Friday, March 26, 2010

The elitism of book lists

My good friend Michelle just sent me a link on g-chat with the comment, "the most boring list of books over and over." She led me to this article on a NYTimes blog with the post title, "The Influential Books Game." Apparently it was a bookish meme where people list the top 10 books that have influenced their view of the world. And every single book on that list is just pretentious. And so is this one linked in the article. And so is this one. And this one, though he did start with The Phantom Tollbooth, which sounds like the only honest answer in the bunch. [And at least that last guy mentioned his personal experience with the books so I believe he actually had a connection with them, rather than just listing the Top 10 Works of Philosophy Everyone Should Read.]

Albeit this meme seemed to circulate the "intellectual community," but lists like this, of inspiring or influential titles, always contain the same expected few. And they're books to which most people (at least the ones I know and like) would say, "Gross, BORING." It's like these are the expected answers; you mention them so you'll sound smart and worldly. But really—influential works and theories on society? Maybe. But most influential books to YOU on YOUR world and YOUR viewpoints? C'mon now. Don't just recite my reading list from freshman year Western Civ. With what books have you formed a personal connection, so they stick with you forever?

I can't think of too many, but there are a few that never fail to pop into my head when the situation comes along:
  1. Harriet the Spy—I know I mention this one all the time, but it was the first story that made me want to explore and try a different way of life than the one in which I was raised. Harriet was always surrounded by people, and she became so observant of them, able to put herself into their situations. And now...well, I'm not called The Great Empathizer for nothin'.
  2. The Nanny Diaries—I did not like this book when I read it back in the 10th grade, and there's not too much to take from it. But for some reason, I always think of the ending when I get really riled up about something. My first instinct is to just say what I think and react without censor. It would feel SO GOOD to just tell someone off, but then I think of this book and how it's better to pick your battles. So now (for example) instead of sending back really passive-aggressive emails when dealing with incompetence, I type out my anger, pause, hit delete, and then write a rational reply.
  3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—Another favorite I mention a lot but from the moment I read this, I've been reminded to pay attention to the small things and look for the beauty everywhere.
  4. The Laramie Project—I read this play a few years ago and was struck by the lack of bias about a story that has always been so slanted in the media. Regardless of the why, the story is a tragic one. But, this has since led me to question the people and the lives behind any story. On paper, they're just a name, but individuals are complex; a lot can be behind a story, unseen. Also, I see how the media can stereotype a story—categorize it one way while ignoring all the details surrounding it, just so it becomes a phenomenon, incites emotion in people, and ultimately makes the news media a lot of money.


christina said...

I hate lists like these. Definitely people giving answers they think others want to hear and sticking to a few famous titles. There are obscure books out there that are so much more influential because they speak individually to the reader rather than some mass list that makes for a ton of page hits....

Plus every book should be influential. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.

In some way. Influential somehow gets to be taken as this big flashbangboom world changing thing and it isn't always, sometimes it's much smaller and has a subtler impact.

I try to make Stacked about that, any given book inspiring you - or at least that's the direction I've always meant it to go and am now implementing. Journey to the Center of the Earth made me want to go hiking in Iceland, The Golden Ratio got me to learn binary, a cheap period romance series induced me to join the Jane Austen Society and learn Regency dancing. Nothing huge, but enough to slightly tweek and change my world view into some bigger whole.

tolmsted said...

I don't really think that Dune, The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen are that pretentious. And I like Graham Greene. Though I have my own prejudices - I consider anyone who takes Ayn Rand seriously immediately suspect, and my personal pet peeves are lists that include Jane Austen, War & Peace and David Foster Wallace. But thank you for pointing out the meme...I like it. And if you haven't read it already - Betty Smith also wrote "Joy in the Morning" - which would be on my list of influential books.

Kari said...

Yeah, I agree with you. That list wasn't as bad...up until #5.

My boyfriend would also agree with you about Ayn Rand.

Kari said...

I was thinking the same exact thing as I was trying to come up with my own list! Most books I read inspire me in some way, so it was hard to think of those really, REALLY influential ones.

Rebecca Reid said...

Personally, I love book lists to help me find next reads. But I prefer book lists from fellow bloggers or friends because then there is context to them! I tend to like classics too, so they don't often appear pretentious to me. But that said, I didn't particularly like any of the lists you link to here.... Thanks for sharing your influential books!

Emily said...

I also enjoy lists and reviews if they are personal, if I understand that a person is mentioning a book because of a real connection and no other reason.
An author that I refused to read for many years (thinking "how boring") is Milan Kundera , I was so wrong, Kundera had such a big influence on me and I can't recommend "The unbearable lightness of being" highly enough.