The mirage of “best” books lists

As has been evident recently, I get a kick out of lists of books perceived to have been the “best” or “greatest” of a particular time period, genre or overall. Yet over the weekend, I was again struck by something I’d pondered a while ago. Specifically, a “best” list is a mirage to a certain extent. Any book and, thus, any list of books, are filtered not by individual tastes but how our perceptions change with time.

My idea isn’t anything new. While it, of course, posits there is no objective measure of literary greatness, I don’t think anyone can contend reading is not a wholly subjective experience. More important, that experience necessarily is directly influenced by our age — and who we are — when we read any particular book. The the impact or evaluation of a book necessarily depends on the psyche of the reader at the time they read the book.

I can think of several examples that support and illustrate the point from my perspective. One is The Catcher in the Rye, which makes many lists of great books. I didn’t read it until I was in my mid-40s. Was I impressed? Not so much. I would be surprised, though, if my view of the book weren’t dramatically different had I read it when I was in my teens.

The process works the other way, too. Two of my favorite books of the last several years are Out Stealing Horses and Gilead. Both narrators are older men looking back on their lives and contemplating such questions as how our lives got to where we are and how they made us who we are. These books would not speak to me near as much in my teens or even in my 30s. Rather, it is the “me” who existed when I read them, a person different in many ways from its earlier incarnations, that found them to be among the best I’ve read.

Thus, while best book lists may represent some sort of consensus of books that are widely praised, they necessarily are filtered by tastes that change along with the reader. Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the shimmer of today’s best book lists could well be a mirage tomorrow.

People bring their prejudices [to reading], whether friendly or adverse. They are lamp and spectacles, lighting and magnifying the page.

Robert Willmott, Pleasures of Literature

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