My recent foray back into reading ‘classics’ has got me thinking a lot about what makes a book ‘good’. What are the criteria that make a book work for me as a reader, and how does that relate to a book’s overall quality and reputation? The more I thought about it, the more complicated it became. The rating system I developed for my everyday reading life is intended to judge my appreciation of a book against its own criteria, not to judge it against other books. It was intentionally designed so a good YA romance could score just as highly as a good piece of literary fiction, but that would feel inappropriate in trying to figure out the ‘best’ books. So, I realized that if I wanted to think about my favorite books of all time, I’d need a different rating system to accomplish this fairly, one that certainly included my enjoyment of it, and which would not preclude the inclusion of so-called ‘genre fiction’, but still give credit to books with greater ambition and ‘achievements’ overall.
As a reminder, the criteria on which I rate novels in my everyday reading life are:
- Setting or Atmosphere
- Main Character(s)
- Intrigue (i.e., did I care enough to want to keep turning pages)
- Success (i.e., fulfillment of the premise)
- Writing (judged within its own genre)
- Lasting Impact or Meaning (i.e., did it teach me something? did I continue to think about it after the fact?)
Again, I think these are helpful criteria for determining my overall enjoyment of a book and deciding on my top reads of the year, but they need to be tweaked if they’re going to be helpful in judging the relative quality of books from different genres and with different ambitions.
Some of these are still going to be important, but changed a bit for the different question at hand. I want there to be room for diversity of genres, so I think I still want to include general categories of strong characterization, setting or atmosphere, and plotting. I also want to keep the ‘Success’ criterion, since I don’t think a book can be good if it doesn’t have a clear purpose and fulfill it. Writing quality is also going to be important here, but I’ll tweak it to be about overall writing quality, rather than within the expectations of its genre. And, because this is my list of best books, my own enjoyment is still going to be important. So that’s already six criteria that will carry over to some extent.
What sets the ‘best books’ apart for me is largely the category that in my everyday rating system I call ‘Lasting Impact or Meaning’. But for this purpose, I’m going to want to tease it out a bit more. I think it’s fair, for example, to include a book’s reputation and historical reception here — not to determine my own opinion, but to contribute to the overall assessment. And I also want to reward books that are ‘important’, whether they push boundaries in content, form, or voice, shed light on important issues, or speak powerfully of or to their moment. And, to my mind at least, the ‘best books’ also have something important to say about the human condition. Finally, as much as I want there to be room for books to grow (or shrink) in my esteem over time, I also want to reward books that left an impression on me when I read them. So as my tenth and final criterion, I’m going to include whether they made my annual ‘best reads’ list the year I read them. So this leaves the following criteria under three main categories:
- Setting and Atmosphere
- Plotting and Pacing
- Premise and its Fulfillment
- Importance (Groundbreaking, ‘Of the Moment’, etc.)
- Annual ‘Best Reads’
As I was thinking about all this, the idea of a ‘bookish Hall of Fame’ came to mind. And to get even wonkier, particularly the imagined tiered Hall of Fame Pyramid developed by American sportswriter Bill Simmons in his Book of Basketball (2009). He faced a similar set of questions, such as how to judge excellence across different eras and styles of play, and how to incorporate players who excelled in one particular thing but lacked the overall accomplishments to justify being included as one of the best ever. He developed a system where there was a basement annex for those who deserved to be recognized for a particular contribution but who didn’t meet the inclusion criteria to be among the Best (e.g., those who changed the game, who were excellent but had their careers cut short, and so on), four different levels, and finally at the very top, what he called ‘the Pantheon’ of the Best of the Best.
I really like this idea so I want do create my Bookish Hall of Fame (to make it simple since it’s a long project, I’ll do it through the 2022 reading year and reassess with my 2023 reads at the start of next year). I’m going to do it like this:
- Lobby: Books that deserve to be recognized for their success in one or more criteria, but which don’t make the top 100 for me.
- Level 1: ‘just made it’ — 28 books.
- Level 2: ‘definitely in’ but not ‘elite’ — 24 books
- Level 3: ‘no weaknesses’ — 20 books
- Level 4: ‘elite’ — 16 books
- Olympus: ‘the best of the best’ — 12 books
The scores out of 100 will help me to compare books, but my ultimate ranking will be based on my gut. This is arts, after all, not science.
This will be an involved project so it’ll take some time to roll out. And, it really is just for fun, so I hope you enjoy it and it gets you thinking. This is going to be my list of the best books I’ve read based on criteria of my own choosing.
But I’m curious. What criteria would you use to determine your best books of all time? If you have any thoughts, please comment below!
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