I have a slightly obsessive love of books and of lists, and so I was especially delighted to discover a recently-compiled list of (supposedly) the greatest books of all time, based on the votes of more than a hundred of the (so-called) greatest living writers.
Of course there are all sorts of problems inherent in compiling any such list - an obvious one in this case being a Western, English-language bias. Bearing such caveats in mind, though, I think it’s a pretty decent list. Especially pleased, for example, that Nabokov and Joyce both scored 2 novels in the "top ten works of the 20th century" list. Unsurprising, too, that Shakespeare ends up in the number one spot on the "top 10 authors by number of [works] selected" list. A shame Cormac McCarthy doesn't feature prominently, but oh well.
Perhaps of more interest than the actual rankings, though, is the article’s brief discussion of "greatness." What constitutes actual greatness? How much subjectivity is involved? I tend to think that books (or bands, or artists, or what have you) that have received widespread or even near-universal acclaim from expert critics have a stronger claim to greatness than those that have enjoyed only popular success. (The Backstreet Boys may have sold way more records than Radiohead, but which musicologist could possibly argue that they are the greater band?) Some of my friends disagree, however, feeling that there can never be any objectivity in discussions of greatness – it’s all about personal taste, they might say – and so our arguments continue...
If you’re putting together a list of ‘the greatest books,’ you’ll want to do two things: (1) out of kindness, avoid anyone working on a novel; and (2) decide what the word ‘great’ means. The first part is easy, but how about the second?