One fears for Robert McCrum’s ocular health. Fiction and non-fiction writer and literary journalist McCrum recently completed his selection for The Guardian of the 100 best non-fiction books of all time – which followed his selection of the 100 best novels written in English, published in 2015.
McCrum spent two years choosing which masterpieces of imagination to anoint; and another two years bestowing his blessing on works ostensibly founded on fact – even though his non-fiction roll-call includes, bizarrely, drama (Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett) and poetry (TS Eliot’s The Waste Land; North by Seamus Heaney). “All time” is a long time, so peering in deep concentration at each book in the service of his weekly newspaper review column, McCrum must have found himself going cross-eyed now and again, given the intensity of his task; as many members of his audience must also have done, but for different reasons.
It’s probably safe to say that neither of his diligently assembled greatest-hits lists has generated the sort of frank exchange of views in the pub that might be prompted by arguments about Oscar winners or the all-time world’s greatest footballer. That’s not to say social-media comments on McCrum’s alleged biases, proclivities and cultural outlook haven’t been, at times, spiky or even outraged.
For even taking on the task of reading and assessing not just the 100 “winners”, but also books that didn’t make the cut, McCrum should be heartily commended. Yet, for the second time, the co-author of, most famously, the “biography” of the English language, The Story of English (which was also an Emmy Award-bagging television series), is on a hiding to nothing with his inventory. Because meticulous it may be, but it doesn’t identify itself as a Western catalogue stuffed full of Anglo-American works, no matter how monumental those works are – well, many of them. And then, of course, there’s the matter of personal preference for books dear to the social-media user’s heart – coupled with snorting derision for particular titles selected by the published expert seemingly handing down from on high what amounts to a prayer book of sacred titles.
Cue indignation from numerous commentators. “A nothing list,” said one. “What a waste of time. No discernible logic or coherence. Non-fiction is a specific genre – it doesn’t include poetry and drama … it’s a long time since I’ve been so irritated!”
“A strange list biased towards the recent, the literary, the political and the popular,” complained another. “Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is a popularisation. The only serious science book I could find was Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Literary people do not seem to read serious scientific or mathematically orientated work. What about Bertrand Russell’s enormously influential The Principles of Mathematics?”
And driving home the point that the globe is, in fact, bigger than some authors and journalists seem to think, another reader weighed in with: “Can white Westerner[s] stop claiming their tastes extend to the entire world or carry any weight at all? Nothing interesting or progressive here; very conservative reading. We should encourage white Western readers who spend two years of their lives thinking up these ‘best of’ lists to engage more with world literature. It’s always the same sort of predictable list.”
What, then, could cause such ire? Which of McCrum’s books, topics of pub arguments or not, could raise readers’ hackles thus? Fascinating enough as the early memoir of a political luminary, Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father might have a certain “recentivism” and a cult of personality to thank for its star billing, with one commentator claiming that president number 44 (43 by some reckonings) “has no literary talent to speak of”. Several correspondents understandably protested that the King James Bible: The Authorised Version had no place on the list and should instead have figured in the fiction Hot 100. Alongside Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb – and the great man himself with The First Folio. Still others pointed out that The Bible wasn’t written in English anyway.
It’s a reasonable assumption that many more people have heard of Adam Smith’s toweringly famous 1776 work The Wealth of Nations than have read it. Of Smith’s magnum opus, McCrum says: “Blending history, philosophy, psychology and sociology, the Scottish intellectual single-handedly invented the modern political economy,” only for a critic to complain that McCrum makes no mention anywhere of Karl Marx and Das Kapital. But whatever its literary merits Marx’s book didn’t qualify anyway – because it was written in German.
McCrum consecrates Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes with, “[his] hike in the French mountains … is a pioneering classic in outdoor literature – and as influential as his fiction”, which prompts the rejoinder, “if Stevenson’s Travels can get in, surely there’s a place for Laurie Lee’s As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning”.
And so on, in response to what must have rapidly proved itself to McCrum an almost impossible task. At this juncture we could delve at tedious length into the point, if any, of such lists, and about who reads them and why. Perhaps they’re useful as reminders of handy personal horizon stretchers, or as one-upmanship devices if you can prove you’ve read more of the hundred humdingers than your friends. McCrum, meanwhile, has mischievously admitted his list will “continue to provoke and infuriate”.
Instead, let’s consider some rival potential choices, all suggested by novelists (with considerable non-fiction bona fides). Here too we can enjoy a glimpse of what a more Eastern-flavoured selection might have looked like.
Lijia Zhang, author of memoir Socialism is Great! and the novel Lotus, proposed several “literary works from China worthy of the world’s attention, in my view”, including The Analects of Confucius, in all its wisdom; drama and national treasure The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu; and the not-to-be-messed-with The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
Wena Poon, author of too many novels to number, impishly offered: “Of course, a British-and-American-educated Chinese novelist will say the best non-fiction book of all time, which truly explodes myths, stereotypes and categories, is by Dutch diplomat and pseudo-scholar Robert Hans van Gulik. It’s called Erotic Colour Prints of the Ming Period: With an Essay on Chinese Sex Life from the Han to the Ching Dynasty, BC 206-AD 1644.
“Naturally it’s been banned, gone out of print and painstakingly smuggled out of academic libraries, with the best pages gleefully photocopied and passed around. Surely the world must be made more aware of this delightfully scurrilous book; it’s in an English translation, and [its] pictures speak a thousand words.”
Meanwhile, Man Booker Prize-winner DBC Pierre, mindful of what off-planet peoples in the galactic neighbourhood might think, is of the opinion that: “McCrum’s selection could be digitised and sent into space. You could truly say that, once our alphabet was cracked, it would form a portrait of the latter-day Anglo mind.
“The list could be a syllabus in itself, but I’m thinking of all the missing titles I can – Machiavelli’s The Prince, The Complete Memoirs of Casanova, The Art of War. Perhaps we’re a step closer to the 500 greatest works in any language. Any takers for that job?”