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Lists of books we reread and books we can’t finish tell more about us than about the relative worth of the books themselves.

—Russell Banks

I’ve spent a good deal of time recently coming up with new themes and lists of suggested books for my book salon. Since the salon is grounded in the classics, I figured that a good way to get ideas would be to peruse some “top” lists. After all, everyone seems to have one. Newsweek even came up with a meta-list compiled from the selections on other major lists, notably those of the New York Public Library and The Modern Library.

The controversial Modern Library list (of the top 100 English-language novels of the century) gained much notoriety over ten years ago for being too white, too male, and too middlebrow. There was such an uproar over the list that they introduced a companion “Reader’s List,” but, with four books by Ayn Rand and three by L. Ron Hubbard in the top ten, I think it’s safe to say that it’s not worth bothering with. I find the Modern Library list a tad boring, filled with books that one reads only because one is forced to in high school or college. My biggest quibble with it is that James Joyce hogs both the #1 and #3 spot. Seriously? But maybe I’m just bitter that I’ve only read 20 novels on the list. Ouch. (I do a bit better on the rival Radcliffe List, where I’ve read 34, but still.)

If you are looking for something a bit more current, try TIME’s 100 List, which further narrows the pool to English-language books published in or after 1923, the year of the magazine’s founding. And, let’s all pause for a moment and thank our lucky stars that that restriction means no Ulysses (published in 1922). Of course, I don’t do much better on this list, with about 25 under my belt. Some other lists include the 100 Favorite Novels of Librarians (40!) and The Guardian’s 100 Greatest Novels of All Time (34!). One of my favorite lists is The Daily Telegraph’s “110 Best Books: The Perfect Library,” if only for the fact they couldn’t limit themselves to 100. Even then, they cheat quite a bit since a number of their entries are actually multi-volume series (Trollope’s Barchester chronicles, Updike’s Rabbit, Run books, etc.). Finally, if you’re really ambitious, you can try to tackle the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, for which there are intricate spreadsheets you can download to track your progress.

People who know me know that I love nothing better than organizing and making lists. However, the problem with looking at all these lists and coming up with these themes is that they inevitably bring back the refrain that haunted me in graduate school: so many books, so little time. I want to read many of the books on these lists, but is it really important that I do so? After all, it’s lists like these that led me to read Wide Sargasso Sea this year, and that’s time I can never get back.

Do these lists make you feel guilty? energized? indifferent? Do you have books you feel you should read? Do you actually plan to read them? I’d love to hear from people on this.


*What can I say? When I’m not making lists, I’m rewatching the entire Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre via Netflix.

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