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Why I’m not going to read the 10 All-Time Greatest Books List

June 29, 2013
These probably aren't on the 10 All-Time Greatest Books list, but, you know, they're okay.

These probably aren’t on the 10 All-Time Greatest Books list, but, you know, they’re okay.

A prominent entertainment website has a 10 All-Time Greatest Books list, and I’m purposefully not going to read it.  A few years ago I would have read this list.  I would have nodded thoughtfully at the choices I agreed with and raged at the books that didn’t deserve to be on the list.  I might have even tried to read the books on the list that I hadn’t read.  Okay, I probably would have just bought the books, put them on my shelf, and then lied to my intellectual friends about reading them. 

It’s kind of weird that I don’t want to read this 10 All-Time Greatest Books list.  I read books.  I read top ten lists.  A couple decades ago, I had a book filled with top ten lists (I think it was called The Book of Lists).  I’ll read a book of top ten lists, but I won’t read a 10 All-Time Greatest Books list. 

It might be because I’m getting older.  Whoever put the list together probably knows less about the books than I do.  Yeah, they might have read all the books, but I doubt it.  The older I get, the more realize that there are too many pretenders in this world (I should know because I’ve been one of them). 

It just seems like an entertainment website isn’t the correct place to devise this list.  This was designed to get hits, promote the site, get some arguments on the forum, but it probably wasn’t designed to get any insight.  The experts who have the knowledge to put together a 10 All-Time Greatest Books list would probably refuse to do it just because of the futility.  Measuring the “all-time greatest” of every book is too wide, too subjective, and a serious bibliophile probably wouldn’t try.  Besides, who’s really read every single book of all time? 

I’m not against all top ten lists when it comes to literature.  If the entertainment website had broken the books down by genre, I might have been interested.  I might have read a Top Ten Science Fiction Book list or a Top Ten Mystery list, or a Top Ten Books in The Bible list.  Those could be interesting.  Genres have common traits.  Lumping all books together is pointless because all they have in common are words.  Books don’t even have pages in common anymore. 

The NFL Network has a show devoted to Top Ten lists, and I watch it when the topic is interesting.   I watched the Top Ten Super Bowls episode.  I watched the Top Ten Coaches show.  I didn’t watch the Top Ten Left-handed Quarterbacks episode (I’m not making that category up).  That shows that even the NFL Network can push things too far. 

When I discuss an article, I usually provide a link, but I’m not providing a link this time because I didn’t read the article.  Like I said, I’m not going to read the10 All-Time Greatest Books list.  I’m just going to write about it. 


A couple days ago a morning news show ran a segment about a 10 All-Time Greatest Movies list, and I changed the channel.  Again, genres of movies would help, but I don’t want to see that on a morning news show.  The cable channel that usually runs NCIS all day was showing an episode of Burn Notice instead.  I’d rather watch Burn Notice than hear about the10 all-time greatest movies.  And I’d rather write about how I’m not going to read the 10 All-Time Greatest Books list than read the 10 All-Time Greatest Books list. 

Do I have a point, or am I just turning into an old man?

  1. You’ve definitely got a point. You could do something objective, like “Top Ten Longest Books” or “Top Ten Books with the most swears” but “Greatest”? I read Ulysses which has somehow been put on the top 100 best novels of all time and it would solidly make my “Top Ten Worst Novels of all Time” list, so there is really no set of criteria to use that will satisfy everyone.

    • Ullyses would make my Top Ten List of books that I didn’t finish. I think I got to the second or third page. But I kept it on my shelf, and a couple of my intellectual friends were impressed that I had read it. It has great “showing off” value. Hey, that can be my next list: 10 All-Time Greatest Books to Show off!

      • Anything by Proust or Kafka would make that list, I think. I really hate Kafka, even though he’s considered very intellectual. I almost hate to admit I finished Ulysses, since finishing it indicates high levels of masochism. Especially that last chapter, with its 28,000 word sentence.

  2. The Black Rose permalink

    I don’t read top ten lists because they’re definitive, I do it because they’re a simple pleasure, like popcorn. The link would be appreciated down here in comment land, at least by me, now that I’ve smelled the melted butter.

    • The list is on Entertainment Weekly’s site. It looks like they’ve got an All-Time Greatest List for a bunch of stuff (books, movies, tv shows), so bring a lot of popcorn. If I stop being an old man, I might even take a look too.

  3. I think you’re right, such lists get published because they tend to generate a lot of comments. As Chesterton observed, if you get people mad enough, they will right half of your newspaper for free.

  4. I rarely ever pay attention to lists that have subjective ratings (i.e. “greatest”, “best”, “most inspiring”, etc), simply because of the subjectiveness of it — and, I’ve learned that my “best” is probably a far cry from many other people’s “best”.

    I stick with the factual lists. I might read the books from The 10 Best Selling Books of The 20th Century or some such thing….

  5. I get sucked into reading top ten lists quite frequently. I also get sucked into eating at fast food places from time to time. I bring the latter up because the end result for both things is usually about the same. Disappointment, a slight case of nausea, and a promise to myself never to get sucked in again, knowing full well the promise will eventually be broken.

  6. I don’t pay attention to lists anymore either. I think the older you get, the more you see things for what they are…ridiculous. Hey, there has to be some benefit to aging! Or maybe it’s a curse…still don’t know. Love the line about pretenders. So true.

  7. I thought those lists literally were just so you know which ones to have on display on your bookshelf?

  8. I like the way you think. Maybe getting older isn’t so bad if it gives us greater insight. Cutting through the crap, as it were!

  9. Nope you are right as rain. Lists are simply too subjective:)

  10. all time greatest books according to who? what qualifies this person to tell me what the greatest books are? will i agree after ive read all of them? probably not

    • I agree with you. This might sound wrong on my part, but I’m not sure Entertainment Weekly writers are the most qualified to judge what the 10 All-Time Greatest books are. I’d want the judges to be the kind of people who don’t even know what Entertainment Weekly is.

  11. Maybe you have evolved . I on the other hand can’t claim as much.
    I will probably search out for the list, read it and then rail against those that made the list and criticize the list for those it left off. Oh well, self knowledge is important.

  12. The answer would be: yes! It is unavoidable. Except with me. I am turning into a kind of neko super hero teenager overtime. Oh god.. I’ll be the death of you! I go left.. you go right. See the chasm between us widening : jump in.That sort of thing.
    Anyway: lists..I would avoid them because lists make you forget things (like those great books you once read) and one day you will find yourself befuddled in an aisle of your local grocery store in your pyjamas wondering if you really meant to have chocolate cabbage soup today as the smudged lines on the crumpled piece of paper in your hand reads..
    But besides this. The greatest book of course was written by one Plamarax Jupitor who used the surface of a moon the size of a small planet in an art project that had as challenge to keep on writing until a meteorite would hit the surface and blot the lines. Unfortunately Plamarax left the universe with a cliff hanger as he(it?) was about to wrap his story but forestalled when the nearby sun went supernova.
    As such the discussion whether a great book can be listed as great when left in an unfinished (unreadable state even) has caused minor galactic wars. That is what lists do for you.

  13. Valid point indeed, and I agree to it. It irks the hell out of me to follow random suggestions too!
    There has to be some sort of intelligent sorting, and like you said maybe when we get older we look at things very different and rightly so.

  14. your blog was fun to read and good point. listing in terms of genres would be more interesting.
    come check out my blog too it would mean a lot..i have just started 🙂

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