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April 8, 2008 8:09 AM   Subscribe

110 Best Books. 'The perfect library' - According to the Torygraph... at least there's a 'Sci-fi' section among the usual suspects (And one or two bizarre choices - Pelzer! What the heck!)
posted by fearfulsymmetry (78 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was doing fine until I hit "Tess of the D'Urbervilles", at which point I gagged. "Tess" was inflicted on me and countless other students as part of the Ontario high school curriculum in the late 1960s. I have yet to meet one person -- anyone -- who actually liked that ponderous monstrosity, despite the few seconds of relief offered by guffawing with unbounded hilarity (as high school students will do) at the image of someone carrying bundles of faggots to and fro.

You don't often run up against a book that actually has the effect of turning you off reading but oh my Lord, Tess drove me to TV for months. Hardy could have followed it up with The Illustrated Swedish Airline Stewardess School for Scandal and I wouldn't have even cracked the cover.
posted by Mike D at 8:24 AM on April 8, 2008


As the comment thread on the linked page has already pointed out, missing in action are Thomas Pynchon, Ezra Pound, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Cervantes, etc. etc. Also, there is nothing outside the Western tradition. Even the histories are pretty much Euro-centered. Which just goes to prove you just can't boil all of human literature down to 110 books.
posted by beagle at 8:26 AM on April 8, 2008


But 110 is such a nice round num...wait.

I like how "books that blew your mind" is stuff from the last 10 years but sci-fi is all circa 1840.
posted by DU at 8:29 AM on April 8, 2008


So we've got books that changed the world and books that changed your world? Not mine, matey, and strangely, the 'you' in question, whose world was changed by stuff like 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull' and 'Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance' doesn't sound much like a Telegraph reader either.
posted by Phanx at 8:30 AM on April 8, 2008


Any list claiming to define the "best books" is bound to be horribly flawed.

Still, they're usually nice reminders that "gee, I've been meaning to read that."
posted by justkevin at 8:31 AM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


And come on, whose life was changed by reading "Schott's Original Miscellany"? Because I think they need some kind of urgent help.
posted by Phanx at 8:33 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


I was going through it, disagreeing with a lot of it (For Whom the Bell Tolls instead of The Sun Also Rises?), but thinking, sure, sure, opinions differ, sure, you have to include that crappy 'classic,' sure, sure, and then… and then… Malcolm Fucking Gladwell. And I closed the tab right there.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:33 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Maybe they should rename it 110 best books writen by (mostly) dead white men. Really, the list is atrociously bad in what it excludes (cough, Peggy Atwood, cough). And why is there a photo of Black Beauty when Anna Sewell is not on the list?
posted by saucysault at 8:38 AM on April 8, 2008


The lack of A Confederacy of Dunces makes my inner Ignatius quiver with jowl-gnashing rage.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:40 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


"Best" is too much. No one person's best will match another's. But you know, if I rented a beach house and these were the books on the shelves, I'd be darned pleased, and furthermore, there'd be something good there for just about every member of the family, of all ages and tastes. It's loaded with "I always meant to read that's!"

I could do without "The Beauty Myth," personally. That's not a great book. Its inclusion carries a whiff of an editor saying "Oh shit, in typical greats-list fashion, out of 110 books, only a dozen are not by a man. Quick, what can we throw on here to enhance the distaff side?"

I'd replace Delia Smith on cooking with MFK Fisher. I'd add a "short stories" section, and people it with Zora Neale Hurston and Carson McCullers and Sarah Orne Jewett. And I'd make the children's book choices less Anglophilic, too. (From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E. Frankweiler instead of The Railway Children, for starters). The whole list is Anglophilic, but heck, it's a British list.
posted by Miko at 8:41 AM on April 8, 2008


110 books make a perfect library? They don't like to read *much*, do they? And, yeah, putting social satires like Frankenstein, Brave New World, and 1984 in the "Sci-Fi" section is a not-so-subtle insult to the genre. (I mean, a British publication with no Iain M. Banks, JG Ballard or Brian Aldiss nods? Weird.)
posted by aught at 8:42 AM on April 8, 2008


I like how "books that blew your mind" is stuff from the last 10 years but sci-fi is all circa 1840.

That was really a list of sci-fi for people who don't really like sci-fi, but nevertheless want some sort of insight into its origins without sullying themselves with more recent influences of sci-fi writers. Seriously, why isn't Dune there? Meanwhile, "Books that Changed Your World" is just a steady encapsulation of "trendy" books in public culture. Seriously, The Tipping Point?

The author has a wide enough breadth of knowledge to understand what books are important for many standard categories (classics, literary fiction, history), but when a certain sense of taste and insight is required for compiling some of the sub-lists, he fails in a big way.
posted by deanc at 8:43 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


No mention of Plutarch or Cervantes? P'shaw.
posted by jquinby at 8:47 AM on April 8, 2008


From the The Maltese Falcon write up.
"...and a convoluted plot that unravels grippingly."

'unravels grippingly'... I'll remember that.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 8:50 AM on April 8, 2008


The lack of A Confederacy of Dunces makes my inner Ignatius quiver with jowl-gnashing rage.

But robocop: How's your valve?
posted by Turtles all the way down at 8:50 AM on April 8, 2008


This selection of books is so much different than my collection.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:55 AM on April 8, 2008


I can't believe that people still say, "I can't belive there is no X on the list", when they come across a list on the internet.
posted by meech at 8:58 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


I can't believe that people still say, "I can't belive there is no X on the list", when they come across a list on the internet.

I still think that was a reasonable thing to say about the Telegraph's "100 Greatest LA punk bands" article.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:03 AM on April 8, 2008 [4 favorites]


Well, X was a shitty book.
posted by spicynuts at 9:04 AM on April 8, 2008


What are you talking about. X was a manga classic!
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:09 AM on April 8, 2008


Y was tons better than X, and I liked it before it was mentioned in a song by Z on the Q soundtrack, too!
posted by shakespeherian at 9:09 AM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


I can't believe that people still say, "I can't belive there is no X on the list", when they come across a list on the internet.

That's pretty reasonable, considering that there are exactly 3 things that you can say about an internet list:

1. Hey, look at this list!
2. Hey, X is on that list!
3. Hey, X is not on that list!
posted by burnmp3s at 9:10 AM on April 8, 2008 [3 favorites]


I liked the list with the exception of pretty much the entire "Books that changed your world" section which sounds like it was chosen by somebody who hasn't read very much.

Anyway is is all a bit easier to manage than Harold Bloom's Western Cannon [part 1, 2, 3 and 4]
posted by rongorongo at 9:10 AM on April 8, 2008


I was having this opinion, and then I saw something on the page that made me suddenly change my opinion! Then I quickly acted based on this shift in opinion about the site. I feel strongly about it!
posted by everichon at 9:10 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


This list is a rip-off. A recent English book called 501 Must-Read Books has the same format and roughly the same books (obviously with more). Except it doesn't say they are the "best", just recommended reading. It's an excellent book for reading ideas.
posted by stbalbach at 9:10 AM on April 8, 2008


It is worth noting that the Telegraph - despite being a dreadful paper - has an excellent SF critic on staff: Andrew McKie. Dunno how much actual input he had into the list though.

And yes, Tess of the D'Urbervilles sucks.
posted by ninebelow at 9:11 AM on April 8, 2008


Very arbitrary, but, yay! Lynne Truss!
posted by everichon at 9:13 AM on April 8, 2008


The list was put out by a British paper. A lot of the supposed exclusions are for books by American authors.

In any case, people who would complain about exclusion would probably exclude others.
posted by subatomiczoo at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2008


Was the Lord of the Rings intended as children's literature? I know it tends to get categorized as such in the U.S., but I thought in the UK more fantasy books were recognized as being for adult audiences as well. Here I pretty much expect anything with a dragon in it will be in the JUV section. It often amazes me what's in that section. Not that it shouldn't be read by kids (I tend to assume they'll read within that section and also beyond it), but the attitude that it isn't for adults.

Harold Bloom's Western Cannon

Volume 1: Assorted Weaponry In Shakespeare: On Its Manufacture, Use In Combat, and Literary Symbolism.
posted by Tehanu at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2008


Go Metafilter!

The snark is strong in this one.
posted by asok at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2008


Harold Bloom's Western Cannon

Can anyone explain why for Joseph Conrad he lists (Lord Jim. The Secret Agent. Nostromo. Under Western Skies. Victory) -- but does not list The Heart of Darkness? Is it an oversight or part of his crusade against politically correct literature (post-colonialism).
posted by stbalbach at 9:22 AM on April 8, 2008


Yeah, I was pretty let down by that Harold Bloom's Western "Cannon" link.
posted by adamdschneider at 9:23 AM on April 8, 2008


meh.
posted by valentinepig at 9:24 AM on April 8, 2008


What, Best Sci Fi with no Canticle for Leibowitz?

No Flowers for Algernon?

No Vonnegut?

Hmmmpf.
posted by lordrunningclam at 9:29 AM on April 8, 2008


Seriously, why isn't Dune there?

Because it's a list of books, not insomnia remedies.


BURN!
posted by DU at 9:29 AM on April 8, 2008


I'm just defensive because I have to occasionally write lists and I'm just doing my best to write a list and get some debate going and make some people happy and what do I get:
"That list was made by a moron because they forgot Y" - I didn't forget Y, I excluded it.
"They have no credibility without X" - No X is a piece of shit.
"A bunch of shit-nozzlers made that list" - true.

Poor me.
posted by meech at 9:30 AM on April 8, 2008


The only thing good about these lists is that mefites come in and make better lists.
posted by Divine_Wino at 9:31 AM on April 8, 2008


This really shouldn't have been called a "best books" list. But as Miko indicated earlier, as a collection there's something in here for just about every taste. Seriously, if these were the only books in existence, who couldn't find a book on this list to like?

That said... there's a lot of leeway given here. Almost 20 of them are collections of multiple books. I mean, the Complete Sherlock Holmes? Why not the complete Hercules Poirot instead of just Orient Express, then? And really, it's a nice artifact but if you're going to put an encyclopedia on the list, one that predates the steam engine probably shouldn't be your first choice.

Actually, relooking the list, a lot of the books are such artifacts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle? Really?Thucydides *and* Herodotus? There's a lot that could be trimmed here.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:31 AM on April 8, 2008


The misspelling of the Iliad at the very beginning really got me into the right mood for this article.
posted by dd42 at 9:37 AM on April 8, 2008


I was pretty let down by that Harold Bloom's Western "Cannon" link.

Really? There are none on his list that I regret reading and a lot there I want to read. Just some minor quibbles about it. As far as these types of lists go I think Bloom is the most challenging and comprehensive and up to date I've seen. As he says, anything beyond the 19th century (roughly) is a "mugs games" trying to pick, not enough time has passed to determine what is canonical, so that part of the list (section "D") should bear the least weight (but it's the part most people get ruffled about).
posted by stbalbach at 9:41 AM on April 8, 2008


Thucydides *and* Herodotus?

Herodotus doesn't cover the Peloponnesian war. Herodotus warns against the dangers of hubris and lording your power over others, and he was subtly intending this message for Athens. Thucydides provides the next part of that ongoing story.
posted by deanc at 9:43 AM on April 8, 2008


The lack of A Confederacy of Dunces makes me want to write a scathing letter to Myrna Minkoff immediately. I am sure she and the rest of her degenerate crew will want to assist me in my protests and marches against this list.

Yours,
Tad, A Working Boy
posted by willmize at 9:48 AM on April 8, 2008


That list is bad and the Telegraph should feel bad.

Actually, that second bit applies anyway.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:51 AM on April 8, 2008


How very canon-y. Ew.
posted by lunit at 10:15 AM on April 8, 2008


I love lists of best books: there is always at least several that I did not read and it gives me something to look forward. But, sadly, no Dorothy Sawyer in the mistery section
posted by francesca too at 10:17 AM on April 8, 2008


"Tess" was inflicted on me and countless other students as part of the Ontario high school curriculum in the late 1960s. I have yet to meet one person -- anyone -- who actually liked that ponderous monstrosity...

It was inflicted on me and at least 1200 other students as part of the Ontario high school curriculum in the late 1980s, but I actually wound up liking it, [SPOILERS] because after a billion pages of tedium she finally snaps and murders somebody, then goes batshit insane, which when you're 16 is pretty cool.
posted by Shepherd at 10:21 AM on April 8, 2008


...the ultimate reading list
-we can hope they're using 'ultimate' to mean 'last'.
posted by MtDewd at 10:31 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I only have 5. HOW AM I TO LIVE WITH MYSELF?!
posted by grubi at 10:33 AM on April 8, 2008


> there are exactly 3 things that you can say about an internet list:
>
> 1. Hey, look at this list!
> 2. Hey, X is on that list!
> 3. Hey, X is not on that list!
> posted by burnmp3s at 12:10 PM on April 8 [2 favorites +] [!]

There's actually one other response I see pretty often, namely "MY list is better than this list. Here's a linkie to MY listie over on MY bloggie."

I'm not providing a linkie to my own listie, however, despite all the howls of disappointment. It's "The 10,214,556,229,112,003 Best Books Ever" and I'm still tweaking it.
posted by jfuller at 10:38 AM on April 8, 2008


To clarify, I was disappointed because it didn't include anything about cannon. Get it?! /joke
posted by adamdschneider at 10:39 AM on April 8, 2008


I'm just defensive because I have to occasionally write lists and I'm just doing my best to write a list and get some debate going and make some people happy and what do I get:

I certainly understand that. The point of these lists is NOT to act definitive about opinions; it's to get a discussion going. I have these little High Fidelity conversations all the time. I have to keep telling people "This list could be completely different ten minutes from now; just name *something*."

So I sympathize.
posted by grubi at 10:46 AM on April 8, 2008


This is not really any different from a Cracked.com post. The "list" is not a respectable tool for literary criticism, and it will not go away until we stop treating it as such.
posted by Eideteker at 10:52 AM on April 8, 2008


Master and Commander is on, so hurray, assuming they mean the whole 20+-volume series.

And everyone knows The Man in the High Castle is Phillip K. Dick's masterpiece.
posted by stargell at 10:56 AM on April 8, 2008


I always recommend that people start the O'Brian series not with Book 1, Master and Commander, but with book 3, HMS Surprise. It's much more action-packed and immediately interesting, and then you can go back and catch up on backstory. It can be hard to sell people on the series if they're not already into multivolume historical-technical sags, so starting in medias res can get them over the hump.
posted by Miko at 11:04 AM on April 8, 2008


Don't you mean HMS Surprise! ? Seems more festive that way.
posted by grubi at 11:16 AM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm going to start a website called heywhatdoyouthinkofthislist.com where people just post lists of the top x y's and other people go "No way should z be on the list" and "Hey they forgot to put my favorite y! Bogus!" and I am going to call it Metafilter.
posted by ND¢ at 11:21 AM on April 8, 2008 [2 favorites]


This list is extraordinarily boring and unimaginative.
posted by Justinian at 11:23 AM on April 8, 2008


I always recommend that people start the O'Brian series not with Book 1, Master and Commander, but with book 3, HMS Surprise. It's much more action-packed and immediately interesting, and then you can go back and catch up on backstory. It can be hard to sell people on the series if they're not already into multivolume historical-technical sags, so starting in medias res can get them over the hump.

I started with The Nutmeg of Consolation, I liked the title and bought it at a used bookstore, then I read the series straight through and now pick up and put down the books at random as the need strikes me, but your idea makes sense Miko. They can take thei Odyssey and cram it where the rosy-fingered dawn won't reach it, far far away from the wine-dark sea.
posted by Divine_Wino at 11:24 AM on April 8, 2008


Yup- Master and Commander was pretty badly written. I like it fine now, but I already know the characters backwards and forwards. I usually start people out on at least Post Captain or HMS Surprise. I never thought of them as traditional romance novels, though, I have to say.

Elmore Leonard's on the list, but if there were a short stories section he should probably go on that one, too.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:39 AM on April 8, 2008


I was amused to see M&C in the Romantic Fiction section though. Just what is the Telegraph implying about the Aubrey-slash-Maturin relationship?
posted by bonehead at 12:12 PM on April 8, 2008


I don't think of them as traditional romance novels, but more adventure/historical fiction. However, I like the idea. I think you could think of them as romance novels, only the romance is between Jack and Stephen.
posted by Miko at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2008


I didn't see anything that I found hugely and egregiously wrong with the list, but I do think a few of the follow up comments addressed my issues. There was no To Kill a Mockingbird, no Catch-22, hell just the lack of Mark Twain alone is enough to give me some pause.

It's a good list (I like Miko's found-in-a-beach-house-library description), but like any attempt to document the best, there will always be points I disagree with.
posted by quin at 12:27 PM on April 8, 2008


I'd tend to agree that it's a reasonable list to be "found in a beach house", providing we can also agree that the SF section is garbage.

It's far too back-heavy---half the list was written before the gendre really got going. Try picking a best of Literary fiction if you haven't read anything written in the 20th century, for example: no Joyce, no Faulkner, no Hemmigway. That's what the SF list looks like to me.

Only the Gibson is in any way surprising, and then only to prove that they haven't completely neglected the gendre for the past fourty or fifty years. Now if they'd have picked, say: a Zelazny (60s), a Vonnegut (70s) and and a Wolfe (80s-90s) (or a Crowley or even, gods help me, Halprin), I'd have a lot less trouble. It really looks like the Telegraph haven't done their assigned reading though.

Better to have left this category off entirely, than to produce the laughable "list" that they did.
posted by bonehead at 12:44 PM on April 8, 2008


Not to mention the gendrer genre...
posted by fairmettle at 1:01 PM on April 8, 2008


That'd be gender genre. Ti... ming...
posted by fairmettle at 1:02 PM on April 8, 2008


bonehead: the SF category was one of the categories I was specifically thinking of when I called the list boring and unimaginative. Far better to have just left it off the thing, as you say.
posted by Justinian at 1:06 PM on April 8, 2008


If a person only read these 110 books their whole lives, they would be very unlearned. Now I could understand this list if they mean literature, but "books" in general? This list is but a mere sliver of human existence and contained within a very narrow scope.
posted by ozomatli at 1:16 PM on April 8, 2008


I can't believe that people still say, "I can't belive there is no X on the list", when they come across a list on the internet.
If you posted a list of the ten best integers between 1 and 10, people would argue about the order.
posted by joaquim at 2:12 PM on April 8, 2008


Only the Gibson is in any way surprising, and then only to prove that they haven't completely neglected the gendre for the past fourty or fifty years.
Were it not for the presence of Neuromancer, I would accuse the list-compiler of being a person who didn't like science fiction, but wanted to include some texts that he felt would make erstwhile sci-fi fans more "cultured" or was reluctantly compiling a list with the works he thought were "acceptable." A list in which Orwell, Huxley, and a couple pre-20th-century authors are featured as the best science fiction authors is like the person who says, "Oh, I only watch television to see Masterpiece Theater."
posted by deanc at 2:17 PM on April 8, 2008


Were it not for the presence of Neuromancer, I would accuse the list-compiler of being a person who didn't like science fiction

The presence of Neuromancer doesn't preclude that at all. Gibson is sort of the go-to guy for people who don't know what they are actually talking about to point to when talking about modern science fiction.
posted by Justinian at 2:24 PM on April 8, 2008


Master and Commander was pretty badly written.

I am to be found any morning at Joselito's coffee house. Good day to you, sir.
posted by stargell at 3:11 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


I did not click the link, so I'll just imagine it. What I imagine is on the list: something by Dickens, Joyce and Shakespeare. What I imagine is not on the list: any of the "For Dummies" guides, that Madonna sex book or whatever it was, anything by or about Rodney Dangerfield. How'm I doing?
posted by ornate insect at 3:40 PM on April 8, 2008


If my life had been changed by Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I think I'd probably have killed myself.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:45 PM on April 8, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ted Hughes?


ROFLPOCALYPSE
posted by The Jesse Helms at 6:59 PM on April 8, 2008


Rabbit series
John Updike



Sir, I present to you my dick.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 7:02 PM on April 8, 2008


Red Dragon was the first appearance of Hannibal Lecter and this statement is oh so wrong:
It's one of literature's most wonderful ironies that Conan Doyle himself became a spiritualist so soon after creating the most famously rational character in all literature.
Sherlock Holmes was never a rationalist. It takes a spiritualist to pick up a cigar and determine that only three like were made by dauphin of Kentcourt and the smoker must have been six foot ought and twenty stones.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:02 PM on April 8, 2008


Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Robert M. Pirsig

Pirsig's feel-good memoir about a father-son motorcycle trip across America became the biggest-selling philosophy book of all time.


Just thought I'd drop in to note what an utter piece of crap I thought this book was. I kept reading because he was going to get to a point, right? The point was, he was an egomaniac who should have left his long-suffering son at home. Even in the process of writing the book, he failed to realize just how much that kid hated the trip, because HE knew it was he right thing for the young man to experience. If you call ego, hubris platitude and redundancy Philosophy, then count me out of the genre forever.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:09 PM on April 8, 2008


If a person only read these 110 books their whole lives, they would be very unlearned.

Well. They'd be better read than about 99% of humanity, and probably better read than 99.5% of the Telegraph's audience.

It's certainly not a bad list, as these things go.

Mostly what it shows is that 110 mostly-serious books is a woefully inadequate number for someone to be considered well-read. I mean, really: 110 books?

What do they propose for next semester?
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 9:41 PM on April 8, 2008


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