I came across this article the other day, providing the list of the top 100 novels of all time, as picked by a critic in 1898. One novel per author, and every author had to be dead. (Pretty harsh requirements there. But still.) The list is absolutely fascinating. Yes, it’s just one critic’s opinion, but I still feel like it highlights some really interesting points. Les Mis is only #85? Dickens doesn’t pop up until #63. But what’s really interesting to me is how many of these novels I’ve just never even heard of. I don’t consider myself your average reader. I’m a librarian. I have a Masters in American Lit. So I’m not the elite of the elite or anything, but I like to think I’ve heard of a lot of novels.
I haven’t heard of the vast majority of these authors, let alone the books themselves.
(Please tell me I’m not alone.)
And it all just leads to the question of “How do books fall off this list, and how do they get added?” Not this list in particular, but lists like this in general. Over time, you see new works elbow their way onto top 100 lists, and for every new work that appears, an old work is kicked to the curb. You just don’t notice it as much when it happens year by year, decade by decade. Give yourself a century of perspective, however–and then it’s crystal clear.
Some works hang on by sheer reputation alone. They’re what gets studied by new students and scholars, because they’re what their teachers and professors studied before them.
What will our top 100 lists look like, 100 years from now? What authors will have disappeared? On the one hand, I think it’s inevitable that most of what we hold as important and of great value will be forgotten. (Ain’t that a cheery thought?) But even more, I look at how splintered today’s lists are to begin with. The sheer volume of books and movies being produced across the globe, and the ease with which we can access them all, leads to a dearth of a singular “canon.” Part of me is relieved, because that canon is notoriously racist and sexist. But on the other hand, we haven’t really had anything to offer a valuable replacement to that canon. As it goes away, so will the cultural memory of “important books.”(To put it in sports terms, it’s as if the BCS is finally done away with, but at the same time, all the bowl games and rankings are sort of just forgotten, as well.)
How great of a loss is that?
Part of me wants to rush out and start reading these novels right now. To see what it was that people 100+ years ago saw in them. To get a sense of where our literature today came from, and how it got to be where it is now. But I know I won’t. There’s just too much to read, and I have far too little time. So I suppose I’ll have to read this list over, peruse it for a few minutes, and then forget about it.
Which somehow feels both very fitting, and very tragic.