Can Any One Novel Be More Valuable Than Another?

People love to create Best of Lists for what they think are the greatest novels of all time, but I’ve got to ask:  What is the value of one novel?  Is any one novel really more valuable than any other novel?  I’m reading Anna Karenina (1877) because it was the #1 novel chosen from 125 writers voting for their all-time favorite novels in the book The Top Ten ed. by J. Peder Zane.  Can I say Anna Karenina is really more valuable than any other novel?  It might be more valuable to the people who contributed to the Top Ten, but is it more valuable to any reader than any other book?

Can professors of literature definitively say one list of novels is more valuable than other because of their worth to culture?

What do we get out of a novel?  What makes a novel valuable?  What makes a novel loved, or inspiring, or artistic?

I have a degree in English Literature, and I’ve been a lifelong bookworm, and I maintain a site about The Classics of Science Fiction, and yet I know nothing that proves a novel as value other than any one reader’s fondness for a particular novel.

I’m almost finished with Anna Karenina and it’s been very enjoyable, but I wouldn’t rank it #1 on any list I’d create.  But let’s compare it to some other novels from the 1870s I’ve read:  The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875), Middlemarch by George Elliot (1874), The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne (1874) and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876).  I’ve give them in the reverse order of when I read them, because I think that matters.

Of these, I currently rate The Way We Live Now the highest, but that’s because it was the most entertaining, most engrossing, most diverting book I read in a long time.  But I have talked some of my friends into reading it and they found it boring.  And if I had read it when I was young I would have found it boring too.  And if I had been made to read it in school I would have hated it.

How often do we read a novel other than to be entertained?  Is entertainment value the only real criteria for evaluating a novel?  School teachers and college professors think reading is good for us, and good people read good books.  They imply that the novels they make us study in school are more worthy than novels we’d choose ourselves, but is that true?

Can society qualitatively prove that Pride and Prejudice is superior Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?  What educators want is a literate society, and that’s understandable because scientific studies show that a literate population is more successful.  But can science prove reading one book is better than reading another?  Or can we, with mere logic?

I think a kid who has read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) should learn something important about race relations.  I wish I had read and understood Pride and Prejudice when I was a teen because it would have helped me understand girls better.  Reading Slaughterhouse Five and Catch-22 taught me about the absurdity of war.  But is social awareness why educators want us to read books?  I don’t know.  It is a kind of value.  I thought I learned a lot about Asperger’s from reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003).

I think we can safely assume books have value for broadening our horizons, to help us empathize with people different from us, to virtually visit foreign countries and distant times.  If you read the books on The Top Ten list, you will be educated in a way that’s different from a normal classroom education.  Of the 1870s books I mention above, they will teach you about life in England, America and Russia during that decade and what people were like.  Of do they?  And what about the Jules Verne book?  It wasn’t real at all, but it was one of the most fun books I read as a kid.

And do we really want to put a value on novels based on how much daily-life historical information it might contain?  And do we get information from the novel, or does it merely reinforce what we already know?  Do you learn about racial injustice from To Kill a Mockingbird, or do you learn about racial injustice and then admire To Kill a Mockingbird?

For me to admire Anna Karenina, I think it took me 60 years of growing up and gaining the experience so I could admire it.  I think that novels only mirror our current state of development and you can’t give children wisdom by giving them novels to read.

A list of great books are only great if you’re ready to perceive their greatness.  We can’t share shared culture, but we can share being at the same psychic place with other people.  That’s why it’s so great to talk with another reader about a book they just discovered and loved and you’re in the same place too.

So, then is the value of a book it’s ability to be an emotional or intellectual trigger?  Then to make a list of Top Ten favorites really is saying, if you’re been where I’ve been, then these books might work for you.

While working on The Classics of Science Fiction I learned several things about books and their lovers.  If you’ve only read five books, then those are the five best books in the world, and if you loved one more than the others, it’s the most mind blowing book ever.  I’d often get emails from kids asking why a particular book wasn’t on the list because in their mind it’s the most far out book they know about and it deserves to be recognized.  Are there books I could give these kids to read that are absolutely superior to what they’ve already discovered?  I can’t guarantee that.  My list is based on the consensus of twenty-eight other lists.  I was trying to be scientific about building a best of list.  But even the weight of my statistical method is no proof of value.

If you look at the final rankings, three books were on 25 of 28 previous best of lists.  They were Dune by Frank Herbert (1965), The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1953) and More than Human by Theodore Sturgeon (1953).  Statistically the odds are good that any science fiction fan reading these books should like them, but that’s not true.  Most kids today would be blown away by The Hunger Games, and maybe Dune, but would probably find the other two dated, even though old-timers who grew up reading science fiction in the 1950s and 1960s love those two books.

Again, I think this is because what makes a book valuable is what’s inside us when we come to the book.  It’s very difficult to be young and time shift.  Contemporary books mean more to the young than old books.

In my science fiction book club we’re all listing our all-time favorite ten science fiction books in a database.  There is very little consistency.  It’s my theory that we each define science fiction differently.  That there is no 10 great science fiction books that define the genre, but there are 10 books that define science fiction for each of us.  My Classics of Science Fiction list is merely a statistical sample of how many baby boomers define themselves with their favorite books.  There is a lot of overlap for a handful of books, and then we wildly diverge.

It’s like how most baby boomers loved The Beatles, but not all, and how there is no consensus at all about which groups would fill the #2-10 slots for the top bands of the 1960s.  I still love The Beatles, I just don’t listen to them anymore.  I still play Bob Dylan songs from the 1960s every day.  Why is that?  I still reread a handful of books I discovered as a teen in the 1960s.  But the rest, even the ones I loved then, I don’t care for anymore.  Again, how books are valued is by something inside us, and it changes.

I’d love it if we could get every bookworm in the world to put their all time favorite 100 books into a worldwide database, with each numbered by rank preference, and tagged by the year and age they read them.  Then I’d like to see the meta results.  How many books would become universal favorites?  How many would be teen favorites?  How many would be old age favorites?  How many books are loved outside of their generation.  This would be a fabulous experiment.  But it’s about the only scientific way I can think of to put a value on a book, and compare them.

JWH – 4/24/12

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