Top 100ism: Navigating 'Must-Read' Culture

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We compulsively make lists. Bookshops and the internet alike are rife with guidebooks, notebooks and articles advertising the top 100 places, films, and things to do before you die. This is impossible to avoid when it comes to literature. Readers are constantly being shown lists that urge us these are the books to be read, and anything else simply won’t do. And why read a book if it’s not to tick it off your top 100? Well...

The lists are usually dominated by the classics, Jane EyreSense and SensibilityTess of the D’Urbervilles: all of which are impressive and in some cases life-changing works of literature. Some also include books termed as 'cult classics', such as On the RoadFear and Loathing in Las Vegas1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. I wonder, how can a 19th century novel set in impoverished rural England (D'Ubervilles) be placed on the same list as a 1970’s novel following a drug-taking protagonist chase the illusive American Dream (Fear and Loathing)? I’m not saying that one is better than the other, but how can they be read in consecutive order and have the reader feel the same literary weight?

Obviously, this is all subjective, everything is. And I am, rest assured, going to argue that there are both good and bad points to the ‘must-read’, it’s just that the sheer existence of these lists is continuously baffling. Does it all boil down to a fear of not accomplishing this literary target? Do we, as readers, just need that same direction we’ve had throughout school, college, university?

Starting with 1984 and then jumping straight into Pride and Prejudice would be difficult for even the most skilled of bookworms. After reading the Orwellian classic, my mind was stuck in that dystopian mindset of propaganda and political revolt. The beauty of certain texts is that they can be re-read, interpreted with the current social and political climate in mind. For instance, and as cliché as this may sound, I re-read 1984 following Trump’s presidential inauguration in the United States. I could apply the way I felt about this political turning-point to the novel in hand. Afterwards, I moved onto Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Both Orwell and Atwood’s themes run in a similar vein. My point is this - I continued with the underpinnings of one novel, and ended up discovering a whole new genre, and different authors - many of which do not appear on the must-read lists. 

Equally, after reading Jane Eyre for the first time I ended up on a whirlwind tour of the Brontë sisters; completely immersing myself in the works of the youngest (and arguably the least well-known) Brontë sister, Anne. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall explores the distressing theme of alcoholism, making it completely different to the work of her sisters. You could, if you wanted to bring your reading into the more contemporary age, link it to Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight or Julie Buntin’s Marlena

In this way you can see the good in the 'absolutely must-read before you die' kind of list. They forge a pathway to many other books that perhaps have similar themes or characters, or were written by the same author. Even I cannot deny that these lists provide a pretty solid foundation for the new reader; the reader that did not study English Literature at college and so has never been told about the wonders of J.D. Salinger, Gabriel García Márquez, Daphne Du Maurier or Alice Walker. 

Though, it's worth mentioning, as I consulted a ‘top 100 books to read before you die’ list, that I was hard pushed to find female novelists. Perhaps this is an argument in itself, and surely has been for decades, but with the exception of Jane Austen, why did I have to scroll to number 13 to reach a female writer? The idea that these lists are often in some sort of convoluted ranked order is particularly irritating - would Louisa May Alcott be happy about her position marked less-must-readable than twelve men? This is obviously due to the contexts in which these authors were writing, and the idea that women simply did not always write as frequently as men - an oft-used example is Dickensian times. I have nothing against Dickens, I happen to believe in his genius, but a one-sided ratio is interesting nonetheless.  

The notions of prestige and the Western canon are so pertinent to these top-100 lists that I myself had become ashamed to read a book not prescribed by the list-makers. I was sitting on a train about a year ago, re-reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and I found myself actually bending the binding to try and hide the cover. And I knew that if I was reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or Zadie Smith’s White Teeth that I would brandish that cover as though it was something to be personally proud of. Then I was ashamed that I was ashamed. In my opinion, Harry Potter is a magnificent work of art. Rowling’s texts helped pave the way for the fantasy genre. With this text representing the literary empowerment of a strong woman, how is this any different to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own? (In terms of prestige, not content… imagine that!)

Whilst pressure intensifies to conform to ‘must-read’ standards, maybe we should embrace top-100ism in our own way, but with caution. Allow them to provide an introduction to the literary world, but make sure you do stray from the beaten track every once in a while - you never know what you might find.