Life worth living?

beforedeathA few weeks ago I wrote about the Guardian’s list of books to read while still alive. Today I found another and a more concise list of 10 books to read before you die that left me pretty much speechless. OK, it’s an American list and there is kind of a category mistake embedded in it – it is based on the results of a Harris Poll that asked 2,413 U.S. adults to name their favorite books and therefore it really is actually descriptive rather than normative. But then again, I would imagine that when asked about books worth reading most of the people would probably name those that they have read and liked rather than those they have heard about as being important.

Anyway, to the list. #1 spot is predictably occupied by the Holy Bible. Then we have American popular classics such as Gone with the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye. Stephen King features on the list with The Stand and Ayn Rand with Atlas Shrugged. Backed by its Hollywood success, Lord of the Rings has also made it there (although I am a bit suspicious on how many of the people who cast their vote in favour of LotR had actually read all the three books rather than simply watched the movie), as has Harry Potter series. And the two remaining slots are occupied by – hold on to your chairs – two books by Dan Brown: Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons

OK, I have actually read only six of those ten books, and a few of those only partly. And there are a couple of books on that list that I would have no reservations recommending to anyone to read. However, I could die with a clear conscience and absolutely no regrets not having read a single one of them, and in case of Da Vinci Code (yes yes, I know, *sobs*) I almost wish I HAD died before I read it.

This positively disastrous result of trying to compile a list of literary merit based on the popular opinion leads one to think that while in the developed world today literacy is indeed available to everyone, literature still remains very much a part and parcel of elite culture.

Because if the life worth living would indeed be defined by those ten books I could as well be dead.

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13 thoughts on “Life worth living?

  1. Faux marxist – elitist snob eating carpaccio in Mauritius. Oi!

    🙂

  2. This is but a temporary slip of my frugal standards before I return to working in libraries and having set lunches with my fellow students in university canteens!

  3. Although I have previously expressed suspicion over the lists of thousand, ten, or any other arbitrary number of books to read before you die, marry, go blind or stop reading for any other reason, now that I have been challenged by my loud-speaking Lithuanian friend I gave the concept some serious thought. I still feel that putting together a normative thou-shalt-read-this type of list is simply silly and a deeply misguided enterprise, as ruling all the different people to read the same (supposedly rather limited number of) books would be very much akin to ordering everyone wear the same uniform and crop their hair to the same length.

    However, another and more useful way of approaching the same problem could be to imagine the situation where the latest publication of Dan Brown finally caused the hitherto endless-seeming patience of Almighty God of Literature and Poetry to snap and He to conclude that all is lost beyond redeeming. He subsequently tells you, the last valiant reader or only the good books, that He has decided to wipe out everything that has ever been written save those books and manuscripts that you manage to fit into the bookshelf of your small living room.

    Now, if there was a present-day Noah of literature who, after being confronted with task of such responsibility, would still opt for saving Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter (series, not a single volume) I really am at loss of words. As for myself – although my personal favourites would be substantially different – I would probably end up with rather unimaginative list of works by Great Dead White Men. Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, etc. And the reason for this being actually very simple – most if not all of the great works of literature, before inspiring those that come after them, have themselves been inspired by books and authors of the past. And this is why the Bible would also belong to my list, as it would become kind of pointless to save Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita while letting the Bible or Goethe’s Faust go up in flames as it is quite impossible to fully appreciate the former while not being at all familiar with the latter.

  4. Well, Tarmo’s Arc IS a bit Eurocentric, and I don’t quite understand for what reason, even by your own logic. But, more importantly, we would not have the institutions of “Goethe”, “Shakespeare”, or any other dead white males without the network of texts inspired by them, interpreting them, commenting upon them, etc. And it is exactly because they are cultural institutions that you want them in you little library, no? OK, you might say, on their own too they have “literary merit”, but is literary merit anything else than a particular institutionalised judgement of taste? (not that there is anything wrong with such a thing)

    I propose, be a devil, have some fun, keep Bulgakov, and let the future generations construct the rest from there.

  5. Colour me essentialist, but I do venture to bet that if we had the cultural institutions of Shakespeare, Dante and Goethe stripped from their networks of interpretations and reflections those would respawn. Not necessarily in the same form and extent, but they would. I am a whole lot less sure how successful would the enterprise of retrospective reconstruction be, i.e. trying to reconstruct Shakespeare by reading Eco’s “Name of the Rose” or coming up with Yeats’ poem by reading Achebe.

    And my Noah’s Shelf is quite unashamedly eurocentric because the concept of literature as we know it today has it’s origins in the Old World. As I said, this has very little to do with my own personal sympathies and of course, if the shelf was large enough I would certainly include writers from Japan, Latin America and Africa as well. In fact I would probably include at least Borges anyway, given the impact and influence he has had.

    And in any case, it would simply be cruel to save “Angels and Demons” and let the future generations try to figure out what possible meaning might have been behind writing it.

  6. Yes, if they were still institutions, they would be respawn. But I don’t think an innocent Martian literature fan would necessarily intuitively pick Shakespeare over let’s say Marlow for the Noah’s Arc. I also don’t think that Shakespeare (who I personally like a lot) would have the same status he has today, if Finnish had become the state language of the US – it is not a coincidence that all your great white men write in big languages. If one looks at reception histories, it does seem to be that the greats emerge partly because all sorts of political-sociocultural matters and partly because their work has internal features that matter in a certain timespace, then they develop into institutions. If both times change and they are stripped of their instititutions, they go out of print.

    I do not get the point about the concept of literature – if you include Westerners who wrote before the concept emerged in the West, why not e.g. great dead yellow men, whose cultures later integrated the concept?

    Could the literature fan from Mars tell, what was written first, Yeats’ poem or Achebe’s novel? Should it matter to him/her? However, I fully endorse getting rid of Dan Brown’s books asap.

  7. I completely agree that your innocent Martian literature fan might come up with a list that is radically different from mine – and for all that I care he may well compile it entirely out of the collected works of Nora Roberts. It is just that my list would be different.

    The point is that, contrary to your Martian, I prefer to see literature as an interconnected whole, a process if you prefer, rather than a collection of snapshots. And as such it does have certain kind of history which, while certainly contingent, is nonetheless very valuable. And so it is pretty much beside the point if somebody in Lapland once wrote the greatest book in the world that nobody has ever read – because if it wasn’t read, for whatever contingent reason, it was never able to assert the impact and influence that a book of supposedly lesser literary merit such as Don Quixote or Commedia were able to do, simply for being written at the right time and in the right language. Here I might of course add that the great languages of Spanish and Italian have been in themselves shaped and changed by those two books.

    Re: concept of literature – what I was trying to say was that although it would be obviously pointless to argue whether Iliad is greater work of literature than Genji monogatari, it is at least my opinion that literature as we understand it today owes more to former rather than latter – or, to put it differently, not knowing your Homer, Shakespeare or Kafka is graver a handicap than not knowing Genji in terms of being able to understand and appreciate Murakami, for instance. Again, for all that I can tell this is all contingent and doesn’t reflect any intrinsic literary value. But for me, literature is not simply the place we’re at, it is also how we got there.

    And finally – yes, I do think that it should matter to your Martian as well as to all the earthlings that the title of “Things Fall Apart” is an allusion to Yeats and that the story itself is an allusion to Greek tragedy. Because by missing that one would miss a whole dimension of what makes TFA such a great book.

    At the end of the day it would also be possible to read “Things Fall Apart” without understanding a single word of English. You wouldn’t get all that much out of it, but you COULD read it.

  8. Then I agree with you. I too see literature, and culture in general, as interconnected, a process rather than a collection of snapshots. Only that I took this shelf full of self-sufficient great men, bound to procreate based on their literary merit, exactly for a collection of glorified framed portrait shots, hence my protests.
    🙂

  9. In defense of Brown, he was a stepping stone for some (NOT ME!) to Eco. That is a good thing in my book 🙂

  10. My complaint against Brown is not that he is not sophisticated enough (wouldn’t bother me), Da Vinci Code just lacked any thrill… On the other hand, some very literate Italian friends of mine really enjoyed this yet another chance to read nasty things about the Catholic church – so, yes, we ought to stop legislating other peoples’ little pleasures. 🙂

  11. It may well be that there is someone who pimped their underage sister as a stepping stone to a later career in human resources, but this doesn’t make the first behaviour any better.

    There’s a review of the Da Vinci Code at LibraryThing that still cracks me up – and it pretty much sums up my sentiments as well.

  12. I read an essay by Steiner today where one paragraph reminded me of this discussion. I quote it here at length:

    “I take the ethical inference to entail the following, to make the following morally, not logically, not empirically, self-evident.

    The poem comes before the commentary. The primary text is first not only temporally. It is not pre-text, an occasion for subsequent exegetic or metamorphic treatment. Its priority is one of essence, of ontological need and self-sufficiency. Even the greatest critique or commentary, be it that of a writer or painter or composer on his own work, is accidental (the cardinal Aristotelian distinction). It is dependent, secondary, contingent. The poem embodies and bodies forth through a singular enactment its own raison d’être. The secondary text does not contain an imperative of being. Again the Aristotelian and Thomist differentiations between essence and accident are clarifying. The poem is; the commentary signifies. /…/ We know that the violinist, however gifted and penetrating, ‘interprets’ Beethoven sonata; he does not compose it. To keep our knowledge of this difference at risk, we do remind ourselves that the existential status of an unperformed work, an unread text, an unseen painting is philosophically and psychologically problematic.”

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