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still grasping for a definition of “classics”: a list

I get an excellent email, five days per week, from A.Word.A.Day. Occasionally there is an ad, and I think I’ve seen this one before, but was just recently interested enough to click through. “Listen to the 100 Greatest Books of All Time,” it cries! Well, you know my question: what on earth are the 100 greatest books of all time?? (I’ve wondered before.) I always have to refer back to that BBC list. I think it’s fun to look at what rates, and how it changes. Of course we shall never all agree. But listing books we love is an inherent pleasure, I think. As I’ve done before, I’ve marked up this list:

Bold = I’ve read it
Underlined = I’ve started the book, but never finished
neither = I haven’t picked it up.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank Baum
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux
The Raven, Edgar Allan Poe
A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Macbeth, William Shakespeare
The Odyssey, Homer
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Beatrix Potter
The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allan Poe
The Princess and the Pea, Hans Christian Andersen
White Fang, Jack London
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Oedipus Rex, Sophocles
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Paradise Lost, John Milton
The Time Machine, H.G. Wells
Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Daisy Miller, Henry James
The Gift of the Magi, O. Henry
Young Goodman Brown, Nathaniel Hawthorne
Beowulf, unknown
The Tale of Benjamin Bunny, Beatrix Potter
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis
The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
The Art of War, Sun Tzu
The Masque of Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe
The Indiscreet Letter, Eleanor Hallowell Abbott
Adrift in New York, Horatio Alger, Jr.
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
King Lear, William Shakespeare
The Ransom of Red Chief, O. Henry
The Inferno, Dante Alighieri
Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling
The Pit and the Pendulum, Edgar Allan Poe
The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
A Prisoner of Morro, Upton Sinclair
Euthyphro, Plato
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift
Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
A Room with a View, E.M. Forster
Rip Van Winkle, Washington Irving
Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne
Hamlet, William Shakespeare
The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka
The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle, Hugh Lofting
The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain
The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
A Haunted House, Virginia Woolf
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
The Emperor’s New Clothes, Hans Christian Andersen
Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche
A Modest Proposal, Jonathan Swift
The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Othello, William Shakespeare
The Song of Hiawatha, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Common Sense, Thomas Paine
Much Ado About Nothing, William Shakespeare
The Man Who Would be King, Rudyard Kipling
The Purloined Letter, Edgar Allan Poe
Candide, Voltaire
Politics, Aristotle
In Defense of Women, H.L. Mencken
McTeague, Frank Norris
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, Lew Wallace
The Apology of Socrates, Plato
A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke
A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen
The Five White Mice, Stephen Crane
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Ambrose Bierce
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
O Pioneers!, Willa Cather
The Idyl of Red Gulch, Bret Harte
Ethan Frome, Edith Wharton
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane

I’m surprised to see the blocks of books I have or haven’t read showing up together, rather than sort of equally dispersed down the list. I wonder what ordered these selections and what that means.

It quickly becomes clear that this list employs a heavy cultural bias toward the usual Dead White Guys (hat tip to an excellent blog by that name). Of 100 books, only 12 are by women (11 different women, with Beatrix Potter’s delightful anthropomorphizing children’s books represented twice). At a glance, I’m pretty sure that none of these authors are living. And overwhelmingly Western: Twain, Dickens, Shakespeare, Poe, Crane, Kipling and Stevenson all recur; Sun Tzu is the only non-Western name of the bunch. Plenty of Greeks, no Romans. Only one Fitzgerald (but no Gatsby!), and no Hemingway: and yes, you know I’m biased, but really I think few of the anointed minds who rate “great literature” – academics, professors, professional writers and reviewers – would leave Hemingway off a list of Greats. He’s not for everyone, but I think his talent and achievements are relatively inarguable. He won both a Pulitzer and a Nobel. Actually, that would be another interesting way to look at this list: to cross-check it with prizewinners. Hm.

I’m not overwhelmed by the originality or diversity of this list.

You’ll notice I took the liberty of linking to my reviews, where I’ve written them. These are relatively few, I think because I read many “classics” in school, which is to say pre-blog. There is also a large overlap between this list and the Great Illustrated Classics I remember as a kid (and yes, I gave myself credit for a few I know only from that format [very few], just as an indication of my familiarity with the story). They were my introduction to many classics: Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, 1,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, Oliver Twist, Treasure Island, Frankenstein, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, Gulliver’s Travels, The Invisible Man (Wells, not Ellison), The Swiss Family Robinson. Some of these I would later read in their unabridged versions, but some, not. I treasured those books. I don’t know what happened to them.

I researched this series later, as a professional librarian, and was dismayed at their reputation. It left me wondering what misconceptions I have, what I missed. Of course the very definition of abridgment is missing things, but these are said to be especially extreme. Here I am with my whole experience of Oliver Twist defined by those illustrations I can still see clearly in my mind: the orphan as interpreted by Great Illustrated Classics had lovely, long eyelashes. On the other hand, I happily read many of the same stories in their full and unabridged versions later on. And I recommend doing so.

The “100 best books of all time” list appears to have been compiled with Dead White Guys in mind, and by more or less the same folks who chose the Great Illustrated Classics. These, at least, are unabridged. And, hey, they’ve got a point: at $99, this is indeed a hell of a deal for all these books pre-loaded onto a player for you. But just don’t forget to survey some women and writers of color and those born in the last 100 years or so, too. There is always my list in progress if you need some tips.

4 Responses

  1. Interesting list. I’m glad to see Lucy Maud and Willa Cather made it, although my choice by her would have been MY ANTONIA.

  2. You never finished The Aventures of Sherlock Holmes? Damn. I’ve been writing for 45 years about a character who’s based her whole life on that book. 🙂

    Well, best wishes for the holidays. When I read this, I thought that you’d get a kick out of it: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1927/12/24/a-visit-from-saint-nicholas-in-the-ernest-hemingway-manner

    • Ugh, I know, I’m sorry!! I have a big fat volume sitting on the shelf that I have just picked at here and there. I have no special criticisms but I haven’t made time for the entirety yet. One of these days maybe? Sorry. :-/ I quit after Part 1 of Don Quixote, too – not meaning to, just took a break and never came back. One of these days, maybe.

      And, that’s cute, but that guy has nothing on Papa. 🙂

      Happy holidays to you as well, Anthony! Thanks as always.

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