Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Share The Classics For The Holidays, But Which Ones?

The holidays are a great gift-giving time.  Many people run out of ideas of what to buy.  Many will give the gift of books and others will share a gift card to a bookstore.  How about wrapping up a classic and giving it to someone?  Here are a few ideas on what to give:

·         Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Published in 1605

·         Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Published in 1719

·         Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
Published in 1726

·         Candide by Voltaire
Published in 1759

·         Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Published in 1782

·         Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Published in 1813

·         Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Published in 1818

·         The Count of Monte-Cristo by Alexandra Dumas
Published in 1845

·         Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Published in 1847

·         David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Published in 1850

·         The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Published in 1850

·         Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Published in 1851

·         Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Published in 1852

·         Walden by Henry David Thoreau
Published in 1854

·         Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Published in 1857

·         Journey To The Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
Published in 1866

·         Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Published in 1868

·         War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Published in 1869

I know there are many other books worthy of reading and sharing.  These are just some of the books listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, edited by Peter Boxall.  Like all lists or books dedicated to naming books to read, they are incomplete.  In this case, it looks like more than 80% of the book entries are from the past 150 years, through 2009.  It only covers fiction and lacked classics like Paradise Lost, Beowulf or anything from Shakespeare.

A hundred international critics contributed to the book.  It’s easy to see that one’s list of favorite books can be large.  If we picked the 10 best books in a year, based on sales, awards, critical reviews, and social influence, we’d add 1,000 titles to such a list each century.  If we look back to 1515 we would have a list of 5,000 books – and it would by no means be complete.  How do you even compare genres or books that don’t neatly fit into any genre?

The truth is our classics fade, getting replaced by more modern tomes.  Why?  Because as many books age, time passes them by and the social significance in which the book was first published remains far removed from the relevance of the present.  We won’t read Jane Austen forever.  Social mores have changed and my bet is that books that survive the test of time will be the ones that hold some kind of moral truth that still resonates.  Books like Lord of the Flies, 1984, and A Tale of Two Cities still hold meaning to us, but that could change.

Perhaps if something radical changes we will then see classic books disappear – or we’ll see them clutched even closer to our heart.  It’s clear that technology, terrorism, and the global economy will shape America and the world for decades to come.  How these factors influence what we read remains to be seen.

The book highlighting 1001 books to read doesn’t clearly state what it used as a metric to pick its hundred contributors nor how they selected the books they put forth.  I’m sure those contributors, no matter how well-read they are, would agree that their methods employed were highly subjective, somewhat political, or commercial, and not scientific in the least bit.  So why do we rely on such books or lists?

We believe they are better than nothing.  In fact, many of society’s standards are like this.  What a university teaches, what a Supreme Court chooses to hear, or what an elected government official chooses to legislate on is often not based on merits alone.  Nor is it based on being fully informed.  They operate in a bubble and hope that they contribute something that’s better than nothing.

This past Thanksgiving I talked to 20 or so relatives about things like what TV shows they were watching, which movies they recently viewed, and to a lesser degree, which books they had read of late.  I can see just from discussing TV shows that people’s tastes vary widely and that no one watches everything, so it gets harder to compare shows when talking to people.

For instance, my wife’s aunt and uncle enjoy Two Broke Girls.  I told them I can enjoy idiotic humor but this show leaned heavily towards dumb rather than funny.  Can I take any advice on TV show recommendations from them seriously?  Then there’s my sister-in-law who is bright but generally finds fault with any movie or show that I like.  I learn more about people when they tell me which shows and movies they watch and like, but I still couldn’t make a list of great show and movies given that I haven’t seen all of them.

Why don’t most people agree on the greatness of a book, show, or movie?  It’s simple.  Here:

1.      No one samples and sticks with enough shows or books to be in a position to compare.

2.      People are in different moods when they consume something, so far some, a thriller is exactly what they needed so they enjoyed anything from that genre, whereas others might need a comedy in their lives and thus, any crap put in front of them sufficed.

3.      It’s hard to compare genres or eras or things we enjoyed at different ages.

4.      We have such diverse backgrounds – ethnic, religious, sexuality, age, economics, education, etc. – that it’s almost impossible to find content that reaches beyond our demographic barriers.

5.      Some people just have bad tastes, a lack of referential experience or knowledge, or have negative dispositions, mental disabilities, or scarred lives that simply don’t permit them to be of the frame of mind or mood to appreciate or understand what they are experiencing.

The best we can do is break down these recommendation lists, with tons of disclaimers.  For instance, don’t do a “Best Books of the Year” roundup, because it’s faulty.  Instead, be specific and focused, like “Best Mystery Books, Based On The Limited Number Of Books Our Underpaid, Under-40 Critics May Have Read.”

Very little separates a thousand books from one another. Out of the 350,000+ books pumped out by traditional publishers this year, we know that the average of 950 books released daily will go vastly unread by the most educated, experienced, and passionate book critics.  Just the process of dismissing 949 books each day could take more than a day.

So many books, so many preferences, so few qualified critics with so little time to do their jobs.  This is what we must remember when even prestigious publications like The New York Times spit out lists and recommendations.  No list is comprehensive, definitive, or agreeable.

Still, if you want to read 1,001 books before you die – based on ignorance, whim, and limited experiences in life or with books, there is a starting point from which to launch off. Enjoy your reading!

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015

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