January 5, 2008

The 50 Greatest Books?

Announced in this weekend's Globe and Mail: a new project to discuss the "50 Greatest Books":
So many issues, so many books, so few of them great. Watch for our first choice in this space next week. And be prepared to argue. (read the whole column here)
As one of the top-secret 'jurors' points out, a venture like this raises all kinds of questions, mostly of the "great in what way, or for what?" variety that I mentioned in my reply to Nigel's question about evaluation in literary criticism. It would be a more sensible project to set some parameters--even focusing on "50 Greatest Novels" or "50 Greatest Poems" would alleviate the inevitable apples and oranges kind of conversation that is about to ensue. While in some ways I think this is a pointless exercise, because it artificially tries to reduce literary analysis to something like a Billboard chart, I think the process it could initiate for readers is valuable. We ought to think about why we love or value the books we do, not just insist that it's all a question of arbitrary taste. "Tell me what you like and I'll tell you what you are," as Ruskin said. If pressed, we always have a reason, and clinging to our preferences without acknowledging our reasons is just prejudice, in reading as in the rest of life. Further, when thoughtful people articulate, exchange, and argue about their judgments, we can learn a great deal, and our own tastes can evolve; this is the process the critic Wayne Booth called "coduction." So bring it on! I'm curious, though, about why the panel is being kept so strictly anonymous. Does this have anything to do with mistrust of authority where literary judgments are involved? But we're told that "each entry will be written by someone with knowledge, usually extensive knowledge, of the book in question," so unlike "Canada Reads" (which seems to have a deliberate policy of keeping out the scholars and critics), it seems that here expertise, and not just enthusiasm, is being sought. I suppose anonymity keeps us focused on the argument they make for their chosen text--and saves them, at least temporarily, from hate mail of the kind that does, actually, get generated whenever someone waves the red flag of "literary merit" in front of enough readers ("I can't believe you think Ulysses is a great book when it is clearly incomprehensible drivel!" etc.). Well, let the games begin: any bets on which will book will launch the series? (My money's on the Bible or the Odyssey.)

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