Monday, September 26, 2016

Great readers don't need lists

But the problem with reading lists ... is that they are all in a sense dead letters, guides for the unadventurous, those without the time or the ambition to hunt around and make discoveries for themselves. The great readers will always know about books that neither the marketplace nor the academy has got around to.
Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

There are great books, and there are great readers. Eventually they will find each other. So Larry McMurtry seems to be saying, and I think he's right.

I share his distaste for reading lists, which can come in a variety of forms. McMurtry makes a distinction between the marketplace and the academy, and so will I. The most obvious marketplace reading lists are those listing bestselling books. Many bookstores even discount bestsellers, giving people an incentive to buy them, thus helping bestselling books remain bestselling books. When these books are eventually published in paperback, their covers will have something like "New York Times bestseller" on the front as a guide for those who prefer to buy books that many others have read and presumably liked. Great readers don't care what other people are reading.

Bookstores may also have displays of staff recommendations, classic books, "books everyone should read" and so forth. Such displays are forms of reading lists.

As for academy reading lists, these would include recommendations by teachers, such as for summer reading, and college professors. Academics also write books and articles discussing books of note, and these can be influential with a certain audience.

Reading lists can take other forms, as well. Reading clubs tell members what to read. Book reviewers make recommendations and often provide a year-end list of the best books. Book blogs, my own included, suggest certain books. Then there are those books with titles like 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

I don't always ignore reading lists, whatever their form, but I rarely use them as guides for what I should be reading. Rather I just like comparing the lists against my own lists of books read and books I want to read. I love it when a book I enjoyed makes it to someone else's list. And on rare occasions I may even decide a book on someone's list looks interesting and so decide to read it. Great readers don't need reading lists to find great books, but lists can be one more way in which great books can be discovered. A book on a reading list isn't necessarily a bad book anymore than it is necessarily a great book. Great readers just like to decide for themselves.

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