On best books ever

Is the best book the same as favourite book?

My friend NeoWatercolour asked me this question. The first seemingly obvious answer was “no”. These are two different words, so they must mean two different things. Right? Apparently not.

I spent some time googling for the “goodness” criteria in Booker or Pulitzer prizes. Guess what? There’s none. It’s up to judges to choose the best book, and they choose the best book according to their personal opinions, i.e. they choose the one they like the most. Thus, the difference between “the best” and “favourite” comes to nothing here. The “official” best books are those that were simply liked the most by people who made books their profession. Thus, when it comes to best book lists the main question is who made those lists.

Human brain adapts to impressions. In 1896 a black-and-white silent movie about an approaching train horrified the audience in the theatre. Now they need a 3D system and surround sound to be that impressed. A similar thing happens in the world of books, although it’s not linear (Tolstoy wrote better than many modern authors). The more a person reads the more demanding she gets of characters, dialogues, language and plots. In Primary school a teacher asked me to speak about my favourite book in front of the class. I loved the book so much I accidentally persuaded the whole group of eight-year-olds, who hated reading, to line up to borrow my book. When I was eight that book was in my “best books ever” shortlist, but the list was indeed short. Today, the book wouldn’t get there.

Your personal experience influences your opinion too. People like the books that they can relate to. That creates a tricky situation when at one moment of your life you like the book and at another one you don’t.

Some best books were pioneers in a genre, so they stay in the lists out of respect to them or a habit. In the same way that the 50-second silent black-and-white movie about the train has 7.4 IMDb points.

Thus, there is no such thing as the best book ever. There are only lists of best books according to someone and then you have to choose whether to trust the source or not.

I, for example, stopped trusting Nobel Prize in Literature after it was awarded to Orhan Pamuk. I had only one encounter with his work but that was enough for me to never come close to his books again. It was a physical copy of Snow which I had to go and urgently discard, and wash my hands of it. The language was too primitive. It might have been a problem of translation but only if the translator had malignantly crippled the book.

In my experience I only once found the list that I could trust. I trusted the list because I tried several books from it and liked them all. The list was originally posted in a Wikipedia article called “100 best novels of all time” but then the article mysteriously disappeared. Only thanks to Reddit was I able to recover the list. Apparently, it has been posted in an article under a different name. I’d suggest to save the list in case it disappears again. It really has many worthwhile titles.

What about you? Which best books lists do you follow?

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