Anyone who reads knows the value of a list. The personal book list—a list of what you’ve read and of what you want to read—is a map. It can be practical, keeping you from going back to the same place twice (or inspiring you to go back to the same place twice), and helping you on to your next destination. It can also just be fun to make and talk about.
For the past five years an editor at the Observer newspaper has been conducting a giant and provocative experiment in list-making. In 2011 Robert McCrum (author of the fantastic biography Wodehouse) began to list the 100 best novels written in English.
There was no ranking inside the list; it developed chronologically, from 1678—The Pilgrim’s Progress—to a working cut-off point of 2000—True History of the Kelly Gang. The rules were few—only one novel per author—and sometimes vague: what, after all, is a classic? or even a novel? And rather than release the list all at once, each of the 100 selections was announced weekly with a short essay. For two years readers around the world could cheer or balk at the choices, and, when it was all done, wonder how such-and-such a book could possibly be passed over.
The task was, as the Irish Times put it, like “running naked into no-man’s-land with a target painted on your chest and a kick-me sign pinned to your back.” But McCrum embraced all controversy. The Observer invited readers to vent their disagreement with the list, compiled an alternative list based on reader suggestions, and published an essay critiquing the lack of female authors in the list. As McCrum himself wrote, “like all lists, ours is intended to sponsor discussion.”
The list of greatest novels reached it’s 100th novel last year, but in January of this year a new, more Quixotic list began: the 100 best nonfiction books of all time. Some of the rules stayed the same—in English, arranged chronologically—but others only got looser, perhaps to provoke more readers, perhaps to introduce more variety. Instead of restricting itself to one form, like the novel, this list looks at all “essential works of philosophy, drama, history, science and popular culture.”
So far the Observer has named 30 books on the list, this time working backwards from 2014. Some of them can be a little head-scratching—how is Waiting for Godot nonfiction?—but McCrum isn’t looking for uniformity, nor to mirror your opinions, nor to give an objective view of the literary landscape. “Every thoughtful person must concede that any list is bound to have its ridiculous side,” he writes.I think of the word “best” in these lists as a dare and a half-joke. The list serves as an aid for other lists: yours. Already the 30 choices in the nonfiction list have reminded me of things I’ve read and loved (Against Interpretation) and of things I’ve long planned to read (No Logo) and suggested to me fascinating things I’ve never heard of (A Book of Mediterranean Food). So follow along with the Observer with your own book list close-by—on Library Thing or Good Reads or scrawled on a scrap of paper like a recipe. Follow along if you don’t yet have a book list. Follow along only if you want to carpet bomb the Observer with emails about your favorite book. Lists are useful, but they’re also ridiculous and fun.