I have here in my hand a list…

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.

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14 Responses to I have here in my hand a list…

  1. Megan Kasten says:

    ‘Not Dickinson, she was nobody’. Lol. I mean it, dude.

    I think a key component to understanding the list without excessive head scratching would have to be to consider the source. It is in Amazon’s best interest to include books that people will not only want to read, but want to actually buy. It doesn’t serve their interest to list material that one can get for free on Project Guttenberg or any other public domain source. That could explain the proliferation of modern writing, as well as the abundance of American writers. Sure, 100 years from now people probably won’t be able to recount the best quotes from _Diary of a Wimpy Kid_, (at least I hope not) but in a list meant for those living right now, there is some merit to reading material that cleverly reflects the current social climate and tackles the challenge of getting 10 year old boys to read anything at all. (Getting their parents to buy it is a nice bonus, I’m sure.)

    As for _The Corrections_, the controversy might be more in the love it/hate it polarization of opinions of the book itself rather than the author. I am squarely in the ‘hate it’ category, because I can’t get myself to give a crap about any of his self-absorbed characters, but I know that’s not a universal opinion. Regardless (or irregardless, if I want my skin to crawl), the blurbs are just plain stupid. If we are so lazy that we can’t read a whole synopsis, how do they expect us to read the whole damn book?

    I was fairly happy with the selection of children’s books, especially _The Phantom Toll Booth_. A book that delights in playing with language; what could be better? And I do hope that 100 years from now parents, grandparents, and nannies will still be reading _Goodnight Moon_. I have read that aloud close to 1,000 times over the years and if it were in front of me now I would still open it up and want to read it again. And when someone I know has a new baby, I still buy it for them, usually on Amazon.

    • Roy says:

      Perhaps they adjusted the list to make sure people had to buy the books, though I think they just understood their audience.

      I wanted to link to Christopher Walken reading Goodnight Moon on the Simpsons (“Scooch closa, kids!”) but only found a bunch of Christopher Walken imitators….jeez, youtube really is the sinkfilter of American culture. Oh well. It’s true that I haven’t thought much about the needs of reluctant readers since I stopped teaching intro Shakespeare.

      On Mon, Feb 10, 2014 at 5:46 PM, lippenheimer wrote:


  2. Kath Jesme says:

    It’s certainly not a highbrow list, but as a casual reader, I have to admit I’ve read most of these books along the way. Some of them are great literature and some are good stories and some are pretty trashy. But what they all have in common is that people who like to read could handle them all. So we live in a lowbrow culture. Better than none at all–

    • Roy says:

      Did I criticize the list for not being high-brow? I certainly didn’t mean to. I did criticize it, and us, for being provincial, but my point there is that in many places, being aware of the existence of other countries, and even of other languages, doesn’t make you a snooty intellectual, it is a basic part of being a reasonably educated person. The average Italian or Brazilian lawyer or doctor isn’t any more of an intellectual than the average American professional, but s/he is more likely to read books from other places, I think. My comment on poetry was more an observation than an indictment. I find it intriguing that poetry plays essentially no role in our culture, but I don’t find it particularly upsetting. I was, as I said, pleased to see how many of my favorite writers from adolescence were represented; this was not meant as a put-down, I was a very smart 14-year-old.

      On Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 7:45 AM, lippenheimer wrote:


  3. Emily August says:

    While I know exactly what you mean when you say that “poetry plays essentially no role in our culture” (and while I often agree), it could be fun to quibble with a bit. We’ve probably discussed this at some point over dinner, deep into a second (third? fourth?) bottle of wine, but hey, who could get enough of poetry talk?

    As a poet I, too, find it intriguing that poetry is so marginalized and characterized as so toothless, especially considering the intensely political — and sometimes dangerous — role it has played in other cultures in the twentieth century. Though, I’m interested in all the ways that we could say poetry does play a role in our culture. It’s a commonplace trope of teen angst, for example — how many of us have old journals scrawled with mortifying verses? And many have argued that rap, hip-hop, and other song lyrics fulfill poetry’s role in the larger popular culture, with something like slam poetry fulfilling a more niche but still recognizable role. I’m ruthlessly ignorant of current events and politics, but I feel like presidential events (certain inaugurations and dinners and all that) often feature the reading of a poem.

    But yes, your average person is not racing to the bookstore or frantically logging onto Amazon the moment a new poetry title is released, and there is not a single living poet who makes even a minimum wage living solely from their poetry — the heft of their incomes derives from public lectures and teaching positions.

    What I always come back to is the classroom: I believe that in our grade schools and in our high schools, the genre of poetry is woefully under-taught and often poorly taught. Even as university instructors, many of us cling to centuries-old pedagogical methods like teaching students how to scan metrical verse. While there will always be one student every five years whose life was deeply impacted by learning how to scan metrical verse, this doesn’t strike me as the way to convey poetry’s pleasure and potential to a mainstream audience. While I enjoy debating the question, I certainly don’t have any answers — and apparently neither does Amazon. 🙂

    • Roy says:

      I was being provocative–I myself have given books of poetry as gifts. But I think the comp to the Portland Cello Project is pretty apt.

      Yes, music takes up a lot of the same cultural territory that others have given to poetry, and rap is the most verbally conscious kind of popular music at the moment. There are millions of Americans who, without having studied the metrics of hip-hop, could tell you if something sounds like Jay-Z, sounds like the ’80s, or sounds like some idiot pretending to rap–I imagine that’s how Elizabethans were about poetry. It makes me a little wistful to sit in a doctor’s office and hear the seemingly ordinary Russians across the aisle talking about Mandelshtam, but then again, when they need pop music for the Olympics, they trot out a cover of a mediocre French imitation of American music.

      Our exiling of poetry to the most obscure reaches of culture is the culmination of a long process, and by long I mean thousands of years. Hesiod wrote a farming manual in verse, Lucretius’ *What Stuff Is* is largely theoretical science…even in the Renaissance you could write a poem about philosophy, which I guess is what Davies’ *Orchestra, or a Poem of Dancing*is. By the 1800s you mostly get lyric and narrative, at least among the things anybody still reads. Now narratives are all novels or movies and lyrics are songs, and poems are poems; to suggest that they might perform any other function than being poems is to risk being considered a philistine.

      Not that I want technical manuals and physics papers to be written in verse, I’m just noting that we are at the thin end of a giant wedge.

      On Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 6:04 PM, lippenheimer wrote:


    • Roy says:

      As for teaching meter–the fascination of meter comes from its ability to take what you feel in your gut about rhythm and make it visible and discussable. If you haven’t read enough poetry to have a feeling for how different rhythms work, then where is the fun? I find it interesting that the Elizabethans could not have articulaed most of what a modern person would say about their meter. Shakespeare knew that he wrote blank verse, but I am pretty sure he did not know it was ‘iambic pentameter,’ and when Sidney writes about iambics he is talking about a particular genre of ancient poetry. Most Renaissance theorists were crippled by the Greek notion of long and short syllables and would have been shocked to learn that English meter was based on patterns of stress, or at least that’s my recollection (I read a lot of that stuff at one time, but it is long ago). That did not keep Shakespeare, for example, from being sensitive to extremely fine variations in rhythm and in the relation between syntax and line-breaks, whether between different characters and moods in a single play or between the metrical fashions of 1590 and 1610 (these are set out statistically in a book by Marina Tarlinskaya that you would probs totally hate).

      I do not know if there is a way to get young people interested in acquiring this kind of ‘immersion’ knowledge of poetry; I don’t always feel that I have it myself, despite a non-trivial amount of effort.

      On Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 6:04 PM, lippenheimer wrote:


  4. Emily August says:

    Haha … yes, the Tarlinskaya book does sound like it could potentially be a bit tedious. But what sounds fascinating are the Hesiod and Lucretius texts you mentioned — I’ve got to get my hands on those! And I love your description of rap as “verbally conscious” — so apt.

    Most poets I’ve known possess a natural sensitivity to extremely fine variations in rhythm. Of course there are a few who, shockingly to me, do not possess it. I guess one analogy might be a musician: some can read music and some can’t, but what’s truly unusual is to encounter a musician without a natural sense of rhythm. I suspect that, for folks who don’t have a natural sense of rhythm, reading or scanning any amount of poetry is not going to give them a better feeling for how different rhythms work.

    As a high school and college student, the reason I found scanning tedious was because I do have that natural sense of rhythm and meter, so scanning always felt like filling in a form at the DMV: you already know the answer, and it’s kind of mindless to write it in. But what I did always love was analyzing the relationship between meter and content. For students who enjoy interpreting that relationship and who also don’t have a natural metrical sense, scanning can certainly be a tool that allows them to do so. It’s just that most students I’ve taught don’t enjoy entering poetry in that way.

    Certainly everyone recognizes that films, novels, songs, and poems are generically distinct cultural artifacts, and that each genre is dominated by a particular form of expression, be it lyric, narrative, etc. But, while I absolutely welcome the risk of being considered a philistine, I think that to suggest lyrics, poems, and narratives are discrete, stable genres in our culture that each perform mutually exclusive functions is … hasty.

    • Roy says:

      The Hesiod poem is Works and Days–I should admit that I have not read it, only read descriptions and maybe a few lines. The Lucretius is De Rerum Natura. Hasty? I will try to be more precise. First, I think that even quite educated people in our culture, when they think of telling an extended story, very very rarely think of a poem as the natural vehicle for that story I am tempted to say never, but I’m sure there is a counterexample. With the lyric I am on shakier ground, though do think that most people such t traditional lyric themes as love, grief, and lust more easily connected to songs than to poems. There are certainly still poems that tell stories and/or express states of mind; what I should have said is that I often feel, when reading current poetry, that to ask “what story does this tell?” or “what emotion does this express?” would be impertinent Such poems have ceded a certain territory that they might have lived in in the past. As for whether training can give you a sense of rhythm…well, of course some are better at it than others, but I think of how people of my mother’s generation were, for the most part, deaf to differences between kinds of modern music in a way that people who grew up listening to it almost never are.

      On Wed, Feb 12, 2014 at 11:29 AM, lippenheimer wrote:


      • Emily August says:

        Thanks for the Hesiod and Lucretius titles — I realize I have heard of the Hesiod but have not read it. I see what you mean now regarding genre and form — I would agree that, for most contemporary poems I read, if they’re telling a story it certainly isn’t in a narrative form. Rather, I find I often refer to lyric poems as as poems that explore the logic of the image.

    • Roy says:

      I am glad to hear that most poets today have a super-keen sense of rhythm; I must say that many of them give little evidence of it that I can discern. Of course, it is possible that I am simply missing something that somebody else could show, and I guess that’s where it becomes useful to have a language for talking about rhythm. I was not, however, advocating instruction in metrics, indeed I was offering an illustration of how unnecessary it is. I suppose that we differ in that you emphasize the supremacy of innate natural gifts and I give more weight to the role of cultural constructs in forming poetic rhythm. In music, you can har this when gifted musicians wander out of their realm, as when some Euro opera singer tries to sing Cole Porter–Ella Fitzgerald it is not.

      On Wed, Feb 12, 2014 at 11:29 AM, lippenheimer wrote:


    • Roy says:

      I wrote a blog about Lucretius and Giordano Bruno: https://lippenheimer.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/the-foppish-casual-dance-of-atoms/

      Hope it pleases.

      On Wed, Feb 12, 2014 at 11:29 AM, lippenheimer wrote:


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