February 10, 2014

GUEST ROOM | The Greatest Gatsby: The Cult of the Book Bucket List

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As I was browsing the Internet during class today, I discovered that Amazon has released their own version of the book bucket list, predictably titled “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime.” Featuring selections of high school English classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby, the chosen books are nothing surprising or different. The list is just another compilation of books following the mold of “what should I, an aspiring intellectual, read to showcase my great knowledge of literature?” The goal here isn’t to read for pleasure, but to “create a well-read life,” as the Amazon Book Editors write.

Still, hundreds of book bucket lists appear on the Internet, and readers still read them. They fall asleep reading Les Miserables every day, but refuse to give up because it is an unavoidable classic. “Our reliance on critics for cultural opinion has reached new extremes, to the point where we let these professionals determine what we should find interesting and what we should ignore.”

 The notion of being “well-read” appeals to some because of the opportunity it presents: It allows them to feel more intelligent, because they’re reading works that the average person simply does not bother to. The type of person who is lured in by this is inevitably the person who will tell you exactly what they’re reading with a smirk and wait for you to praise them for it. Others follow these lists for their convenience — because it is easier to let someone else recommend a book than to search for an interesting read. Our reliance on critics for cultural opinion has reached new extremes, to the point where we let these professionals determine what we should find interesting and what we should ignore. Critics have power, and we’re constantly giving them more when we listen to them.

It is not really the quality of the books on Amazon’s list that matters, in this case. A lot of the books on these lists are great, but were they chosen because they are actually good or because critics think that is what people should be reading? Yeah, I read Slaughterhouse-Five (which is on the list) and I liked it, but I also read Cat’s Cradle and liked it just as much. Ask another person who has read Vonnegut, and they’ll say they prefer Breakfast of Champions. So why have critics chosen Slaughterhouse-Five as an essential read? It is an excellent novel, but it also fits the mold of “great literature” at least in part because it is anti-war (a favorite theme among critics), thereby becoming more popular than Vonnegut’s other works. Catcher in the Rye is another book that pops up on this list, since it is often praised as the exemplary coming-of-age story. It holds this place in acclaim even with all of the criticism that has been levelled at it over the years, taking the stead of several other Salinger works that do the job much better. Novels like Slaughterhouse-Five and Catcher in the Rye give people things to talk about because they’re complex and interesting, but if you’ve ever tried talking to someone about why a certain book is the best, you’ll quickly realize that other people (except for maybe English majors) do not actually care.

The cult of the bucket list book does not leave much room for contemporary authors, historical authors outside of a white male hegemony or anything not sanctioned by the elitist rings making up the staff of literary reviews.

Critics may determine what qualifies as good literature, but the readers solidify it. Books become essential reads because readers deify certain works of literature to the extent that they appear in every “must-read” list. Exactly how did The Great Gatsby become the Great American Novel? Critics liked it, then readers liked it and now everyone and their high school teacher loves it. But do they really? Imagine telling someone you hate The Great Gatsby: they either frown in disagreement, or agree with you only while still acknowledging its important legacy in literature.

With all of the critical praise that some books receive, it is no surprise that some readers get frustrated when other excellent — even better — books go ignored. Maybe that explains why the book-review website, Goodreads.com, has become such a hit among bibliophiles: it devotes itself exclusively to readers’ opinions, rather than relying on critical determinations. It openly criticizes novels that critics praise. Site visitors aren’t afraid to say that they hated Lolita, even though it is number one on Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels.” In fact, one Goodreads writer praised F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night in his review, saying “this book is never on any lists of ‘100 Books You Should Read Before You Die,’ and that’s reason enough to read it.” There is something appealing about having the power to defy what is consistently praised and to formulate an individual opinion on what qualifies as literary merit.