IT’S a classic after-dinner party question and pub banter poser, one that has been mulled over since Gutenberg gave us movable type printing — What’s your favourite book ever?
Well, we’ve decided to ask the whole country in one go and will gather together a definitive top 100 best books of all time.
And as a nation of bookworms, it’s a question that we always give serious thought to. Not for us the throwaway answer — no, our text lives mean far too much to us not to give the query due consideration.
We are experts in reading and writing. Almost every Irish person over the age of 15 is literate. Four of our authors have won the Nobel prize for literature (Seamus Heaney, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and WB Yeats), another legion found massive international success (James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Maeve Binchy, Eoin Colfer), and many more Irish names continually make it onto prestigious writing prize shortlists (John Connolly, Colm Tóibín, Kevin Barry, Emma Donoghue). We also have an army of poets, biographers and historians whose work deserves no less praise than their counterparts in fiction.
So, we’ve established that the Irish are the perfect nation to ask what is the best book ever. But what do we mean by ‘best’ and, for that matter, what do we mean by ‘book’?
Thankfully, the ongoing debate over printed books and electronic books is relevant to the challenge — determining the best books ever written. We are concerned with the message, not the medium. It is true that sales of ebooks are soaring and publishers of traditional books are hugely concerned for the future of paper titles. However, when we say ‘book’ it does not matter if the text was ink or pixel, or if it was begged, borrowed or stolen. Also, a book of poetry or a collection of essays qualifies as much as a novel. So too do sports biographies, children’s books, self-help books, short story anthologies, plays and religious texts. Lists of bestselling books usually snub the Bible and Quran, but why should we ban such widely read volumes — and the source material for a host of Hollywood blockbusters? Nor should we be snobbish and overlook the recent rise in ‘adult’ fiction. One woman’s inane erotica is another woman’s masterpiece.
And what of the publishing sector’s grá for book series? Nowadays, as in the film industry, authors who can produce sequels and trilogies have a better chance at landing a publishing contract. Harry Potter worked his magic over the course of seven novels and Jack Reacher will be let loose this year for the 19th time. An argument can be made that the Potterverse and Lee Childs’ antihero stories count as single books. Who are we to argue? After all, it is guaranteed that The Lord of the Rings will lay siege to our top 100 list and many will count that as one book and not a trilogy.
When it comes to using the word ‘best’, it’s all about personal choice. Or is it? Can we glean from bestseller lists which titles will top the poll?
For instance, the bestselling book of last year, according to the eminent New York Times, was Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Is it good enough to be someone’s best ever book? Or will it make it into the top 100 simply because it’s still being read and spoken about today? Books that have stood the test of time in terms of sales must surely be the ones to make it onto the list. If this is true then prepare to see the adventures of Don Quixote take a tilt at the title, since Cervantes’ book has shifted somewhere between 300m and 500m copies since it was published in 1605. Add to that a cosmology professor’s explanations of the Big Bang and black holes, since Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time recently topped the Sunday Times’ list of bestselling books since it began collating sales 40 years ago. Interestingly, only 37 of the 100 titles are novels.
In the end, sales lists are simply snapshots of what is popular, not necessarily what is great. To seek out fine literature we should peruse shortlists compiled by book prize judges. For 2013, Gone Girl would vanish and be replaced with: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton, which won the Man Booker; or Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which took the Costa award; or our own Roddy Doyle’s The Guts, which scooped the top gong at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. These were books considered ‘great’ by critics, experts who know a thing or two about literature. This does not mean that their choices would be met with instant agreement at a dinner party or down at the pub.
Good books grow in stature over time. The more you mull them over, the more you like them. Your favourite book may have come to you at a crucial time in your life, or you may have read it somewhere meaningful to you.
No matter the whens and wheres, we want to know what your ‘best’ book is. It may not have been a worldwide publishing phenomenon. It could be an obscure work by an unknown author. It might be a classic or it might be controversial.
Get voting online now and book your favourite a place on Ireland’s Top 100 Books of All Time.
1 Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
2 Fifty Shades of Grey, EL James
3 Inferno, Dan Brown
4 And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini
5 The Forgotten, David Baldacci
(Source: The New York Times)
(Excluding religious titles and/or text books):
1 Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes – 300 million+
2 A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens – 200 million.
3 Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien – 150 million
4 The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery – 140 million
5 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling – 107 million