Newsletter 1

Why Does it Hurt When the Book You Love Doesn’t Make the List?

James Wallace Harris

Staff Writer

James Wallace Harris is a retired computer guy. Jim dreamed of writing science fiction in his social security years, but discovered he loved writing essays more. Life is short and novels are long. He’s written over a thousand essays for his blog Auxiliary Memory. Jim wrote about science fiction for SF Signal before it folded, and now for Worlds Without End. BookRiot gives him the opportunity to write about all the other kinds of books he loves. Finally, he has all the time in the world to read and write, but he never forgets poor Henry Bemis. (Who also found time enough at last, until an evil Twilight Zone fate took it all away.) Twitter: @JimHarris28

People love looking at lists of best books, movies, television shows, songs, games, etc. They find validation when their favorites are listed and feel insulted when not. Often, they revile the list maker when the list doesn’t match their passions and link it on social media when it does.

Why is it so important to have the books we love recognized by others? Is it because we want to spread the gospel of great fiction or just enjoy having our egos purr like a petted cat?

First, have you ever considered that the books you admire most might be mediocre? According to Bowker’s Books in Print, there were 2,714,409 new books published in English in 2015, with 221,597 (8.2%) being fiction. There’s a good chance that there are several million novels out there waiting to be read out of over 130 million books.

How the hell can you claim to know the best? How can anyone claim to know the best books? And what if there were an objective way to rank titles? Would it crush your feelings if your favorite story came in at #1,923, a truly spectacular rating when seen on a scale of five million? One percent of five million would put the most popular 50,000 novels in the Top 1%. A Top 50 list means we’re talking about an elite .001%. Odds are any book you read that ten of your friends have read is in the Top .1% of all books read.

If you look at a list like The Greatest Books which was assembled from 116 best books lists, the top 50 books are only the books that are most commonly read and admired, not the best books by an absolute standard of quality. Just a Venn diagram of millions of readers intersect. But I can’t believe In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust is really the #1 book in a world of readers. We won’t know unless we all read it.

Lists pressure us to read the books everyone else reads. Deep down we want shared experiences. Our education system is based on programming our kids with common knowledge. We love reading the latest bestsellers because we want to sync with other bookworms. And book clubs are all about the group read and even groupthink. We crave connections with other people, so why not read the same books?

New authors will have a lot to say about that. And there’s another basic urge that drives us. We love being unique in a species that cherishes conformity. We love to be the first to discover outstanding outliers, but even then, we want everyone to have that unique perspective. We want to stand out, but we don’t want to stand out alone.

But let’s be honest. How many books have you read to find your favorite novel? I’ve known teenagers whose favorite ten books were the only ten books they’ve read. No matter how much we read, our sampling rate will always be statistically insignificant.

People read classics and bestsellers because it’s easier to find great reads using numbers. The trouble is the best statistics about books require them to have been around awhile. It takes years for a classic to be recognized. Young people want to love the latest books that are relevant to this moment. They will consume piles of unknown titles by unknown authors looking for that book that will shake their soul. And when they find that most wonderful of stories they want everyone to read it too. And when no one wants to, their soul withers.

But who gives a shit?

Why do we want the books we love to be universally read?

How many people need to read that book you love?

Do I even need to keep writing?

Okay, I’ll give you a hint.

No, I won’t.