Top 100 lists and the bias they bear

November 29, 2010

So the BBC came out with their Big List a while back, and now it’s kind of circling around the blogosphere (and even Facebook and other social networking sites) while people try to figure out if they’ve read more than 6 of the books on the list. (For the record, I’ve completed 29 of the listings – you can take a look at what I’ve read in full and read in part behind the cut below.)

What I find even more interesting, though, is how few people have noticed just how white-, male-, and/or Eurocentric this list is.

My partner brought up the list two nights ago when we were heading out for a movie date. I made the comment that I wasn’t really too keen on putting much emphasis on the list, given the reasons above.

Bear in mind, my partner is Middle Eastern. I would’ve thought that he’d be the one to point that out, not me – I was wrong! Not only did he not point it out, he actually disagreed with me. And then he tried to prove me wrong.

It was actually quite funny: here we were, walking down a major street in downtown Toronto, while he listed off book titles and authors at me, and I kept responding with things like …

  • White! British! Male!
  • White! British! (I’ll give you female.)
  • White! American! Male!

I think we really amused the people walking around us.

Needless to say, I’m not all that impressed with this list. I feel like it’s just a more recent version of all the other “top 100” lists that have been around since I was a teen – or even earlier – that pretty much revolve around the stereotype of old white men. There are some exceptions, yes – but I’m not sure how much credibility it really gives a list of “best” books if the exceptions are often due to the fact that the author is white and British but female.

Let’s not even get started on the fact that most of these authors are also cisgendered, straight, fairly well-off, educated …

Do you think I’m making too big a deal out of this? Or do you, like me, wish that there was a “top 100” list that was more diverse?

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  4. Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  6. The Bible
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
  8. Nighteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
  12. Tess of the D’Ubervilles – Thomas Hardy
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
  19. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
  21. Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
  23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
  26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
  34. Emma – Jane Austen
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
  36. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  38. Captain Correlli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
  40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
  41. Animal Farm- George Orwell
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
  43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
  47. Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  57. A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon
  60. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
  63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  66. On the Road – Jack Kerouac
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
  68. Bridget Jones Diary – Helen Fielding
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson
  74. Noted from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce
  76. The Inferno – Dante
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emilie Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepiece
  80. Possession – AS Byatt
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
  86. A Fine Balance – Robinston Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White
  88. The Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  98. Hamlet- William Shakespeare
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

5 Comments

  • Caitie F November 29, 2010 at 10:03 am

    I see your point – I wish most lists like this were more diverse. I can’t fault this list however because it was people that voted – how else would The Da Vinci Code get on there? If it wasn’t based on voting, I would be pretty POed that The Bible is on the list, but since it was a voted list, I guess it is okay…

  • Kinna November 29, 2010 at 10:42 am

    I stopped paying attention to such list a long time ago. Of course, one would have expected a more diverse and representative list from the BBC.

  • Nana Fredua-Agyeman November 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    You have read more than I have. I believe a top 100 should be a top 100 regardless of where the author comes from. Let’s not trade quality for our own wishes. If 100 are female and all the 100 are better than the best 100 of male writers, why not? Should we make comparison just because of ones sexual orientation, sex or origin? I believe that what is best is what should be used. This is different from saying that there is a book by a female author which definitely should have been there and wasn’t. If you have such qualms no problem, you are free to address them, but if it is based on just diversity then I would not agree with you.

    Besides, what percentage of it should be female for it to be representative enough? What percentage should be given to gays? etc. Should a list be watered down just to reflect these? I don’t mind where it comes from what I need is a list which is worth the read. I think quality should be it and not stratification. Then soon, we would say how many comes from the north pole etc… and from this family etc…

  • smellincoffee November 29, 2010 at 1:40 pm

    This list actually comes from a British magazine (World Book Day, The Guardian) which did a poll asking readers what their most-loved books are. If the target audience was primarily English, it makes sense that the books were from the same culture, more or less.

  • Amy November 29, 2010 at 3:24 pm

    I think it highlights how little diversity we have available to us in our bookstores and libraries that these are the books we choose. I’d love to see more variety of different countries of origin especially. Sad.

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