I hate to be the one to give credence to Jonathan Franzen’s anti-Amazon tripe – ever, anywhere, for any reason – but Amazon’s own latest action gave me the awful creeping feeling that he might have a point. Because Amazon’s latest list of “100 Books To Read In A Lifetime: A bucket list of books to create a well-read life, from the Amazon Book Editors,” includes some titles that couldn’t even create a well-stocked bookshelf, never mind a life.
Of course, there are plenty of titles there that do deserve a place. For instance, George Orwell’s 1984 heads up the list – even though this is one you can download totally for free from Canada and Australia. Great Expectations surely deserves its place, as does The Great Gatsby or even, perhaps, The House at Pooh Corner. But should The Hunger Games really be there instead of War and Peace? Diary of a Wimpy Kid instead of Wuthering Heights? Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain instead of any poetry or play, by anyone, from any period or language, at all, anywhere?
I could have happily gone an entire lifetime without reading a great proportion of these books. Many of them might even degrade my mental processes in the act of reading them. I’d be very suspicious of anyone who thought I should be reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried instead of Walden, for instance. Or the Koran. Or the Tao Te Ching. Or The Autobiography of Malcolm X instead of Up From Slavery. Or Valley of the Dolls instead of Justine. Or any of these books at all instead of Shakespeare.
There’s still time to do something about this, though. “We want to know what books you would choose. Add titles below, and vote on the titles added by fellow readers,” says the Goodreads link to the Amazon page where the poll resides. Time to cast your vote and save generations of Amazon readers from terminal stupidity.
Otherwise, this is 100 marketing categories to top in a lifetime. It has only the vaguest and most distant connection with literary merit, intellectual quality, or even standing within a particular genre. If this is what it takes to fill your life, completely, what kind of life are you going to have? And if this is what they call a bucket list, then I know what kind of bucket they’re referring to: It’s the one that stands in the corner of a horse’s stall, steaming. Treat it with the disdain it deserves.
Obviously all such lists are subjective, and when put out by a company that sells books, ebooks and e-readers, we must really see it as a form of marketing. That being said, perhaps having some less classic literature on the list is actually a good thing. Seeing Harry Potter or the Hunger Games on the list might make people more likely to pick up some of the true classics on the list. Certainly the Harry Potter series proved that you could get relatively young kids to read big books.
I also am not taken aback too much by the lack of plays in the list. I have never really enjoyed reading plays, no matter how great they are; they are meant to be performed, and reading them simply for the sake of reading them seems to take something away from the work (for me anyway). I do however strongly agree about the lack of any poetry on the list?
Eyeballing the list on my iPhone, I seem to have already read a large chuck, but other books seem out of place. There are an awful lot of children’s or young adult titles. Maybe Amazon was truly going for the lifetime approve by starting readers young – but as someone beginning to looking back at midlife, the list doesn’t seem apropos. Some odd choices too like Life After Life. It was on the better side of OK, IMHO, but it’s really just a passing fad title and I’ll probably be hard pressed to recall much in a year or two.
But really what else should you expect from a reading list like this.
i’d maintain that the Autobiography of Malcolm X should be on the list. it’s still relevant, even today.
All, I could agree to any objections if Amazon hadn’t tagged this as “100 Books To Read In A Lifetime … to create a well-read life,” If they’d called it something like “100 of our favorite reads,,” or “100 of today’s most relevant books,” then no issue. But by implying that this is the minimum intellectual and literary furniture you need for a lifetime, Amazon’s book editors are asking for it, and they deserve it.
Given that this is an Amazon-created list, perhaps the books on it were influenced by:
* How much Amazon makes on the book
* Whether there’s a Kindle version for added income
* How much hidden subsidy the publisher offers Amazon
You’ll find those themes and more addressed in a just-out The New Yorker article, “Is Amazon Bad for Books?”:
Note especially these remarks:
“It wasn’t a love of books that led him to start an online bookstore. “It was totally based on the property of books as a product,” Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. ”
At Amazon, original writing wasn’t even called “content.” It was known as “verbiage,” simplified to “verbage.” Amazon’s writers and editors formed a counterculture that never fit easily in a company ruled by computer engineers and M.B.A.s, who valued data most and believed only in measurable truths. “The key to understanding Amazon is the hiring process,” one former employee said. “You’re not hired to do a particular job—you’re hired to be an Amazonian. Lots of managers had to take the Myers-Briggs personality tests. Eighty per cent of them came in two or three similar categories, and Bezos is the same: introverted, detail-oriented, engineer-type personality. Not musicians, designers, salesmen. The vast majority fall within the same personality type—people who graduate at the top of their class at M.I.T. and have no idea what to say to a woman in a bar.”
I would add something more. Some months ago, I sent letters to the upper management at Amazon. I was surprised at the number of them who were lawyers. Geeks and nerds may fill Amazon’s lower ranks and that profile may fit Bezos himself, but the typical Amazon executive seems to be a lawyer who has a ‘if it’s legal, it’s ethical’ mindset. In fact, that’s precisely the attitude I noticed in a conversation I had with an Amazon lawyer.
And finally, there’s this Orwellian aspect to Amazon noted in the article:
“Bezos said that Amazon intended to sell books as a way of gathering data on affluent, educated shoppers. The books would be priced close to cost, in order to increase sales volume. After collecting data on millions of customers, Amazon could figure out how to sell everything else dirt cheap on the Internet.”
I’ve read 68 of the books on it – some I would recommend, some I would not, but I’m certain that a case could be made for most, if not all, of the titles included. However, they clearly don’t represent the 100 books that everyone should read, I question that there even is such a list since we all have our unique backgrounds, interests, tastes and reading abilities.
Finally, Mr Mackintosh lost his credibility with me with hisUp front I have to admit that I have, and love, two Kindles: a first gen Fire & a Paperwhite, so I do have a bit of an Amazon bias. They’ve made my lifelong reading habit extremely convenient to feed with just about any book I’ve heard about or feel is a ‘must read’.
I also have a fondness for lists of books because even though I’ve averaged over 100 books read/year for the last 40 years I invariably find a title or author that I haven’t yet tried. For me lists are great, I like to explore them, I like to keep them.
That said, the fault I find with the list under discussion is simply how it was titled. ‘bucket’ comment: that seemed gratuitous and too cute by far.