Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


Judging the book

The New York Times asked readers to pick the best book of the past 125 years. Here it is.

The “best” book.

Except that’s not the best book of the past 125 years.

Here are the books the readers picked as the second- and third- and fourth-best books of the past 125 years.

Except those aren’t in the top ranks of best books either.

Because there are no best books.

Oh, there are bad books. And there are good books. Even great books. But a “best” book? Even the idea is ludicrous.

All art reflects its time — as do the sentiments of the public.

As America again, continuously, explores its fraught relationship with race, “To Kill a Mockingbird” wins here partly because, yes, it’s so moving — but also because it provides hope and nourishment. Primarily, let’s be honest, for white readers. Yes, Atticus Finch will save us. (Just don’t read its “sequel,” “Go Set a Watchman,” in which he holds extremely racist views.)
The #3 book, “1984” is a clear reflection of our growing concern over the potential loss of the republic, the increasing privacy invasion attributable to both tech and government, and the creeping dread of getting canceled by all our friends on the extreme left for saying “the wrong thing.” Another perfect book for our times.

I could go on about the other books, but let me instead restate what should be obvious:  There is NO “best book” of the past 125 years. Books come and go in flavor and fashion, and are “lost” or “discovered” or never lost or never discovered.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was almost completely forgotten until Edmund Wilson, the NY Times and other critics revived his reputation. (The same happened with the justly revered  Buster Keaton, courtesy of James Agee.)  “Beowulf” has no relevance to my life — but was incredibly important to the people for whom it was written 1400 years ago. And so on.

What’s most important about this New York Times survey, it seems to me, is this:  that it brought together hundreds of thousands of people, including us, to discuss and debate books. The underpinning of our shared humanity lies in our cultural traditions; learning from each other and sharing those traditions holds the best hope for us all.

There’s no need to rank books by popularity, or bestow false acclaim on them. Just reading them provides achievement enough.

One Response to “Judging the book”

  1. Dan Says:

    “There’s no need to rank books by popularity….”
    I don’t even rank my books by preference. Perversely, I keep a book if there’s something in it that stays in my memory.

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