A recent survey circulating on Facebook is a BBC list of 100 works of literature accompanied by a "challenge" (for lack of a better term) that most people have not read more than 6 of them. I took the challenge and have read or started to read or read excerpts from about 20 or so. Some I have read more than once. The BBC included the works of Shakespeare -- but wouldn't it be a more appropriate question to ask how many Shakespeare plays you have seen performed? I believe Shakespeare was the only playwright included in the list.
So on my drive back from 11 Mile Canyon after a brief afternoon of fishing, my thoughts naturally went to Hemingway and his short story "Big Two-Hearted River," and then to Maclean and his A River Runs Through It. But then my thoughts went back to the BBC list. Why that list? Why those titles? What does the list reveal about me if I read three of those books? Or twenty-three? Or fifty-three? How much different would my life be if I read seventy-three of those titles rather than somewhere around twenty? What if the only book I read on that list was Moby Dick (and how did Moby Dick make the list and not Huckleberry Finn?) What does the list reveal about "us" (and similar lists, too) even by the very choices of literature on the list?
When I was an English major at CSU, I proudly declared that I was an American Literature devotee -- much to the chagrin of Dr. John Boni yet much to the delight of Dr. Robert Zoellner. Any list I would dare to create would certainly show an American Lit bias -- and the list would reveal more about me, perhaps, than about those who responded. Would it reveal any more or less cultural or literary literacy for those who took my American Lit challenge? Was Dr. Boni's disdain legit because I favor American Lit more than British Lit?
When I got to Divide, Colorado, I started to wonder what if we changed the artistic medium and conducted a similar survey. What if the question became "The _ _ _ believes most people will only have viewed five of the following works of art." Then the list would include Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, Jasper Johns' US Flag, Picasso's Guernica, Kooninig's Woman I, Matisse's Dance, Dali's The Persistence of Memory, Diego Rivera's The Arsenal: Frida Kahlo Distributes Arms. My list, of course, could go on for 90 or so more paintings. Am I less cultured because I have only viewed, first hand, a handful of those works in a museum setting? What if the medium became baseball games, certainly artistry of a more kinesthetic sort? Am I less cultured because I have seen games in Yankee Stadium and Wrigley Field but not in Fenway Park?
Literary works lend themselves to lists more than any other artistic endeavor because we all have the ability to hold those works in our hands and to take our time to savor those works. (Of course, the Internet allows us to "see" the above works of art but we lose all sense of dimension. For example, O'Keeffe's The Black Iris is 36" x 29"; Dali's The Persistence of Memory a mere 9.5" x 13"; Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" is 30 x 60 inches.) So we turn to our familiarity with and indulgence in literature to "say something" about us as a culture, as a society, as an individual. But what is that statement -- what does it say about us if we have only read six of these, or eight of those, or none of that list?
And does "our" list have to change? How many books have we read of writers from the Middle East? How many books of Latina/a writers -- books representing the voice and culture of the fastest growing ethnicity in the U.S.? If, as it is said, literature offers a window into another's experience -- and that literature serves offers us a mirror to look at ourselves -- what does the BBC List of 100 offer? Is it a multi-faceted mirror or a multi-paned window?
I'll bring this pondering to an end...not so much out of lack of interest to continue musing but because other obligations call my name.