This week, Canada’s Globe and Mail began a new literary series, the 50 Greatest Books.
Over the coming year, an international panel chosen by The Globe and Mail will select the 50 Greatest Books ever written. Each week, a single work will be discussed by an expert or a writer passionate about the work in question.
As columnist Martin Levin explains, “I know, it’s an entirely presumptuous label, and no doubt we’ll leave off dozens that readers feel belong. So why not simply 50 Great Books?”
In part, because the G&M wants readers to engage in the discussion through its forum for outraged advocates or critics, clever ripostes and tut-tutting over obvious oversights — and in part because in making distinctions, the G&M implicitly rejects the postmodern view that won’t allow privileging Anna Karenina over the James Bond books.
A great book is adjudged a great book over time by virtue of offering things — astonishing ideas, unforgettable characters, imaginative sublimity, glorious prose — that cannot be got elsewhere, and that tell us something new about the human (or other) condition.
The 50 will not be ranked in order. Just choosing them is adventurous enough. The entries will be derived from discussions among members of the panel. Their carefully guarded identities will be revealed only at the end of the series, when readers will be invited to engage with them more directly. Each entry will be written by someone with knowledge, usually extensive knowledge, of the book in question.
We realize the abounding questions as to establishing criteria. One juror has raised several important points, perhaps the central of which is how to mediate between a book’s literary or intellectual qualities and its importance. Given that the King James Bible (not the Hebrew or Greek versions) is both poetically magnificent and of unsurpassed significance, I find it hard to imagine its absence. But what about the Koran, clearly almost unparalleled in its influence, though perhaps not in literary value. But it may be to readers of Arabic, which raises another issue: How does one judge a work (as pure work) in a foreign language?
Never mind works in Japanese or Arabic. Our juror cites Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra. There is common agreement among German speakers that the writing is beautiful, but can a jury of English-speakers tell? A case that blends both translation and “importance” is Rousseau’s The Social Contract. The book has had incalculable influence, informing the work of Kant, Hume, Tolstoy and of almost every post-Rousseau French writer. Our juror suggests, though, that as a work marrying literature to ideas, most English-speakers might opt for The Confessions.
Is it a cheat to cite the Complete Works of Shakespeare, which contain at very minimum a half-dozen works of genius? Or do we simply opt for King Lear or Hamlet? Is it the collected works of T. S. Eliot, or Four Quartets? Or neither? If we think Emily Dickinson deserving, how is it possible to single out an individual work?
And how are we to estimate texts that were once of overwhelming scientific influence: Aristotle, Newton, Galileo, Vesalius? Since science proceeds by falsifiability, it is in the very nature of the scientific text to be superseded. Newton’s Principia Mathematica may be almost unread now, but our world is inconceivable without it.
So many issues, so many books.