Monday, 7 September 2009

A politically correct top 110 books

Today, I discovered that over a year ago the English newspaper The Telegraph had compiled a list of 110 books it considers to be essential reading. The books cover all of Western history and are subdivided into a number of sections.

The most refreshing feature is the inclusion of special sections that almost all lists of books fiction or non-fiction avoid, most notably science fiction and children's literature, whose development I know from my librarianship studies to have been highly significant in the context of the development of modern Western languages. The sections are in fact some of the highlights of the whole list.

What is perhaps rather unsurprising to me but still almost annoyingly obvious, however, is the extent to which political correctness motivates the Telegraph's choices. Having read the Politically Incorrect Guides and Benjamin Wiker's books, I can see the political correctness so clearly in the inclusion of:
  1. Niccolò Machiavelli's The Prince
  2. Thomas Hobbes Leviathan
  3. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species
  4. William Ruddiman, whose history of the Crusades is debunked very easily by Serge Trifkovic
  5. Das Kapital
  6. Sigmund Freud
  7. Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  8. Toni Morrison
I will confess here that the inclusion of Marx can be forgiven given that he is clearly the most important influence on the modern culture of Europe and Canada (plus to a lesser extent East Asia, New Zealand and even Latin America). However, when one sees Marx on the list, one asks where many other artists whose ideas influence modern culture are.

Where for instance is Nietzsche, who is after Marx probably the second most influential thinker on modern European culture? Where is Antonio Gramsci's Prison Notebooks, which swept aside Christianity among Europe's Boomers? Where is Silent Spring? Where in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money? Where is State and Revolution, which proved the model for every Communist regime?

The omission of the following also shows the political correctness of the list:
  1. The Bible
  2. Economics in One Lesson or Capitalism and Freedom
  3. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn
  4. G.K. Chesterton
  5. Whittaker Chambers' Witness
Even such Christian writers as Austen, Tolkien, Lewis, Eliot, Chaucer and Blake are most likely included simply because of their popularity in an ultra-secular culture, rather than for any other reason (the author do admit popularity was an influence on their choices.

The biography section, too, seems a little strange, though that may be because the biographies I know about (like The Seven Storey Mountain) or have read (like the brilliant Helen and Teacher) are not known to the people who compiled the list. I would certainly have to see whether I find these biographies interesting, though perhaps I tend to judge biographies more by the person than the biographer.

Full List:

Classics:
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer
  • The Barchester Chronicles by Anthony Trollope
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  • Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  • Middlemarch by George Eliot
Poetry:
  • Sonnets by William Shakespeare
  • Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer
  • The Prelude by William Wordsworth
  • Odes by John Keats
  • The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake
  • Collected Poems by W. B. Yeats
  • Collected Poems by Ted Hughes
Literary Fiction:
  • The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
  • A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
  • Sword of Honour trilogy by Evelyn Waugh
  • The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
  • Rabbit series by John Updike
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • The Human Stain by Philip Roth
Romantic Fiction:
  • Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
  • Le Morte D'Arthur by Thomas Malory
  • Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos
  • I, Claudius by Robert Graves
  • Alexander Trilogy by Mary Renault
  • Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian
  • Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  • Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
  • The Plantagenet Saga by Jean Plaidy
Children's Books:
  • Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  • The Lord of the Rings by J.R. R. Tolkien
  • His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  • Babar by Jean de Brunhoff
  • The Railway Children by E. Nesbit
  • Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
  • The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Science fiction:
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  • The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
  • Foundation by Isaac Asimov
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
Crime fiction:
  • The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
  • The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
  • The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  • The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
  • Red Dragon by Thomas Harris
  • Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  • Killshot by Elmore Leonard
Books that Changed the World:
  • Das Kapital by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
  • The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
  • On War by Carl von Clausewitz
  • The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
  • Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
  • On the Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
  • On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
  • L'Encyclopédie by Denis Diderot, et al
Books that Changed Your World:
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
  • Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  • The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell
  • The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf
  • How to Cook by Delia Smith
  • A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle
  • A Child Called "It" by Dave Pelzer
  • Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
  • Schott's Original Miscellany by Ben Schott
History:
  • The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
  • A History of the English-Speaking Peoples by Winston Churchill
  • A History of the Crusades by Steven Runciman
  • The Histories by Herodotus
  • The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
  • Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
  • A People's Tragedy by Orlando Figes
  • Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama
  • The Origins of the Second World War by A.J.P. Taylor
Biography and Autobiography:
  • Confessions by St Augustine
  • Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius
  • Lives of the Artists by Vasari
  • If This is a Man by Primo Levi
  • Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon
  • Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey
  • A Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves
  • The Life of Dr Samuel Johnson by Boswell
  • Diaries by Alan Clark

1 comment:

Jonathan Benney said...

The answer to why certain books you've heard mentioned in other lists are "missing" is quite simple: the list is far less didactic than the American lists. It doesn't try and prescribe a canon of books which (it's implied) everyone should read and believe, absorbing the values of the books on the way; rather, it's just a list of interesting and popular books. Hence the list is much better and contains many more potentially interesting books! It doesn't require that the reader believes everything that the books on the list say.

It's pure nonsense to call it "politically correct", and I would expect that the writers of the list would be offended by such a label. The didactic lists of the American religious groups are completely "politically correct" within their own political beliefs. Books not exactly embodying the political/cultural/religious values of such groups would never be promoted by them, and indeed lots of such books would be denounced. The aim is to develop a cultural monopoly rather than recommending some interesting and influential books. (The latter aim is much better and more civilised in my opinion.)