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.