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In this wondrous age of the internet, we’re never more than a couple of clicks away from some form of ‘Best 100 books ever’ list (here’s a link to one produced by Time Magazine, back in January this year). 

These lists are usually chocked full of ‘classic’ literature like To Kill a Mockingbird, War and Peace or 1984.  Many of the novels listed are required reading in English classes, and (from a ‘classic’ literature point of view) rightly so, but I sometimes wonder whether there’s another test books should have to pass before they can truly be hailed as one of the best, and that’s the number of times folks come back to read them again.

Call me an uncultured numpty, but over the years I’ve read quite a lot of the books on those ‘Best 100…’ lists, and while I don’t doubt their (and their authors’) contribution to the world of literature, a major factor in deciding whether something went on my ‘best book’ list would be how many times I came back to read it again. 

With the exception of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, (both of which I’ve read at least twenty times), and the handful which I’ve read a couple of times in the last thirty years or so,  I don’t think I’ve seen any book mentioned in a top 100 list poll which I’ve wanted to read more than once.

On the other hand, novels like Terry Pratchett's Night Watch (along with many of his other Discworld books) have a permanent place in my tbr pile.

Of course, that’s just me. It’s possible everyone else has read most of those top 100s over and over. In any case, I’m not saying that makes them ‘bad’, I just don’t see how a book can be considered one of the best 100 books ever if folks don’t reread it time and time again.  If multi-reading were a factor, I suspect those lists would look dramatically different.

I’m sure Jane Austen fans re-read all her novels on a regular basis, but I do wonder how many other folks are like me and have only read most of these ‘best books ever’ once, and if they’d have read them at all if they hadn’t been required reading at some point in their academic lives.

How about you?

If you were compiling a 'Best ever' list, would you take into account the number of times folks reread the same book?  

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( 82 comments — Leave a comment )
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May. 10th, 2010 06:38 pm (UTC)
Nope, I'd just copy the one from "The Times"...

Just kidding. I do think that what makes a book great is whether on not it will still be read in fifty or a hundred year's time.

So, while I also reread my Pratchett books often, we need to see if anyone even remembers them in fifteen years. Fortunately, the Hitchhiker's Guide seems to have survived the neccessary time, and is seen as a classic today. One of the things I like about reading new work is trying to guess whether it will still be relevant after the author has passed on, or whether it will move on into oblivion...
May. 10th, 2010 06:56 pm (UTC)
Guards! Guards! came out twenty-one years ago and I still love it :)
(no subject) - bondo_ba - May. 10th, 2010 07:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - May. 10th, 2010 07:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 10th, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC)
Uh . . . I looked at that list. I have not read hardly anything on that list. Interesting. I do re-read some books. To Kill A Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Harry Potter, to name a few.

A lot of the books I have now I will read parts of them. They come in handy when I am writing a scene and I am not sure if I am going about it the best way. For instance, I had to do a fight scene in one of my stories. You know, one of those scenes where there are multiple in a room but I the scene is one POV? I have to capture the energy of the room and what the POV character is seeing, experiencing. I pulled out Harry Potter because J.K. Rowling does well with such scenes. I read how she did it and then set my fingers to the keyboard.
May. 10th, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
I think Rowling is underrated - a victim of her own success in some ways.

I think the last three books could have used some major pruning, but I love the way she wrote each book for a slightly older audience. If you read the first HP then go straight to the last, you really notice the difference in the tone and mood.
(no subject) - tracy_d74 - May. 10th, 2010 07:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 10th, 2010 06:53 pm (UTC)
I rarely reread books. Life's too short and there are too many great books I have yet to read.
May. 10th, 2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
To me, the good ones become like old friends I haven't seen in years. It's great to catch up again :)
May. 10th, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC)
Good, better, best are all subjective concepts. For one thing, in a book, writing and story telling are two related but not always concurrently present skills. Popular books often make money because they tell a fun/interesting/thrilling story even when the writing is pedestrian (or worse). Literary masterpieces can bore me to tears even while I can see that they are well written.

In terms of what makes me reread a book, it obviously can't be just the story, because I know how that will come out. I think it's mostly that I love the characters enough that I want to go through that journey with them again. The exception is humorous books, which can be fun to read even when I'm not enamored of the characters. And another driving force is, what does the book give me in the way of transporting me to another time and place? If the setting is interesting, I may want to visit it again.

Another excellent topic for a post!
May. 10th, 2010 07:02 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Karen :)

I know what you mean about loving the characters. that's why I delight in re-reading Terry Pratchett.
May. 10th, 2010 08:49 pm (UTC)
I love the idea of incorporating re-reading into a best books requirement.
May. 10th, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Kelly, though it looks like we're in the minority :)
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - May. 10th, 2010 11:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 10th, 2010 09:24 pm (UTC)
If I were compiling a Best Ever list, no, I would not take re-reads into account. (Of course, if I were compiling a Best Ever list, I wouldn't start it in 1923.) That said, I wouldn't be particularly interested in having read them all, much.

But I can see that having a Best list is different than having a "favorites" list. Everyone enjoys different things, and different things carry impact depending on audience experiences. So I really think Best literature should be judged separately from Enjoyed books. Best literature should provide a key to some truth: enabling us to understand the time it was written in and for better than we would have otherwise. Or it should have a timelessness. Or it should have changed some real landscape -- writing, political, scholastic in an enduring way. I'll even give it points for being an example of writing done exceptionally well.

But yeah, if I'm going to reread something, it'll be Pratchett or Bujold.
May. 10th, 2010 10:37 pm (UTC)
I guess I'd feel better if they called it 'The hundred most significant' or something like that :)
May. 10th, 2010 11:03 pm (UTC)
I rarely re-read books these days. I'm a slow enough reader, and there are so many good books out there, that I feel like it's better to keep covering new ground.
May. 11th, 2010 10:10 am (UTC)

Thanks for sharing, Kam :)
(Deleted comment)
May. 11th, 2010 10:11 am (UTC)
To me, they become like old friends :)
May. 11th, 2010 04:02 am (UTC)
Yes, I would. I don't see how you can claim a book is great or influential if you haven't read it at least twice. But then, it always shocks me when people don't reread - and many of them don't. Needless to say, except for Lewis, Tolkien, Wilder, Cather and Golding, my list would look very different from Time's.
May. 11th, 2010 10:12 am (UTC)
Michael Bond's Paddington books would be on my list for sure. I must have read them dozens of times when I was a lad :)
May. 11th, 2010 05:47 am (UTC)
I actually have a collection of to-be-reread books.

I think they can probably stick with the main list; but it may be a little difficult to compile a "re-read" pile. A lot of people don't think about it, they do it.
May. 11th, 2010 10:13 am (UTC)
A 'tbrr' list. Excellent idea :)
(no subject) - snapes_angel - May. 11th, 2010 11:46 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 11th, 2010 09:26 am (UTC)
After I have read a book from cover to cover, I'm done with it. I've tried to read books more than once but I get so bored with them the second time around. If I don't remember what is going on when I open the book again, it only takes me a couple of chapters to recall the story. A little boring.
May. 11th, 2010 10:15 am (UTC)
The story, sure, but I love great characters and well-written dialogue. Rereading those books is like going back to a favorite restaurant and having the same, delightful experience there as the last time :)
May. 11th, 2010 12:29 pm (UTC)
This is a great post, Jon. Here is my input:

I don't pay the least attention to those 100 or 1000 best books lists. I have the utmost respect for each and every one of the classics (and I own a few) but this is not what drives me to a book at all.

The books I've read the most are: The Lover (Marguerite Duras), Paula (Isabel Allende) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (Garcia Marquez) From this humble list I'm sure only "Solitude" might be in one of these "best book" lists. The other 2 I doubt it. They should be, though!

As a teacher, my girls and I are now reading "Pride & Prejudice" and this is only because I want these girls to be exposed to some classics. PP is well written to say the least, but, in all honesty this is probably the one time I'll read it. I find it rather dull for a 21st century progressive woman. We are having great discussions, but it's not a book I would put on my list, if I ever create--or believe--that there are only this or that many "best" books ever.
May. 11th, 2010 03:42 pm (UTC)
Senior Management is a big fan of P & P, as well as Austen's other works. She also watches the various movie versions on a regular basis. I've not read them myself, but from what I've seen of the movie versions, I'm not surprised they're so popular.

Thanks for sharing, Heidi :)
May. 11th, 2010 02:33 pm (UTC)
I've noticed that the things that critics laud as the "best" are usually things that aren't really entertaining (good example: How many of us even remember which movies won Oscars in the past 20 years?). Things that make "best of" lists tend to be things that critics think are supposed to "change the way we think" or other high minded reasoning.

The problem is that this kind of thing ends up being forced on kids and then it puts them off of reading. I didn't particularly like Flowers for Algernon, and if I judged all of Science Fiction by that, then I wouldn't enjoy the genre today the way I do.
May. 11th, 2010 03:44 pm (UTC)
I know what you mean. It's a shame, because the 'fun to read' quotient really should be given more importance, at least, that's I think so.
(no subject) - writertracy - May. 11th, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jongibbs - May. 11th, 2010 03:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
May. 12th, 2010 01:14 am (UTC)
Best Books Ever are the books I'd want to have on a desert island, meaning that they would be the ones I would want to read over and over. On that list for me: Every Jane Austen, although I could be willing to forego Northanger Abbey; Terry Pratchett, although it would be difficult to choose one--Wintersmith is so good, but so are The Truth and Small Gods--Nation was excellent in its own way; Neil Gaiman, but I'd have to have both American Gods and Anansi Boys, the latter of which I read, listened to on audiobook and then went right back and re-read. But then I would include certain straight-up classics: Beowulf in the Seamus Heaney translation, Hemingway's Moveable Feast, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, and for a rollicking good time, Fielding's Tom Jones. And maybe also as entertainment, Tristram Shandy and A Confederacy of Dunces, but only if I could have them both. Oh, and Joyce's Dubliners because I do return to his story "The Dead" time and again, especially the last paragraph.

I can't say I loved reading a lot of the classics, but on the other hand, if I hadn't had to read them, I'm not sure I would have discovered the ones I do enjoy and return to time and again. But I don't really think there can be one list for everyone. We all have certain tastes (with "Monk" Lewis and Hemingway on the same list, mine is certainly eclectic), and won't agree on the same 100 books. Heck, I also have to add Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy to my list. And Anne of Green Gables.

Edited at 2010-05-12 01:14 am (UTC)
May. 12th, 2010 10:58 am (UTC)
Sounds like you'll need to make sure you get stranded on a desert island which has a bookshelf :)
May. 12th, 2010 05:32 am (UTC)
I would divide the lists for personal favorites and most important. The most important books are the ones that shape other writers. In that sense, Poe, Lovecraft, Tolkien, Asimov, and others might all be more important than Proust or Melville, who seemed to be the end of their genre of big, fat literary novel.

But my personal favorites are also my most reread. While I agree that there are too many unread books out there for me to reread every often, sometimes I just have that urge to reread Austen, C. Bronte, or Stephen Donaldson, and when I was a kid I reread Wells, Verne, Asimov, and Tolkien. And some trash I prefer no one to know about.
May. 12th, 2010 10:59 am (UTC)
Lol, it can't have been too bad if you reread it :)
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