example of how true Edmund Wilson's quote is--how the same book can seen completely different by different people. The continuing controversy and polarization of opinion on the book have, in part, earned it its status over the years as a classic. At least that's my totally biased opinion. :-)

Maria Behar said...

Hi, Wendy!

OMG, I had not seen this comment before! I SWEAR. You know I always try to reply to comments as quickly as I possibly can. I don't know how I missed this one.... Maybe it's because I haven't posted on this blog for quite a while now. My other blog, has been taking up all of my attention.

Anyway....I LOVED reading your comment! It was obviously very well thought out.

I do agree with you that it's impossible to create an unbiased list of the 'best' books of all time. Whether the list creators are writers, readers, or critics, there will be major discrepancies in what these three groups of people consider the 'best'.

That quote by Edmund Wilson is GREAT, and I'm going to add it to my "Bookish Quotes" page. Thanks for including it in your comment!

I'm now going to use some quotes from your comment in order to comment on them, lol.

You say that "Lolita" is not a glorification of pedophilia. I must respectfully disagree with you on that. This novel presents, in full detail, a so-called 'relationship' in which a middle-aged man is actually aroused by a female who is clearly a minor. Although I haven't read the book, I have indeed read the Wikipedia synopsis. Included in that synopsis is the disgusting scene of Humbert ejaculating while Lolita was sitting on his lap. Nabokov apparently expresses no disgust over this scene. If he had felt disgusted by this scene, he would not have included it in his novel. Another clue that this book is indeed a glorification of pedophilia -- according to the synopsis, at no time was Humbert taken to task or even denounced to the police for his perverted behavior. To me, this means that Nabokov actually approved of it.

And now for the quotes from your comment.

"I listened to the audio version of Nabokov's Lolita, pushing past my comfort zone. Child molestation is a topic I generally try to avoid reading about, but I really wanted to know what all the fuss was about in regards to Lolita."

In regards to the above, I'm all for "pushing past my comfort zone", but doing so has limits, for me. If I know that a book will be about a topic I consider morally objectionable -- and I would know if it were because I always check the plot of a book I want to read on Wikipedia -- then I would not be interested in reading said book.

In the above quote, you specifically use the term "child molestation". Yes, that's precisely what this novel is about. And this term is a synonym for pedophilia. Whichever term you use, the activity described is considered a crime in our society, and indeed, in most of the world's societies, except perhaps in Arab countries, where child brides are common, and part of their misogynistic culture. I have seen tweets about this horrible tradition, and most people, including me, find it appalling.

Here's another quote from your comment:

"I think it's brilliant and yet it is also a book that I felt physically ill as I read."

I don't care how 'brilliant' a book is. If a reader actually feels "physically ill" as they read it, then this means that the book is absolutely disgusting and morally reprehensible. For instance, if a writer were to describe the horrible activities that took place during the Holocaust in brilliant prose, but, if that writer seemed to not be bothered by the detail, and did not include some sort of condemnation of these activities in his/her book, then this book would constitute a glorification of these activities.

(more coming)

Maria Behar said...


Here's another quote from your comment:

"There is nothing racy, erotic or sexy about it, especially if taken in context."

Well, again I respectfully disagree. It's very obvious to me that the disgusting ejaculation scene has a titillating purpose. It's intended to arouse all pedophiles reading this novel. In fact, they might very well be grateful to Nabokov for actually "understanding" them! I don't think men who are not pedophiles would be aroused by this scene, but they might still read it with more than just mild curiosity. It's clear though, that any confirmed pedophile reading this scene would be highly aroused by it. To such a pervert, this scene would indeed be "racy, erotic, or sexy".

There's another aspect about this book I have not mentioned so far, either in my post or in replying to your comment, and it's also a disturbing one. Here it is: this novel is obviously an example of misogynistic fiction. (I would not even dignify it with the classification of 'literature'.) This book is just one more in the list of books in which women are sexually objectified. I don't think that Humbert EVER considers Lolita's feelings at all, at any point in the book. She's merely an object of sexual fantasy for him, a human toy that he uses to get aroused. For some reason, Humbert seems unable to sustain a normal sexual relationship with an adult woman. This is sick and pathological.

Although I don't like censorship, in some cases I do think it's justified. And this book is most definitely one that I would LOVE to see censored. We don't need books in which children -- especially if they're girls -- are used as sexual toys for the pleasure of men who are obviously sick and in need of major psychotherapy. Not unless said books include a firm condemnation of such behavior. And Nabokov's novel sure doesn't seem to include such condemnation.

I will never read this novel. If I had a child, and found out that my child -- whether boy or girl, but girls are especially vulnerable -- had been molested, I would probably have to go to jail, because I would hunt down the bastard who had done the deed and made sure I killed him.

I have expressed myself in the strongest of terms because of just how despicable I consider this novel to be. Nabokov might very well have been a closet pedophile himself. I certainly do not consider his novel either great or a classic, but if it turned out that he had indeed been a closet pedophile, then that would make me hate this book even more than I already do.

I know that there are differing opinions on certain books. Some people do enjoy reading what is known as "transgressive fiction". I am certainly not one of them, so I hope you understand where I'm coming from. I certainly am not chastising or criticizing you in any way, shape or form for considering this novel as one of your "favorites" -- although you've also stated that you have "a love/hate relationship" with it. I have merely done my best to explain just why I consider it so objectionable, as well as to make you aware that, in spite of your statements in defense of it, in your heart of hearts, you seem to find it objectionable, as well.

Thank you so much for your TERRIFIC, thought-provoking comment!! <3 :)

The Reader's Tales said...

Great post, Maria. I've never liked book lists. That said, I've read five of the books on that list. If I had to put together my own list, I would include 100 of my favorite authors.