What Books Make One Great?


“This book is the only book you need to read in your whole life. It has everything a book should have: large words, clever witticisms, a sweeping plot which is really an analogy for the whole of society, riveting characters, popularity with critics and scholars, and lots of pages.”

“But does it have pirates?” the boy said.

“Oh, no. Pirates are not literary enough for a book this grand.”

“Does it have dinosaurs?” the youngest girl said.

“Oh no. Dinosaurs are not symbolic enough for a book of such importance.”

“My book has pirates riding dinosaurs into space,” said the middle girl.

“Ooooh,” said the the boy and youngest girl as they leaned away from their eldest sister and read as Captain Platticus wrangled an interstellar triceratops.

Or, to quote the Happy Hocky Family by Lane Smith:


“I have a red balloon.

Do you have a red balloon?

I have a red balloon.”

*This must be read with full snooty pride over the lofty acquisition of a red balloon, and with grand disdain for your lack of a red balloon (as demonstrated by my friend Jenn/ Dizzy when she read this as a bedtime story to camp staff.)

On Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere, news sites have keyed into our darker inclinations for competition and the chance to demonstrate our own intellectual prowess by showing off how many books we have read on a particular list.

The most common I have seen is The BBC Book List Challenge, which taunts us with, “Most people have only read 6 on this list.”

“Ha ha,” we say. “You think me such a fool? Six is nothing!”

And so we take the challenge. We buy into a list of questionable origin, especially when one version states, “BBC’s Top 100 Books You Need to Read Before You Die.” We buy in as friends put up the numbers of books they have read. (I’ve read 22, by the way. Half for pleasure, half for education.) We buy in, despite The Complete Works of Shakespeare being listed beside the DaVinci Code and Bridget Jones’ Diary.

Apparently, when we arrive in the afterlife, our first thought will be, “But I never finished reading Animal Farm!”

Granted, some of my favorite books are on the list:

  • The Lord of the Rings Trilogy / The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  • The Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Graham (though, I prefer the Reluctant Dragon)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
  • Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
  • The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas (Actually, this might be my favorite book. Ever.)

However, there are books on the list only due to recent popularity, and other books I have either read or attempted to read, and can hardly tolerate.

So, here are my main questions:

1. Does reading all 100 books on this list make us better people?

Some of the books might. I would say Winnie the Pooh has made me a better person, but Life of Pi has not.

However, if I go to a party, do I have to move my #22 self away from a #10 to join my peers, but am unable to join the #70’s? Do they have a deeper understanding of life, the universe, and everything, or is that only the #42’s?

2. Do we want our reading to be defined by a standardized list?

On one hand, lists help us narrow down the pantheon of books which exist. There is only so much time to read, and we all want to be reading the best books. Lists help us know what other books people feel are important. If we have read the book, we can join the conversation.

On the other hand, lists limit us to those books, and leave little room for our own exploration. We may find malformed blops and bridges we want to burn along the way, but we may also stumble on a corner of hidden beauty other people have rushed past in their pursuit of apparent literary greatness.

As an author, I know it is important to read or at least be knowledgeable of certain books in the sci-fi/fantasy genre. While I have read The Lord of the Rings, I have yet to read anything by Asimov. While I have read Farenheit 451, I have yet to read 1984. However, do I read these books for street cred, for the glory of saying I have, or do I read these for my own enrichment?

3. How should we choose what books to read?

I believe we should find our own path through the wondrous maze of books available to us. We should also use lists and reviews as trail maps to find the vistas and highlights others talk about. As we walk this path, we should keep our eye out for exploration and discovery. With our eyes open, wondrous things may be found.

Also, in the midst of reading great literary works, it must be remembered that reading can be fun. This is why, every so often, I put down an Important Book and pick up the Star Wars: Rogue Squadron series. This is like mint and chip ice cream after a swim on a hot day.

  • How do you decide what book to read next?
  • What makes a book a ‘great book’?
  • What are your favorite books on the BBC list?
  • Do you have a favorite list of books?
  • What (non-religious) books do you think everyone should read in their lifetime?
  • What famous or popular books have you been meaning to read, but haven’t gotten to yet?

Other Thoughts On Reading

Different Kinds Of Reading, Different Kinds Of Books from Brenton Dickieson at Pilgrim in Narnia

I’m Repairing My Reading Habits from bookriot.com

Some Sci-Fi/Fantasy Reading Lists

50 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels That Everyone Should Read from Flavorwire

Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books from NPR

Top Underrated and Underread Books

50 Sci-Fi Books You Must Read from Forbidden Planet


And A Very Exciting Side Note: (This post was originally written 2 weeks ago, before other events took up my posting space. This is still very exciting news.)

View image on Twitter

It has begun.

The start of filming for Star Wars: Episode VII is about as cool as Audra McDonald dropping the mic at the Tonys.



UPDATE: Here are some leaked photos from the set per TMZ.

33 thoughts on “What Books Make One Great?

  1. Oh my goodness. Those book lists stress me out. I have read classics that bore me to death and read books that would never be on the classic list, but have loved them. Take Twilight for example. Great book, but I’m so bummed it’ll never make it on one of those lists.

    That was a joke.

    Anyway, I’m part of goodreads, which has really helped me sort the books I want to read. I have a list and whenever I’m done with one, I’ll go to random.org and let it choose the next in line. Otherwise, I’d just stick to one genre and not really branch out. I also like that goodreads gives you recommendations based on what you’ve liked.

    It’s good to branch out and read something outside of your normal genre (whatever that is; it’s different for everyone) so I always have books on my list that I throw in there for that purpose – so I can branch out and away from fantasy/historical fiction/sci-fi. I avoided 1984 for such a long time even though it was on my list…and then when I finally read it, I LOVED it. Same with Little Women and Pride and Prejudice.

    I don’t think those other “must-read” lists are for everyone. For instance, I notice T.H. Whites “The Once and Future King” is on the “50 sci-fi/fantasy novels” list. I did not like that book at all. I read my first Le Guin novel this past weekend and wasn’t blown away, so it’ll be a while before I pick her up again. I love Gone with the Wind, which most people wouldn’t guess since I love fantasy. They would think I prefer White’s novel over Mitchell’s.

    Life is too short to read books you are “supposed” to read. Don’t go by what other people say, pick it for yourself. If you want to read a classic, read a classic. It’s freeing to read what you want and it doesn’t feel like you HAVE to.

    • The Once and Future King is an odd book, with a light and satirical front half, but serious and dark second half. It is nice to make our own lists and explore. I am a little surprised at your passion for Gone With the Wind, but that’s what fun. Just because I like Fantasy doesn’t mean I don’t also love a good thriller or romantic comedy now and then.

  2. I don’t know how reading a set number of books makes you a better person. After all, you could be inside wolfing down No 56 on the list, while someone who hates reading is out building a refugee camp. I always thought of these lists (like 100 films to see before you die) as a bit of fun, and possible next reads/views. If I was making a list of great lit, it would never enter my head to include the da Vinci Code (although pirates on dinosaurs would be right up there in the top five).

  3. I’m always buggered at the amount of book series being labelled as books in these lists. Do you really want to learn the Bible way of building a tent? I don’t think so. Then there’s Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia… all listed up as books. And why would you read Hamlet if you could watch it as a play, the way it was meant to be? Oh BBC… Always trying to make people feel smug.

    • The listing is book series is a bit of cheating. I don’t know if you noticed that both Hamlet and the Complete Works of Shakespeare are listed, which is a two-for-one deal. Also, I’m not sure this list is actually from the BBC, but, as an American, I often find British accents sound more intellectual. Maybe that’s part of the allure in the U.S.?

  4. I was amused to find I’d read almost exactly the same percentage of books on the NPR and Forbidden Planets lists. The canon, the canonical lists, and I are one!

    (Well, really only to just under the 40% level.)

    When I was in elementary school, I acquired a book on how to prepare for college, which included a reading list for the high school years. It was a good list in some ways. But in others, it was horribly dated; it was what my parents would have recommended, if my parents had been middlebrow readers born in 1920.

    • I am sure those middlebrow books have been an influence in your study of history. And considering your education, I think the more obscure books you have read can probably make up the 60% of lists you haven’t read.

      • That might make a good article, for either or both of us, or any other reader: take one of these lists, and then list the 10/25/50 books that you think SHOULD have been on it, but weren’t.

  5. I tend to read books that have been recommended to me, or given or lent to me, by people I know – it’s kind of laziness really, saves me having to figure out what to read for myself! If people stick to reading just what they think they’re supposed to read from various high brow lists, then it kind of makes it harder for new up and coming writers to break in.

    Also, we’re all different, so they might say that these are 100 books we should all read in our lifetime, or whatever, but I think it would be impossible to find anyone who would love them all. I would imagine, and this is purely a guess, but out of those hundred, I bet it would be about a third that I really liked/loved, a third that I really disliked, and a third that I quite liked but were nothing to write home to mother about, you know? I did do that list a while ago and I think I had read about 20, can’t remember now.

    • Personal taste is an important factor. For example, tutoring for high school, I found about half of students connected and loved the Great Gatsby, and the other half hated it. I think a list is good for discovering what you like, and then using that info to explore other things similar.

  6. I keep a very long to-read list, which has lots of classics on it. Both literary and scifi. But I ignore it a lot to read things I know will make me happy. Yet, I must say I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo (it is wonderful). And I probably wouldn’t have read it if it weren’t on my list for years first 🙂

    • I’m working on a balance between things that seem fun or are new and reading classics / influential books. So far, I’m finding it helps. Usually, one or the other is good.

  7. I give up on ‘classics’ a lot of the time, but then I am a very fussy reader! 🙂 I do have to enjoy a book or I won’t keep reading it. Just because someone says I ‘should’ read a book, doesn’t mean I am going to. I read for me, not for other people to judge me 😀 Great post!

  8. I got 17. But really. Bridget Jones? Come oooon.

    Also, I could only get through half of Brave New World before I recognized that instead of a story, Huxley wrote a position paper. The Jungle (which is not on this list) was also a position paper, but at least it had gross stuff about meat packing to keep me engaged until the very end.

    I have read The Happy Hocky Family, by the way, which I enjoyed more than Moby Dick.

    • I am glad the gruesomeness of the Jungle had you holding on. And, I haven’t read Moby Dick, but I am sure I would still enjoy the Happy Hocky Family more.

  9. I tend to make mini-syllabi for myself. I get into modes, where I pick up one book based on a passing interest, and then I seek out relevant counterparts and counterpoints, look up what’s the footnotes, look up fictionalizations if I started with non-fiction, or look up historical versions if I started with fiction.

  10. You really had me laughing at “Apparently, when we arrive in the afterlife, our first thought will be, ‘But I never finished reading Animal Farm!” Brilliant line.

  11. Pingback: How to Choose What to Read | Soliloquies ~ writing about writing, reality, and the narrative human experience

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