People getting into reading for the first time are always looking for a list of good books to get them started.
There are many reasons why popular book lists are a terrible idea. You shouldn’t bother with them. If you do, you risk losing all that newfound motivation to read.
Here are just a few of the reasons:
1. It’s all About Ego
Most book lists are exercises in chest pounding by intellectually insecure people. The authors of most of these lists offer books that are not necessarily good per se, but books that will, in the opinion of these simple minded idiots, make the creator of the list seem intelligent and well read.
How else to explain Ulysses, by James Joyce, To kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, or The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger, appearing at the top of most lists of the best books of all time?
Ulysses is unreadable, To Kill a Mockingbird couldn’t be more boring, and the Catcher in the Rye would have died in obscurity long ago if it weren’t for its connection to the assassination of John Lennon.
2. Confusing mastery of the craft, with readable output
Some lists creators confuse genius with effectiveness. The purpose of fiction is to create an experience. Readers identify with characters and find themselves carried off from their every day troubles. Novels fulfill our need for escapism. We live vicariously through well constructed characters and make the character’s troubles our own. Add to this a well plotted, well told story and we have a winner.
This is all most people really want out of fiction. And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a high quality sophisticated literary novel, or some vapid ephemeral bestseller. Most readers can appreciate a well turned phrase. But if there’s no story and the characters are bores, the reader will move on.
This is why Tom Clancy, whose prose is barely literate, has more readers for one of his worse novels, than James Joyce has readers for his entire body of work. Sure many have bought Joyce’s books over the years, but how many have actually read them? Not many.
The point I’m trying to make is that genius is not enough.
My first time at a Japanese restaurant, the chef walked over to our table and started performing these amazing tricks. He was slicing and dicing, and things were flying all around me. There was fire and sparks, and he made eggs dance on his spatula. He juggled steaks and salt shakers, and he handled his knife like a Samurai.
It was an awesome thing to watch. This guy was truly a master chef.
My mouth just kept watering. I was starving. But when I took my first bite, the food sucked. I mean it really sucked. It was awful. The rice was too salty and the steak tasted like chewed bubble gum.
So who cares if the author of a book can write fifty page sentences, use allegory and symbolism while making obscured literary references? It’s a neat trick, but if the end result is unreadable, we shouldn’t waste our time. Let’s leave those works to the academic pinheads that place them on lists and try to pass them off to the rest of us as required reading.
3. Publishing is a business.
There are also those who make up reading lists in order to create hype for substandard books that aren’t selling. Hey, I don’t blame them. Publishers have to make a living, and half of getting your books sold is advertising.
We’ve all been taken in by an overly hyped movie. But a movie only steals a couple of hours of our lives. A bad book is a costlier time investment.
So yes, publishers have the right to try and hype their books. But that doesn’t mean we should let them rope us into their trap.
A dead giveaway of hype, is hearing comparisons to famous works. Being described as the next Da Vinci Code, or the next Harry Potter, only means the book can’t stand on its own merits. The publishers are hoping that by making the association some unsuspecting readers will get ensnared.
4. Bestseller Lists Just list Bestsellers.
Not all bestsellers are good books, but all good books are bestsellers. I forget where I first heard this incisive observation but it couldn’t be truer. Well okay, one can debate the second part of that statement, but the first part is certainly true.
Bookshelves are littered with so called bestsellers not worth the paper they were printed on. If you’re looking for a good read, picking something just because it’s on a bestseller list may not be the best strategy.
Here’s the problem. Once we have had a good experience with an author, we’re more likely to give their next book a try. But even the best of writers put out the occasional dud. And some authors’ output is so erratic that every book is a gamble.
Because we are willing to give our favorite authors the benefit of the doubt, their new books, regardless of quality, will sell and sell. Only word of mouth will stop the momentum of a bad one.
By then, however, the dud is also a bestseller.
So if you’re coming to a popular author for the first time, you have to be careful. The book being a bestseller means nothing. You never know what you’re going to get.
5. Lists Based on Awards and Prizes are the Worst
Awards, like the Pulitzer and the National Book award, tend to be capricious in the extreme when it comes to choosing recipients.
Sometimes their choices are dead on. Other times, they suck so bad that it’s almost impossible to get passed the first chapter.
Take a look at the Pulitzer. The Road by Cormac McCarthy was an amazing pick. But then there’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Come on. This book is just too painful to get through. I can only imagine what someone that doesn’t speak fluent Spanish (plus some serious street slang and Spanglish) must have to endure to understand half of it. I understood it and all I have to say is, Pulitzer People what were you thinking? Don’t get me wrong, the book does have its merits, but the Pulitzer Prize, come on.
6. Is all about the Genre.
In the end good book lists really come down to genre. A book can be a true masterpiece but if it’s in a genre that you don’t enjoy reading, it’s going to be boring.
I’m not particularly fond of hardcore fantasy books, those that contain elves and dwarfs and magicians. When I read the Tolkien series, I found it painfully boring. It was a nightmare to get through. Yet it has stood the test of time. And after Hollywood spent millions in three movies that, I was sure would flop, they succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They sold and sold and sold. And even I liked them.
If you’re considering following a reading list of so called classics and good books, you want to follow one targeted to a genre you enjoy. That will slash way down the chances of you getting stuck with a dud.