You know there is a list on Facebook called ‘10 best books that have stayed with you’? If you don’t, it’s okay, I wasn’t aware of it until 3 days ago, when I was nominated by a friend who thought that, since I’m an author, I should have a very interesting and challenging list. Anyway, the point is that you are supposed to list the 10 books that changed your life, spirit and way of thinking.
I have to confess, I’m having a hard time writing up that list. Firstly, my memory being what it is, I can’t remember half the books I read last month, let alone throughout my life! Fine, so you will argue that if I can’t remember them, then they were not meant to be influential. But here’s the thing: except for the obvious literature pieces, I can’t really recall what actually happens in most of the books I’ve read. However, I can recollect how they made me feel. How I reacted after putting the book down. How long after reading the book I thought about it. Is that what they mean by ‘memorable’?
Secondly, I find it hard sometimes to separate the writing from the actual story. Is a book powerful because the writing was amazing although the story was banal? Or is the story the most important part of a book? How am I supposed to rate books?
Thirdly, I’m afraid to disappoint my poor readers, as the majority of the books that have stayed with me are hardly ‘Booker prize’ list material. For instance, I loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, most of Philip K. Dick’s Short Stories (published in a wonderful collection of five huge books), Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet and Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu. You can see how these books will never make it to the top 100 (or even 1000) of the most significant literature.
Anyway, moving on from my problems, I read the article written on The Atlantic called The 100 Books Facebook Users Love. The author of the article aggregated lists written by fellow Facebook users, and posted the 100 books that appear in most of those.
As it stands, the list is as follows:
- The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling (appeared in 21.08 percent of all statuses)
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (14.48 percent)
- The Lord of the Rings series, J.R.R. Tolkien (13.86 percent)
- The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (7.48 percent)
- Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (7.28 percent)
- The Holy Bible (7.21 percent)
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (5.97 percent)
- The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins (5.82 percent)
- Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (5.70 percent)
- The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (5.61 percent)
- 1984, George Orwell (5.37 percent)
- Little Women, Louisa May Alcott (5.26 percent)
- Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (5.23 percent)
- The Stand, Stephen King (5.11 percent)
- Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (4.95 percent)
- A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle (4.38 percent)
- The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (4.27 percent)
- The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (4.05 percent)
- The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho (4.01 percent)
- Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery (3.95 percent)
But then, and here’s where it gets interesting, the author goes on to compare what people actually buy from Amazon with what they claim they like (clever person!) According to Amazon’s Books of the Decade list, here are the books that people massively bought:
- The Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling
- The Shack, WM. Paul Young.
- The Twilight series, Stephenie Meyer
- The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
- The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown
- The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
- A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini
- Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, Dr. Seuss
- Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak
- Goodnight, Moon, Margaret Wise Brown
Anyone else notice a discrepancy here? Still, I believe we can draw a few conclusions from these two lists:
- K. Rowling: Well done, your books are successful in terms of sales and readers’ appraisal (little sighs of jealousy escaping from my mouth, but still very happy for her)
Many of the books that stayed with people are not recent ones –the Bible being the most notable one. The older a book, the more it is appreciated. Fellow authors, I think we must accept the idea that positive reception of our books will come post mortem, and judging by a few books on the list, it might take a few decades. Or centuries. Or, in some cases, a millennium or two.
- I am not sure whether people would actually feel the same if they re-read these books today. I read The Alchemist some fifteen years ago and loved it, but wonder how I would react to it now. I would like to know how often people read and re-read the “influential” books.
- Khaled Hosseini seems to be doing well in terms of sales, but not so well in terms of posterity. So do Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer. I can’t say that Dan Brown’s books were memorable, but they were definitely fun and a good read. Would I put them in my definitive list? Probably not. But Hosseini writes beautifully and could easily be in the list (he is actually number 23 on the first list).
- I’m happy that Douglas Adams, one of my favourite authors, made it into the most memorable books list.
Now, this may come as a shock, but I didn’t find Pride and Prejudice memorable (sorry Jane Austen, perhaps it’s a guy thing –the author of the article did point out that women outnumbered men three to one). Nor did I really like The Catcher in the Rye or Little Women (again, probably the me being a man thing).
I’m glad, however, that Steinbeck made it into the list (number 40) although I would have put him further up: both Of Mice and Men and the Grapes of Wrath are excellent books. I’m surprised that Dickens’s first showing comes at place 61; I would have expected a better performance (the list being mainly by Americans and fewer Brits, that could be a good explanation). But I have to ask: Gone with the Wind? I expect most people to have seen the movie, but I’m not sure how many have actually read the book. Is it possible that people are confusing the movie with the actual book?
In the end, I have to wonder whether people named books and writers that they felt would impress and show how well-read they are. Facebook is notorious for externalizing our most competitive traits and making us want to show off to our friends and followers. I also don’t know whether the more commercial books (as in list 2) are more memorable –I have some doubts regarding a few of them-, but the first list reminds me of school and how we were given an interminable list of books to read by the end of school year.
Anyway, if I had to start my list, one of the first books would be The Little Prince. An unpretentious and gentle story; every time I read it, I find something new to be amazed about.
What’s your take on all this?
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