Who doesn’t love a list of the best books of the year, the decade, or all time? These lists are a grounds for gushing agreement and fierce debate.
A lot of both happened when The Guardian published its list of the greatest books of the 21st century. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall was placed at number one, followed by Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, then Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Bela Shayevich.
The top five was rounded out by Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Austerlitz by WG Sebald.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas sat at number nine, My Brilliant Friend was 11 and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was number 16.
Recent bestseller Normal People by Sally Rooney was listed at number 25, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead was 30 and White Teeth by Zadie Smith was 39th on the list.
The article attracted 1800 comments. Many expressed their disbelief that their own favourite books had been left off the list, including The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr.
Some expressed a similar degree of disbelief that certain books had made it onto the list, including Gone Girl, Harvest by Jim Crace, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and even number one, Wolf Hall.
Commenters were surprised that authors including Mario Vargas Llosa, Haruki Murakami and Orhan Pamuk did not appear or the list, or if an author did appear, that their greatest book was not listed, but a lesser one.
Others argued against the legitimacy of the list at all. One commenter wrote:
“Both drawing up and critiquing a list like this is impossible. The very premise – that there are 100 books from 2000 to date that are identifiably best, and that these 100 can be objectively ranked against each other – is impossible. It’s great to get suggestions of brilliant or important books to read, and brief summaries of why books fall within that category. But the Guardian ought to be beyond this kind of unrealistic hyperbole.”
On Twitter, the article was liked by more than 1,800 users. However, not all agreed with the order of the books, and those on the list.
“My only comment on the guardian books list is that the only two books I have ever thrown across a room are both on it”
She went on to state that those books were A Little Life and Corrections. Others agreed with her and put forward their own criticisms of the list.
An emotional reaction to books was also evident when Twitter user, @alicorvere, posted:
“! Help me ! what is the ACTUAL worst book you’ve ever read? like not just a book that was disappointing or didn’t live up to your expectations… I’m talking about a book that was TERRIBLE and still makes you mad to think about it.”
The thread attracted 250 comments as users waxed lyrical about their most hated books.
I added Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which espoused the author’s belief in the supremacy of reason, individualism and capitalism. It is one of few books that I have really hated, more for its far, far right wing ideology than its writing.
As for this list, there were a lot of books that I have yet to read. I loved Wolf Hall, and plan to read Gilead. Many novels that are among my favourites appeared, including White Teeth, The Line of Beauty, Notes on a Scandal, A Visit From the Goon Squad, My Brilliant Friend and The True History of the Kelly Gang.
There were none that I hated reading.
Whatever your thoughts about The Guardian’s article, I applaud anyone brave enough to wade into the waters of booklists, and risk neglecting a reader’s beloved favourite or mentioning one that was thrown aside in disgust by another. After all, who doesn’t love a bookish debate?