Thursday, May 8, 2014

Amazon's 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime Lists Are Full of Gaps

Books Blog)

Recognise this man? Amazon doesn't … Henry James. Photograph: Unknown/Bettmann/Corbis

Ever since George Bernard Shaw mischievously declared that America and Britain were two countries divided by a common language, there's been a steady cultural commentary exploring the nuances of difference.

And now the British and American "editors" of Amazon have generously supplied two lists of "100 Books to Read in a Lifetime" to provide, as it were, a long footnote to Shaw's witticism.

The American list, predictably, sells each title with a mini-blurb, so that, in case you didn't know, Alice will send you "down a rabbit hole" and Harry Potter will introduce you to "the boy wizard". From the off, this American "bucket list" touches only the most unsurprising bases: Orwell, Morrison, Vonnegut, Roth and Salinger. And it appears to think that virtually no books were published before 1850.

On both sides of what it insists on calling "the pond", Amazon rarely goes off piste from the well-travelled slopes of contemporary literary fashion.

American Amazon appears never to have heard of Henry James or Mark Twain or Edgar Allan Poe, and to be only on nodding terms with Charles Dickens (Great Expectations) and Jane Austen (Pride & Prejudice). Theirs is a list for the Game of Thrones generation.

UK Amazon's list is (slightly) more serious, no doubt secure in the knowledge that the English language literary tradition began here– with Swift and Defoe. UK Amazon is better read and also more attentive to the Anglo-American tradition. So we find George Eliot, Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, and even Mary Shelley. There's a nod to the 19th-century US with Little Women, but (incredibly) no Twain, no Stevenson and no Henry James.

UK Amazon is also more sceptical about contemporary fiction. Ishiguro is listed, and so is Donna Tartt, Harper Lee and Jonathan Franzen. But Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith are missing. And so are Martin Amis and Hilary Mantel.

Another nuance is that UK Amazon makes a good stab at representing writing for children and young people, making good choices with The Gruffalo and I Capture The Castle. American kids' books make a much smaller impact on the US Amazon list.

Of course, these are only lists, and 100 titles is a tough call, but as a vision of a future literary library it's scarcely an inspiring prospect. It would be easy to raise the cry of "our literature in danger" and/or "dumbing down starts here". But perhaps what these lists tell us is that, in this cultural snapshot, the UK is always likely to play Greece to America's Rome – and that, in any month of the year, posterity is the cruellest critic, as well as the most capricious.