A selection of brilliant books

Mountain sunset

It may be because I spend too much time musing in front of my bookshelves rather than actually reading my books but I really enjoy rearranging my bookshelves (to a moderate extent of course). My library (that is, the part of my living room where my bookcases live) is not large enough for the books to actually need to be sorted in alphabetical order and as I’m the primary user I instead try sort them in ways that makes sense to me. Mostly that means that I place books that I feel somehow belong together adjacent to each other in the bookshelves but there are often multiple interesting ways to that. My  books by Lewis Carroll for example give a different impression next to my books about the history of mathematics than they would have if I had placed them among my children’s books. That also means that every time I reorganize my bookshelves I get to see some of my books in a new light.

Moving is of course the major reason for re-sorting a library. After one move I placed all my “books I find brilliant by woman authors” in age order on the same shelf and could suddenly see a line of great authors stretching back to Sei Shōnagon. Rather than individual authors they became part of a great history.

As in any categorizing effort I of course ended up with multiple difficult decisions. What if I loved one book by an author (A Room of Ones Own) but struggled with another (Mrs Dalloway) should I place one of them on the brilliant books shelf and the other in the general fiction section or prioritize keeping them together (and if so, where)? Should I include children’s books? What with books that could be placed on this shelf but also really should be placed in one of my other categories? To solve these issues I allowed myself to make some rather arbitrary decisions. Woolf and Sayers got one work each on my canon bookshelf with their other works shelved in other places whereas I kept all my Tove Jansson’s adult fiction together for now. I excluded children’s books not to overcrowd the shelf although that sadly excludes Brothers Lionheart by Astrid Lindgren which is otherwise a key work in my personal book canon. The final result may not be my ultimate personal book canon but it is close enough for now.

These are the books that currently live on my brilliant books bookshelf:

  • The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon
  • The collected works by Jane Austen
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
  • Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
  • Selected poems by Emily Dickinson
  • Gösta Berlings’s saga by Selma Lagerlöf
  • A Room of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf
  • Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
  • The Summer Book and various short stories collections by Tove Jansson
  • Mörkret som ger glädjen djup and Love Story of the Century by Märta Tikkanen
  • The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Bloody Chamber and other stories by Angela Carter
  • Kastanjeallén by Dea Trier Mørch

I find it very satisfying that whenever the world tries to tell me about a literary canon filled by male authors with only the rare woman scattered in it I can look in my own bookshelf and see an unbroken line of brilliant female authors and know that there is more than one truth.

This blog post was inspired by a discussion on Calmgrove’s blog about various ways to link different books. I was also inspired by this article about the art of unpacking a library from The Paris Review.

Why openly biased lists may sometimes be a good thing

DSC_0905Brittany at Perfectly Tolerable started an interesting meme based on the Amazon (US) 100 books to read in a lifetime list. This list is quite obviously aimed at an US audience (as noted by Paula at Book Jotter) but I’ve been thinking about the various biases of “Must read lists” for awhile so I will use this list as an example and discuss why I think that lists with a clear bias can be a good thing.

Let’s first take a closer look at the actual list. It’s called “100 books to read in a lifetime” and consists of both children and adult books, fiction and non-fiction. Out of the 100 authors, 73 are US citizens (6 of these have or have had additional citizenships) and of the remaining 27, 13 are from the UK. Ninety-three of the books were written in English. It also includes non-fiction books covering US politics, heroes and baseball which would never make any “Top 100” lists outside of the US. It is also very light on non-fiction (and fiction) covering the rest of the world. A more accurate title might thus be “100 books for an American to read in a lifetime”.

I followed Brittany’s suggestion and found that I had read 22 of the titles and that I recognized either the title or the author for 59 of them (I may slightly underestimate the real values here in cases where I know the Swedish title but not the English). However, if I only look at the non-US authors I find that I have read 44% of the books (12) and recognize 89% (24) which could indicate that these are on average better known internationally (based on the very questionable assumption that I’m at all representative for non-US readers in general).

The original Amazon list had two stated goals; that the list would cover all stages of a life and not feel like homework. Considering that we are talking about Amazon I’m guessing that they also had the additional goal of including books that would sell well. Based on the contents of the list I would also say that it is either aimed at US readers, compiled by editors who mostly know US literature or a combination of both.

So why would I be interested in which 100 books Amazon US wants people to read? The short answer is that I’m not, but I’m interested in “Best books”-lists in general. Many of them apparently aim at listing some sort of universally true selection of “Most Important Texts” which is interesting but obviously impossible. No list editor can completely avoid bias, they haven’t read every text, won’t enjoy everything and may have specific cultural bias which narrows their selection (which doesn’t mean the resulting lists are not often both interesting and useful). They may try to minimize the bias (e.g. by adding co-editors with a different background) but some of it will always remain.

Alternatively the list-editors may embrace their biases, instead of eliminating them they may state them outright (or just make it obvious as in the Amazon list case). The US bias of the Amazon list would indicate that it is a relevant list for anyone who has the same bias (e.g. Americans) or who are interested in that point-of-view but probably irrelevant for anyone else. In this case it means that the Amazon list is probably currently irrelevant for me but that could change, e.g. if I decided to move to the US (unlikely) and wanted to understand the culture better. By knowing the (major) biases of the list editors it is easier to find the lists that are actually relevant for me. I would be interested in the same type of lists from other parts of the world, either with editors with a similar bias as my own (as they would probably select books I would be interested in) or from parts of the world I feel I know too little about. US media, however, already gets more than its fair share of my time so I’m not really interesting in using this particular list to expand my reading.

Books, e-books and “license to read”


I love paper books. I love having bookshelves full of everything from well-bound hard-cover editions tattered second-hand pocket books. I watch them on the shelves, take them out and and leaf through them, remembering good reads.

I also love e-books. I love having an entire library in my pocket when I travel, the convenience of the front-lit pages and the adjustable character sizes.

What I hate are the things that look like e-books, cost like e-books, but really are nothing but a “license to read”. I don’t mind it much when they are honest about it, I know that I don’t own the e-books I’ve loaned from the library and that’s OK, I didn’t pay for them either. I may also pay for a “license to read”-book if it is a lot cheaper (or if I’m desperate). However, the DRM-protected books are per definition inferior to real e-books. I don’t own them. I can’t move them freely between my devises (only to the extent the publisher decides) or be sure that I can still read them if the publisher goes bankrupt or the reader hardware changes. An e-book in an open format can probably be updated to a more modern format whereas there is a real risk that a DRM-protected book will be lost. I’m happy to pay for e-books. However, if I pay for them I want to own them and I don’t like seeing inferior products promoted as the real thing. Paying full price for a DRM-protected book is a lot like paying full price for a hard-cover edition only to find out that the pages get loose and the paper inside turned brown and fragile after only a few years.

So in general I do my best to avoid “license to read”-books. In practice that usually means that I either stick to paper books or select books that are out of copyright. Project Gutenberg has a large collection of DRM-free out-of-copyright books in a variety of formats and so does MobileRead . For SF and Fantasy DRM-free books can be also bought from Baen books. As a Swedish reader things are even better, both Dito and Adlibris have most of their Swedish e-books protected by watermarks instead of a more intrusive DRM. I’d like to hear about other, legal, sources if anyone has any suggestions?