Why I Don’t Participate in Book Surveys on Facebook

This post was first published on Peachleaves. 

They leave a lot of books out.
When I see one of these, I don’t ask myself how many books on the list I’ve read. I do ask: who put this list together? Why? How did they choose book for this list? What is having read them supposed to represent about you?

The following list is not the only book survey going around, but it’s the most recent one I’ve seen. First, a little debunking: the list goes around with the intro “The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books here. How do your reading habits stack up?” This premise seems to be a mash-up of two British media lists: the BBC’s The Big Read, which bears very little resemblance to this list; and The Guardian‘s Books You Can’t Live Without, which is nearly the same list. Both lists were compiled from audience votes or suggestions, so these are books that on average many people have read. (It also explains why there are some repeats, such as Complete Works of Shakespeare AND Hamlet, Chronicles of Narnia AND The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.) I’m intrigued that the lists are circulated under the premise that the survey-taker may feel superior to this mythical average person.

But let’s return to the question. How DO your reading habits stack up. . . to this list of Britain’s most popular books in 2007? If your list closely aligned with this list, what DOES that suggest about your taste and influences?

I’ve notated the list with the shorthand described below, and tallied them up at the bottom. I may have made some mistakes – I did this list in about a half-hour, so I didn’t check every book on the list. The purpose of this notation is to call attention to the way book lists – whether they are compilations of a certain demographic’s favorite books, or the books we think we ought to be proud of having read – tend to reaffirm certain expectations about what great books are, and who great authors are. Perhaps instead we can use book lists to open up questions about how we make such lists, how taste in books tends to be perpetuated and reinforced, and what great books and authors are being left out of these lists – to no one’s benefit.

W: “White” author
NW: “Nonwhite” author. These racial categories are simplistic and debatable, but echo the way books tend to be classified in bookstores and even in academics: books by white authors are books; books by person of color are hyphenated. (African-American, Latin-American, etc…)
M: male author
F: female author. These categories are slippery too – what, no trans or intersex authors? But for a few special cases, there is the notation:
F/M: female author who wrote under a male pseudonym
A: Anthology or collected works. (One wonders if you must read the whole thing to check it off.)
28: Published in my lifetime (I’m 28). This notation is to call attention to contemporary books; these especially beg the question of how books qualify for such a list. Old books might become favorites because they are taught in schools or passed down by parents. Newer books achieve wider circulation and/or canonization through other means: film adaptations, Oprah’s Book Club, etc.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen- W F
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien – W M A
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte W F/M
4 Harry Potter series – JK Rowling W F A 28
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee – W F
6 The Bible – NW M A [NW because this book was written down by a collection of people who no doubt would be hyphenated in contemporary Anglo-American culture.]
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte W F
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell – W M
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman W M 28
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens W M
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott W F
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy W M
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller W M
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare – W M A
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier W F
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – W M
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk – W M 28
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger – W M
19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger W F 28
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot W F/M
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell W F
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald W M
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens W M
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy – W M
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams W M [A and 28 if you count the later books in the “trilogy”]
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky – W M
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck – W M
29 Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll-W M
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame- W M
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy – W M
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens- W M
33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis – W M A
34 Emma-Jane Austen – W F
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen – W F
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis – W M
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini – NW M 28
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres – W M 28
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden W M 28
40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne W M
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell – W M
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown W M 28
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez NW M
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving W M 28
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins W M
46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery W F
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy W M
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood W F 28
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding – W M
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan W M 28
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel NW M 28 [Well, he’s Spanish-Canadian… see, racial/ethnic categories are slippery.]
52 Dune – Frank Herbert- W M
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons W F
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen- W F
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth NW M 28
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon NW M 28
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens – W M
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – W M
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon W M 28
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez NW M 28
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck – W M
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov- W M
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt W F 28
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold W F 28
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas NW M
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac – W M
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy W M
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding- W F 28
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie NW M 28
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville – W M
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens- W M
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker- W M
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett –W F
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson – W M 28
75 Ulysses – James Joyce- W M
76 The Inferno – Dante- W M
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome W M
78 Germinal – Emile Zola W M
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray- W M
80 Possession – AS Byatt W F 28
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens – W M
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell W M 28
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker NW F
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro NW M 28
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert – W M
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry – NW M 28
87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White W M
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom W M 28
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle- W M
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton W F
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad – W M
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery – W M
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks – W M 28
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams- W M
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole – W M
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute W M
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas- NW M
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare- W M
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl- W M
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo- W M

Out of 100 books. . .
Books by male authors: 77
Books by female authors: 23, two of whom published under male pseudonyms.
Books by white authors: 87
Books by nonwhite authors: 13
Books by male white authors: 65, 20 of whom were published in my lifetime.
Books by male nonwhite authors: 12, 8 of whom were published in my lifetime.
Books by female white authors: 22, 6 of whom were published in my lifetime.
Books by female nonwhite authors: 1


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