Lists of best books ever

Every time I come across a list of this kind I read it and my opinion is always the same: Yes, BUT… Clearly a list is just a list, and it cannot be perfect. Incidentally, it can depict a good portrait of the literature in general, and most of them underrate some literature instead of defend it. Sometimes, literature for them is just a part of it. I’ve gathered the main reasons why I never rely on this kind of lists:

  1. Only Western literature: They hardly ever include an Asian book, but it is almost a miracle to list a traditional Arabic or African book, not to speak about Ancient Scandinavian or Ancient Middle East works. Probably, the main absence is Journey to the West, which is largely considered as the great masterpiece of the Chinese literature.
  2. Novels instead of literature: The list makers forget quite often that the word “literature” spans across many different works. How many lists include scientific works, for instance? If we decide to focus on fiction, at the very least we’d have to consider theater works and poetry, wouldn’t we?
  3. English literature on the top: If we examine carefully ten lists, we’ll see that nine each ten have got over 80% books written in English originally. Seriously, is English literature so important? Clearly not so good, although it is indeed important. Alright, let’s focus just on Western literature. Come on, seriously, what about Latin American Literature, both Spanish and Portuguese. What about French literature. What about German literature. What about Spanish literature. What about Polish literature. For some reason Russian and Italian authors are well considered in English lists, rule of thumb, so I’ll stop here.
  4. There’re only new works: It’s usual to find two or three medieval works in every best literature lists, but that’s clearly insufficient. Sometimes they even list an ancient work as Gilgamesh. But it seems that books are more important if they’re new. Ok, I agree that since there’re more written pieces of work nowadays, odds say there will be more new good books, but lists are foolishly new.
  5. Many different qualities: I can even accept a list with 80/100 English books if it’s got good titles. What is different is to boost new popular bestsellers atop remarkable well-known historic marvels.

And that’s it. Yes, I enjoy reading…


4 thoughts on “Lists of best books ever

  1. Hannah Clare

    A short anecdote you might enjoy RE your point about translated books – on a visit to waterstones I found myself in the translated books section to which I remarked “Don’t know why I’m standing here I don’t think I’ve ever read a translated book before”. I realised I had when I noticed Murakami on the shelf (goodness knows how I didn’t work that one out). But it’s so true. Made me want to see what gems I could come across.

    1. whatafoolishness Post author

      Rule of thumb I think people’d better read books in their original languages, but actually there are many good translations in every language. Also, there’re many authors who write in foreign languages and others whose nationality isn’t evident because of their names, especially in a huge and multicultural country as USA is, so you don’t know whether their books are translated. Anyway, my insight is that the more books you read from different countries, the better, no matter whether they’re translated.

  2. reineke

    What list are you referring to? Some are indeed English-centric, because they were put together in English-speaking countries. I have listed several on my website. The best one is probably The 100 Best Books of All Time, as proposed by one hundred writers from fifty-four different countries, compiled and organized in 2002 by the Norwegian Book Club. It does list Gilgamesh and several other ancient works. You will find books written in Arabic, Chinese, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Pahlavi, Persian and Japanese. However, the bulk is still taken by Western writers, and for a good reason. You cannot make such a list in good conscience without including Cervantes, Homer or Tolstoy and these great names quickly eat up a good part of the list. English-language authors took 30% of the list and not 80-90% like some other lists. Is English-language literature that important? Yes it is 🙂 French, German and Russian took approximately 10 places each, followed by Spanish and Italian. The six great modern literatures take over 70% of the list.

    1. whatafoolishness Post author

      Welcome to this blog, reineke.

      I know the Norwegian list you point out, and I agree it is quite good, though in my opinion its good features are far from being common. However, I complain of the same points I’ve listed above. Of course I’m bias, but everyone is, nevermind if they’re writers or farmers. Everyone is bias especially because it’s impossible to read every book, he, he. Regarding Gilgamesh, I mentioned it because I read it in the list you’ve remarked. Well, and because I like it a lot.

      As for English literature, I think it is not that good. Most of the books I’ve read were originally written in English, and still I think I’ve read a number of better books which were written in different languages. I think that a part of the question is why we study all the books within the Western canon, while it’s not the only one. Plus, due to the globalization, which has occurred in an anglosaxon world, both English language and cultures are widely known. By the way, there’re more reasons to think through, though I don’t want to write an essay instead of a comment!


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