Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Snobs and geeks, have at it

Back in 1999, when I worked at Barnes & Noble, staffers and customers were excited over The Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels. We posted the lists from Random House in the store, and took votes for our own list. It was pretty fun. In the break room, we'd argue whether The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye was better. We exposed someone who claimed to have read Ulysses. One person even fought - quite seriously - for The Firm by John Grisham.

But one thing about the Modern Library lists kept drawing attention, making people scratch their heads. There was quite a difference between the list chosen by Random House and the one assembled by readers who voted online. Popular tastes were bound to be reflected in the readers' list, but what was so surprising was, well, the geek factor. Go ahead and compare the lists. Look at how many science fiction/ fantasy novels populate the readers' choices. I don't think too many people would raise an objection to The Lord of the Rings being in the top five. Tolkien's a wonderful writer. But how about L. Ron Hubbard? Three of his novels are in the readers' top 10. (Maybe we should be blaming Scientologists.)

You know what was worse? For a long time, before the list became final, and we'd post an update every week, William Shatner's Tek World novels were often in the top 10.

Why am I bringing all this up? Because Time magazine recently published its list of the top 100 novels of all-time. Rather than rank them, however, Time just listed them alphabetically. Smart move. And it's really a great list, reflecting the many diverse tastes of readers. This isn't just a list that professors, grad students, and Lit majors can point to and say "Ah, yes!" And it's not full of "classic," musty, dusty literature either. There are plenty of modern (post-1960s? 1970s?) selections. Science fiction and fantasy novels are on the list. Even a graphic novel (Watchmen) is in there. Snobs and geeks can each rejoice!

Time is also letting readers choose their own top 20. But the choices are limited to books on the top 100 list, so there's no L. Ron Hubbard or William Shatner to cause snickers and embarrassment. However, the geeks are still having their say. Yesterday, Philip K. Dick's Ubik was at the top of the list. And Watchmen was in the top five. But so many more people are online now than in 1999, so maybe tastes are evening out a bit. The readers' list changes from day to day, depending on the votes received. As I write this, The Grapes of Wrath is on top. Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret is in the top five. I can't tell when the voting ends, but it could be interesting to check back each day. If you care about which books are at the top of the list, get in there and vote now.

Time also listed its top 100 movies and top 10 graphic novels (What, they couldn't think of 100? What the hell??).

♦ And this comes from Mis Hooz: If you'd like to breeze a bunch of classic works of literature really, really fast, check out Classics for Illiterates at Camp No Friends.