Should We Force Ourselves to Read Great Books Even If We Don’t Like Them?

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, January 29, 2015

People discipline themselves to eat healthy even though they crave Ben & Jerry’s. People push  themselves to exercise, even though they’d rather keep playing Call of Duty. Should we make ourselves read James Joyce instead of James Patterson? Should we put down Gone Girl and pick up Anna Karenina?

Anna-Karenina

My friend Mike just finished Don Quixote and emailed,

Are books like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest really worth the time and effort required to read them? What does the reader get in return? When I finished the final page of Don Quixote, my only feeling was relief that I didn’t have to read another word about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. All that time invested and my only feeling was relief.

That’s not very good testimony for reading the classics, is it? However, I should point out that Mike has read widely in the classics, and this could be an example that not all classic books work for all people. Evidently he loves Homer and Dickens, but not Cervantes.

But that still brings back the question: Should we read the classics because they are good for us? Even if they bore us? I’m not sure I buy into the Great Books of the Western World theory of education. I think we need to be reading great books, but not necessarily the most famous ones.

For instance, at The Top Ten, a site that tries to identify the best of the best books, the #1 book they identify is Anna Karenina, from 1877. I thought it good enough when I read it a couple years ago, but not great. I much preferred The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope, from 1875, to explore that time period of history. I learned a lot about Russia and the serfs from Anna Karenina, but not as much as I learned about London from Trollope. Maybe my personality is tuned to resonate with Trollope, but not Tolstoy.

Ulysses-Remastered-Book-Cover 

Even great writers on the best of the best lists, can’t agree about what is great literature, here’s a recent quote from Vladimir Nabokov on great books:

I’ve been perplexed and amused by fabricated notions about so-called “great books.” That, for instance, Mann’s asinine Death in Venice, or Pasternak’s melodramatic, vilely written Doctor Zhivago, or Faulkner’s corncobby chronicles can be considered masterpieces, or at least what journalists term “great books,” is to me the same sort of absurd delusion as when a hypnotized person makes love to a chair.

Nabakov’s Lolita is #5 on The Top Ten list, which is based 125 writers each picking their Top Ten books, and assembling a list of which books were on the most lists in a weighted system. 25 of the 125 writers had put Anna Karenina on their list, so who am I to argue with them. But I do. The Greatest Books uses a different system to identify the best books of all time, and 7 of its top ten overlap with the Top Ten list, but Anna Karenina was #16, and Lolita #15. And, The Way We Live Now isn’t on their list at all.

I’m currently struggling through Ulysses by James Joyce. I understand why it’s brilliant. I recently read The Most Dangerous Book Kevin Birmingham, a history of Ulysses, to prepare for listening to Ulysses. I know the struggles Joyce went through to write his masterpiece, the tremendous hurdles to get it published, and all the legal battles over its moral value. Yet, I can’t quite say it’s a fun read. I’m having to make myself absorb Ulysses. I can sense its brilliance, no question, but I can also sense brilliance when a physicist writes arcane mathematics on a blackboard that I can’t comprehend.

the signature of all things

On the other hand, the more I push myself into the fictional world James Joyce created the more I learn about history and literature, and the development of modern thinking that emerged in the 20th century. My trouble with Ulysses is I fail to escape into it. I stopped reading Ulysses to read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, a book that captivates me in its recreation of the 19th century. Both books draw me into the past, but one was written by an observer of its time and place, and the other by an author who must imagine the past. You’d think the massive abundance of actually observed details would be more seductive, yet Joyce actually makes it hard for the reader.

I’m not sure if this quote is even close to correct, but I believe Joyce said he’d rather have one reader who read his book a million times than a million readers. I might ask is it better to read a thousand books once, or a hundred books ten times. At what stage in our reading life do we need to read books that require greater effort?

Ultimately, to answer the title question of this essay we must examine why we read. Whether we’re reading fiction or nonfiction, I think we have psychological motivations for spending so many hours staring at black marks on white pages. Doesn’t it really come down to this:

  • Escapism
  • Education
  • Entertainment
  • Enlightenment

Many critics use the word escapism as a criticism, but I think it’s one of the more powerful appeals of reading. Reading is a like a drug, where we turn off our awareness of here and now, and go somewhere else. Even great scholarship is escapist. We love to immerse our minds into novelty, whether fiction or nonfiction, and forget about our mundane reality.

the way we live now

Even if we’re reading a trashy best-seller, we like to think we’re learning something about the world. If I choose to read Fifty Shades of Grey I’d like to think I was actually learning something about why people are into S&M. We don’t read for one of these qualities, but all of them. The best of books allow us to escape into an alternate reality built with words, where we seek pleasure, knowledge and epiphanies.

The reason why I have trouble reading Ulysses is because it doesn’t allow me to escape, and it’s low on the entertainment scale. It is high on the education and enlightenment scales. The Signature of All Things is addictive where Ulysses is not because of its escapist and entertainment values, but also because it is educational, and maybe even enlightening.

This doesn’t mean I’ve giving up on Ulysses. I created a study group to push myself harder with Ulysses, to see if it will pay off. Of course, this equates reading Joyce to mountain climbing. Will I be like Mike, and just be glad I finished when I’m done, that getting through the book is the goal, like getting to the top of a tall mountain? Or will the exercise make my literary mind and body healthier?

I don’t know, but maybe will by the end of June 16th.

JWH

When Does Science Fiction Go Stale?

Right off the bat, I should say dated science has no affect on the expiration date of science fiction. I’m still passionately in love with “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny.  Stories about Mars and Venus having inhabitants, or humans being able to breathe their atmospheres, do not detract from their freshness – if the writing was wonderful.

bok_fsf

I do know that science fiction can go stale – just look at the books by E. E. “Doc” Smith, who was the brightest star among the science fiction writers of the 1930s. If Smith had been a better writer, more savvy about race and gender, he might be remembered along with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne. There were legions of science fiction writers between Wells and Heinlein, but how many of their books are fresh today? It seems like science fiction goes stale pretty fast. Why?

And the taste of staleness isn’t universal from reader to reader. Some people enjoy eating two-day-old pizza, and E. E. Smith is still read by a limited number of fans, especially those who acquired the pulp fiction habit. On the other hand, how many young science fiction readers today fall in reading love with Jack Williamson, Edmund Hamilton, Murray Leinster, John W. Campbell, Ray Cummings,  E. E. Smith, Eric Temple Bell, George O. Smith or Eric Frank Russell?

Smith-Skylark

When I was growing up in the 1960s, fans talked about The Big Three of Science Fiction – Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov.  Fifty years on, I’m rereading their books and I realize they are starting to go stale like some SF books I read when I was a kid. Me and my buddies found E. E. Smith and Jack Williamson thrilling but also laughable. And like I said, it’s not the science, or the fact that we’re now living a future that’s overwritten those science fiction writer’s dreams of things to come.

I loved the Heinlein juveniles and assumed they were such obvious classics that kids would be reading them for centuries, like Treasure Island, Little Women and Alice in Wonderland. I still love them because of nostalgia, but I’m not sure they are as fresh today as they were to me in the 1960s.

cartier_cometeers

What exactly goes stale? When you read an old science fiction story that’s as flat as a Coke without its fizz, what went wrong? I talked about this with members of the Classic Science Fiction Book Club and the Defining 1950s Science Fiction Reading Challenge. The consensus is writing style and political correctness.  Readers don’t mind antiquated stories as long as they are well told, or even antiquated point of views, if they are part of the story. Good storytelling stays fresh. Good storytelling can override decaying style. But it’s very hard to maintain a story if the characters are very out of touch modern sensibilities of right and wrong.

Sadly, a lot of old science fiction wasn’t that well written. It impressed young people at the time with far out ideas, rather than with good writing and characterization.  It’s funny how much a science fiction writer can get things wrong, and yet the story will stay fresh because of the storytelling, and not the idea.

the door into summer

I still love reading The Door Into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein, even though the story was written in 1957, about a robot inventor living in the year 1970, who buys suspended animation time so he can sleep till the year 2000 to get away from his cheating girlfriend. We didn’t have household robots in 1970, and Heinlein’s year 2000 was nothing like our year 2000. Yet, the story is still readable!  Why? Heinlein had an engaging writing style, a sympathetic character, facing interesting problems, and who comes up with emotionally solid solutions, although the ending is becoming a little questionable.

The writing, characters and motivations are still functional. Yet, if we try to read something like E. E. “Doc” Smith Lensman books today, they feel archaic in their writing style, and the plot and character motivations seem simplistic – too much like an ancient comic book. Yet, a book like Out of a Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis written during the same decade as the Smith stories, still works. Lewis gets everything wrong about Mars, has a weird Christian take on space travel, and yet the story still works. And how did John Wyndham get away with writing a story about walking killer plants? Because the characters are very realistic and react in a realistic way, and we the readers care about them, plus we love to imagine what we would have done in their place.

out of the silent planet

Dime novels are seldom read today. Nor do people still read the popular girls and boys books of the early 20th century, like those by Roy Rockwood, who wrote the Great Marvel series (1906-1935). Many of these old books are so filled with racism and sexism that we cringe to read them today, but at one time they offered kids a thrilling sense of wonder. It’s a shame that those old authors weren’t better writers, because their stories captured their times in a unique way – their view of the future. Even the racism and sexism is historical. So I think that it’s the quality of writing that most makes a book go stale.

through space to mars

We still read H. G. Wells stories written in the 1890s. Why does Wells survive while so many other SF&F books from the same time faded from our reading awareness? Is it merely bad writing? I tend to think so. Books that become classics, like Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations, have something more that good storytelling though. They tap into the core of human nature, and most science fiction never aims for such psychological depths. Wells was no Dickens, but he did have great intellectual ambitions. I think that’s why he’s stayed fresh while Jules Verne trails Wells in popularity. Verne still can engage people with his storytelling, but Wells was a scientific prophet of his age.

Bad science won’t ruin a story, if the story is wonderful, but does cause a kind of staleness. 1930s and 1940s space operas just seem silly today, often hokey, or even campy and kitschy.  One reason Nineteen Eighty-Four is still so damn fresh, it’s it’s about politics and human nature, and not galactic empires and robots. If you’re a science fiction writer who hopes to enchant readers next century then it’s wise to write about common denominators that people now and in the future will have. But if you really want to dazzle the people of today, you want to write about things they never imagined. Which is what E. E. “Doc” Smith and Jack Williamson did in the 1930s. What will awe people in the 2010s will probably feel silly and stale by the 2040s, but maybe that’s just part of the science fiction game.

JWH

How the Top Ten Classic Science Fiction Books Have Changed Over the Years

I’m fascinated by how books get remembered.  Most writers hope their books will be good enough to pass through a series of milestones:

  • Good enough to sell to a publisher
  • Good enough to get printed and widely distributed
  • Good enough to get positive reviews
  • Good enough to become best sellers
  • Good enough to be remembered on best of the year lists
  • Good enough to win awards
  • Good enough to stay in print
  • Good enough to get on fan polls of all time favorite books
  • Good enough to be recognized as a classic

dune

Most novels that are written are never published.  Of those published, only a tiny percent, sell enough to earn royalties over the author’s advance, or get reprinted.  And then even a smaller number to go on to become even moderately successful.  The odds of writing a best seller is like those of winning a million dollar lottery.  Writing a classic is like the odds of winning one of those hundred million dollar lotto games.  Millions of books get published ever year, but few are remembered.

Eventually, most all books will be forgotten.  How many 19th century novels can you list from memory in ten minutes?  Every book has a lifetime, and I find it fascinating to think about why a book is remembered, and then why it is forgotten.  And it’s particularly interesting to think about the history of science fiction stories and novels, because they present ideas about the future that all too often become dated.

I thought it would be enlightening to see if I can find a series of fan polls that asked readers to vote for their favorite SF books, and see how those popular books change over time.  To save myself a lot of typing, I’m just going to use the Top Ten books from each list.

For the first five lists I’m grateful to The SF Book of Lists by Maxim Jakubowski and Malcolm Edwards.  I wish someone would update this wonderful 1983 book.  I will use bullets when there are ties – but I will type them in the order listed.  Votes, if available with be in parenthesis.  Ties might bring the list to more than 10.

1949 – August Derleth polled twelve writers, editors and critics

  • Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells (9)
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley (7)
  • Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon (7)
  • Adventures in Time and Space – Healy and McComas (6)
  • Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (6)
  • Short Stories of H. G. Wells – H. G. Wells (6)
  • Strange Ports of Call – August Derleth (5)
  • The World Below – S. Fowler Wright (5)
  • The Lost World – A. Conan Doyle (4)
  • To Walk the Night – William F. Sloane (4)
  • Sirius – Olaf Stapledon (4)
  • Gladiator – Philip Wylie (4)

1952 – Reader Survey Astounding Science Fiction

  1. Adventures in Space and Time – Healy and McComas editors
  2. Slan – A. E. Van Vogt
  3. Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells
  4. The Man Who Sold the Moon – Robert A. Heinlein
  5. Who Goes There? – John W. Campbell
  6. The Best of Science Fiction – Groff Conklin editor
  7. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury
  8. The Green Hills of Earth – Robert A. Heinlein
  9. The Science Fiction Omnibus – Bleiler and Dikty editors
  10. The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury

Already we see a number of books and authors drop from the list.  Science fiction was seldom published in book form before the 1950s, and in the early 1950s, most science fiction, much of what we considered classics of the era were published by small specialty publishers.  It’s also interesting that by 1952 Heinlein and Bradbury have emerged as favorite writers.

1956 – Reader Survey Astounding Science Fiction

  • Adventures in Space and Time – Healy and McComas editors (51)
  • City – Clifford Simak (50)
  • The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (48)
  • More than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (48)
  • Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (44)
  • The Man Who Sold the Moon – Robert A. Heinlein (40)
  • The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (39)
  • Astounding Science Fiction Anthology – John W. Campbell editor (37)
  • Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (35)
  • 1984 – George Orwell (35)
  • The World of Null A – A. E. Van Vogt (35)

Some of the books from the 1952 list stayed on the 1956 list, but fell lower, like Who Goes There? and The Green Hills of Earth.  It’s interesting that Slan and Adventures in Time and Space are on all three lists.  So did Seven Famous Novels, but it fell out of the top ten.

1966 – Reader Survey Analog Science Fiction & Fact

  1. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (67.4%)
  2. Seven Famous Novels – H. G. Wells (59.4%)
  3. Slan – A. E. Van Vogt (50.5%)
  4. The Rest of the Robots – Isaac Asimov (45.7%)
  5. The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester (44.2%)
  6. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (42.2%)
  7. The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke (40.6%)
  8. The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury (38.9%)
  9. City – Clifford Simak (38.6%)
  10. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (38.1%)

Slan is hanging in there.  It’s hard to compare overlap because new books are coming out after each list.  So where’s Heinlein?  If he was the most popular writer of the times why isn’t he on the list.  He had five books lower down on this list.  Heinlein always competed with himself in these polls, so often his books didn’t make it to the top of the list.  This 1966 list was the first that covers times I remember, and I probably read it in the magazine when it came out.  These are the great books of my childhood.

1975 – Locus Poll – full list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert (104)
  2. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke (97)
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin (90)
  4. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein (63)
  5. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr. (57)
  6. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (53)
  7. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester (50)
  8. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein (41)
  9. More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon (40)
  10. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny (35)

Already it’s possible to see how time affects the memory of books.  Newer books push out older books.  By 1975 Slan falls from memory after being so well remembered.  1976 also marks the first time a woman writer shows up, at all, not just for the top of the list.  1975 also represents an interesting switch.  Fans did pick The Demolished Man by Bester, but from now on they pick The Stars My Destination.

1987 – Locus Poll Best All-Time Novelfull list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
  3. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
  4. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  5. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  7. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  8. Gateway – Frederik Pohl
  9. Ringworld – Larry Niven
  10. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester

It seems Dune is becoming the Citizen Kane of the science fiction book world.

1998 – Locus Best SF Novels of All-Time (before 1990)full list here

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
  3. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
  4. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  5. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  6. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
  7. A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  8. Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
  9. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  10. Hyperion – Dan Simmons

Each list is now switching out a couple of new titles but is pretty much keeping the usual suspects.

2011 – NPR Top 100 Science Fiction/Fantasy Booksfull list here

  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  • Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  • The Dune Chronicles – Frank Herbert
  • 1984 – George Orwell
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  • The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • I, Robot – Isaac Asimov
  • Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein

I filtered out the fantasy novels.  For example, The Lord of the Rings came in number one.  More than 5,000 books were nominated, and over 60,000 people voted.  This is a huge poll.  Many of the novels from the earlier lists are on it.  It’s a poll from outside of the genre, yet it remains consistent.

2012 – Locus All-Time Novel Resultssee full list

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert (256)
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card (154)
  3. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov (143)
  4. Hyperion – Dan Simmons (131)
  5. The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin (120)
  6. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams (113)
  7. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (105)
  8. Neuromancer – William Gibson (100)
  9. The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester (91)
  10. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury (91)

2014 – Worlds Without End – Most Readsee full list

  1. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  2. Dune – Frank Herbert
  3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  4. Neuromancer – William Gibson
  5. The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
  6. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  7. Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
  8. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  9. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  10. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Again, I filtered out the fantasy.  This was not a poll, but the books that were most read in the WWEnd database.  It’s interesting to see how commonly read books are consistent with books showing up on the fan polls.

2014 – Sci-Fi Lists Top 100 Sci-Fi Bookssee full list

  1. Dune – Frank Herbert
  2. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card
  3. The Foundation Trilogy – Isaac Asimov
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  5. Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
  6. Stranger in a Strange Land – Robert A. Heinlein
  7. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  8. Neuromancer – William Gibson
  9. 2001: A Space Odyssey – Arthur C. Clarke
  10. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick

Sci-Fi Lists is an online poll that is constantly updated.  These two lists overlap almost perfectly, with 8 books on both lists, and they share 6 books with the 2012 poll, and 7 with the 2011 poll.  Also, all of these books are fairly old, at least 30 years.  It finally seems certain long term favorites are emerging.

What’s sad is only one woman writer appears on all these lists, and for the same book, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.  Read the wonderful blog Mistressworks, or Ian Sales compilation list to see what these fans are missing.  Now, some of these books by women are making the polls and lists, but lower down from the top ten.

If you look at cross tabulated lists like Worlds Without End and The Classics of Science Fiction, you’ll see more women on the complete lists, but it’s so disappointing not to see more.  I think if SF fans would read more books like those reviewed on the Mistressworks site this would change.

There are dozens, if not hundreds of all-time great science fiction book lists, but they are often compiled by one person, or a group of editors.  I’ve picked popular polls that had the goal of finding the best all-time favorite SF books, and not just current ones.  I’ve also ignored some British lists because they only confuse the issue at hand.

Even though we’re seeing a good deal of consistent favorites in recent years, I believe if we could jump ahead 25 years, many of those books will be forgotten.  Dune really is entrenched, and I think we’ll see it in 25 years.  But I don’t know about Stranger in a Strange Land, that’s from the same era as Dune.  I doubt Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? would be remembered at all if it wasn’t for Blade Runner.  One good movie adaptation and a book’s memory is boosted for decades.  I’ve recently reread Nineteen Eighty-Four and it is a true masterpiece.

There are lots of sentimental favorites from my childhood that I wish would make a comeback, like City by Clifford Simak, and my all-time favorite science fiction novel, Have Space Suit-Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein never makes these lists at all.  I guess some books die when all their fans die.

JWH – 5/1/14 – Table of Contents

How To Build The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0 List?

the classics of science fiction

About a quarter of a century ago I developed a concept to identify the classic books of science fiction.  The current version, the one I call 3.0, is here.  For a long time now I’ve wanted to update my site to a 4.0 version, but I’ve been put off by the amount of work involved, and intimidated by newer and fancier sites that attempted to do what I have done.  Worlds Without End is beautiful, also covers fantasy and horror, and allows users to track their reading.  SFFMeta took a completely different approach to the problem of finding great SF books to read, and I love different approaches, but their site appears not to have been updated for a year.  Top Science Fiction takes a poll approach, so it reflects change over time.  GoodReads has several lists that help identify popular science fiction by themes.

There is more than one way to skin a cat, as the gross old saying goes.  There’s two issues here.  Finding great books to read, and identify books as potential classics of the genre.

If I’m going to take the trouble to create The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0, then I want to produce a much better product.  I need to update my old system and offer new features.  This will be tricky, because essentially I’m just making another list of books.  I have no desire to get into building a fancy web site.  I want to update my list and make it better indicator of classic science fiction, that’s all.  But, better how?

Back in the 1980s I wrote what I now call, The Classics of Science Fiction 1.0, as an article for the fanzine, Lan’s Lantern, and it’s interesting how it came about.  My friend Mike asked me what were the best science fiction books to read knowing I had been a life-long science fiction bookworm.  I told him I could tell him the ones I loved, but I doubted that one person’s opinion counted for much because tastes vary so greatly.  We then began an ongoing discussion about how books are judged to be classics, and how to systematically identify them.  Over the years, this has remained a fascinating subject for me.

I have lived long enough to see books that were once very popular, and ones I loved, disappear from the pop culture consciousness.  My favorite writer growing up in the 1960s was Robert A. Heinlein.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the big three of science fiction writers were Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.  I doubt many young science fiction readers today would pick any of them as their favorite writer, and older readers like me are dying off, so the fan base for Heinlein/Clarke/Asimov is shrinking.  Will any of their books survive the test of time and be deemed classics?  I’ve already written about Heinlein’s declining status.

Of course, young people today are discovering books that came out in the 1990s and 2000s that they think will be the classics of the future.  Just because we love a book doesn’t mean it’s destined to be remembered.  The qualities of a contemporary page turner are obviously different from a timeless classic, although some of the qualities are shared by both.

Thus the term “classic novel” is quite slippery.  Many people feel when they read a book they absolutely adore that it must become a classic.  When I was young.  Books by E. E. “Doc” Smith were considered classic science fiction, but his work is almost unreadable today.  In the literary world at large, a classic novel is one that endures, is often taught in school, quite often is filmed or serialized on TV, like Masterpiece Theater, and has achieved a reputation of being great.  Think Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina.

Another quality of a classic is they tend to define an era – for example, The Great Gatsby defines America in the 1920s.  Because science fiction is usually about the future, it misses out on this specific quality, but classic science fiction novels do evoke a sense of time of when they were written.  Stranger in a Strange Land and Dune are science fiction novels that represents the 1960s science fiction.

No one person has thoroughly read everything making it hard to accept any individual as an authority on classic novels.  Popular culture changes over time, so no novel ever becomes a permanent classic.  The classic novel is a moving target, which is why I want to create The Classics of Science Fiction 4.0.   My system is based on The Wisdom of Crowds.  I collect fan polls, recommendation lists by book critics and academics, and other means for identifying popular books.  I call each a citation list.  I ignore, and the system inherently ignores, any recent book.  I compile all the citation lists into a database and create a cutoff of a minimum number of citations.  From this I create a resultant final list that I call The Classics of Science Fiction that contains all the books that got the minimum number  of citations or more.

For the Lan’s Lantern article, which I consider The Classics of Science Fiction version 1.0, I used 8 lists, with a cutoff of 3, producing 69 titles on the final list.  I no longer have a copy of that list.

When the web came out I created The Classics of Science Fiction 2.0, and it was based on 13 citation lists, with a cutoff of 3. and it produced 169 titles.  An old copy is here.

Version 3.0, which is live on the web now, and has been around for many years, has 193 titles, using 28 citation lists, and a cutoff of 7 citations.  The newest books it recognizes is from 1992.

What I’d like to do is rebuild the database with more citation lists, and hopefully identify books that came out through 2004.  I still want to use a 10 year DMZ so as not to let a wildly popular new book get on the list.  Often avid readers, especially young ones, think the book they are reading at the moment is the best book they’ve ever read.  I think we need time to identify classics.  Even 2008’s The Hunger Games is an obvious choice to many, but will it be in the future?  A few years ago His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman was being touted as second only to The Harry Potter books as a great contemporary fantasy series, but is it today?  All too often we are thrilled by new and novel stories only to quickly forget them.

What I need now is to assemble a large group of citation lists.  I used, with the help of Anthony Bernardo, 28 lists for the 3.0 list.  I think for 4.0, I need at least 40 citations, and the cutoff needs to be raised to 10.  Just think, any book that is on 10 or more fan polls, academic and critic lists, awards list, and other forms of recognition is at least well remembered and well regarded.  It doesn’t mean the book is an actual classic, but my system produces a list that’s not based on my opinion.

I use fan polls to get the idea what readers remember.  I use recommended reading lists from writers, critics and academics to balance the judgment of the readers.  I use a combine list of award winners to acknowledge another kind of recognition.  If a book was made into a movie or television series, I considered it another form of validation.  I’ve considered making citation lists based on being in print, having an audio edition, or having many print editions.  I wished I had the tools to see how many languages a book has been translated into as another indicator.  I could make a citation for any book that’s in the database that has a print, ebook and audio book currently for sale.

First, I need to find as many critic/academic lists as I can, and as many large fan polls as I can.  For example, last time I used Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels 1949-1984 by David Pringle as one citation.  You can see a list of his picks here.  Luckily, Damien Broderick & Paul Di Filippo wrote a book updating Pringle’s book called, Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010.  You can see their list here.  That will give me one extra citation.  In the subsequent years, many large fan polls have been created, so that will add the citation number.

I’ve been revving up my noggin all day trying to think of new ways to identify a science fiction book as a potential classic.  I’ve thought of two so far.  One is to make a list of all science fiction books that were on polls/lists of all time great books that didn’t focus on science fiction.  The world outside the genre seldom thinks of science fiction, but when it does, it’s notable.  The second idea is to search the web for syllabi for books taught in high schools and colleges and see which science fiction books stand out, if any.  I have an English teacher friend who likes to teach Ender’s Game.

Another idea is to use sets like American Science Fiction:  Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s as endorsed and published by The Library of America.  I compared their list to my list and it was quite different.

I am open to ideas about how to create new kinds of citation lists, so let me know if you have a good idea.

When I look at my current list, I see many books with 7, 8 or 9 citations, and they might not make it to the new list if it requires 10 citations if they aren’t on newer citation lists.  This happened when compiling earlier lists.  I’ve always considered 193 books to be too many to actually identify the real classics.  Many on my list were historical classics that only critics loved and were never on any fan poll.  I should also point out that 116 books made it to the 3.0 list with 10 citations, so they would automatically be guaranteed a spot on the new list if 10 was the cutoff.  I might need to make the cutoff 12 if the list gets to long.

Harry Harrison had two books on the 3.0 list, each with 7 citations each, the minimum required.  Will Deathworld or Make Room! Make Room! carry forward?  What about Nova by Samuel R. Delany?  We just read Nova at the Classic Science Fiction Book Club, with mixed results.  It only had 7 citations.  I loved that book when I read it in the 1960s, but I’m not sure if it’s a classic in the 2010s.  Will 3-5 more citations show up to support it?  But if I was to make a list of the best SF of the 1960s, Nova seems like one of the defining books of the era.  But here are the 1960s SF books I considered essential on my review of 1960s SF – is Nova up to their level?

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
  • Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
  • Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

That short list already leaves off A Clockwork Orange, A Wrinkle in Time, Way Station, Babel-17, This ImmortalLord of Light, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Right of Passage, Bug Jack Barron and Ubik, among many other well remembered books.

Ultimately, the goal is the same as I had back in the 1980s, to help people find a list of essential science fiction books to read.  Any list of true classics should be short, and dependable.  Novice readers should be able to buy a book from the list, read it, and have a strong statistical chance of being suitably impressed.  The whole idea of a classic is to be impressive, even heavy.  Coming up with any kind of quantitative method to identify those books is hard, but I think my system is the best I can imagine at the moment.

If you look at the top 19 books on the 3.0 list, all of which were on 20 or more citation lists, these books I think have the best chance of any science fiction book at consistently evoking the sense of wonder that defines great science fiction.

20-citations

Yet, I’m worried that several of them are already fading classics.

I have a feeling that many people will consider this a pointless endeavor.  They will feel that chance will introduce them to the great SF books of the past, and time will kill off the unworthy books.  That’s true.  That’s how it’s always worked.  I just consider my project a way of guessing what might happen ahead of time.

JWH 4/30/14

Old Books Versus New Books

I’ve been working on my website, ClassicBooklists.com, that attempts to identify the best all-time books through comparing recommendation lists and looking for consensus.  As a byproduct of this endeavor, I’m reading a lot about classic books.  The obvious question comes up:  Should I read the old highly-praised books or should I read what everyone else loves to read at the moment?  For example, the last two books I bought from Audible.com were The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the new Pulitzer Prize winner by Junot Díaz.  If I followed Harold Bloom’s advice, the sage of western lit, the choice is always between known quality writing and untested new stories, but then I’d miss out on one of the most exciting novels I’ve discovered in years.  There could be dozens of canon-worthy writers getting published today but we won’t know that for decades, until the academics give us the signal to start reading.

Bestsellers

Most books are sold hot off the presses and people love to read the latest books on the bestseller lists.  Personally, I consider it great fun to read a book that I can discuss with other bookworms and this usually means keeping up with the new.  And I take gleeful pride in my rare discovery of a book before Entertainment Weekly puts it on their The Must List.  There is certain pleasure in keeping up with pop culture, and I think people naturally prefer the new in things.  And that’s okay.  Besides, sometimes a movie or Oprah will make an old book a bestseller again, and throw the past a bone.

If you track such things, most books disappear as they age.  Their best shot at finding readers are when they are new.  Classic books are like bestsellers of time, but few actually make the hit parade compared to all the titles that slip off into oblivion.  Classic titles come and go out of fashion and damn few stay permanently in print.  By reading an old book you help keep it on the All Time Bestseller List.

Academics

Without the demands of an English teacher, would anybody read the classics?  Would anyone be reading James Joyce, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, and other literary oldies if it wasn’t because they were forced-fed them in high school and college?  Jane Austen and William Shakespeare have major fan clubs that keep their stories popular with the public, but how many people discover Milton or Dante on their own?

And why do books get so much academic support over music, dance, paintings and other art forms from history?  We’re made to read old books in school but old music and paintings don’t get equal blackboard time.  Sure, we force years of English classes on our kids so they will master language, writing and communication for practical reasons, and maybe the English teachers just sneak in as many of their old favorite inspirations as possible, like promoting Catcher in the Rye.  How active would university English departments be if they didn’t have technical writing, creative writing, ESL majors, and the basic freshman courses?

Can you imagine what our culture would be like if our schools only taught job skills?  Okay, film majors and aspiring writers taking creative writing courses would study old books a bit because it’s practical to recycle the classics occasionally.  Brad Pitt was a great action hero in Troy, and Reese Witherspoon showed off a range of acting talent in Vanity Fair, but they did much better job-wise with Oceans Eleven and Legally Blonde.  And when Will Smith got people to watch I, Robot, they didn’t bother to film the actual classic SF stories.

The Movies

And speaking of the movies, how many people read old books because they saw the film first?   I know films have gotten me to read several library shelves of books.  I have no proof, but I would bet that Hollywood has gotten more kids to read classic books than English teachers.  How many people would go out and read James Joyce if HBO converted A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses into several seasons of television with the production quality of The Sopranos?

Movies may be the best salesmen for books, both new and old than any other form of literary promotion, except television.  Little Women and Pride and Prejudice get remade almost once a decade.  Movies brings the classic words to the screen along with visuals that help us see the classics, and that’s a big sell.

The question is:  Do seeing the classics on the big screen equal reading the classics on the little page?  You know how I vote, but am I right?      

Superstar Writers

Many people buy new books by their favorite writers, and some writers become superstars of the reading world.  Again, I’m not against this because I want my favorite writers to get rich and keep typing out books I love to read.  How many millions of us are now anxiously awaiting J. K. Rowing’s first non-Harry Potter novel?  And if you haunt bookstores you know there’s always hordes of new writers to discover.  But here’s the problem, why waste time taking a chance on a possibly bad book when there are so many Perfect-10 tomes waiting to be read? 

Time and waiting helps.  If you wait until the end of the year then reviewers will make their best-of lists and if you compare enough lists, the year’s best books will be revealed.  If you wait longer, you can catch The Best Books of the Last 25 Years lists, or The Best Books of the Century.  But who wants to wait.  Most people buy books by following their favorite authors or trying books written by superstar writers that catches the public’s attention..

Harold Bloom came down almighty hard on J. K. Rowling and Stephen King, where he claimed thirty-five million book buyers can be wrong about Harry Potter, and that giving Stephen King a National Book Award tarnishes all the rightful past winners.  I’ve read the Harry Potter books twice, and will probably reread them again in the future.  I’d hate to have missed out on them.  From the long list of Bloom’s Western Canon I hope I can pass on a few classics to have time to enjoy Harry Potter.  Of course, the fact is I don’t always know what I’m missing.  What if there are old and forgotten books far more exciting than the Harry Potter novels?

The Great Books

I keep throwing out the name Harold Bloom, but that’s only because he’s the point man for the philosophy that believes knowledge of the great books equals quality education.  He calls his best-of-list, The Western Canon. That idea has been around a long time, and was especially promoted by Mortimer J. Adler, one of the editors of The Great Books of the Western World put out by the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Their theory is simple – knowledge of the great books equals an Ivy league education, and one publisher even produced The Harvard Classics to promote the idea.

There was a serious backlash to this idea because these canonical books were mostly written by old white men.  And many people didn’t cotton to this reading list because the books were old and musty – and just not much fun to read.  But is reading old books like eating spinach and broccoli, and reading J. K. Rowling like eating Ben and Jerry’s?  If you want your mind to grow up strong and fit, should you put so many old titles into your reading diet?

Are the seven plays by Sophocles really that much more deserving of my reading time than the seven Harry Potter books?  Bloom thinks our culture is going down the drain, and if you’ve ever seen the Jay Leno skit, Jaywalking, you’ll probably agree.  If people actually tried to study Bloom’s Western Canon they’d have little time for any other kind of reading, and publishers should just as well stop cranking out new books.  But what if Bloom is right?  Would America be better educated if CBS, NBC and ABC only showed Shakespearean plays and other dramas from the Western Canon?

Hell, I don’t know, but it’s an interesting idea, but that’s all it will ever be, just an idea, because our culture will never exchange pop culture for classic culture.  Maybe it shouldn’t even be an either or thing.  If all you ever read is fantasy and science fiction, you’ll never know much about contemporary culture, or history.  But if all you read is the Greek and Roman classics, then you’ll still be ignorant of contemporary culture and speculation about the future and the creative universe of fantasy ideas.  Also, there might even be value in reading bad writing.  How can you understand the American West without knowing about the dime novel?

The obvious answer is to be well-rounded in your reading, and read from all time periods.  But do the hard core classics of The Great Books get equal time with the latest Charlie Stross novel or the latest YA fad like the Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Series?  And what if you flat out hate the classics?  Should you be forced to read them like taking bad tasting medicine, telling yourself that it’s good for you cultural health?  Recently I tried reading The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, a title on Bloom’s list, but I found it unbearable.  And how many people really want to read Socrates, Plato and Aristotle for fun?

My reply requires an analogy, and one many people might not even be familiar with, but I will try anyway because I think it’s very apt.  Throughout the twentieth century we have found places in the world where tribes of primitive people still live.  It happened just recently in the Amazon.  Anthropologists do not like it when we pollute their pristine lost cultures with modern ideas because it usually shatters these lost tribe’s psyches.  The green jungle folk who have hidden out from civilization know so little of history and science compared to us modern folk who live in concrete jungles.  But do we really know that much more? 

But this is a perfect analogy to cultural literacy because the half-ass educated of our population have primitive minds compared to those who are well educated.  And it is no less mind-shattering to the tiny world view souls living in the big modern society to be hammered by mind-blowing ideas of a bigger universe.  Why do you think fundamentalists of any religion act the way they do? 

No one living in America believes they are ignorant and backward, because how can that be when we’ve got five hundred TV channels and the Internet stuffing our minds?  As long as you just read pop genres like science fiction and mysteries, your knowledge of the larger world of literature is no bigger than believers in cargo cults.  Most science fiction readers and computer geeks like to think they are Slans, but what if that’s the blue pill path, and the Western Canon is the red pill?  A twisty bit of weirdness for sure.

Remember those aborigines?  Just because we read books doesn’t mean our brothers and sisters living in nature have empty minds – yes, they would have a hard time surviving in our cities, but we’d have a hard time surviving in their habitats.  Reading in the Western Canon doesn’t make you a superior person.  Classics do not provide superior forms of fun and entertainment.  They aren’t even the best way to study history.  All they provide is a multiplex view so whether you’re a cool cat from Manhattan who hangs at the trendiest drinking holes, or a nature man living in the Amazon knowing all the best watering holes to hunt dinner, you’ll have a sense of perspective.

Artistic Knowledge 

Knowledge comes in all flavors.  There’s scientific knowledge, which tests reality systematically, and historical knowledge that evolves over time, and engineering knowledge that comes from necessity.  Artistic knowledge is one person’s inner view of how things work in reality.  All the old books are really is a series of people over time giving their opinions.  It becomes a collective view of reality.  Artistic knowledge isn’t like scientific knowledge – and one of the many weaknesses of the Western Canon is it doesn’t include paintings, dance, sculpture, fashion, music, and other crafts and cultural artifacts of the times.  And more than that, it doesn’t collect the knowledge from cultures outside of the Western world.

Reading Skill

Reading the old books isn’t easy.  Many are boring to the modern mind, and some are almost impossible to read.  You can’t just jump into Paradise Lost and get hooked on the story like you can with the TV show Lost.  It can be hard to identify with what’s going on in an old book.  I’m sure, to some kids reading To Kill A Mockingbird it’s too far a jump into the past to grok.  I love the book King Dork because the protagonist makes fun of all his teachers who believe the secrets of adolescence are in The Catcher in the Rye and try to force it on their students.  It’s like Dorothy Parker’s classic definition of horticulture, “You can lead a whore to culture but you can’t make her think.” 

Hell, I know plenty of kids from the youngest two generations that can’t watch a black and white movie, and it’s no wonder they can’t answer Jay Leno’s basic cultural history questions.  More than once I’ve heard a young person say they love old movies, and I’ll ask them to name a few, and they will throw out titles like Caddyshack (1980) and Back to the Future (1985) with great nostalgia.  Is it any wonder they can’t fathom Grand Hotel (1932) much less The General (1927).  Reading Charles Dickens and Jane Austen is probably like trying to read a book in a foreign language to these kids.

The Cultural Time Barrier 

Could it be, for some readers, maybe even most readers, just enjoying books from their own time is a good enough form of literacy?  To many parents, just getting their kids to read anything is a triumph.  Our own times are rich and diverse.  We know so much more about the universe now than people did fifty years ago, much less five hundred or five thousand years ago.  It is rather interesting that so many people can enjoy The Bible, a collection of stories that span centuries of pre-history but they won’t try to make up the gap between the first century and the twenty-first.

History is a boring subject for most people, and if you can’t enjoy a Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn screwball comedy from the 1930s, it’s doubtful you’ll see the humor in The Pickwick Papers from the 1830s.  Maybe there’s a cultural time barrier like the old sound barrier and it takes a certain speed to break on through.  Why do so many young women today love Jane Austen when so many others don’t?

There’s always the theory that trying to force feed the classics on children when they are in school destroys any chance of those kids ever enjoying reading a book.  But has the Harry Potter fad ever proven to create a new generation of bookworms?  There are those who believe that books are a dead art form, and movies are the new art crown of creation for the masses.  Or maybe the bookworm gene only shows up in a small percentage of the population anyway.

None of this answers the question:  Should we read old books.  And should we believe Harold Bloom when he says certain books are far superior to modern reading fare and we shouldn’t waste our time on crappy writing?  Except for the first Harry Potter book, I couldn’t find any comments from Bloom on the later entries.  I thought J. K. Rowling’s writing improved with each new book.  I also have to ask if Bloom’s dislike of Harry Potter reflects a failure on his part to come forward in time and enjoy the current pop culture.

I could believe that Harold Bloom is right and that J. K. Rowling is a bad writer, except that there are books on the Western Canon list that I consider bad writing for one reason or another.  I thought The Crying of Lot 49 was particularly weak on characterization, plot and emotional conflict.  Bloom’s main nail to hammer regarding Rowling was her use of cliché phrases, but there are plenty of books on his list that would be guilty of that fault too.  Bloom likes to focus on word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph writing quality, but I think he forgets that storytelling always trumps writing ability.  I’d even say characterization trumps writing ability.  Shakespeare turned some catchy phrases but that wasn’t his skill that kept people coming to see his plays all these years.

Really great stories are timeless, just look how often ancient tales are recycled for modern movies.  The classic science fiction novel Dune is set in the far future, but the characters feel like people Homer knew, and I don’t mean that cartoon Homer.  The reason why so many young women love Jane Austen is because she tapped into the psychology of women at a level unaffected by time.  The reason why Charles Dickens can even make atheists feel teary-eyed over Christmas is because he could play his readers’ emotions like a Geek playing Halo.  Ditto for J. K. Rowling and Stephen King.  I think that’s a skill that Bloom doesn’t credit enough in his tally of writing talents.

And this may hint at why most people can’t read outside of their time.  The writing reflected in the works of the Western Canon represent great feats of intellect, but they communicate little emotionally to the modern reader.  To enjoy reading older books requires emotionally resonating with people from the past, and that’s not easy.

Escapism

If your goal in picking up a book is to escape the worries of daily life, then it doesn’t matter when the book you select comes from.  If you have a lineup of favorite mystery writers that consistently keeps your mind off things then why try anything new?  For pure entertainment, contemporary writers can’t be beat.  I feel the best new writers have distilled the writing techniques from the past and have truly honed the art of storytelling to baroque levels of diversion.  Many of these writers are using all of history for their storytelling canvas.  Some even have the writing chops that would impress Harold Bloom.  Both in creative writing and creative non-fiction, some of the best writers are surfing the breaking waves of literature.  There is always more great contemporary writing, both literary and genre, than any bookworm yet born can handle.

I bet you didn’t think I’d say that?  I’m trying to be real and honest here while promoting the reading of old books.  I’d go so far as to say if you’re only going to read a few books, try and read the best contemporary books first, even if they’re just escapist nonsense as long as they get you to read for fun.  It’s my theory that learning to read for fun is more important than reading for an education.  If you get hooked on books it will be like other drugs, eventually you’ll crave the harder stuff.

Scholarship

Most people do not want to be English professors and turn their fun hobby into ghoulish book autopsies.  However, many readers often enjoy becoming amateur scholars on pet subjects.  If you’re a fan of mysteries you might eventually want to learn how they evolved starting with Edgar Allan Poe.  I have had a lot of fun learning about the Classics of Science Fiction.  If you enjoy Masterpiece Theater on PBS, it’s easy to take up the study of the English novel.  If you like to argue then studying the Greeks and rhetoric will help you win more verbal battles with your friends.  You have to have zero curiosity about life not to wonder how various ideas and practices got started.

Take the current oil crisis.  Our society is shifting from cheap energy to expensive energy, and hopefully renewable energy, but it’s a stressful time, and we may have to experience a terrible economic downturn.  Surely, there must be other times in history where people had to endure quick economic and social change – so how did their society handle it?   Try reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.  Or read Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser for a story about someone trying to shift from simple rural life to living a new life in the big city.

The thing about studying the past, even for fun, is that it teaches a lot about living in the present.  Read the Old Testament, it was never about religion, that’s a later interpretation, but about nation building and the psychology of creating an organized society.  The history of books is about mankind striving to get somewhere, and that somewhere is now.

Jim