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Martin Levin on the 50 Greatest Books series

Earlier this year, Globe Books began a series, the 50 Greatest Books.

"I know, it's an entirely presumptuous label, and no doubt we'll leave off dozens that readers feel belong," Globe Books Editor Martin Levin wrote at that time.

"So why not simply 50 Great Books?

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"In part, because we want readers to engage in the discussion - we plan to provide a forum for outraged advocates or critics, clever ripostes and tut-tutting over obvious oversights - and in part because in making distinctions, we implicitly reject the postmodern view that won't allow privileging (in the fashionable term) Anna Karenina over the James Bond books - though I confess I look forward to the next one, by the highly literary Sebastian Faulks . . .

Mr. Levin argued: "A great book is adjudged a great book over time by virtue of offering things - astonishing ideas, unforgettable characters, imaginative sublimity, glorious prose - that cannot be got elsewhere, and that tell us something new about the human (or other) condition.

"The 50 will not be ranked in order," he wrote. "We figure just choosing them is adventurous enough. The entries will be derived from discussions among members of our panel of experts (as if anyone's really expert). Their carefully guarded identities will be revealed only at the end of the series, when readers will be invited to engage with them more directly. Each entry will be written by someone with knowledge, usually extensive knowledge, of the book in question."

So what do you think of the series so far? [The first 27 entries are listed on the left side of this discussion page.]/p>

What do you think should be included in the final list?

We are pleased that Mr. Levin was online earlier today to answer those questions and any others you had.

Your questions and Mr. Levin's answers appear at the bottom of this page.

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Martin Levin is Books Editor of The Globe and Mail. Previously, he wrote the Climate of Ideas column and edited newspapers for senior citizens and for baseball fans.

His essay, Confessions of a Commitmentphobe, appeared in the book What I Meant to Say. He is also a contributor to Great Expectation: 24 True Stories about Childbirth, to be published this fall.

Editor's Note: globeandmail.com editors will read and allow or reject each question/comment. Comments/questions may be edited for length or clarity. HTML is not allowed. We will not publish questions/comments that include personal attacks on participants in these discussions, that make false or unsubstantiated allegations, that purport to quote people or reports where the purported quote or fact cannot be easily verified, or questions/comments that include vulgar language or libellous statements. Preference will be given to readers who submit questions/comments using their full name and home town, rather than a pseudonym.

Katherine Laidlaw, globeandmail.com: Hello Martin and thank you for joining us today. First off, I'd like to start by telling you how much I'm enjoying your 50 Greatest Books series and the dialogue that's arising from it. Before we start with reader questions, I'd like to ask: where did your idea for such an adventurous series stem from? And why set the limit at 50, without limiting non-fiction, fiction or any genre categories?

Martin Levin, Books Editor: The impetus for the series came from a series of discussions about doing something a little different and that would involve readers. Editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon was a big proponent. We set the limit at 50 partly to encompass a single year and partly as an "adventurous," in your words, challenge. And it's proved to be precisely that.

Martha K.: So far, your picks have been exemplary; all great choices. The only comment I have is that while I thoroughly enjoyed the article promoting The Koran as one of the greatest books, I trust you will not be leaving out the Bible, Torah or other Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist holy texts. My contention is that when you put in one holy book, and leave the rest out, you are sending the message that there is only one sacred text that has endured over time (as have all the other secular books on your fine list). Each of the other books merits the same consideration as they have influenced or lead millions or billions of souls as well, have they not? As well, each are equally beautifully written.

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Martin Levin: It's a good point and one that we've debated, since the criteria revolve around both impact and literary quality. The Bible, King James version, encompasses both and will certainly be on the list. Others are under consideration as well.

Dave T. from Midwest, Canada writes: First, I would like to thank you for running this series in the first place, as it gives people who like to read much to ruminate over and look forward to. For the most part, I think the selections have been very good and of considerable interest. Having said that, I am wondering if you might speak a little bit to the process by which the selections have been made. Is there a committee or panel and, if so, does the panel function through a form of consensus and have all of the selections been made for the balance of the year? Thank you again.

Martin Levin: Yes, indeed, there is an international panel of four (plus yours truly). To begin with, we each compiled a list and then began to discuss and debate individual choices. If a book was on all five lists, no further discussion needed. And we do operate by consensus, not always easily reached, so not all the entries have been chosen yet. It's a tough task.

Katherine Laidlaw, globeandmail.com: In his comment, Vaughan Billing, from Kelowna, B.C., expresses surprise at not finding any works of Shakespeare or any scientific works in the first 27 selections. Are some of those works yet to come? Where does science fit into a series like this? As you mentioned in your introduction to the series, once a scientific work is deemed no longer valid, can it still be valid as a work of literature?

Martin Levin: Well, as a matter of fact, Shakespeare has already been represented, by King Lear (a very hard choice over Hamlet), and, in science, we've already done Darwin's Origin of Species. We have another science book coming up quite soon and a few more in the discussion.

Matt McNaughton from Edmonton, Canada, writes: Mr. Levin, thank you for answering our questions today. My copy of the Koran (the Yusuf Ali translation) does not have the subtitle 'Words Beyond Worth', which Mona Siddiqui used for her essay on the 24th inductee into your series. This phrase is apt because according to Sunni theology, one cannot understand the Koran without reference to the story of Muhammad's life, nor follow Islam without obeying his miscellaneous judgements and teachings. For example, the collection of Sunan Abu-Dawud offers this 'hadith' in the chapter 'Prescribed Punishments': "A Jewess used to abuse the Prophet and disparage him. A man strangled her till she died. The Apostle of Allah declared that no recompense was payable for her blood." Mr. Levin, why did you select as "greatest" a work that not only fails to stand on its own, but whose companion works demand violent censorship of its critics?

Martin Levin: Good question, but moral effect in the world is not the main criterion for making the list. Rather, the Koran was chosen because of its colossal historical, and continuing impact, on hundreds of millions of lives, and because of its central impact on political, religious and even psychological events today.

Harry from Waterloo, Ontario, writes: Two comments rather than a question. First, the countdown is unnerving. Each worthy selection raises questions about other works, still awaiting recognition, perhaps--God forbid--doomed not to be recognized. Where are the Canterbury Tales, Tom Jones, Oedipus Rex, the New and Old Testament or Hamlet? Second, there is the sad realization that books that I have greatly loved-- A Christmas Carol, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Maltese Falcon or The Catcher in the Rye--do not have the royal jelly to join this esteemed assembly, my love and that of millions and millions and millions of other people notwithstanding. All that said, this is a simulating exercise which I am greatly enjoying.

Martin Levin: Thanks so much. Let us just say that I share these feelings, as do our panellists. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is among my very favourite books, as are a number of works by P.G. Wodehouse. But 50 is a small number and so there will be many greats excluded.

Katherine Laidlaw, globeandmail.com: Thus far, T.S. Eliot's Collected Poems is the only work of poetry we've seen on the list. Does that mean the jury concluded T.S. Eliot is the greatest poet of all time? Where is work by Chaucer, Edmund Spenser, W.H. Auden, or W.B. Yeats, to name a few? Will other great poets of different time periods and styles be represented? Is one poet enough on a list of 50 Greatest Books?

Martin Levin: There will be other poets, and Eliot is not alone: Dante is a poet, and so was Homer, or whoever passsed for Homer. Although, I am myself a strong proponent of Yeats, Donne and Heine, but we shall see.

Robert Rose from Montreal, Canada, writes: Good morning, Mr. Levin. To keep this short, I'd say I find your list interesting. I can't argue against King Lear and The Republic., but essentially from a Westerner's point of view. Some immortal works, some historical landmarks, no doubt. Yet, that list seems to leave us out of touch with this post-American, post-Western world. I happen to believe a renewed perspective on the Greatest Books should be part of our new, nascent world order. I find your list sorely lacking in Asian writers, who indeed may have written some of the greatest books ever. One can think of Laotzi's Tao Teh Ching, of Basho's Haikus ("the concentrated essence of pure poetry"-- Harold G. Henderson), etc. I am sure someone like professor Dong Qiang, for instance, who specializes on comparative civilizations at Beijing University, would gladly contribute names and titles to add to your list, from an Asian perspective. Professor Quiang has been seen and/or heard many times on Radio-Canada. With Japanese culture in mind, it is also possible some spiritual heirs of Dr. D.T. Suzuki could also help complete your list. I'll leave it to that for now.

Martin Levin: Indeed, the orientation has been Western and will probably remain mostly so (and not simply owing to familiarity, but also because the Western canon is so much more vast). That said, there are several Asian works under consideration and we have already done two Latin American books, Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Borges's Ficciones. But who can say what such a list might look like in a hundred years?

Katherine Laidlaw, globeandmail.com: Thus far we've seen 27 selections and, at my count, two of those books were written by women. Where are the women? Will we see more women writers on the second half of the list? We've had overwhelming reader support for novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence and To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Has gender factored into any of the jury's discussions thus far?

As well, another time period of literature, perhaps obviously, that's missing is contemporary works. How important is withstanding the test of time to a "greatest" book? Will authors such as Joan Didion, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie be left off because they have not yet withstood that test?

Martin Levin: Regarding gender, yes, the panel has definitely discussed this issue. The novels you mention are all wonderful, but this is not a "my favourite book" compilation. It's about the 50 books which, in the view of our panel, are either the greatest works of literature or otherwise of surpassing significance. And remember, we're going back 2,500 years and more, so it's a bit arrogant to assume now that many of the greatest books have emerged in the past half-century. It may turn out that a few of them will be so regarded, but it's really far too soon to tell. Also, for most of that period, women were enjoined from writing, for one or another reason familiar to most of us. So the vast majority of books, great and terrible, have been by men. That's changed enormously and will doubtless be reflected in time, which is an answer to your second question. For me, Ian McEwan's Atonement, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and others may well find places in the future.

Katherine Laidlaw, globeandmail.com: We've also had a large number of readers write in recommending more children's books such as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Antoine de Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince and C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, which although they may not have as much political impact, have certainly impacted children's lives. Has the jury discussed children's books at length? Do they have a place on this list?

Martin Levin: We have talked about children's books and more or less decided to exclude them, perhaps for another, similar exercise. For one thing, it gets into very deep cultural waters and, since so much is untranslated, it would be almost entirely confined to the English language.

Katherine Laidlaw, globeandmail.com: Speaking of the jury's discussions, why did you decide to keep the panelists' names hidden until the end of the series?

Martin Levin: Regarding the jury, we just think it more interesting to focus on the books; the jury will take questions at year's end.

Dave T. writes: If I may venture a comment, a few things that have surprised me, yet have had the cumulative impact of making the series more interesting: First, I am surprised that we have not seen more recommendations from the readership commentary in the master list for writers who represented almost paradigm status in my day: Sartre, Camus, D.H. Lawrence, some of the Bloomsbury group, Thomas Mann, Kafka, and so forth. I feel they have been under-represented by the reading public. Second, I was completely surprised by the selection of Our Mutual Friend relative to other Dickens works, and also Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

Martin Levin: Well, I'm glad we've been able to surprise you a little. There was considerable debate over Dickens, with Great Expectations garnering a lot of support and even some for A Christmas Carol. But three of us, including me, think Our Mutual Friend a masterpiece. (It was also Carol Shields's favourite.)

Gatsby changed the way people wrote and thought about writing.

As for the master list you sketch, Kafka will definitely be on (some debate about which Kafka). I'm a Mann supporter, but we're still thrashing that one out.

Remember though, this is not supposed to be definitive; that would be an absurd claim. Rather, it's an exercise designed to delight, instruct and generate some conversation -- as well as get some great books read and re-read.

Katherine Laidlaw, globeandmail.com: By keeping the jury a secret, do you think it takes some of the authority away from a list that certainly commands attention by being titled "50 Greatest Books"?

As well, after hearing some reader feedback, do you stand by the jury's choices? Is there anything you personally would like to see in the remaining 23 choices? And lastly, is there any component of the series (planning, selection, execution) you would change or add if you could start it over again?

Martin Levin: That's an interesting take about the authority of the jury being perhaps diminished by being secret, but then we thought that in itself might generate discussion. And indeed, don't see this as authoritative, but rather the collective opinion, or maybe consensus, of five fairly well-read people about books that have, in one way or another, mattered a lot.

As for the remaining 23, I'm going to exclude the ones we've already agreed upon, but my own choices would certainly include the Essays of Montaigne, Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, Boswell's Life of Johnson, and books by both the James boys (not Frank and Jesse, but William, Varieties of Religious Experience, and Henry, probably Portrait of a Lady).

As for doing anything differently, ideally I'd love to have decided the 50 before we actually began printing, but then, that's hardly the heritage of newspaper life.

Katherine Laidlaw, globeandmail.com: Thanks very much for participating and answering our questions today, Martin.

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