Puget Sound English Department

September 12, 2010

More lists! We love the lists!

Filed under: Internet/Digital Technology,Literature — ATH @ 1:14 pm
Tags: ,

There’s something about the simultaneously reductive and celebratory nature of the “essential list”–of great books, popular celebrities, essential items to have on hand for the apocalypse, most repulsive recipes involving jello, etc.–that makes it eternally popular. We can discuss endlessly how any literary “best of” list is inevitably fraught with outrageous omissions and ludicrous inclusions, how its criteria are too broad, too narrow, too historically specific, too self-consciously universal. This list, for example, from Nashville Public Television, titles itself (ironically?) a list of “The thirteen novels every American should read,” although with a very few notable exceptions (Michael Chabon? Colum McCann? Sir Thomas Mallory?), it looks much more like a list of “the thirteen novels a bunch of Americans educated in public high schools in the 1960s and 70s remember and are proud of themselves for having read.”* It’s heavy on political allegory, fictionalized history, and civil rights era-fueled critique of the status quo. All of those are good things, indeed, but they reinforce my point: what any individual, generation, or set of readers identifies as “great” or “essential” literature likely has far more to do with its own historical moment, and its collective self-image, and what was being taught widely in high school, than with any sort of universal aesthetic criteria or pure literary merit. This is not, by any means, a suggestion that such lists are inaccurate, ill-intentioned, or useless; in fact, they are fascinating not only for the books they remind us to (re)read (I’ve not yet read Let the Great World Spin, and can’t even remember where my copy of Gulliver’s Travels has got to), but for the insight they provide into how we understand ourselves, our nation, our era.

*Edited, with thanks to our commenter, who reminds me that it’s unwise to write and post while under analgesia. I want to acknowledge that this list is very clearly introduced as personal and idiosyncratic–something not properly acknowledged in my original entry, which moved to reflecting about the nature of making such lists without clearly developing the context of this particular one. As Joe notes, such lists inevitably provoke reactions, and usually, outrage, over their omissions, unexamined biases. As with almost any contemporary discussions about literature and culture, they too often devolve into simplistic accusations–charges of “elitism” on one side, and “political correctness” on the other.


1 Comment »

  1. Hi ATH,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post on our list. Just want to clarify a few things. It’s by Nashville Public Television, not Nashville Public Radio. Also, as I explained in the post in the intro, it was not suggested by John Seigenthaler. He was one of my many staffers and people connected to the station whom we asked to contribute a novel or two.

    The list was never meant to be comprehensive or authoritative, but as detailed in the intro as well, merely a survey of some of the books that members of our small staff suggested when I asked them that one question. You might find it interesting to note that it seems — ironically, considering it’s a post by and for people passionate about reading — that many of the commenters who suggest it is sexist or racist didn’t actually read the intro, or they would have known its intention and how it was gathered. Many contributed their own novels, which was great, and that what the point: Here were the novels some of us picked. What would you pick? That some people did not read it, and quickly jumped into divisive criticism may also, as you eloquently state, provide insight in ” how we understand ourselves, our nation, our era.”


    Comment by Joe P. — September 12, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

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