Sunday, February 8, 2009

How many have YOU read?

Every so often someone or another comes out with a list of books everyone MUST read, dahling. I have to admit, such claims always make me picture plump, snooty women holding their lorgnettes and and round, bald men in evening wear all looking down their noses at anything they haven't deemed "literature".

But this month's list by the staff of The Guardian, London's daily paper decided they didn't want the same old list of DWMA (Dead White Male Authors). While some of those works certainly should be read by everyone, the staff decided they needed a broader range of genre and authors on their list.

And how many books should they include? Well, if one reads a book a month his or her entire life and then throws in an extra book (because, after all, some books are really very short...) and lived till the age of would have read a total of 1000 books.

A thousand books. I look around my own personal library and know I have about that many (probably more) in just this room alone. Granted, some of them are Nancy Drew mysteries and a LOT of them are plays. And no, I haven't personally read all the books in my personal library. My husband's philosophy books from college take an entire shelf -- up high because no one's looked at them in years -- and I'm in no hurry to take them down and spend a torturous month with any of them.

I think of my mother-in-law who reads voraciously. She's widowed and doesn't drive, so she's mostly housebound. She reads a romance a day, on average. Sometimes it takes her a day and a half. Most months she manages 28-30 books. At this rate, she'll have read 1000 books in 2 years, 7 months.

So although a thousand books sounds like a lot at first glance, it's very do-able, and I suspect most of us already have finished off (or surpassed) that number already. What makes The Guardian's list different from our own reading?

For one, they broke the list into genre: War & Travel; Science Fiction & Fantasy, Love, Crime, State of the Nation, Comedy, Family Life. For two, they didn't require the authors to be dead. Or white. Or male. And for three, the list is representative of many cultures and many ideas, broadening horizons as good literature (or good lists) should.

Of course the first thing I did was go down the list and see how many I'd read. You can find the list here in the original posting at The Guardian, or here in list form (where I downloaded it...warning: there are 46 pages of it, so if you print it out...go get a cup of coffee and come back). The second list has the advantage of being collated by a mathemetician and also includes a companion list showing how many times an author appears on the original list. Jane Austen, for example, is mentioned six times as all six of her novels are included.

For my total, I counted all the books I'd started, whether I finished them or not (Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man -- I just couldn't get through it. I tried. I really tried. Counted it anyway). It was also somewhat distressing to see authors I'd read, but not the particular book I'd read by that author. Chaim Potok is on the list with two books, but The Chosen, the only book of his I've read, is not one of them. So I didn't count him.

My total? A dismal 101 books.

Now, if I went with the attitude "No, but I saw the movie..." I would be able to check off several hundred more. And this week, partly because of the list, I finally read Kate Chopin's The Awakening. So I'm officially at 102 now.'s my challenge: Go check out the list -- how many have YOU read? And are there any on the list that surprised you?


Nikki_Soarde said...

Hmm...Seems my results are CONSIDERABLY more dismal than yours, Diana! I come up with a sorry 33 titles read. And that includes a number of books that I started (made a good effort at), yet never finished because I just wasn't enjoying them. The Constant Gardner bored me to tears and I put it down after about 3 chapters. I got about 2/3 of the way through The Kite Runner, and while it's still sitting on my bedside table, I doubt I'll have the gumption to pick it up again. It's..."interesting". It's a glimpse at another culture, but beyond that I found nothing sympathetic or compelling about the characters or the conflict. Actually there IS no conflict, hence no reason for resolution. Hence I have no motivation to finish it.

I find the list puzzling. Maybe I'd understand it better if I read the entire article, but judging from the list itself I see no rhyme nor reason to their choices. To say we "should" all read these books is to imply that there is merit to them. That these stories should awaken us in some way. Make us look at ourselves or humanity in general in some new and exciting way. If that's the case then I am absolutely baffled as to the inclusion of the James Bond stories. They seem like pretty mindless entertainment to me. And while I can see the reasoning behind the choice of Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke, I found that book to be intensely depressing, and *I* would have preferred a number of his other books over that one.

I was also shocked that INFIDEL by Ayaan Hirsi Ali wasn't included. To include The Kite Runner and not include that one is a glaring inconsistency as far as I'm concerned. I found it to be a much more personal and fascinating look at another culture.

But then again literature is SUCH a personal journey. Especially coming from Canada whose publishing community is quite known for its literary snobbery...It always irks me a bit when ANYONE takes it upon themselves to pick out a "reading list" for anyone else. Don't tell me "you've GOT to read this." Say "I enjoyed it. Maybe you will, too." ;-)

Diana said...

LOL Nikki, I felt the same way about some of the choices. I suspect their inclusion of some of the pieces that are less snobbish (like the James Bond stories) is a nod to say, "in the 21st century, these are cultural phenomenon we all have been exposed to" to ignore it would be an even greater sin.

Also, keep in mind, this is a British list, no matter how worldly the staff tried to be. I see a definite leaning toward British attitudes than American ones (or Canadian beliefs). I even would go so far as to suggest that might be why one book by an author was chosen over another book by that author.

I always enjoy these lists for the literature they do expose me to...or remind me to read. The Awakening has sat on my shelf for several years...this list served as a reminder so I finally took it down, blew the dust off and read it. And I found some pleasant surprises on it. One of my favorite recent books is The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime -- a book I'd never heard of before my aunt sent it to me in a book exchange. What a treat to see it on the list and realize we're not the only two in the world who loved it!

Lynn LaFleur said...

I didn't go through the entire list, but a quick glance proved very quickly that I doubt I've read over 20 of these books. As Nikki said, I've started several and could never finish them.

Several of these books are on my bookshelf. Someday I'll get to them. Maybe.


Tielle St. Clare said...

I went through the list and counted about 55 that I'd read and most of those because I was a lit major in college. I haven't read most (any?) of the contemporary stuff. I think I'm like Nikki. I need some conflict and action or my attention span wanders and I'm not one to get caught up in the beauty of the language. Fun list though. Might have to post it on my FB page to see how many my friends have read.

Angelia Sparrow said...

I've read 60, mostly because I have a degree in English lit.

Scaramouche is on my TBR list and the rest? nope. Not interested.

I've read both of the Phillip K Dick, although I hated both of them.

Cait Miller said...

I've read 34 mostly either because I was forced to at school or people said I should. Probably about 15 were my own personal reading choices and I enjoyed - Jane Austen, Patricia Cornwall, Michael Crichton, Helen Fielding, Thomas Harris (Red Dragon), Stephen King (although he is a bit purple). I still have vivid mermories of being traumatised by The Call Of The Wild and bored out of my mind by Of Mice And Men in school.

Cait Miller said...

Mermories? That'll teach me to preview, lol! Hey there is a paranormal romance title for you though :)