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100 Best Books?

7 August, 2007

Waterstone’s, a UK bookshop chain, has created a list The Top 100 Books, based on its employees’ favourite books. Its 5,000 employees were asked to name their favourite 5 books written since 1982, when Waterstone’s opened its first store. (See link to the list at the end of this entry.)

The final list has 66 male authors and 27 female. According to Waterstone’s spokesman, this difference is due to males preferring to read books by male authors because ‘they think that what women write doesn’t appeal to them.’ In contrast, women ‘read more than men . . . [and] … read is right across the board: chick lit, crime fiction, biographies, heavyweight novels, and they don’t care about the gender of the author.’

Interestingly, the only author to have 3 titles in the list is a woman, the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood.

The list is dominated by fiction, with 89 novels chosen.

A writer for the online Daily Telegraph, Sam Leith, says that although lists of ‘best books’ are ‘childish’, they provide the fun of disagreeing with them. Another writer, Judith Flanders (http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/) is unhappy with lists that are called the ‘best of’ anything. She suggests this booklist be renamed as ‘The 100 greatest books since 1982 that I can think of off the top of my head, if I’m a white male twentysomething bookshop assistant who likes to make lists.’

Leith says the 100 books represents more a ‘fun holiday reading list’ than a ‘serious canon’. He seems pleased that Waterstone’s staff apparently actually read books. (I could segue here into a nostalgic rap about how bookshops used to be filled with such knowledgeable staff.)

But he has some criticisms as well. The Time Traveler’s Wife is ‘superior chick lit’ and Possession and Fingersmith are ‘luminous potboilers]. He deplores the ‘genre of quasi-poetic self-help fiction exemplified by Paulo Coelho and Mitch Albom’ and would like to see these works ‘consigned to the devil’s burning dump bin of eternal remainderdom.’

He points out that no poetry is on the list, despite publications during that time period by such ‘big guns’ as ‘Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Thom Gunn and Ted Hughes’, as well as the emergence of poets Mark Doty and Alice Oswald. The list is also ignores short story collections, literature in translation, science writing, the graphic novel, history and biography, letters, essays, diaries, sci-fi, and reportage.

He believes that American fiction is ‘shockingly short changed’, citing the absence of Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, and Kurt Vonnegut, and of younger writers such as David Foster Wallace, A. M. Homes, Nicholson Baker, Jonathan Franzen, or Richard Powers. And the list ignores well-known British/Commonwealth writers, e.g., Neal Stephenson, Dan Clowes, Ali Smith, Julian Barnes, V.S. Naipaul.

Waterstone’s 100 Best Bks

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