End of the year review 2017

Like many of you, I have been browsing the best of the year lists. (If you missed them, Large-Hearted Boy has a huge list.) As regards best novels, I have been very disappointed. I did not come across a single novel I had not heard of. There were also relatively few books originally written in languages other than English. Worse still, there were relatively few books from small presses. Indeed, in those lists which consisted of B- and C-list celebrities naming their best books, there were almost none. As a well-known man who does not read books might have said: Sad!

A book on Bomb’s list I have not read

One of the few lists that I found of particular interest was 3 a.m.Magazine’s. You will notice that none of these books actually exists. The other best-of(?) list I really enjoyed which was not an end of the year list but just happened to be published this month was Helena Fitzgerald‘s 20 Authors I Don’t Have to Read Because I’ve Dated Men for 16 Years. I agree with many of her choices (but not all). Finally, I did enjoy Bomb magazine’s genuine and serious list.

A 1000-page novel I didn’t read

There were, as always, a load of books I intended to read but never got round to. These are mainly books originally written in English. You know the ones I mean: Lincoln in Bardo, Moonglow, The Sparsholt Affair, Jerusalem, Commonwealth, Mothering Sunday, My Absolute Darling, Solar Bones, etc. Maybe I will read them next year but, then again, maybe I won’t. I was also going to read some of the literary prize winners: Lincoln in Bardo again, Robert Menasse’s Die Hauptstadt (German Book Prize), Jonas Lüscher’s Kraft (Swiss Book Prize), Paolo Cognetti’s Le otto montagne (Italian Strega Prize and Prix Médicis étranger), which will appear in English as Eight Mountains next March, so I hope to read it soon, Alice Zeniter’s L’Art de perdre (Le Goncourt des Lycéens)… Not surprisingly I have a sweatshirt that reads So Many Books, So Little Time.

A Giono novel first published this year in English

I did, however, manage to read a hundred and thirty-two books, fewer than last year and clearly not nearly enough. Mexico was top as, in accordance with my usual custom, it was selected as the country where I read twenty books in a row, earlier this year. It was followed by fourteen from France (mainly Jean Giono and Julien Gracq), eleven from the United States, ten from Argentina and seven from Ireland (all but one by Joyce Cary). Smaller (as in less-read, not in necessarily in size) countries from which I read a book include: Barbados, Belarus, Bulgaria, Cameroon, Czech Republic, Dagestan, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, South Korea, Norway, Occitania, Palestine, Peru, Puerto Rico, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Turkey, Ukraine and Wales.

A lot of these books were published by small presses so I would like to pay tribute to Actes Sud, And Other Stories, Charco, Coffee House Press, Contra Mundum Press, Dalkey Archive, Deep Vellum, Fitzcarraldo, Glagoslav, Maclehose, New Directions, Parthian, Seagull and Unnamed Press, all of whom published some first-class novels, which I read this year. I can only urge you to browse their offerings and read their books. You won’t be disappointed. Apologies to those wonderful small presses whose work I did not get round to reading this year or (possibly) did but have forgotten to include. Without the efforts of small presses, my reading and your reading would not be nearly so interesting and they deserve your full support.

There were so many good books I read this year that it is going to be difficult to single out only a few. I did very much enjoy reading eight books by Jean Giono, all but one of which have been translated into English. He clearly has not been forgotten in English as his somewhat strange Pour saluer Melville (Melville: A Novel) was only published in English this year but his other books are all well worth reading. I very much enjoyed discovering what is happening in Mexico, a country, I think, that has been underestimated by English-speaking readers, and found some wonderful novels, not all of which, sadly, have yet appeared in English.

I continue to slowly make my way through the extensive oeuvre of César Aira and have rarely been disappointed. He is a thoroughly original writer who is more and more appearing on possible Nobel Prize winner lists. English speakers are fortunate that New Directions has published quite a few in English. And, talking of Argentinians, I finally got to grips with Martín Caparrós‘ monumental La Historia [History], a cult novel that has been very hard to find but has now been published in a new edition, though not, sadly, in English. It was worth the wait. It was also one of two books I read this year over a thousand pages in length. And, still on Argentina, Luis Sagasti‘s Bellas artes (Fireflies) was a wonderful original and quirky book from new publisher Charco Press.

I only read thirty-five works by women, not as good as last year’s forty-four. Let me mention a few. Carmen Boullosa remains one of my favourite writers. It is such a shame that only a few of her books have been translated. I will almost certainly read at least one more next year. Valeria Luiselli‘s La historia de mis dientes (The Story of My Teeth) was a very clever book. Rosa Beltrán‘s Efectos secundarios [Secondary Effects] was a first-class work on the violence in Mexico.

Of those women writers who are not Mexican, I very much enjoyed Teolinda Gersão‘s A cidade de Ulisses (City of Ulysses) which Dalkey Archive Press published in English. I have read two other books by her, neither of which has been translated into English. She really should be better known, which means more of her books should be translated into English. Doubtless being both a woman and Portuguese has kept her off the radar. Despite the lack of attention from the English-speaking world, her website is partially in English. (She studied English at university and tweets in both English and Portuguese.) Another Portuguese woman who has not received the attention she deserves in the English-speaking world (or, for that matter, in her own country) is Maria Gabriela Llansol whose Geografia de Rebeldes (Geography of Rebels trilogy) was the first book of hers published in English, by Deep Vellum. It was a strange and difficult book but well worth reading.

I was also impressed by Lize Spit‘s very dark Het smelt [The Melting], a wonderful debut novel. I am sure that you will be hearing more of this book when it finally makes it into English (not till 2019), though you can read it now in the original Flemish or in Catalan, French, German, Italian or Spanish translation. Cristina from Barcelona, for example, had it in her best of the year list.

I read a fair amount of books from Eastern Europe – Belarus, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Ukraine – every one of which I enjoyed. This is partially because UK and US publishers (primarily small presses, of course) have been publishing books from this part of the world. They have realised and I have realised that Eastern Europe is now matching Latin America as the source of some of the most interesting writing being produced. I would particularly mention Slovenia. I have visited the country twice now (once this year) and will probably do so again in the near future. It is a lovely country with lovely people. I read three books from Slovenia this year and have quite a few more to read. It is wonderful that such a small country is producing so many worthwhile novels and that they are appearing in English.

I was glad to have discovered Pierre Senges, a most original writer, whose work is starting to appear in English. Three are already out in English and I hope more are to come. I hope to read one or two more soon.

Speaking of writing in French, I was particularly impressed with Kamel Daoud‘s latest Zabor ou Les psaumes [Zabor or The Psalms], which will be appearing in English in 2019 from And Other Stories, after they have published his Chroniques: Selected Columns, 2010–2016. I thought it a better book than the well-received Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation).

Javier MaríasBerta Isla appeared in Spanish this year and will doubtless appear in English soon. It is, in my opinion, his best, about one of his favourite topics, British spies.

Yoshio Aramaki‘s 神聖代 (The Sacred Era) was published by the University of Minnesota Press, his first book in English. It does not seem to have got much publicity but that is a pity. This is perhaps because he is seen more as a science fiction writer but this one is less sci-fi than his later ones though it is set on a planet that is not Earth but resembles Earth in many ways and deals with the highly topical subject of climate change. I know someone who should perhaps read it but he won’t. Sad!

I could go through all of the books I read, as all of them are worthwhile. Indeed, there was only one bad book – Angus Robertson‘s An t-Ogha Mór: No, Am Fear-Sgeòil air Uilinn (The Ogha Mor) – and it was interesting as the first novel published in Scots Gaelic to be translated into English and the only the second novel written in Scots Gaelic.

On the technical side, I moved both the main site and blog from http to https. This is seemingly becoming more and more important as this article shows. However, apart from favour in the eyes of Google, I cannot think that readers are going to be any safer from blogs they know and trust but it does, I suppose, make you feel safer for a blog or site you do not know. When checking links, I found that a significant number of other sites have moved to https. In practical terms, it makes no difference in accessing sites. If you type in http://www.themodernnovel.org, you will be automatically and immediately forwarded to https://www.themodernnovel.org.

Next year I am looking forward to new books by Hamid Ismailov, Eugene Vodolazkin and Sara Stridsberg though I have no doubt that there will be new authors I will discover whom I shall enjoy as much. I do know that many of the most interesting translations I read will be published by small, independent presses. Long may they survive and continue to give us first-class books to read.

I also joined Twitter which I have enjoyed more than I expected, with lots of interesting info about new books and authors and publishers, not to mention photos of people’s breakfasts and unseemly and highly critical remarks about the President of the United States. It is interesting to me to note that the most active and most interesting publishers on Twitter are the small ones. The larger publishers do tweet but they are not so interesting. I have felt tempted to add the latest Trump jokes but have resisted so far.

I must close with thanks to my fellow bloggers. You can see the links to many of them on the right and up a bit. As always, I have learned a lot from them. They have read many interesting books, some I have read, many I have not. While I may not always agree with them – which is good – I have enjoyed their points of view, their pointing me to interesting books and authors and, of course, their lively interest in fine literature.

A Happy 2018 to all of you and your families and read lots of books. There are some really first-class ones that have come out recently and are coming out next year.

Latitude Festival’s Top 20 Books by Women

Apparently not a top novel
Apparently not a top novel

The Women’s Prize for Fiction has just posted Latitude Festival’s Top 20 Books by Women. What a disappointing selection! Only one originally written in a language other than English (Allende), only three others by non-UK, non-US writers (Roy, Atwood and Ngozi Adichie) and, FFS, Girl on a Train. May I politely remind them of María Luisa Bombal, Carmen Boullosa, Elizabeth Bowen, Kay Boyle, Mary Butts, A S Byatt, Angela Carter, Maryse Condé, Simone de Beauvoir, Alba de Céspedes, Ellen Douglas, Marguerite Duras, Anne Enright, Rosario Ferré, Elena Garro, Teolinda Gersâo, Natalia Ginzburg, Ellen Glasgow, Nadine Gordimer, Patricia Grace, Almudena Grandes, Han Kang, Marlen Haushofer, Qurratulain Hyder, Elfriede Jelinek, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Hiromi Kawakami, A L Kennedy, Agota Kristof, Doris Lessing, Clarice Lispector, Rosetta Loy, Dacia Maraini, Angeles Mastretta, Ana María Matute, Minae Mizumura, Elsa Morante, Herta Müller, Irène Némirovsky, Amélie Nothomb, Joyce Carol Oates, Yōko Ogawa, Anna Maria Ortese, Park Kyŏng-ni, Aline Pettersson, Elena Poniatowska, Ann Quin, Jean Rhys, Dorothy Richardson, Mercè Rodoreda, Nathalie Sarraute, Joanna Scott, Leïla Sebbar, Leslie Marmon Silko, Susan Sontag, Muriel Spark, Magda Szabó, Esther Tusquets, Ludmila Ulitskaya, Luisa Valenzuela, Marlene van Niekerk, Marina Warner, Eudora Welty, Edith Wharton, Jeanette Winterson, Virginia Woolf and Marguerite Yourcenar, to name but a few? Do Hawkins, Mosse, Moran, Kingsolver, Sebold and Shriver come before Virginia Woolf or, indeed, the other excellent writers in my list above? I think not.

America Reads

One of the favourite books in the US
One of the favourite books in the US

The Library of Congress currently has an exhibition of books people in the USA like reading. It is not an impressive list but then it is not meant to be a best-of list, only a popular list. I have to admit that I have read only thirteen of the books on the first list and only seven on the second and I do not consider it likely that I shall be reading any more. Surprises, apart from the fact that it is a complete mystery to me why anyone reads Ayn Rand, include Tim O’Brien‘s Things I carried Carried (I have read three of his books but not that one); Gravity’s Rainbow. Have people actually read it or is it just one of those books survey respondents claim to have read to show that they are well read?; Melville but no Hawthorne; no London, Wharton, Morrison, Updike, Tom Wolfe, Emily Dickinson, Poe, Angelou, Carl Sagan; relatively few women and only one African-American and no Hispanics. Only seven of my favourite US novels make the list but that is not really surprising. I have no doubt the British equivalent would not be impressive with ‘Arry Potter high on the list.

100 best English-language novels

Is this really one of the 100 greatest English-language novels?
Is this really one of the 100 greatest English-language novels?

I am a glutton for a good list but I like my lists complete. In The Observer, Robert McCrum has been giving us one a week, which is a really unsatisfactory way of doing it. When you limit yourself to 100 (or any other arbitrary figure) you have to play juggling games, putting this one in and leaving this one out. However, by showing only one a week, it has been difficult to get a sense of what is in and what is out. Yes, we could refer back to past editions of the paper but, as no running count was kept, it is was awkward and, anyway, who could be bothered? It is not as though we have been short of such lists. However, we have finally reached No 100 and, finally we have the complete list. For what it is worth, I think it is a not very good list. The early ones are more or less predictable, though I am not sure that Emma is Austen’s masterpiece nor David Copperfield Dickens’ masterpiece. I am not going to go through his complete list – you can do that and will probably have different ideas from mine but, frankly, Lolly Willowes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Babbit, Tropic of Cancer, The Big Sleep, Wodehouse. I don’t think so. BTW, I have read eighty-four of them but I shall not say which ones I have not read.

This really is one of the 100 greatest English-language novels
This really is one of the 100 greatest English-language novels

Rachel Cooke has condemned his choices, primarily because of the lack of women writers but her proposals are, I feel, worse than McCrum’s – Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day, Nancy Mitford!! Obooki has also thrown in a few of his own quirky suggestions. Marie Corelli? Aaargh! I won’t add my suggestions but you can see some of them on my website. Ballard, Butts, Byatt, Cather, Ellison, Gaddis, Gerhardie, Pynchon, Zadie Smith, Welty and Henry Williamson are some of the obvious omissions. Weak effort, McCrum, weak effort.

End of the year review

This is Lena Dunham.  I don't know who she is but she is on a lot of lists.
This is Lena Dunham. I don’t know who she is but she is on a lot of lists.

I have been following the various best of the year lists, as I enjoy a list as much as the next person. Inevitably, I have learned about some interesting books that I was not aware of. I have not learned about Lena Dunham, whoever she may be, but she does appear on a lot of lists. If you have not had enough lists, you should head over to Large-Hearted Boy who, as every year, has a long, long list of lists. His lists are only English-language ones. If you are looking for exotic lists, including those in other languages, then you need to browse through the posts at The Literary Saloon. Which you should be doing anyway, all year long.

A new read for one blogger
A new read for one blogger

I am not going to do the standard best of the year, not least because the majority of books I read and reviewed this year were not published this year. Of course, many bloggers do a list of the best books they have read, regardless of year of publication (one blogger had Catcher in the Rye on her list) and I shall do a variation of this. Most of these lists (as I am starting writing this blog post before Christmas) are surely incomplete or do these people stop reading books in Advent? This post, as you will note, is being published on 1 January 2015, so I can report on everything I read in 2014. I shall start with a few stats.

Laxness' house which I visited last year and read one of his books
Laxness’ house which I visited last year and read one of his books

I reviewed 171 books last year. 47 were by women. The most represented nationality was Iceland, with 20, because of my winter Iceland reading marathon, followed by France, with seventeen, Japan with fourteen (all but one by Tanazaki), England thirteen, Italy and Spain nine, Guyana (all by Wilson Harris) and the US eight each and Germany six. As always, there is little or no significance to these statistics.

So a few more lists:

Best book I read published in 2014:
Javier CercasEl Impostor [The Impostor] (yes, the last book I read last year)
Honourable mentions
Lutz Seiler‘s Kruso
Kamel Daoud‘s Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation)
Jorge Franco‘s El mundo de afuera [The World Outside]

This is not a conscious attempt to exclude books written in English but just the way it worked out.

Perhaps the best book I read last year
Perhaps the best book I read last year

Best books I read not published in 2014:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah
Rodolfo Arias FormosoGuirnaldas (bajo tierra) [Garlands (Underground)]
Rafael Chirbes: En la orilla [On the Shore]
Hans Henny Jahnn‘s Die Niederschrift des Gustav Anias Horn nachdem er 49 Jahre alt geworden war [The Notebook of Gustav Anias Horn after he was 49 years old]
Antonio Muñoz Molina‘s La noche de los tiempos (UK: The Depths of Time; US: In the Night of Time)
Irène Némirovsky: Suite française (Suite française)
Francesco Piccolo‘s Il desiderio di essere come tutti [The Desire to be Like Everyone]
Thomas Piketty: Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping
Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters)
Marlene van Niekerk: Triomf (Triomf)

Ten books, four by women, only two originally written in English and with Spain the only country to have more than one on the list.

Other categories:
Authors I should have read a long time ago but somehow never got around to reading:
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Irène Némirovsky; Marilynne Robinson
(All women. Shame on me!)

Disappointments
Carmen Amoraga; Wilson Harris
I was really looking forward to reading Wilson Harris last year but I have found him a hard slog. Carmen Amoraga won the Nadal but I found her La vida era eso [Such Was Life] very ordinary.

Did not live up to the hype
Did not live up to the hype

Didn’t live up to the hype
Richard Flanagan; Eimear McBride; Gonçalo M. Tavares
I have read a couple of other Flanagans and was not overly impressed so, initially, I kept away from The Narrow Road to the Deep North. However, it got rave reviews in Australia and was nominated for and then won the Man Booker. It was not a bad book but not as good as it was made out to be. Tavares was a disappointment, particularly Um Homem: Klaus Klump (O Reino (The Kingdom) series) (A Man: Klaus Klump). And I just did not get A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. As it won oodles of prizes, it must be me.

The World Literature Forum has been having an an interesting discussion on 5 Authors You Want To Read For the First Time, 5 Authors You Want To Read More, 5 Books You Want To Read and 1 Reading-Related Goal for 2015. This evolved into Five authors I don’t want to read for the first time, Five authors I don’t want to read more of and Five books I wish I hadn’t read and then split off into a separate thread. I was glad to see that the likes of Knausgaard and Flanagan made the lists (and others I would agree with and some I would not agree with). This leads me on to my next category.

Books/authors I abandoned in 2014
I don’t often give up a book after I have started reading it but there were two this year. The first was Sam Byers’ Idiopathy. This is a new young English writer who had been shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award 2013 (won by Nathan Filer for his The Shock of the Fall, another book I intend to least to start reading some time). I felt Idiopathy was just silly and gave it up. The other one was more of a disappointment. I think that Alberto Chimal‘s La torre y el jardín [The Tower and the Garden] was a brilliantly original book which, for some reason, has not been translated (though that might be changing). I was therefore looking forward to his Los Esclavos [The Slaves]. It turned out to be porn. It tells the story of a woman who runs a porn film business. The female star of her porn films is also her slave, both sexually and otherwise. I get that Chimal was writing about control and victims but I found the whole thing repulsive. I am not a prude – I enjoy a bit of porn as much as the next person – but this one really put me off. Apparently, McSweeneys are publishing it in English so you will be able to judge for yourself. And I have also, finally, give up Karl Ove Knausgård. I just do not see what people see in him.

Blogs
Finding out about interesting new books used to be quite difficult. There were the special supplements in the weekend newspapers, specialist reviews and books on literary matters. Nowadays, like most people I suspect, I find out much of my information from other blogs and from other online sources. I have nearly 500 literary(-ish) blogs in my news reader and, skimming through them twice a day, I find lots and lots of useful information that I would not find elsewhere. I could pay tribute to a large number but I will focus on just a few. This is not to put down the others, many of which have provided useful information, but just to point out the ones deserving of special mention.

I do not think that it is any secret that the most important literary blog out there is The Literary Saloon. Michael Orthofer produces a wealth of interesting information 365 days a year (and 366 in leap years) as well as reviewing a whole range of interesting books. If you haven’t see his year in review, you can find out more.
One new blog this year that I have very much enjoyed is The Untranslated, though he actually started in November 2013. As the title says, he focuses on works that have not been translated into English. I have been particularly interested in his Russian readings and they make me feel that I really should resume my Russian studies. I have read one book in Russian in my life – Lermontov’s Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time), one of my favourite novels – but it was a hard slog.
There are four blogs I particularly enjoy which tend to focus on specific linguistic areas:
Arabic Literature (in English) is by far your best source for what is going on in literature in the Arabic-speaking world
Lizok’s Bookshelf is another blog that makes me want to resume my Russian studies and she is continually reporting on interesting new works that have appeared in Russian. (She also reports on older works as well.)
Love German Books is the best blog for what is happening in the literary world in German-speaking countries.
Caravana de Recuerdos is one of the best sites on Latin American literature. Despite the title, it is (mainly) in English. If you have ever wanted to learn about Argentinean literature of doom, you should be reading his recent posts.
As for other blogs, I must mention Ivan ThaysMoleskine. The blog is (mainly) in Spanish and he reports on Latin American literature but other literary matters of interest as well. Thays is a Peruvian novelist who is barely known in the English-speaking world, not least because none of his book has been translated into English. I have a review of one of his books on my site.
Four more blogs to mention:
Tony’s Reading List is a quirky but lively book review blog. He has been reading a lot from South Korea recently, one of the all too many areas where I have not read enough.
Three Percent is the University of Rochester’s international literature blog and producer of the essential Translation Database.
The Neglected Books Page comes up with a whole range of interesting neglected books, mainly, though by no means entirely, those originally written in English.
Wood’s Lot is a wonderful blog with literary snippets, illustrated with paintings, and links to interesting articles.
Many thanks to all of these blogs and their bloggers as well as to the other 500 or so other blogs that I have not mentioned but enjoyed throughout the year.

And finally

Apparently people from 137 different countries have visited my blog. Many thanks to all of you for stopping by and a Happy New Year to you all. No, a Happy New Year to most of you. Every day, I get about 125 spam attempts and about five hacking attempts. All are blocked with the wonderful plug-ins I have. But just a note to the potential hackers (who are mainly Chinese, followed by Russian). My userid is not admin and my password is not password. There is no point in hacking into my site, as I have no personal details about anybody on it. No credit card numbers, no social security numbers, no e-mail addresses. And, if you do try to hack in, you will be blocked. There are better things you could be doing, such as reading a book. Both China and Russia have produced some excellent works, both recently and in the past. Reading them will be much more enjoyable and rewarding than hacking into my site. A Reduced Happy New Year to the spammers and hackers and two resolutions for them – Get a life and read some books.

20 best British and Irish novels of all time

If this is one of the 20,000 best English & Irish novels, then I am James Joyce's brother
If this is one of the 20,000 best English & Irish novels, then I am James Joyce’s brother

The Daily Telegraph has published what it laughingly calls the 20 best British and Irish novels of all time. Three are ludicrous choices – Jilly Cooper, The Sea, The Sea and The Sea. One is a US writer. Henry James took British citizenship just a few months before he died, well after he had written all his famous novels, and is generally agreed to be a US and not British writer. Boyd and Spark are, presumably, included as token Scots. Powell and Burgess are enjoyable enough and are certainly fine writers but not really in the twenty greatest. The same could be said for Graves and Powell. I would not include D H Lawrence but, if I did, it would not be Lady C but Sons and Lovers or Women in Love. And no Bronte? Disgraceful!

But this is one of the 20 best British novels
But this is one of the 20 best British novels

So here is my list. It’s (fairly) idiosyncratic. Most people would not agree, including, probably, me tomorrow. No Austen, no Welsh novels and only five women. But it is hell of a lot better than the Daily Telegraph’s list.

Which Books Should We Stop Calling Classics?

Someone thought it worth reading
Someone thought it worth reading

Flavorwire has a post on Which Books Should We Stop Calling Classics?, asking a handful of critics, writers, and publishing industry people for their views. Interestingly, only three authors made the list more than once – James Joyce for both Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Ayn Rand, who is not even vaguely a classic and never has been but is an awful writer and To Kill a Mockingbird, a book, I must confess, I have never read but I have seen the film, which made me think that I probably shall never read the book. I was also glad to see someone mention Updike (though, sadly, no-one mentioned Philip Roth, whom we certainly could do without.) This has been done before. Brigid Brophy and her husband Michael Levey, and Charles Osborne produced a book called Fifty works of English literature we could do without and others have produced similar lists. I could add many more to the list – Hemingway, D H Lawrence and Solzhenitsyn are three obvious candidates and Mailer is now joining the list. I could never read George Meredith but then, I suppose, few people read him anyway. The same could be said for Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress. I am sure that we all have our candidates but, as some of the writers in the Flavorwire article said, we should be thinking more about adding to the canon, not cutting it. Now, for that I do have a list.

Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime

Essential reading?  I don't think so
Essential reading? I don’t think so

The Amazon editors have produced a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime, with an associated Goodreads’ 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime: Readers’ Picks (Amazon, of course, own Goodreads). (Note that this list is on US Amazon; it does not appear to be on the other Amazons.) I enjoy a good list but I must say this one had me bemused. I have read forty-two and may read another three-four on the list. In other words, I shall never read just over half of them. These include a lot of children’s books, memoirs with a US bias and popular fiction (can you really not get through life without reading Gone Girl, The Hunger Games, The Valley of the Dolls and The Shining? Well, I have managed and have no plans to read any of these four. Nor Have I read Peyton Place, which is missing from their trashy novels.) But you have to wonder about many others. Are A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Breath, Eyes, Memory, Dune, Interpreter of Maladies, Life After Life, Of Human Bondage, The Giver and The World According to Garp that worthy? No. I would argue that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Love in the Time of Cholera and The Age of Innocence are not even their author’s best book. And, as far as I can see, Great Expectations and Pride and Prejudice are the only pre-20th century books (Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Brontës, George Eliot, Flaubert, Balzac, Trollope, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Twain, Hardy, James, Melville, Hawthorne, Stendhal, etc. all missing.) There are only four books originally written in a language other than English – Love in the Time of Cholera, The Little Prince, The Stranger and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. No Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Cervantes, Vargas Llosa, Chinese classics, Mann, Proust, Pasternak, Sartre, etc. As for the other books omitted, I could write pages, as could any of you. I could go on for hours but I won’t. This is a terribly sloppy list and Amazon should be ashamed of themselves.

Who’s the most significant historical/literary figure?

The most influential Englishman?
The most influential Englishman?

The Guardian had an article about the most significant historical/literary figures of all time. To do this, they claim to use a principled assessment of a person’s achievements, whatever that may mean. They examine various sources but their primary source is Wikipedia where they look for length of article, Google Page rank and number of hits. (For those that do not know Page rank has nothing to with web pages but is named after Google’s Larry Page; it measures the quality and number of links to a page.) The authors have published a book on this which is called Who’s Bigger? and have been criticised, they say, for various reasons. These reasons include the unreliability of Wikipedia (which they reject) and their Anglocentrism which they partially admit but only partially. I have numerous criticisms which I shall use to criticise two of their lists – the overall top 30 and the top 50 literary figures (scroll down the article to find both of these).

Not so influential
Not so influential

The failure of their first list can be seen by the first entry, as it is a fictional figure. (Contrary to what many people will try and tell you, there is absolutely no reliable evidence whatsoever for the existence of Jesus. There is some rudimentary evidence for his non-existence, namely that contemporaries did not write about him.) If you are going to have such figures, then God should be ahead of Jesus and Allah ahead of Mohammed. And what about Buddha who probably did exist and is surely more important than Ulysses S Grant and Beethoven? There are other significant omissions, Mao and Lenin being obvious ones. As for their inclusions, there are three Americans in the top ten, a country that has only existed for 250 years, all ahead of Columbus (No 20), without whom there would have been no US as we know it. The top Englishman is Shakespeare. However important he was as a writer and however interesting, his influence on world events was paltry. Indeed, his influence on events in England (no Scots, Welsh or Irish in the top thirty) was far less than Henry VIII (11), Elizabeth I (13), Queen Victoria (16) as well as a host of others who do not appear – William I, Henry II, Henry V, Simon de Montfort, Oliver Cromwell, the Duke of Wellington, Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli, Lloyd George, Churchill and many others I could think of. The reason for this is clear. Shakespeare is a) interesting and therefore people write about him, link to him and read his Wikipedia page; b) he is known to people and taught around the world, whereas many of the British politicians I have mentioned will not be known outside the UK, despite their importance and influence; c) he wrote a lot of plays, there is still a controversy about him (who wrote Shakespeare?) and he is still performed all over the world, so his Wikipedia article is likely to be long (it is nearly 12000 words in length) (though he is behind Henry VII, around 16500, Elizabeth I, around 13000, Queen Victoria, around 12500, Churchill, around 22000, William I, around 14500, Oliver Cromwell, around 16000, the Duke of Wellington, around 165000, Lloyd George, around 17000, with the others getting less. Henry V, for example, barely tops 3000). The likes of Simon de Montfort, despite their primary importance in English history, are not very interesting even to the English and far less so to other nationalities. Educated foreigners are far more likely to have heard of Shakespeare than de Montfort, even though de Montfort was far more important and had more influence.

Have you read his Wikipedia page?
Have you read his Wikipedia page?

To pursue this argument from another perspective, let’s take Adolf Hitler. Most educated people will have heard of him and therefore will be less inclined to read his page. I have never looked at it till just now, to do the word count (around 19000 words). However, I have looked at numerous Wikipedia pages of obscure authors and historical figures, just because I knew little about them, so while the number of hits may have some validity, it may well not tell the true story. Hitler’s article length will be long as a) he was, of course, very controversial, b) he did a lot of things (directly and indirectly) during his life and c) his life and activities are very well documented. Simon de Montfort is almost certainly not as well documented so there will be less to say about him. Others may have done only one or two key things in their life. Gavrilo Princip, for example, who is not on the list but, without whom, we would probably never have heard of Adolf Hitler, did just one thing in his life of import so only merits just over 2000 words. No, he is not as significant as Hitler but, in terms of the influence he had on our world, he is certainly as important as Shakespeare. My final concern is anglocentricity. Twelve of the people on the list are English mother tongue. Sixteen spoke a European language. Only two – Jesus and Mohammed – spoke a non-European tongue. I have already mentioned Buddha and Mao but there are many others of import from the rest of the world who do not appear – from Asia: Mao, Gandhi, Indira Gandhi, Nehru, Confucius, Lao Tse; Emperor Hirohito, Akito Morita, Genghis Khan, Harun-al-Rashid, Yassir Arafat, Nasser, Mehmed II; from Latin America: Simon Bolivar, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara; from Africa: Jan Smuts, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Léopold Senghor, Haile Selassie, Cleopatra… And so on. I am sure that you get the picture. All of these are more important – a lot more important – than Theodore Roosevelt (famous for a) charging up San Juan Hill (irrelevant for most people outside Spain and the US) and b) slaughtering a lot of innocent animals (No 23 on the list) and Beethoven (yes, he wrote a few good tunes) (No 27 on the list). They are probably, for the most part, more important than Queen Victoria who was a constitutional monarch and therefore had little influence and who spent much of her life in mourning for her late husband. Their answer to the charge of anglocentricity is yes, our rankings have an Anglocentric bias. But the depth of Wikipedia is so great that there are hundreds of articles about Chinese poets in the English edition., which must be one of the most inept defences I have ever seen. This list is massively anglocentric; it contains no Chinese poets (because most Westerners know little and care less about Chinese poets); it ignores many far more significant people from elsewhere, as I have shown. And I have not even touched on scientists/inventors – from Arkwright and Pasteur and Watt and Edison and Benz to Jobs and Gates, all of whom have had far more influence on our lives than Shakespeare.

Tagore - the only non-US/European writer in the top 50
Tagore – the only non-US/European writer in the top 50

It was not my intention to go on as much about the main list, so let me jump to the literary list. Three Americans in the top ten and five in the top twenty; three Brits in the top ten and nine in the top twenty (plus one if you count an Irishman who was a British citizen during his life). Tagore is the only writer in the list in the top fifty who is not European or American and even he was part of the British Empire during his life. No doubt Michael Gove would approve and he may approve of the fact that only two women – Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson (a ludicrous choice) – make the list (the Brontë sisters, Mary Wollstonecraft, Murasaki Shikibu, George Eliot, Harriet Beecher Stowe, J K Rowling (who has influenced far more readers than Dickinson), Simone de Beauvoir, Rachel Carson, Enid Blyton and Virginia Woolf are all missing in action). We know, of course, that Wikipedia is massively male-centric. The 20th century writers are Stephen King, H G Wells, George Orwell, James Joyce, T S Eliot and, perhaps, Henry James and Tagore, who both wrote some books in the 20th century – three Americans (albeit two of whom were British citizens), two Brits, one Indian and one Irishman (also a British citizen). Magic realism (García Márquez, Rushdie), Africans who have influenced an entire continent (Senghor, Soyinka, Mahfouz, Achebe), various non-Anglophone Europeans who have had more influence than James and Eliot (Grass, Mann, Kafka, Proust, Sartre, Camus) – all missing in action. Do people read Wells or James, outside academic institutions? Well, yes a, few do but not many and their influence is much reduced. This really is a sloppy list and its criteria are even sloppier. This proves, as we have seen elsewhere, letting geeks judge history and literature is not often a good idea.

Best of 2013

The best book I read in 2013
The best book I read in 2013

I have been watching the best of 2013 lists with interest not least because, pedant as I am, 2013 only finished a few hours ago so it did not seem to comment till today. While it was unlikely a brilliant new book would be published in the last couple of weeks of the year, it was more than possible that I and other critics would not get round to reading some of these books till the end of the year. I am not going to comment too much on these many lists – you can see a fairly complete list of lists at Large-Hearted Boys’s site – except to say that I seem to be the only person who has not read Kevin Power’s Yellow Birds (I promise to do so sometime – really.) What did somewhat disappoint me (though not surprise me) is that most of the best of lists, even those in the posh newspapers, consisted almost entirely of books written originally in English. There were virtually no books in foreign languages (unlike similar lists in French, German, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish) and not all that many translated books. There were, of course, the usual honourable exceptions, namely those blogs/websites that do cover translations but they were few and far between. To my surprise, I read nineteen books last year published in 2013 though the best (see above left) was published in 2012. This book and seven of the books that I read that were published in 2013 are not (yet) available in English.

What the French liked in 2013
What the French liked in 2013

In other languages, the situation was different. It would seem that no great novels were published in Portuguese last year as most Portuguese bloggers opted for books translated mainly though not entirely from English. The French liked Pierre Lemaitre‘s Au revoir là-haut [Goodbye, Up There] which I did enjoy but do not consider to be a great work of literature. It will be published in English next year. The Spanish opted for Rafael ChirbesEn la Orilla [On the Shore] which I plan to read soon. Sadly, apart from his first novel, Chirbes has not been translated into English which is a great pity as he is a very fine writer. The Italians were like the Portuguese, opting more for foreign language books, though the new Mazzantini (Splendore), the new Ferrante (Storia di chi fugge e di chi resta [The Story of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay]) and Martino Gozzi’s Mille volte mi ha portato sulle spalle [A Thousand Times, he Carried me on His Shoulders] about an Italian TV scriptwriter who wants to make a film about the love affair between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt got some traction. Terézia Mora‘s Das Ungeheuer [The Monster] got the votes in Germany as did Clemens Meyer‘s Im Stein [In Stone]. Katy Derbyshire says that the Mora will be published in the US by HarperCollins/Ecco. Lizok has her favourite Russian books while Marcia Qualey has a superb post on Arab writers’ favourites.

I have no predictions for next year except to say I am looking forward to the new Murakami (which you can already read in Italian, Spanish and other languages). Flavorwire has its 15 Most Anticipated Books of 2014 though I cannot imagine I will read many of them and other such lists have not inspired me. Of course, what I am looking forward to is a new book by an author I have not read of which is original and inspiring. Sadly, it is probable that it won’t be written or even be available in English. Have a Happy New Year.