01 July 2008

The Smitty's Library Top 100 Books of Whenever Discussion

So I've posted two lists of top books recently. How about a list of Smitty's top 100 books?
We'll, I'm not sure I can put 100 books on a list of top 100 books; I mean I've read a lot of books, but at some point down there after about 40 or so I'd just be listing books I'd read and not actually books I thought were particularly great or worth reading. And if I just list everything I've read or everything I thought was worth the reading it wouldn't be a great list, either. So I've decided to limit it to 24 books. But after the jump, you'll find that I rambled on for some time about the creation of the list itself and my collection of books, so the list is in the post above this one, and after the jump here you'll find some ramblings about books as things.

This was fun to put together. I had to start by actually committing to 1s and 0s List 1 and List 2 of my book lists, those being Books I Own and Have Read (List 1) and Books I've Read but Don't Own (List 2). They're long lists. Many of the books on List 2 are floating around somewhere in the personal libraries of people I know (Lucky Bob, Taemon, and M&D in particular), and many of the rest are textbooks I sold back to my college bookstore.

Did you keep many of your college textbooks? I did, mainly the political science ones, because for some reason, I don't know why, I thought at the time that I'd want to hold on to, for example, V.O. Key's Southern Politics in State and Nation, or the classic text by Ellis and Wildavsky, Dilemmas of Presidential Leadership. Let me tell you, those are real page-turners. I don't really know why I still have them; there's probably still a market for both. In my more fevered dreams I tend to see my library as a budding Jeffersonian endowment, something I'll donate to a college or library when I die, but what made sense for Jefferson (there were no sizable libraries in the Southeast in Jefferson's time) isn't exactly going to make sense for me. I should weed out my library. I could start by getting rid of the textbooks, then move on to reference works I don't need or plan to use (do I need an Italian dictionary any more? What about the February 2006 edition of the Southeast U.S. Airport/Facility directory?). Then I could weed out those works of narrative nonfiction that I didn't think were particularly good or that I won't read again (Haynes Johnson's Divided We Fall, great for those days when you're just feeling a little too happy, or what about The Personal and Private Writings of Harry S Truman, which I'm sure some college library would love to have), and move on to bad novels (most of which I've already gotten rid of, but Neal Stephenson's The Big U is still lurking on the shelf behind me). Now's probably great time to do it, what with the impending move.

I just have a hard time getting rid of a book, any book. It's like getting rid of a healthy plant; I can't do it. I'm donating five healthy plants (two poinsettias, a Delonix regia, and two Thevetia peruvianas) to my mother-in-law next weekend, and I want to plant them myself as a goodbye; I know I need to get rid of them and they will thrive and be well-cared-for at her house, but still. Nonetheless clutter is a useless and annoying part of our lives and the more I can get rid of the better.

I'll be driving up to SC sometime in the next few weeks either to interview or to move, and I think I'll bring with me in the car a box or two of books that I can donate to a local library. I imagine the Abbeville County library system, or maybe the McCormick County one, would love to have some books, and some of the others might find a home in Greenville or Anderson counties. That would reduce the total bookshelf weight by a few dozen pounds and help me justify buying a few books I really want to have.

Anyway. Of course I put lists 1 and 2 together I had to actually come up with 24 books to put on my own list. This was every bit as hard as I'd anticipated it would be, and there are many books I'd like to include as footnotes to my list of 24. But the point of a list of best anythings is to settle on some actual criteria by which things can be judged, then judge them.

So after putting together lists 1 and 2, I set up some judging criteria. I knew from the beginning that I would not be limiting my list to novels exclusively; I am a lover of narrative nonfiction and some of the best books I've ever read were engaging memoirs, biographies, and travelogues. I absolutely could not have embraced a list of best books without including on it Emergency Sex or A Man on the Moon. I considered writing two lists, but in the end, Smitty's Library embraces fiction and nonfiction equally and it wasn't as hard as I thought it might be to rank books from both worlds.

That said, I did drop several items from consideration. I didn't include any plays. I didn't include comic books, graphic novels, or collected books of comic strips; had I done so Calvin & Hobbes books might have taken up the top twelve spots and that would have been ridiculous.

I didn't include children's books and didn't include very many young adult books. There were obvious caveats to this, including books that are considered absolute classics and things that are so great even if they are geared to younger folks they stand up against more adult-themed literature. Hence Harry Potter and Charlotte get in, but Ralph S. Mouse doesn't.

I also didn't include collections of essays or short stories. This meant cutting out some of my favorite pieces of writing, including everything by my favorite writer, P.J. O'Rourke, who is the second-most-important influence on my writing and without question the man who made me want to be a foreign correspondent (which I still want to be, and always well, even though it will never happen). This was a tough decision; some of O'Rourke's later works, including Eat the Rich and All the Trouble in the World (hereinafter "Trouble"), have a pretty concrete narrative drive despite having been born of disparate bits of reportage. Ultimately I decided that any book that could be broken up into several parts and published separately without losing any of its value had to be considered a "collection." This cut out a number of books that I've very much enjoyed, but I think it was the right decision. Had I not done this, Trouble would have taken the top spot on my list, and Parliament of Whores would have been in the top 10. I can't recommend them highly enough despite not including them on my list.

On a related topic I had to decide whether to include books that are part of a series as one book or individually. (The Big Read list seems to do both.) As an example, take the Harry Potter series. They stand as books on their own, just as any single essay from Trouble would. But like the essays in Trouble, each book gains from the others in the series and they have more impact read together. But unlike collections of essays, the question here was not whether they should be included at all, but rather whether they should be included individually or as a single entity.

The truth is I'm not satisfied with either choice, and ended up choosing in certain circumstances. Individually, a single very good series might take up several spots on a relatively short list, which is dissatisfying; and, individually, no single book in a series is usually as good as the entire series taken together. This is certainly true of the Harry Potter series; individually they are mostly very good books, but as a series they come close to brilliance. Would I rather include them as a single great book, or as a number of good ones?

I chose to consider series' together, mainly because of two dissatisfying choices it was the one that allowed me to include more different books on my list. But what constitutes a series? The Harry Potter series certainly. The Hitchhiker's Guide trilogy constitutes a series, too, if you ask me. Then things get tougher. Robert Ludlum wrote The Road to Gandolfo, which was hilarious and I suggest you check it out if you enjoy thrillers, as it's a well-written send-up of the genre by one of its masters. Almost 20 years later he wrote The Road to Omaha which had the same characters and was a sequel of sorts. But do the two books constitute part of a series? Or was the one just written to capitalize on the belated popularity of the other? Certainly Ludlum's Jason Bourne trilogy were written as a trilogy, but the two Roads weren't intended that way. And then when you look at the later work of Robert Heinlein, for example, he has the same characters appearing across many books that are unrelated, but simply because they exist in the same universe. Certainly we can't consider those part of a series.

In the end, for my purposes here, I considered a series to be anything where the first book of the series was written when the author already had the intention to write the last book of the series, or where the time elapsed between the first book in the series and the next book was less than five years. I did not consider a "series" to be made up of only two books. Nor, for my purposes here, does a series consist of books that include the same characters and are written soon after one another but do not constitute a single narrative drive. So, for example, I considered Randy Wayne White's Doc Ford series of mystery novels individually, since although all of them have Doc Ford as a protagonist, they don't build on each other to create a single narrative stream; you could read them out of order and it wouldn't matter. (Try that with Harry Potter.)

And so after going through all of that, I then had to sit down with my list of books and root through them. It was easy to get down to 50, and then 40, but after that it got tough. Choosing between number 24 and number 25 was the hardest. And then I had to rank them. It's always hard to pick a number one, but deciding between 16 and 17 isn't a piece of cake, either.

And I ended up breaking my own rules. I was thinking about the Chronicles of Narnia, which I've read all of, but I only really recall the first book (because I've read it twice) and a number of scenes in one of the later books that go on and on about Turkish Delight. As I recall, the later books did not stand up as well as The Lion et al, and I barely remember them. Could I include the whole series? Well... after thinking about while cleaning house yesterday, I don't think the whole series is as recommendable as The Lion et al is by itself. So I ended up listing The Lion et al in my list rather than the series. Oh well.

And I ended up with On the Road there at number 24. This was a bit of a surprise to me, since I didn't think it was all that great. But then again, I thought the first section of it was ridiculously awesome. And compared against some of the books that were in my list of 50, I thought it was more deserving of a place in the top 24 than others. Why? Because I think you should read it. And what good is a list of top books if it doesn't include books I think you should read? So take a look at my list. Feel free to borrow any of them if you want. Make up your own list, too. I want to see it!

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