Dateline: Sussex, England—Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Vicar has ‘horrifying’ statue of crucifixion removed from church
Resin sculpture that ‘scared children and deterred worshippers’ to be replaced by steel cross

[IM thread from this morning:]

ajh: there’s something profound in that, but I am writing code so can’t articulate it. it gets my conservative hackles all up, though.

me: it’s the Photoshop century.

ajh: awesome. gotta wonder how many of those kids were on their way back from Batman Begins, though.

maybe if Batman was on the cross it would be OK!

me: he died for George Clooney’s sins, and then came back from the dead for another round of profitable sequels.

ajh: or was it Val Kilmer? I always get these creation stories mixed up…


This little nugget was published by the Wall Street Journal just in time for Christmas on December 23, but just came to my attention today (I guess I’m getting this in under the gun on the 12th day of Christmas):

“Prophet Sharing: The Good Book Is the Best Seller”

My attention was especially attracted by this ‘graph:

It’s an astonishing fact that year after year, the Bible is the best-selling book in America—even though 90% of households already have at least one copy. The text doesn’t vary, except in translation. The tremendous sales volume, an estimated 25 million copies sold each year, is largely driven by innovations in design, color, style and the ultimate niche marketing.

According to this Wikipedia article, in all-time global sales, the Bible looks pretty far ahead of any competition, with estimates ranging from 2.5 to 6 billion copies sold.  The only other book even in its league is Mao’s Little Red Book.

For an interesting take on the challenges of assembling an all-time greatest-books list in the 21st century, check out this article from Harvard MagazineThe “Five-foot Shelf” Reconsidered: Revising a monument from a more humane and confident time.

At the end of the article, readers are invited to submit their own picks of the greatest books, but submitters are asked to exclude 29 authors as “likely consensus choices”—and it so happens that this includes 14 authors/works that were entirely passed over by the Globe list:

  • Tao Te Ching
  • Bhagavad-Gita (part of the Mahabharata, I realize, but see earlier discussion)
  • Confucius
  • Aristotle
  • Aeschylus
  • Euripides
  • Aristophanes
  • Virgil
  • Hobbes
  • Locke
  • Hegel
  • Emerson
  • Thoreau
  • Einstein

I believe I’ll be coming back to the Harvard Classics in a future post.

I’m pausing briefly here to comment on the “additions” to “the canon,” i.e., the Globe & Mail book choices for the which the authors weren’t previously certified canonical by the aforementioned Great Books of the Western World of Britannica.

Here they are:

The Mahabharata
The Qur’an
The Tale of Genji
The Decameron
The King James Bible
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
Madame Bovary
Alice in Wonderland
The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats
Silent Spring
One Hundred Years of Solitude

Now, clearly the Globe hasn’t gone out on many limbs here.  Perhaps the most daring choice is Silent Spring, which could lay a legitimate claim to being the founding text of the environmental movement, but, like the similarly important Vindication of the Rights of Woman, perhaps is not so commonly singled out for its literary greatness (not that literary quality has been a consistent criterion of the list; e.g. Newton’s Principia).

Pretty much all of the other titles mentioned here have been canonized in Penguin, or Oxford World’s Classics, or Everyman editions, with the exception of the Yeats anthology which exists in editions copyrighted by Macmillan, Scribners, Wordsworth, Prentice-Hall.

The Decameron has made quite the comeback, or upsurge, in literary status; possibly seen as too trashy by past generations of literary gatekeepers?

For my money, the most ill-considered choice was The Mahabharata, which has never, to my knowledge, been translated fully into English.  What exactly would have been the problem with making the Bhagavad Gita the Hindu choice?  It is respected, beloved, translated into many languages, and—unlike the full-length Sanskrit original of the Mahabharata—read. And in an English-language newspaper’s list, why choose a text that a reader of English can never read?  

Diderot’s Encyclopédie was another such choice; one might say that the most significant departure that the Globe list has made from such previous lists as Britannica’s (or Harvard’s) is the abandonment of the idea that drove the previous generation of canonizers—the idea that the point of packaging the “great books” for the common reader is to enable one to read them.

At least the DWEM quotient for this list-within-the-list comes down about 14 percentage points to a lighter 78%.

I rather regret the way that the choices have taken the fetishization of difficulty to an almost absurd extreme, but another part of me has found myself irresistibly rising to the challenge. In future posts I hope to detail my attempts to find the most readable edition options for the Globe picks—a process which has sometimes rather felt like going against the very grain of the list.  I also plan to propose a kind of short, whistle-stop tour of some of the 50 choices, for those who, quite legitimately, find many of the books on the list overly challenging or even impenetrable.

I think my first encounter with the acronym for Dead White European Males was in a critical theory course I took as an English undergrad in 1991/92. 

I guess you could say that, even though I’m quite open to the claims of greatness for most of the books on the list, I still retain a layer of that skepticism about the traditional canon that I picked in my student days.

I think it safe to say that, for the most part, the Globe and Mail 50 Greatest list is a re-affirmation of the canon of Great Books that was assembled in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to put a numerical percentage on that.

In measuring the DWEM factor, I have weighted the four categories: deadness, whiteness, Europeanness, and maleness, evenly.  I have split Europeanness evenly between European language and European provenance.

Books by now-dead writers: 49
Books by now-living writers: 1

Books by white writers: 46
Books by non-white writers: 4

Books by European authors: 40
Books by non-European authors: 10
Books in a European language: 47
Books in a non-European language: 3

Books by male writers: 45
Books by female writers: 5

(49+46+(40+47)/2+45)/200 =  91.75% DWEM

Finally, for the record, it should be noted that fully 31 of the 50 choices appeared, at least in part, in Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World in 1952, and a further 6 of the authors were represented by other texts.  That leaves only 14 authors/texts out of the 50 on the Globe list that were not considered canonical in 1952.

On December 20, The Globe and Mail Books section revealed the final choice of its 50 Greatest Books list that it rolled out, one book per week, over the course of 2008—and then promptly went on a three week break.

When the series was first introduced on January 5 last year, Books editor Martin Levin said:

The 50 will not be ranked in order. We figure just choosing them is adventurous enough. The entries will be derived from discussions among members of our panel of experts (as if anyone’s really expert). 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.

But with the Books section being merged into the Globe’s “Focus” section when it returns January 10, it’s not clear whether this long-awaited reveal is actually forthcoming. It was simply not mentioned in the final installment on December 20.

Some final stats:

Average length
800 pages (I’ve commented on this elsewhere)

By region
Continental Europe:  23 books
Britain & Ireland: 17
USA: 5
Asia: 3
Africa: 1
South America: 1

By century
20th: 12 books
19th: 14
18th: 7
17th: 5
16th: 2
14th: 2
11th: 1
7th: 1
4th: 2
4th BCE: 1
5th BCE: 2
8th BCE: 1

By original language
English: 20 books
French: 7
German: 5
Greek: 4
Italian, Spanish, Russian: 3 each
Latin: 2
Arabic, Sanskrit, Japanese: 1 each

By gender
male writers: 45
female writers: 5

By mortality
dead writers: 49
living writers: 1 

More about the 50 Greatest list to come…