A dubious list of must-read books

A couple of weeks ago a friend shared a list on Facebook; 300 Books Everyone Should Read at Least Once. She added the comment, “But I have no intention of reading anymore Dostoevsky or Tolstoy, to be honest, so will never hit all 300.” And who could blame her?

Curious (and in the mood for some light procrastination) I ticked off the books I’d read on the list. I got to 78, which I didn’t think was too shabby. However, I was surprised at some of the choices. Some I’d never even heard of, although that’s likely my failing rather than the failing of whoever compiled the list. Some just didn’t strike me as great choices. I got curious – what characteristics should a book have to earn it a place on this list?

Now, I’m a bit of a nerd. No, calm down, I really am. It was rainy outside, P was away, and I’d already fulfilled all my obligations for the day. I decided to do some light analysis of this list of books. If you want to have a look through the list, you can find it here.

So I got started. Here are some of the things I found out: 74% of the books were authored by men. Note that that’s not quite the same as saying that 74% of the authors were men because some authors had more than one book on the list. However, those authors that appeared more than once were also more likely to be men.

a dubious list of must read books

Now, you could argue that across human history there has been a very long period of time during which women weren’t really allowed to do… well… anything. Presumably, this limited their book-writing opportunities. Certainly you still occasionally hear people express the opinion that women are simply inferior writers. When those opinions come from people who literally have Nobel prizes in literature and they expressed them as recently as 2011 it’s not too hard to see why some women might be put off the profession.

Still, Jane Austen published Sense and Sensibility in 1811 and Mary Shelley got Frankenstein out in 1818. Certainly by 1900 being a woman and a writer was at least indulged if not encouraged. So, the next question is, when were the books on the list published?


a dubious list of must read books
This is not quite a histogram because for some reason I decided to make it in Microsoft ExCel and…. uuuuuuuuugggggggghhhhhh

While a few texts were published before 1800, the vast majority were published after and 75% were published after 1900. So by this point, you’d expect women to be writing – the era can’t quite account for the gender disparity. Although perhaps sexism just meant that works by women didn’t sell as well and, as such, didn’t have the same opportunity to achieve the status of “a classic.” What’s interesting is that the most popular period was 1961-1970 with 33 books published in this period – more than 10%. Only 10 of these were written by women.

By this point, I’d confirmed my suspicion that female authors were underrepresented in the list. I decided to look at a couple more things: Fiction vs non-fiction and books intended for children and young adults vs books that… weren’t.

It turned out that 92% of the books were fiction and 85% weren’t really kids books. To be fair, I was pretty liberal in my judgements of the latter. I don’t know if Robinson Crusoe was intended for kids, but it’s suitable for them if they’ve the patience to wade through it, so I decided it counted. Other books like The Chronicles of Narnia were more obviously kids books, whilst still others, like American Psycho, were very obvious not. Anyway, feel free to take that last stat with a pinch of salt.

So, it turns out that if you want to write a book that “everyone should read at least once” you should:

  • Be male
  • Publish the book in the 1960s
  • Write fiction
  • Avoid writing for children

Good to know. I haven’t done the analysis on this (because it would take me a couple of hours on Wikipedia) but I suspect being white also helps.

So why do we put up with these naff lists? Sure, it’s a good place to start if you don’t read a lot and you need some recommendations, but there’s no need to choose a list of such limited diversity. There has to be someone on the internet who has managed to compile a list with better balance, right? And besides, who’s seriously going to read Beowulf for kicks?




9 thoughts on “A dubious list of must-read books

  1. Have you taken a look at Rory Gilmore’s list? That one’s fun, but now I wonder how it would hold up under analysis as well.
    And always be proud of being a nerd! It means you’re smart.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha, yep. It’s a strange one, I don’t know who writes these lists but it is clear that lots of people look at them and, presumably, use them for inspiration for what to read next. It’s a bit of a shame if they’re so lop-sided. Anyway, thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t help feeling that these sorts of lists tell you much more about the compiler than they do about the books themselves. I’ve only scanned it and yeah, the compiler obviously has a Certain Type of book in mind, with a few token others. If you’re interested, I’ve read 83 of the list.

    PS: while I’ve not read Beowulf “proper”, I have read Seamus Heaney’s prose translation, which was a good translation, but it’s something you read for historical context for other things rather for itself.


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