The other day I noticed that Amazon had produced a list of “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime” and could not resist checking it out. The “in a lifetime” bit must explain the large contingent of children’s books; as you scan the list, you’ll also see that they “didn’t want it to feel like homework”:
I love this kind of thing, not just quibbling over the choices (is Fahrenheit 451 really anyone’s favorite Bradbury? Doesn’t it seem awfully sepia-toned?) but also looking at the cultural world it describes. How would the list be different in another place or time? What does it say about ‘our’ literary culture? A few thoughts follow.
I suppose it is no surprise that there are zero poetry books on the list, not even Billy Collins or Mary Oliver, who count as popular by today’s standards. Poetry now is to Amazon.com what all-cello rock bands are to iTunes. I wonder how far back you would have to go before the equivalent list would contain poetry…I’d say that in 1880 you’d get Longfellow, Tennyson, Walter Scott, maybe Wordsworth, and probably a woman or two of whose work I am ignorant (not Dickinson, she was nobody).
It is a little strange, though not unpleasant, to see so many favorites of the 14-year-old me: Slaughterhouse-Five, Things Fall Apart, Bradbury, Garcia Marquez, The Shining, Catch-22, The World According to Garp (who knew people were still reading that one?). With all these, it was a surprise not to see The Godfather and Watership Down. Little Roy would also have liked Hawking, but he was no more than a gleam in his publisher’s eye at the time.
Most dismal blurb: “For reluctant readers”? Or “Great, yet divisive”? I don’t know why The Corrections is supposed to be divisive, I guess it’s a reference to the controversy when Franzen stupidly said that he feared the Oprah imprimatur would scare off male readers. That’s the author, not the book.
There are a lot more women and quite a few more people of color than there would have been on a similar list in the past (say, 1964), though it is a rather straight list (Sedaris and who else?). And so provincial! Three translations from Europe (one with pictures)? One (1) from Latin America (along with two English-speaking US citizens with Caribbean roots). Can you imagine a list from Amazon.fr or Amazon.de or Amazon.jp being so restricted? Even so familiar a country as Ireland is represented only by the rather domesticated memoirs of an immigrant to the US. Still more severe is the temporal provincialism, nothing before 1800 and almost nothing but children’s books before 1920. I guess that anything old seems like homework.
This is not mainly a criticism of the editors at Amazon, I think it really is difficult for moderately educated Americans to imagine that books from another time or language might be interesting.
I would welcome y’all’s responses.