So you know how it is: you want to do The Ultimate Reading List, the one packed with all the essentials that people Need To Read (note the caps to emphasize intent). And then you delete the draft over and over again because you can't do it, there's always something more that you need to add or that you forget, and in the end it's some kind of Moby Dick: huge, bloated, unkillable and always tantalising you.
But what if you asked people to give you a hand rather than going all Achab?
So, inspired by Hammard's list on Twitter, I set out to ask my Twitter followers help in drawing up The Ultimate Reading List, the one with the essential scifi and fantasy books since the 1960s, with ten books per decade.
The process, including all the nominations, the numbers, etc., is detailed at the end of the post.
The books are ordered within each decade by the number of votes they received.
How we established this list
First round: the nominations.
Any of the Twitter followers of The Middle Shelf account could send up to five books for each decade, with no obligation to reach five and no obligation to participate for each decade. Seven persons sent in nominations and at the end of it, this was the complete list for each decade. The colors show to which other book they were confronted to in the polls round.
Second round: the polls.
During 24 hours, anyone could vote for the stories. Most polls opposed two books, some opposed three. But in the end, it was the number of votes received that decided which books made it to the list. For instance, if two books by the same writer in the same decade were nominated, I confronted them in the polls, in the hope we would have a wider range of writers in the end. Obviously, it didn't work so well with McCaffrey or Butler, which just goes to prove their enduring appeal and how beloved these books are. Three books benefitted from a free pass: Adams' Hitch Hiker's Guide ; Butler's Kindred ; Le Guin's The Dispossessed. Each was very popular in the nomination round and there were only 17 nominations for that decade, which would have made the polls awkward. So I didn't try too hard to find a solution - as I love all three - and gave them a free pass.
Here are the results with the numbers of votes for each book, with the very kind help of Hammard.
Last round: the blurbs.
Some books I knew and loved and had even reviewed. Some... Well, let's say that I do vaguely remember watching an animation film called The Last Unicorn at some point of my childhood, but I had no idea it was a novel! So I asked everyone to join in to write the blurbs you read above, also because I considered it'd be more interesting to have other points of view than just my own, particularly for books I have already reviewed. I even cheekily sollicited Adrian Tchaikovsky and Aliya Whiteley who were kind enough to join in and blurb their own books.
Thoughts about this list.
This list is very very close to the list I would have made myself. Obviously, there are some differences. But in the end, I'm very happy to present it on my blog because it represents the kind of scifi and fantasy I love and believe in. Of course, it is to be expected that people following me will have tastes close to mine... !
The word "Essentials" was also chosen on purpose. It is ambiguous: a book can be "essential" because we think it has made a tremendous impact on the genre ; but a book can also be "essential" because it has had a tremendous impact on us, at some point of our lives. So these books have been chosen not only with our heads, but also with our hearts.
Diversity wise, books written by female writers represent almost half of the list (26 out of 60) but books by writers of colour represent only a sixth of the list (10 out of 60). Some female writers are represented more than once, but it's the case also for male writers. As we voted for particular stories rather than writers, it makes sense to me. Butler is represented four times, a feat only Pratchett achieved too. As there was no quota or guideline regarding diversity, I think it is a fair testimonial to how beloved her work is rather than "We need to put in a writer of colour, what about Butler again?"
Like any of these lists, it is very subjective. But at least it's not too personal, nor too impersonal. We've probably not achieved The Ultimate List but I think that it's a pretty good list, that compromised when it had to and that gives a pretty good snapshot of what has been traditionnally published and that will probably stay in the scifi and fantasy annals.
Hey! Where's Dune?
I know! Big shocker: Dune didn't make it past the polls round. I think most of us scifi readers have affection for Dune as it's often one of the first scifi books we ever read. But on one hand, do you need us to tell you to read Dune? Everyone out there will tell you that. On the other hand, maybe, maybe, at this point in the lives of all who took part, other books seemed more essential, books like Flowers for Algernon maybe...
This list and this blog post was written thanks to Leigh, Hammard, Bethan, Fred, Joe, Azzie, Hedwig, Ian, Matt, Michele, Linda, David, to say nothing of Aliya Whiteley and Adrian Tchaikovsky. Some of them really saved me, especially by blurbing books I haven't read or don't like!
And thanks to everyone who took part in the polls!
"While we were reading" is an irregular feature about reading science-fiction and fantasy. It can contain guest posts. Nothing fancy, come as you are.
It is also home to all the Subjective Chaos Kind of Awards announcements.