Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My Favorite Books may not be The Greatest Books

When I decided to post a list of my favorite books I first had to come up with the actual  list. As I began to think about the list I needed to ask myself if I thought that my favorite books were best books ever written. It turns out that the answer is no, my favorite books are not necessarily the greatest books.  I have different criteria between what I consider my favorites and what I consider the best.

My all time favorite books touch me in a particular way. They have had an impact upon me because I have unique experiences, opinions and feelings that others may or may not share. Thus, my favorite books have had a profound effect upon me but may or may not have such an effect upon others.

Furthermore, some of my favorite books also have flaws that are so significant that they are disqualified from being among the greatest ever written. Because of who I am these flaws do not prevent me from loving these books. Hermann Hesse’s works are a good example of this. Several of Hesse’s books are among my all time favorites. However, I recognize certain flaws in his novels that prevent me from considering among the all time best books ever written.  I believe that all the books that I will list among my favorites are great literature and/or philosophy. However, many just do not meet the criteria of all time greats. With all that, if I were to put together a list of all time best books, a few of my favorites would also be on that list.

There are also some books that seem monumentally important and universal to me, but that do not touch me in such a way that I can call them favorites. These works would be included on my list of best books however. For instance, some of the Shakespeare tragedies fall into this category. 

I should note that I am talking about lists that are the crème of the crop; lists that would include something like the ten best books ever written, or my ten favorite books.  If I were to make a list of the 100 greatest books ever written, many of my favorites would make that list. An expanded list of best 500 or best 1000 greatest books ever, would probably cover most of my favorites.

I was originally planning a separate post dedicated to what I think are the greatest books of all time. However, at least for now, I have abandoned this idea for several reasons.  First, I have not come close to reading all the books that a reasonable person might consider to be good candidates for this list. Secondly, a lot people who are a lot more knowledgeable and qualified then me have produced a large number of such lists. These lists are all over the Internet.


I wanted to differentiate between these two concepts before actually posting my list. I think that such a discussion is interesting enough in its own right that I decided to post a separate entry on this topic. I will shortly be posting my actual list.



38 comments:

Jonathan Wright said...

I think it's more interesting to see a reader's favourite books rather than their interpretation of what others consider 'great books'.

How are you going to deal with books that were past favourites but less so now? Is it going to be current faves?

Kathy's Corner said...

I look forward to your list of favorite books. I too have over the years tried to make a list of my top ten favorites. As Jonathan says, they can change overtime and they are not necessarily classics. I've also wanted to find a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time that no one could quibble with but I think no such perfect list exists. Ater you get past the truly great novels you still have possibly 50 slots to fill and then it becomes subjective.

Mudpuddle said...

the Great Books thing is not very well thought out, imo... there are books i love and there are books that i read because i was interested in the subject matter; neither category necessarily would be included in the GB bucket... i loved Michael Innes' stories about Inspector Appleby when i read them, but now probably not so much... opinions change over time... when young i loved Asimov, but on rereading the Foundation it was a blah experience... i read calculus textbooks because it was required, but it was also interesting; some books help in understanding various subjects: history, science, etc. So, deciding what to include is a function of the moment, it seems too me... and you're right, it is a topic worthy of discussion... tx...

Suko said...

A list of favorite books will be far more interesting to me, because it'll be more personal than any list of great books found on the internet or elsewhere. I look forward to reading your list.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Jonathan. It is funny that I never had a list of favorites. I more or less put one together for these posts.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy- As I mentioned to Jonathan, I never really had a favorite list before so we will see it it will change.

I think Greatest Book lists will always generate some controversy. I think Bloom's Western Cannon had over a thousand works and people still argue over it.

Carol said...

I've had favourite books at different seasons of life that probably wouldn't be my favourites now. I read on a couple of blogs where people had their own personal canon - books they'd read that were influential/significant to them or were very timely for different reasons.
It would be good to read your reasons on why a certain book would be classed as a favourite.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle - You raise all sorts of interesting issues that pertain to these lists. Since I never thought about these lists very hard before I have avoided some of them.

I was actually thinking about rereading Asimov's Foundation books and was wondering if they would end up on my favorites list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I actually was personalizing my list of all time greatest books, but in the end it was relatively conventional.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - I like the term Personal Cannon. Maybe I should have used that instead. As I never really had a list before I cannot really explore the issue of a changing list.

Stephen said...

I for one look forward to seeing your list, Brian. You're absolutely right in commenting that people react to books in different ways depending on their lives -- some books I've read would not have had the effect they did if other books hadn't prepared the ground first.

Whispering Gums said...

You got me in! I thought I was coming to see your favourite books but now I have to be patient for a bit longer! I look forward though to seeing your favourites, when you publish them and to discussing some of mine with you at that time!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen - Indeed, one of the things that makes our experiences unique is what we have read before. I think that there are a couple of books on my list that I would not have liked as much when I was younger.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Whispering Gums - I will have my list up within the week.

Caroline said...

I feel exactly the same about my favourite books. Some are definitely considered to be among the best ever written but many are not and the reading experience makes them favourites. That experience is different for everybody.
I also agree that the topic is worthy of a discussion. I must say, “favourite” Books is, in my opinion, far less problematic than “best” because It’s subjective.

James said...

I share your opinion that your favorite books may not all be "great" by anyone's standard. I've been listing my favorites (for my own purposes) for a long time, well before I started blogging.
My list of favorites changes over time but includes books I have read and reread over the years whether great or not. Since I have been blogging for the past decade I have noted my favorites from each year. From time to time I distill that list into favorites of favorites.
I would like to think that all of these are great, but that is neither necessary nor the case.

Tracy Terry said...

What a great point you make when you say 'what I consider my favorites and what I consider the best'. Not something I've thought about in those terms until now but when I think about I have to agree with you.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Indeed, when the term "best" is brought up it leads to debate. After all, best should apply to everyone.

Gently Mad said...

I agree that it is highly subjective as to what constitutes great although truly great books seem to endure. Ultimately we read for personal pleasure yet again I think we can discipline ourselves to cultivate good taste. Words are powerful and what we mentally consume affects and alters us. Therefore we should tread carefully through literature and avoid possible landmines. Besides life's too short to waste on unworthy writers. I'm sure who those may be is subjective as well.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- You raise some interesting issues. I agree that taste evolves and I would also say say that good taste sometimes comes with time. I agree that it is easy to fall into unfulfilling paths.With all that, I also agree that there is legitimate debate over whether or not some books are great or not.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I like your concept of listing yearly favorites that you then funnel up into a comprehensive list.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Tracy - I thought that this was an interesting concept and issue.

thecuecard said...

I can see where "favorite books" and "great" ones would vary widely for me. And I think it would take me quite a while to figure out my favorites -- they're probably spread out across my youth & later life etc. and I didn't really keep track then. You got me wondering if I could compile one. i look forward to seeing your list -- maybe it would jog my memory too.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I actually struggled a bit with my list. In fact, I am still thinking of editing it a bit.

HKatz said...

The way you talk about a favorite book having an effect on you in a unique way that others may not share - true also of characters. There are some characters I like or whose story resonates with me for some reason, and other people might react to them with indifference or dislike. It's an interesting issue you raise, the tension between the personal, subjective experience of reading a book and the book's objective quality (and how might that be measured). I don't tend to see 'best book' lists as definitive - but a source of good recommendations. And they may leave out incredible books too. In any case, lists are nice to go through, and I look forward to yours.

CyberKitten said...

I'll definitely be interested in reading your favourite book list - always looking for new ideas and recommendations!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - This is very true of characters. I think I would like to see more lists of favorite characters. I also love looking through book lists. They are all over the internet.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Cyber Kitten - I will have it up within the week,

The Bookworm said...

There's a quote somewhere about no two people ever reading the same book and it is true. We all take different things away from our reading experiences. I look forward to your list!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I think that can be said about most forms of art. But more so for books. Even a fairly short book contians so much to experience and intrepet.

R.T. said...

Excellent posting. No two readers ever read the same book. In other words, all words are objectively and subjectively experienced, and there is no overarching aesthetic that would yield a universally shared experience. What I guess I’m saying — building upon your keen observations— is this: great books are overrated, and what matters most is each reader’s joy of reading .

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks R.T. I actually have very high esteem for the so called Western Cannon. With that, favorites are indeed personal.

Maria Behar said...

EXCELLENT observations as usual, Brian!

You have touched upon an issue that I have sometimes wondered about myself, although I have never posted about it on either of my blogs.

One can say that one loves certain books, but, as you have pointed out, they might not necessarily be the greatest or best books ever written. In choosing favorites, personal bias might influence a reader into stating that a given book is one of the best ever written, while that might not be true. This is definitely a great point to make, and it's very true. It's not easy to be objective on this issue, however....

In regards to literary fiction, critics have frequently picked certain books as among the best. However, someone picking up one of these books might not like it at all. The same thing happens with artists. Picasso, for instance, has been touted as a genius by art critics. I much prefer Matisse, myself. In literature, James Joyce's "Ulysses" is considered a masterpiece. I doubt that I will EVER even attempt to read it, though. I certainly don't like it when a writer seems to be making it tedious for a reader to wade through their novel. I did attempt Kafka's "The Castle" once, and had to give up in despair. I realize that the point he was trying to make in this novel was precisely that -- the absurdity and pointlessness of certain aspects of modern life, but still. I just can't, and don't even WANT, to think of this novel as one of the best ones ever written. (I'm sure that some literary critics will agree with me on this one.)

In other words, critics in the arts tell us, the readers and viewers (and listeners) what we SHOULD consider to be great art. However, when we actually come in contact with these works we're SUPPOSED to like (or risk being considered a Philistine, a fate to be avoided at all costs, for some people), we just don't like them. It's as simple as that.

As you know, Hermann Hesse is one of my favorite authors, with the marked exception of -- as you also know -- one of his novels, "Steppenwolf", which, in my honest, non-professional literary critic's opinion, I find to be misogynistic. But I have enjoyed "The Glass Bead Game" (or "Magister Ludi", as it's otherwise known), and consider it a great novel. Another of my Hesse favorites is "Narcissus and Goldmund", which I also consider to be a great novel. And I do love Hesse's prose. I think that many of his passages are lyrical and beautiful. So I guess we will have to agree to disagree on this writer. Lol.

I'm glad we do agree on one novel we both consider one of the greatest ever written: "Jane Eyre". There are some literary critics who might disagree with this, but I say, "So what??" to them!! Lol.

Thanks for another insightful post!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

I actually think that there is something to the great book lists. I think that most, but not all, \books that most critics champion have something of a universal greatness to them. With that, there are controversies. As you point out, books like Ulysses will always be controversial. In addition, it is fine to question what the consensus says. I think some of it is simply wrong headed.

I also love Hermann Hesse. In fact one of my all time favorites is a Hesse book. O think that hos prose is also great. I just think that his books have technical issues that would prevent them from being put on an all time great list. For instance, several have long tracts of pure philosophy. I think that the books would be technically stronger if this philosophy were incorporated into the plot. In addition, though most of his books were not as intense as Steppenwolf, his diction of women was generally not great. Nevertheless I love these books.

Maria Behar said...

Hi, again, Brian!

I think it's time I re-read Hesse's books! I do think that "The Glass Bead Game" had many tedious passages, precisely because they were heavily philosophical. Not that there's anything wrong with that, really. But then, such passages would be better put into a nonfiction book, apart from the novel. I still love this book, though, because of the very original concept of a country, or realm, or whatever Castalia can be called, being based on intellectual principles.

I think that Hesse's views of women were -- at least in "Steppenwolf", from what I can remember -- curiously at odds with his own exaltation of the feminine principle. In "Narcissus and Goldmund", for instance, he presents Goldmund as a character very much in touch with the feminine. However, I must say here that I did not like how Goldmund went around all over Germany, having one-night stands with many women, AND a LOT of them were married. So I guess Hesse's idea of "getting in touch with the feminine aspect of reality" was in some cases quite literal. And, of course, to him, it was quite laudable for his character to have all of these sexual experiences. Had it been Goldmunde (a female) instead, I'm sure he would have been VERY condemnatory.

In spite of what I've stated above, I do like Hesse -- A LOT. He speaks to something very deep, very profound within the human psyche -- the eternal conflict between the emotions/spirit and the intellect. Of course, Narcissus represented the intellect (in union with the spirit), while Goldmund represented the emotions.

Speaking of tedious reads, I found "Anna Karenina" UNBEARABLE. Aside from the fact that I could NOT relate to the female protagonist, as I CANNOT AND WILL NOT EVER empathize with CHEATERS, the book had quite a few chapters dedicated to topics such as the best agricultural methods, which were BORING in the extreme. These were totally irrelevant to the novel. Well, I never finished the book, and I have no interest whatsoever in going back to finish it!!

Hope you have a great weekend!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - The way that you describe Hesse, and The Glass Bead Game in particular, is exactly how I feel about him, I love him, but I recognize some technical problems with his books.

You raise such a good point about Goldmund getting in touch with his feminine side by sleeping with a lot of women. It is such an odd, and questionable way to do it. I have not read Anna Karenina. Though I am fine with characters that commit morally question acts , when an author seems to portray those acts in a sympathetic light I find it difficult to take. The agricultural tangents do seem dull.It reminds me of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. I found it to be brilliant, but there were long, unusual tangents taken into all sorts of areas ranging from botany, to the Battle of Waterloo.

Have a great weekend!

baili said...

i think everybody has right to share his own opinion or likes and dislikes so this is important that these reads have touched you and put impact upon you some how so they are close to your hearts
may be many of us don't have such skill to be touched as you did because we distinct from each other on the level of sensitivity.

some books though may be they have flaws still have universal truths in them and in many way they surpass other flawless books

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - Indeed, sometimes flawed is better then technically perfect. I also agree that some folks are more sensitive about books then others. Some folks who are very aware and sensitive but are not bookish.