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copyright 1999, Lois Wickstrom

Great Books Search 1997

All my life, I’ve expected to have great books handed to me, introduced to me, made available to me. And, I’ve been disappointed, just like in all other endeavors where I’ve expected somebody else to do the hard work. But the question here is different from digging a garden or doing laboratory research — there’s no way to practice finding a great book — literally, there’s nothing to learn, or practice, that can be repeated. So, I tried to take things into my own hands. During 1997, I ran the first ever international search for Great Books on the Internet.

At first, I thought it would be exciting, mentally stimulating. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Before I discuss the results, I’ll discuss the road that brought me to this horrendous project.

One of my first experiences with a so-called great book was with Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. I remember complaining about having to read this book to some of my father’s friends who were having dinner with my family. I thought then, and continue to think today that the book is a simplistic moralist tale. Then again, it was taught that way and I have not reread it since high school. I did recently read an essay with a contrary point of view — that Hester Prynne was actually a good model for modern young women. She took responsibility for her actions, didn’t blame anyone, and used her punishment as an excuse to show off her sewing skills, as an advertisement for her home business. Had that point of view been discussed in my high school class in the mid 1960's, I might have more positive feelings about this book, but I still would not consider it a great book — a book to talk about at the dinner table, a book to re-read again and again as I grow older, seeing new truths in each reading.

One of my father’s guests assured me that the 1960's reading list was unchanged from 1845, when New England college students were polled to find out what they were reading outside of class. The purpose of this poll was to discover books that might interest high school students, and turn them into avid readers. Nobody asked if these were great books — just if students were voluntarily reading them.

Actually, I think the idea behind this selection of books is sound. In fact, the list could be updated annually — not left to stand for over a century.

Mortimer Adler, one of the original founders of the Great Books Foundation and one of the original editors of the Great Books selection as published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, claims that the first Great Books course was developed by John Erskine at Columbia in 1920, the year my father was born. Adler, himself, began teaching this course in 1923. His original Great Books list, which was published in 1952, is by his own admission very little changed from Erskine’s.

Adler went to great lengths to justify his changes. He wrote the Syntopicon, in which he personally wrote essays on what he considers to be the 102 great ideas of western literature. He said a book had to address at least 25 of these great ideas to be considered a great book.

These great ideas include The Ages of Man: Young and Old, Human Greatness: The Hero, Parents and Children, Sexual Love, Friendship, Fear, Anger, Desire, Hope and Despair, Property, Labor, Memory, Imagination, The Arts of Teaching and Learning, Good and Evil, and Warfare and the State of War.

He excludes books written in Africa, Asia and Latin America because he says they are more interested in harmony, an idea he doesn’t consider great. And because when the Asian, African and Latin American books do discuss topics like freedom, he says their meanings are as different as our meanings for pen — both a writing implement and a cage for pigs.

Many people, including me, disagree with Adler on this point. The literature of the world has been written by humans and humans everywhere are concerned with the basic issues encompassed by Adler’s 102 great ideas. He says these 102 ideas comprise the great conversation. And he does not consider non-residents of Europe and America to be participants.

The only compromise Adler makes in selecting great books for his collection is one I find totally illogical. If an author, say James Joyce, has written a great book, such as Ulysses, but that book is too long to be published economically, Adler substituted a book he admits isn’t great, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, because it is short, and by the same author. Honestly, if this is the great books — then publish the great books! The official hard-bound set costs hundreds of dollars. How many more dollars can it cost to print the books that deserve it? If he’s going to pick books that aren’t great, he may as well pick some of mine.

Adler refused to pick any book printed in the past 50 years because he says there hasn’t been enough time to view them with perspective. Few people have had the luxury through academic employment teaching great books, to read most of the official great books even once — so who has the perspective on them of over 50 years reflection? The mere fact that people have been forced to read these same books in college for hundreds of years because their teachers read them and passed them on — does not qualify them as great.

The Great Books Foundation in Chicago, originally founded by Adler has branched off from his original concept. They concentrate on discussion groups that read books together. They now have their own book selections based on five criteria: discussability, can the book stand alone (without requiring background materials to understand it,) length (few novels, because they publish anthologies,) theme appropriateness (each anthology has a theme, such as parent and child or good and evil,) and richness of ideas (i.e. is it worth talking about.) Gary Schoepfel, who spoke to me from the Foundation ventured the thought, "There is a difference between what I might want to read and talk about at the dinner table and what I’d want to spend my money publishing."

This last idea is crucial to my search. Are people willing to publish what I would enjoy reading? Have they done so, but the books escaped my attention? If so, how could I find out? I was feeling frustrated. I wanted recommendations of great reading from people all over the world. I admit to being as hampered as Adler in only knowing the people whom I live and work with and who share my interests. And, unlike Adler, I don’t have the contacts at foundations or publishing houses to get a new search funded. I mentioned my idea of a new list of great books — generated around the world by people who have read books I’ve never heard of — possibly outside of academia — to Jean Lorrah (my former co-editor on Pandora, a literary magazine) who teaches English at Murray State University.

Jean and I are both Internet junkies. Jean said it first — use the Internet. People from diverse backgrounds from all over the world surf the Internet. Most of them read English well enough to vote for their favorite books, even books that haven’t been translated into English. The only thing I needed was a computer program to count the votes.

I figured such a program would cost about $10,000 to write. I applied for a grant from dozens of organizations, but nobody thought such a program was worth funding. Not Pew, not UPS, not MacArthur — nobody. All I received for my efforts was a stack of form letter rejects. "We received so many good proposals that we can’t fund them all..." So, I wrote to DataWatch, makers of Monarch, a computer program that can extract data from text and put it into a database. They donated a copy and got my Great Books Search off the ground. I got a free website from GeoCities (www.geocities.com/Athens/BookSearch) and a free email address from Juno (reading@juno.com.)

It wasn’t long before variations in the way people sent their data made Monarch difficult to use. I called Jim Mott, a programmer I know at the University of South Florida. He was too busy to help, but he referred me to his friend Nathan Baker in West Virginia, who wrote a rudimentary program, for $50, that could sort out the two major variants in the voting formats into one database, and could eliminate duplicate votes. But his program couldn’t count the votes or sort the votes.

I had committed myself to this project for a year. I had written to lots of media, including the Oprah Winfrey show trying to get publicity. I had listed the Great Books Search with all the Internet search engines. And here I was counting votes by hand. Nathan tried to write a counting routine, but again variants in vote entries got in the way. A book might be entered as The Lord of the Rings, Lord of the Rings, lord of the Rings, lord of the ring, and other variations. I, as a human, know these are all the same book, but Nathan’s computer program doesn’t. Plus, we got votes for Le Petit Prince and The Little Prince. Again, our program doesn’t know these are the same. Neither can it figure out that One Hundred Years of Solitude and 100 Years of Solitude and Cien Aņos de Soledad are the same.

I tried putting instructions on the voting page asking people to vote for books using the English translation of the title, spelling out numbers, and omitting A or The at the beginning of a title. These voters may have read the books they recommended, but they didn’t follow my instructions. So, for a year, I hand counted the votes. I also discovered some people who voted for the same book more than once from different email addresses. The routine for eliminating duplicate votes only eliminated exact duplicates. So, I found myself writing email letters to similar sounding email addresses such as hgwells@hotmail.com and hgwells@usa.net. People were remarkably honest — saying that they couldn’t remember which books they had voted for or which email address they had used, but they were indeed the same person, voting for the same book.

The voting rules allowed each voter to vote for one hundred books during the calendar year 1997, and asks each voter to confine herself to one email address. Nobody exceeded the 100 book limit. Many voters put down erroneous information, but other web surfers caught it. If a voter entered a book description with the wrong country of origin, wrong original language, or wrong year of publication, someone caught it and wrote me and I fixed it in the database. I caught some of the mistakes, but I didn’t know that Kahlil Gibran wrote The Prophet in English. A surfer emailed me questioning the voter who said it was written in Persian. So, I surfed the web and learned that Gibran moved to New York City from Lebanon when he was twelve, and wrote his early works in Arabic, but his adult works, including The Prophet were written in English with the help of his editor. While Gibran described himself as the man from Lebanon, it would be fair to say he was an American.

I don’t know if it was fortunate, but none of the media ever publicized the Great Books Search. I had a hard enough time keeping up with the votes I did get. At the end of the year, over 1000 books were in the database. In addition, I had placed a section on the website for visitors who wanted to recommend books, not just vote for them. This recommendation section proved more popular than the voting. More books were recommended than received votes. And the recommenders were polite yet enthusiastic in praising their favorites, even when they were claiming that their favorite was better than somebody else’s favorite.

I am pleased to report that The Scarlet Letter did not receive a single vote. The Lord of the Rings was the most popular book. When people question me about why I think this book received so many votes, I point out that it is the modern Odyssey. The Bible came in second. One Hundred Years of Solitude got enough votes and recommendations that my curiosity was piqued. I’m currently enjoying it. Winning a Nobel or Pulitzer prize doesn’t recommend a book to me. I tried Mr. Sammler’s Planet (another no show) and found it unreadable. Same for Goedel, Escher Bach. Then again, I published Lisa Goldstein’s opening chapters of The Red Magician in my literary magazine Pandora before anybody else. Pandora’s motto was "If Pandora hadn’t been curious, there would be nothing to write about." Lisa Goldstein’s book won the American Book Award, I loved it, but it didn’t come to mind when I was thinking about great books. I refrained from voting in my own Book Search; at the moment, I can’t justify that decision, but the voting is over and the votes are posted and I will live with that fact.

The biggest disappointment for me in running this book search was not the lack of grant support, the lack of a computer program to automate the work, the lack of publicity from any of the major media, or even the academic media — it was the repetitiousness of the votes. The old standbys that everybody reads in school got most of the votes: Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, Brothers Karamazov, Don Quijote, Les Miserables. The new titles were mainly in science fiction, politics, and magical realism. Anne Rice and Ayn Rand were both popular.

Seeing this is more than disappointing — it is worrisome. It calls into question how we select our books — not only for use in schools, but for our libraries and our homes. How do we learn about what is being published? How do we know if the best books are being published? The Internet is full of tales of a few people who have published on the web and actually made money by letting people read the first 2/3 of their stories free and then charging for the end. I have posted some of my unpublished stories on the web — a few people read them and write me about them — but I don’t know how to attract readers to my pages. And I don’t know if I’m missing out on books I might enjoy.

I do know that something is seriously wrong with the publishing industry. I placed no restrictions on the voters. Their books didn’t have to feature even one of Adler’s 102 great ideas. They didn’t have to be in print. Good translations in English did not have to be available. Anybody with an email address could vote. The page even gave a link to Juno which offers a free email address to anybody who has access to a computer that runs any version of Windows. (www.juno.com.) I thought this method of recruiting voters would bring in a broader range of books than just asking a bunch of professors to regurgitate what their professors made them read. I’m not saying none of those books are great — I’m just saying they can’t be the only great ones. Surely great books have been missed. Oprah Winfrey is doing wonders for ignored books by African American authors. What about ignored books of other countries and other races, and women? How can we find the great ones? And can we agree on standards for greatness?

My standards are very different from Adler’s. I don’t want to focus on 102 arbitrary great ideas. I want to learn about life from other people’s points of view. This can be a novel like The God of Small Things, or a paradigm-shifting health book like Your Body’s Many Cries for Water. And I am very interested in harmony.

Different readers have different purposes. I have a friend who passed her college advanced placement British history exam by reading novels about the British royalty. I think that’s a valid learning style . Reading is learning, academic or otherwise.

We all want other people to read books first and recommend them. That’s what I used to think publishers and book reviews were for. But Jean and I published Pandora magazine for 8 years and found that the major publishers are ignoring good stories — by good, I mean stories that I like — stories that I liked enough to spend my own money to put into print. Jean and I ran out of time and money to continue with Pandora, as is usually the case with literary magazines. I’m glad 1997 is over — I got truly sick of counting those votes, for the same thousand books over and over. I think the third page of books that received only one vote is probably the most interesting of the bunch. It features books that sound intriguing that I’d never heard of: Ameliorate Me by Michelle Smith, Beauty and Sadness by Kawabata, Salamander War by Karel Capek.

But my main thought is that it’s time for a new paradigm — a new way to let people share their stories, and to help readers find them. I think my Internet book search has publicized a few valuable books, but still has missed many. I don’t know how to find out what I want to know — but raising the question is the first step.

You can see the results at:

http://www.geocities.com/Athens/BookSearch