I love book lists. I enjoy looking through them so much that I sometimes go looking for them online. I have also been known to spend several hours poring through entire books dedicated to such lists. When I see that a new major list is available, say from a source such as Amazon or The Guardian, I cannot but help getting excited at the prospect of digging through it.
If any of my readers are not familiar with the phenomena that I am talking about, I am referring to the catalogues of books that are now all over the Internet. However, these lists are not new to our digital age; some of my favorites go back decades, and such lists have been produced for centuries. These catalogues of book titles sometimes purport to be lifetime reading suggestions, lists of the greatest novels ever written, lists of the greatest nonfiction books ever written, etc. There are also specialty lists, such as the best history books ever written, the best books on the American Revolution, the most influential philosophy books and the most essential New England Books, to name just a few.
These lists are not without controversy. Folks often criticize them. The compilers of these lists are often questioned for books that they include, as well as for those that they do not. Often, the creators of the lifetime reading lists are accused of constructing restrictive guides that dictate what people should be reading. Harold Bloom’s famous Western Cannon has come under particular scorn for this reason. His enormous compilation of suggested books has also been criticized for not being inclusive enough in terms of race and gender. It seems that some of Bloom’s critics may not have read his Cannon, as it is surprisingly inclusive and includes a surprising number of women and ethnically diverse authors such as Chinua Achebe, Zora Neale Hurston, Najib Mahfuz and Mario Vargas Llosa, Aimé Césaire, as well as many others.
My take on these lists is that if one does not take them too seriously, they can be great fun for the bookish person. If one is going to think about how we would have constructed them differently, it is best to ponder this issue good-naturedly. Such lighthearted critique can also be part of the fun. These compilations can also provide very useful information pertaining to what books are out there waiting to be read.
I love to peruse such lists and count how many of the tomes that I have read so far. Though such lists do give me ideas as to what I should read in the future, as someone whose TBR cannot be concluded in a lifetime, I am not sure if this last fact is a good thing. Lists like Bloom’s Western Cannon and Clifton Fadiman’s reading plan are treasure troves of interesting books that make my mouth water.
Ultimately, these catalogues of books are just the opinions of others. As a bookish person, however, reading these opinions and thinking about how my views are similar or different regarding these books is something that I very much like to do.
I will continue to peruse new and old booklists. In our digital age, they are not difficult to find. Neither is there any lack of new lists being produced. In the end, if one does not take such lists too seriously, they can provide many hours of stimulating and intellectual amusement.
Some of my favorite book lists are:
Me too, me too.
Lists are one way to learn about books. The best thing about Bloom's list, and the others you list at the end, is that it is long.
Hi Tom - Bloom's list is monumental.
I have discovered so may interesting authors from reading it and other lists,
It's fun to trawl these lists every now and again - as you say, they're a useful way of getting ideas.
I love book lists too, always have! I've been reading and making them for myself as long as I can remember. I used to have a copy of The Lifetime Reading Plan but I got rid of it in a book purge, which I now regret. There's probably an updated edition so maybe I will restore it to my library.
i suppose that's one of the good things about ereaders: extra capacity. so one needn't discard some in order to acquire others...
I love lists too. A lot. Also compiling them. On my war movie blog I used to publish them regularly. One of them had 200,500 views. Funny enough I just saw that today. Thanks fir the book suggestions.
I have heard of Bloom's book but have never gotten around to reading it. I like these kinds of books, too. However, I have bought so many books that I have inadvertently created my own book list so it's a moot point really to bother reading what I should read when I have so many books already to read.
Mortimer Adler in, How to Read a Book, has a list of the 100 essential books everyone should read. It's pretty heavy on non fiction such as philosophy and science.
I also have many of the Harvard Classics from the five foot shelf that contains all the literature that Harvard professors a hundred years ago deemed essential reading.
Another collection I bought is Masterplots 15 volume set of summaries of great literature. This is a good collection because even if you can't read all the books, you've at least read an overview of them. Of course, I have since bought some of the books listed in these books as well.
Hi Jacqui - Over the years, I have gotten so many ideas as to what books and authors to read from these lists.
Hi Lory - I find it so painful to have once had a book that one no longer has anymore.
Hi Mudpuddle - I love Eraeders and this is one of the reasons.
Hi Caroline - I did not mention that I also love lists of other types including movies.
Hi Sharon - I have also read Adler's book and I like his list two.
I agree, this attraction to book lists only makes the dilemma of which books to get to even more difficult.
The Masterplots collection sounds really good and readable.
These lists are wonderful guides (for movies, too). They are a good way to become "well-rounded" in your reading, and help us set goals. Excellent post topic, Brian Joseph!
Indeed these lists have helped me to make reading plans if not to set goals.
They have also made my RBR insurmountable :)
Bravo! I too cannot resist lists, and I too admire the work of Harold Bloom (although I have been criticized for that admiration). We are, I sense, kindred spirits within the book world. Huzzah!
I share your love of book lists. I guess my interest in lists of books began with Mortimer Adler and the Great Books of the Western World; but it has continued with many more including those you mentioned.
One of my favorites is The List of Books: A library of over 3,000 works by Frederic Raphael & Kenneth McLeish. It is unique in its system of identifying books by categories like "A particular pleasure to read", "Difficult; worth persevering", "Not to be missed", and more. One of the best book investments I ever made.
Hi RT - They say great minds think alike :)
Bloom really has his detractors. I also really like him for a lot of reasons.
Hi James- Your description of The List of Books has piqued my curiosity. I will try to get my hands on copy.
A site you'll enjoy if you haven't seen it already:
It has a good collection of book lists.
Thanks Hila - I had been familiar with that site but had lost track of it. I am glad to have found it again.
I love book lists, too! I keep meaning to make lists of my own and post them on my blog, but rarely do it.
Hi Laurie - I have also considered posting lists myself. I am kind of afraid that they will reveal embarrassing gaps in the books that I have read :)
There was a time when I used to look up lists and try to read through. But now I don't do that anymore.
Hi Susan - Finding and perusing through these lists can be time consuming.
Often asked what my favourite five/ten books are, I'm always at a loss to compile a list as I struggle with such a small number when there are so many great books out there. The Guardian's at 1000 is however a whole other matter. Thanks for sharing, I'm away over there now to assess out of all of these books how many I've read as well as what I should be reading.
Hi Tracy - I find favorite lists to be impossible to compile myself.
It is really fun picking through books lists and counting how many that one has read.
I liked looking at all 3 lists that you provided. I think a book person could spend hours perusing these lists. I think it'd more helpful if they just divided them into time categories like: Best 19th Century books, Best 20th Century books etc. Or Best Early 20th Century, and Late 20th Century Books. The Guardian's by subject matter doesn't interest me too much. But I agree with you -- it's fun to cross books off as you go & read them !
Hi Susan - Harold Bloom's Cannon is divided into general periods of literary history.
Ward's plan actually breaks the list into recommended books for each year of the reader's life.
Oh, I LOVE this post, Brian!!! I like book lists, too, although I do have mixed feelings about them. Mostly that's because I know I'll probably never be able to read even one-third of the books they include....lol.
I am really interested in the collections you've mentioned here, especially Bloom's Western Canon. Surely that particular list includes books that no serious reader should ignore! And I'm glad that it's inclusive, too. Hurston is one of the authors you mentioned that I've been meaning to read. I do have her novel, "Their Eyes Were Watching God", sitting on my shelves.
Of course, these lists are a matter of opinion, but still, there are indeed some books that most readers should have under their reading belts. And I can't help but feel a little sheepish and guilty at not having certain books under mine....
And now I'll add yet another book to your list of list-making books, lol. It's titled "A Reader's Guide to Science Fiction", and was compiled by Baird Searles, Martin Last, Beth Meacham, and Michael Franklin. The mass-market paperback edition was published by Avon Books in September, 1979. I own this edition. And no, I haven't read it....but I HAVE skimmed it, and it includes all (or most, at least) of the greats in the genre.
One chapter of this book is entitled, "The 5 Parsec Shelf: A Suggested Basic Library and/or Reading List in Science Fiction". The names on this list include Brian Aldiss, with "The Long Afternoon of Earth", Poul Anderson, with "Tau Zero", Isaac Asimov, with "The Foundation Trilogy", Ray Bradbury, with "The Martian Chronicles", Arthur C. Clarke, with "Childhood's End" (a chilling book, that one!) and "The City and the Stars", Samuel Delany, with "Dhalgren", and several others.
If you're interested, this book is still in print, and available on Amazon, too.
Here's the link to the paperback edition:
There's also a hardcover edition, reasonably priced. Of course, if you get a used copy of either edition, you will pay much less. Here's the link for the hardcover edition, which was published in August of 1980:
Well, I hope you're interested enough to get this book! And I should get started reading it myself! Lol.
Thanks for the fascinating post! Hope you're having a very nice holiday weekend!! :)
I love book lists too, they can be alot of fun to look through. I'm often at Goodreads, Amazon, New York times, Oprah, etc. just browsing the lists.
As you mention, its a nice way of finding new books. I was just looking at at 12 New Books We’re Reading This Summer (and 6 Not So New).
Happy Monday :)
Hi Naida - The 12 books of summer do look good. There are so many interesting such mini lists out there like this.
I love old book lists for the historical point of view that tells us what was popular or important at that time. And, of course, what was the perspective and bias of the person(s) who compiled it. It's always fascinating to compare that sensibility with what we think is important, but then we have our own biases! ~Laurie
Thanks for stopping by Laurie. You raise a really interesting point. What is considered important in literature and books varies to some extent over time. With that, many of the classics have not varied in terms of what is respected. Harold Bloom has written about this in several of his books.
I love to review these lists and see how many I've read, I've even made a concerted effort to up my reading of the ones that always make the list which I've never read :)
Hi Jane - part of the fun of these lists is counting how many that one has read.
I wish I could get to all the books that seem to always make these lists.
The Little Professor has just posted a good one from 1884. Who here has read On the Heights by Berthold Auerbach?
Thanks for the link Tom I will check it out.
Perhaps I will read On the Heights soon :)
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