Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Can't Resist a List, Part Three: List Resistance -- Or Not

     Why can't I resist a list, and why are some people so militantly resistant to them?
     Lists or "reading plans" seemed to be quite popular from at least 1909 until around the mid-1950s.  One of the first was the Harvard Classics (1909). Charles Eliot, President of Harvard, opined that a good education could be had in this "Five-Foot Shelf" of books. Five feet of shelf space, made into a three-shelf bookcase, doesn't take up much room. I know this because, when my parents bought the Harvard Classics, the bookshelf was included.  Probably someone in the family has it to this day; I have the books, complete with two volumes on how to use them. One is a normal-size book with a plan for reading the whole set (50 volumes) in some sort of logical order; the other, a slim volume, appealed to me as a 10-year-old because it directed you to a brief reading for each day of the year. Sadly, I never got very far into January before other things (or other books, most likely) drew me away. Thus we see how list-lust and list-loathing can coexist in one person.  I did very much enjoy the poetry volumes as well as the Journals of Ambroise Pare (an early surgeon); the Classics cover various disciplines, so if I ever want to read Harvey on the circulation of the blood I know where to find it. One of the charming idiosyncrasies of the Classics is that, while Donne, Tennyson, Wordsworth, the Brownings, Whitman, Longfellow et al. are jumbled together in a three-volume anthology of poetry in English, Robert Burns gets a volume all to himself. The only other poet so honored is John Milton. Scotland for aye!

     The Five-Foot Shelf could fit easily into the studio apartments that striving young people could afford. Its later competitor, the Great Books of the Western World (Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins were among its compilers) always seemed to take up a bit more space when I saw it in other people's homes or in libraries. And indeed it has more and larger volumes. There is quite a bit of overlap with the Harvard Classics, but Adler and Co. were completists -- rather than choosing, say, a couple of plays by Euripides, they included all they could find. The Great Books have been revised at least once, removing a few items and adding others; they have formed the basis for "Great Books" curricula at several colleges and universities, and there is still a Great Books Foundation which encourages the formation of reading and discussion groups.

     Somewhat later came Clifton Fadiman's The Lifetime Reading Plan.  I was afraid even to look at that one for fear my remaining lifetime would not be long enough, but, at least in its most recent (1997) version, it wins a lot of points for diversity, beginning with The Epic of Gilgamesh (hey! I've read that!) and ending with Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart (and that too!) and including a great deal more literature from around the world than either of the previous lists. Fadiman and his collaborator John Major (not, as far as I know, ever Prime Minister of Great Britain) were only trying to sell one book, the Plan itself, and the ambitious reader could acquire the books however s/he might.

     All these sets and plans** were most popular at a time when relatively few people had the opportunity to go to college or even, in some cases, to finish high school. In my generation, most people who wanted to could graduate from high school, and more people than ever before could go on to college. Thus we were familiar early on with Required Reading, Summer Reading Lists, Core Curricula and General Education classes. At my own alma mater, it was entirely possible for a luckless student to spend the first two years, plus one more course, just fulfilling the General Education requirements. Add to this our generally rebellious nature, and it's easy to understand the numerous comments along the lines of "Who are you to tell me what to read?" that all such lists of "Best Books" seem to inspire whenever they are published or posted.

**For a much more complete list of lists, go here.

     And yet, I think many of us, confronted by the amazing proliferation of books and other reading matter, want some guidance on what to read, as well as a chance to discuss what we've read, and to urge our favorites on our friends and acquaintances.  The continuing popularity of book groups, now on television and the Internet as well as in homes and libraries, owes much to these needs. And although it is always certain that literary critics love to make lists of the best or most important books, it is also certain that editors wouldn't publish such lists if they didn't think readers were interested.

     So if anybody's reading this, what do you think about literary lists?  Love them or loathe them? Do you check off the titles you've read, and complain about what's been left off? Do you make a vague mental note that you might like to sample some of the books? Or do you pass them by without a second thought? Let me know in comments, and elaborate if you choose.


Max Weismann said...


Max Weismann

Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Founded in 1990 by Mortimer J. Adler and Max Weismann
Chairman, The Great Books Academy
Home Page:

Sisterfilms said...

I like the lists, but I don't look at them very often since I have read so few that it makes me feel stupid. Plus, I always think things like, "what?! They put Judy Blume's Blubber on and not Are you there God? What were they thinking!?"

I think you should come up with a series of lists, about 10 long each, that have books from various genres that people should read. They should be compiled from other lists so that as you completed one of your lists you would be closer to finishing other great lists!

Jonathan said...

Here's the Wikipedia Great Books list, annotated with brief descriptions: