In grade twelve our Lit teacher asked us to imagine that all the books in the world were going to be wiped out.
All written literature, philosophy, accounts of science and medicine and psychology and sociology and anthropology, records of languages, religions, cultures, thoughts, lives. Nothing would be left – except for ten. Ten books. We were then set the task of collectively determining a list of Ten Important, Crucial Books to preserve for future generations to benefit from. Which would we choose?
Well really now, how can you choose when there are over 130 million books in print. FACT. So says Google Books, who are working on digitizing “all the books in the world”. You go Google Books. But that number is already two years old. There’s a really interesting blog about it here.
But we tried anyway. We couldn’t really choose modern fiction, could we? It hadn’t stood the test of time yet; who knew what kind of influence it would actually have? But there should be some classics. Shakespeare? Milton? The Bible? The Qu’ran? Maybe Orwell? That could be helpful in case a future society turns to totalitarianism. Austen or Dickens? Now we’re getting a bit ethnocentric. What about psychology? – asked the future psychology major. Sure, that’s important. Now we just have to select…one of thousands (or millions?) of tomes devoted to the topic.
Eventually we started looking for loopholes – I believe we chose to save things like The English Canon Anthology (“I’m sure it’s been published somewhere,” we assured our skeptical teacher), The Book of Books, and The Book of Psychology, which we were eventually forced to re-name The Book of Freud, thinking it more likely to be the title of an actual volume, not just a catch-all.
We got to make the opposite list too – if we could eradicate any ten books, what would they be? Again, plagued with indecision (because there are just So Many Books!), we callously began naming authors rather than titles, intending to wipe out their entire collections. Danielle Steel. Francine Pascale’s Sweet Valley Twins series. Probably the Sweet Valley High series too.
At this point one of our most ardent lovers of literature – occasional reader of Northrop Frye on weekends – shocked us all in her nearly-hysterical protest of the burning of the Sweet Valley Twins. Thanks to our merciful hands, Pascal has recently been able to resurrect her franchise in a new, ten-years-later series.
If I remember correctly, the list of books worth keeping was much more difficult to create than the list of books to burn. It was easy to come up with a few obvious authors and subjects we disliked (though perhaps we were a little harsh). As for the books we would save, there were too many excellent and useful works to narrow it down to so few. I can’t imagine what it would be like pull up an online library catalogue and see a listing of only ten available books. And that’s if none of them were checked out. You wouldn’t even need to scroll down the page.
My blog exists because that list doesn’t.