Universal Books?

Last night, while thinking about the vast publishing industry and the fact that you could never read even a fraction of the books published each year, even in a lifetime of reading,  I wondered “Are there any books that you could be sure that almost every single person who is a reader has read?” 

I think children's books are a good place to start – most of us have exposure to the same classics when we're young – Cat in the Hat, Charlotte's Web and into our adolescence with things like the The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew.

For that reason, that might be a good way to approach the list of books that every adult has read – except I suspect that there isn't probably a single “classic” in literature that everybody has read, the same way that there might be for children's and YA books.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, given any list of 100 Great Books, there's probably a few gaps on that list for anybody (I usually feel like I've barely read half the books on any of these lists – and I've got an English degree!)

Maybe that's another way to approach it – education.  There must be some books that everybody reads in the course of their schooling.  Is Hamlet the universal book we have to read in school?  Not necessarily – I think we studied Merchant of Venice in grade ten then Romeo and Juliet in grade eleven then MacBeth in grade twelve in my high school.  I didn't see Hamlet until university (but then I saw it in about three different classes!) 

How about coming at it from the opposite direction – the books no teacher would ever recommend?  Mass market paperbacks like Stephen King, Tom Clancy, John Grisham – all of whom have been referred to as the best-selling novelist of all-time.

Is there anybody out there who has not read at least one Stephen King book?  But then again, he's got such a large back catalogue, is there a single book out of his dozens that you could say everybody has read? 

The Bible is another book that is a strong contender – it's known as the best-selling single book of all-time according to Guinness.  But I would be fairly certain that “best-selling” doesn't not equate to “most read” by a long shot!  (“David begat John begat Paul begat Mark begat Mary…” makes for some pretty dry reading!)

Any other ideas?  I think I'm going to go with Hamlet as my pick for a “universal book”.  I don't think you can be a reader of any level of finesse and get away with not having read it.

Speaking of reading habits, I had another idea driving home from RPL yesterday.  Below is a list of the books I grabbed on a fairly typical visit to the public library.  There was no filtering – either to pick “good” books or avoid “bad” ones since I didn't come up with the idea for this list until coming home so here, completely and honestly, is a list of books and other items I borrowed.  (Not that I think there's anything particularly embarrassing in this batch but just want to state for the record that I'm not “forgetting” that biography of Posh Spice that I had on hold for a month.)

The Undercover Economist
This was a hold that brought me to the library on this day.  I'd seen the book at Chapters and in typical librarian fashion (?), made note of the title so I could borrow it from the library and save myself $40.  It's supposed to be sort of similar to Freakonomics which I really enjoyed.  I started it last night and it seems like this will be a good one too! 

Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
– I usually start my browsing at the start of the non-fiction shelves so usually end up grabbing 1-2 computer/book on books/philosophy-religion titles when I visit the library.

A Devil's Chaplain – Richard Dawkins
– while waiting for “The God Delusion” to come through on hold, another Dawkins book caught my eye while browsing – this a collection of various essays.  The Selfish Gene is a great book and the origin of the word “meme” if you didn't know.

The Weblog Handbook
– browsing at Superstore the other day, I saw a new book called the Rough Guide To Blogging.  RPL doesn't have it yet but this one from 2001 seemed similar but yet, should be good
for a laugh at the same time. 

Butter Down The Well – Robert Collins
A classic about growing up on the prairies in the 1930's, I've been meaning to read this one forever.

Neil Young Nation – Kevin Chong
Someone suggested this Vancouver author's first book for our FTRW “Book of the Year” in Calgary so I was aware of him as an author.  Then I heard his new book would be a non-fiction travelogue where he compares his life to Neil Young's (plus I have about a dozen guitar picks emblazoned with the title of this book from a promotional event I attended in Moose Jaw a couple years ago.  So I figured the least I could do is read the book.)

Touched By Tommy – Ed & Pemrose Whalen
A collection of anecdotes about people's encounters with Tommy Douglas.

Stripes (DVD)
– perhaps the funniest opening scene until “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”

Animal House: Special Edition (DVD)
– I've seen this a few times but wanted to check out the extras.

Jesus de Montreal (DVD)
– great Canadian film with an awesome ending.

(All DVD's are ones I've seen before but I like to have a familiar film playing in the background when I'm on the computer or doing other stuff so I can tune in and tune out without feeling like I'm missing anything.)

Last fall, I had a debate with one of my readers about whether 40 items was too high of a limit for a public library (she said it was, I said it wasn't even close!)  I admitted at that time that I never read all the books I take out but do like the convenience of having a “mini-library” with a range of borrowed books in it so that I can find something to read no matter what mood strikes me.  (Let's not get into the hundreds of neglected books on my own bookshelf!)  Anyhow, every book I took out yesterday is a book I *want* to read, whether it is a book I *will* read is another question. 

Oh, another realization – I'm really into non-fiction these days and rarely read fiction anymore.  Which in turn inspires an idea for a post for another day – the hierarchy of genres within the book world.  But that'll have to wait.

[Edit – I posted this question to the hivemind at AskMF for their thoughts.]

Comments 18

  1. Anonymous wrote:

    Hamlet? That's a pretty highbrow pool of adult readers you're assuming for it to be “universal”.
    Hamlet was required for my OAC English class, but I never read it. I watched the movies, and listened in class and got by. Does that count as “reading” it?
    I guess I don't have that finesse of which you speak….

    Posted 13 Mar 2007 at 7:18 pm
  2. Anonymous wrote:

    Ah, but doesn't the fact that you were assigned Hamlet (even if you didn't read it) sort of prove my point?
    It's one of the few books that everybody ends up getting exposed to at some point in their reading life (highbrow or lowbrow really don't play into it as far as I'm concerned. And “finesse” was probably the wrong word to use, especially if I didn't want to insult the people who haven't read it.)
    But your and my experiences both show that maybe Hamlet is introduced too late in a person's reading life to reach the widest swath of readers? So how about I propose “To Kill A Mockingbird” as my “alternate Universal book”? It's sort of the modern equivalent of Hamlet within these parameters – a book that pretty much everybody has to read at some point during their schooling but usually earlier (maybe grade eight or nine for us?) Anyhow, I hope that's one you read!
    Or do you have any suggestions for other books that might have a universal reach (er, universal within the scope of English-speaking readers)?

    Posted 13 Mar 2007 at 10:01 pm
  3. Anonymous wrote:

    When you say universal, do you really mean Universal? Internationally speaking, the 'canon' is quite different in other countries and can vary widely depending on educational objectives, belief systems, etc.
    I think it is really difficult to consider anything is universal, there are likely universal-esque books among library students, university students, highschool students, but something like Hamlet, I've read 3 times in different contexts, however my mother, who is an avid reader, has never read it.
    I've read passages from the Bible, but not the whole thing, whereas my Mom actually has (she read it out of curiosity when she was younger and not in the context of church attendance; do regular church goers read the entire Bible?) Plus, the universality of the Bible is difficult to measure, since there are several different versions of the Bible that are read by different faiths and even the different branches of Christianity.
    Again, I've never read any Stephen King, Mom on the other hand has read everything he's ever written….maybe she should be the librarian..? ๐Ÿ˜›
    I don't have an answer beyond the usual YA school assigned books and I can't tell you how many conversations I've been a party too that end with 'you haven't read it'!?!
    Maybe universality doesn't exist…even the significant cultural moments that people share on television differ: IE what defines each generation, the moon landing, the challenger disaster, princess di….9/11 was a fairly universally shared event but with the media contrasting so differently between nations, no one group of people will have seen the same images, coverage.
    More questions than answers here, but that's usually where I end up with the complex questions about life. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Posted 13 Mar 2007 at 10:16 pm
  4. Anonymous wrote:

    Do you think To Kill A Mockingbird is widely read by the Brits? (It should be read by everyone, but that may not be the case).

    Posted 13 Mar 2007 at 10:25 pm
  5. Anonymous wrote:

    As I clarified to Kathleen, I'm defining “universal” fairly narrowly (ie. English-speaking book readers) although there are probably lots of works that have a much wider reach than that – again, things like Shakespeare to Stephen King get translated into dozens of languages.
    Another one I thought of that's pretty obvious – Harry Potter. Have you and your mom both read say, the first one? It combines a few of the characteristics I'm talking about plus being equally appealing to adults and children.
    So far, all the contenders are fiction (okay, the Bible is arguable) but I wonder if there's a non-fiction work that everybody's read?
    (What'd you think of that “Myths of International Development” video?)

    Posted 13 Mar 2007 at 10:31 pm
  6. Anonymous wrote:

    Yeah, again – guilty of having too narrow of a world view, even as I talk about universality! Okay, I'm changing my mind again and reverting to Shakespeare as my pick!

    Posted 13 Mar 2007 at 10:33 pm
  7. Anonymous wrote:

    it maybe proves the point that there are some books that some people in the establishment believe everyone SHOULD read…I don't know. I'm having problems with the notion of a “universal book”…
    I also don't see how the idea of class doesn't come into play here. I don't think think you could ever assign Hamlet as the “universal” book while an extremely large percentage of people would have no idea where to even start with a book like that. Maybe they've heard of it, yeah. But is that what you mean?
    And do I have any suggestions? No, I don't. I'm more willing to say that it would be something a little less complex than Hamlet, though. Maybe Green Eggs and Ham or something. I'll think about it.
    I wasn't insulted by the finesse thing, more self-mockery, really. and I have read To Kill A Mockingbird. I also saw the movie. Gregory Peck was a hottie.

    Posted 13 Mar 2007 at 10:53 pm
  8. Anonymous wrote:

    Are you calling me “The Man”?!? Oh no!!!
    I'm not defending the idea of a Universal book – it was more of a hypothetical question: in a world that has tens of thousands of (English-language alone) books published each year, each clamouring for an audience, which are the books that cut through and reach the most people? Not making judgements about good or bad, highbrow, lowbrow or no brow.
    Sure, “Hamlet” is a bit highbrow. And Michelle made a good point that a lot of readers (ie. our parents, grandparents) might not fit the reading profile that we do in the most general sense.
    What's a book that I, my mom and my grandpa have read? I honestly can't think of one. But when I do, I'm probably getting closer to my answer. (Grandpa pretty much only likes his westerns but I'd class him as a reader even though I'm guessing he never read Hamlet. Mom's a reader too but not sure if she read Hamlet or not.) Hmm…I'll think on this one for a bit.

    Posted 13 Mar 2007 at 11:07 pm
  9. Anonymous wrote:

    This has nothing to do with a 'universal book', but rather to defend a little of the King here…I learned, about ten years ago, that several Universities are teaching one or more of King's novels as part of their 'Contemporary Literature' or 'American Literature' courses. It surprised me.
    For a more 'universal' book, I'd go with something like “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” or “The Hobbit”; something that's been around for a while and has been read to kids regularly. Lewis Carroll's “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland”, maybe? I wonder about Dr. Seuss – is he as prevalent overseas? There are a number of children's authors from Britain whose work was incredibly popular, even up until about the 1950s in most, if not all of the Commonwealth countries – if you had enough money to send your kids to school or to have a book to read them, chances are good that this is where you started.
    Also, don't forget about books like “Huckleberry Finn”; many of these were circulated widely as children's books, and then later adopted to school courses and even university courses.
    If we're going to try to come up with a 'universal book', I'd put my money on a children's title rather than on a Shakespearean play, if only because there are an awful lot of people who haven't had access to education (three out of four of my grandparents finished school in grade six or eight, and that wasn't all that long ago) and who may never have studied “Hamlet” at all. Folks who took University literature courses would have done, but not necessarily the English 101 classes offered to Commerce students, Engineering Students, etc. (non-Arts majors) In high school, many classes studied plays other than “Hamlet” (a friend of mine who went to school in another province admitted they'd *never* studied Shakespeare in high school, but did take a lot of Chaucer)…
    …I'm just saying that I think “Hamlet” as a 'universal book' may be assuming a certain education (which may, or may not be a function of wealth and/or class)…it's probably one of the most notorious books, but I'm not sure if it's one of the most read? I'd put my money on a classic children's book or two. Maybe even Dickens? Or Anne of Green Gables?
    It's interesting when you think of regionality – a 'universally read book' in Canada might be completely different from one in Australia or Ireland or Kansas.
    Good topic.

    Posted 14 Mar 2007 at 1:34 pm
  10. Anonymous wrote:

    Oh, I'm with you on King as having a vastly changed reputation as a “legitimate” author. Wasn't there a big kerfuffle a few years ago when they wanted to give him the National Book Prize or something in the US and all these snooty academics got their backs up?
    Yeah, the more we discuss this, it seems like a children's book is probably going to be it, even though I really wanted to come up with a book that fit this definition (loose as it is) for adults – across generations and across continents.
    I've switched my answer a couple times in the course of this thread and I'm going to do so again – what about “The Diary of a Young Girl”? Anne Frank's book is known around the world, it's popular with children and adults. Not sure if my grandparents would have read it but it's something many of our parents might at least have been exposed to and I think that most people are age (and younger) will come across at some point, if they consider themselves readers.
    Not sure if they teach it in schools though – that's one way to make sure it has a broad exposure.
    I guess another way to look at this topic would be stories that everybody knows but hasn't necessarily read – things like “A Christmas Carol” that have almost become cliches in terms of their ubiquity in our culture.

    Posted 14 Mar 2007 at 2:21 pm
  11. Anonymous wrote:

    Another one along the lines of “The Diary of Anne Frank” is “I am David”, which was taught extensively to my parents and to folks our age…something to consider though, that I didn't think of before, is that these kinds of books only will apply to about the last three generations of people; if you're going for a book that our grandparents have read, our parents, us, and our kids, I think something even older than the “Diary of Anne Frank”? I don't know. It's a damned good question.
    I like your idea of “Universal Book” rather than “Universal Story”; it seems more challenging…
    May I post this challenge on a LJ chat room?

    Posted 14 Mar 2007 at 7:44 pm
  12. Anonymous wrote:

    Sure, post away. Thanks for asking permission (and if you can work in a link this blog as the source of the idea, that's always appreciated too! )
    Being as yet, without a child (T-minus two months, six days, fourteen hours…), I forget to the forward-looking aspect of the question before us. Not just to come up with a book that people around the world will have read, not just a book our grandparents, parents and our generation has read but that will still be “in fashion” (for lack of a better term) when our children are a bit older.
    I think “Diary of Anne Frank” is still a pretty good pick (until I change my mind again!). Sure, a lot of grandparents may not have read it but it was published in 1952 (in English) which is putting it in the realm of their awareness at least. (My grandpa was around 30 or so that year so he would've known about it probably within the ten years after it was published – not sure how long it took to become popular/a bestseller.)
    I think the block for a book like this to being widely read/known is that my grandfather likely wouldn't want to read about something like this based on their experiences in the war.
    I've seen a couple books that would be good resources – New York Times Books of the Century and another one that runs down the NYT bestseller lists year by year with commentary about their societal impact. I may have one on my shelf downstairs. I'll take a look and post again if I find it.

    Posted 14 Mar 2007 at 8:03 pm
  13. Anonymous wrote:

    !! What about the Grimm Fairy Tales? The original was printed in the early- mid-19th century, and has been reprinted and redone all kinds of times, in hundreds of languages.
    See what a monster you've created?
    I'll link away!

    Posted 15 Mar 2007 at 12:42 am
  14. Anonymous wrote:

    Be sure to post a link to that thread here if you can!

    Posted 15 Mar 2007 at 6:11 am
  15. Anonymous wrote:

    Well, if we're going to put Grimm's Fairy Tales on the table, we might as well put Aesop's Fables on the list. Two and a half millenia of popularity is definitely worth considering, even if there is no definitive text.

    Posted 16 Mar 2007 at 5:44 pm
  16. Anonymous wrote:

    Again, it's all hypothetical but have most people physically *read* these stories or do they just know/absorb them as part of well, being alive in our society? I read them, I'm guessing most people reading this thread read them but do a wide cross-section of English-speaking readers “read” them, not just “know” them?
    Just a thought…

    Posted 18 Mar 2007 at 3:58 am
  17. Anonymous wrote:

    I know that I've read some of them. I can still recall the illustrations to a few — but they were probably in different collections, given the different styles of illustrations.
    Like I said, there is no definitive text of Aesop's fables, so there are a lot of issues to be resolved before it is considered for inclusion. Does reading only the Tortise and the Hare award a full vote? Must you have read an entire collection for it to count? Must that collection contain a minimum number of specific tales? Even when there is a definitive text does a single portion count? The best example off the top of my head that I can think of is Robert Frost's poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, which has been read/heard by a lot more people than have read the entirety of the book in which is was first published (“New Hampshire”, if anyone is interested).
    When considering works (in the FRBR, sense) for inclusion in a list of Universal Books, the definition of “book” is sort of important to clarify where you draw the lines between expressions of the work.
    Video and sound recordings/broadcasts are considered expressions outside of the hypothetical discussion, but translations in print (e.g. King James or Good News Bibles) are considered to be the same expression of the work. Are condensed, bowdlerized or concordant texts in or out?
    It just gets too messy. I would keep the discussion at the level of Work — a distinct intellectual creation — and not worry about the details of the expression.
    Another advantage of this would be to — and this is still hypothetical — not have to pro-rate your considerations based on historical literacy levels. Without pro-rating, a list would be heavily skewed towards more recent works. With prorating it would probably be skewed towards a few classics that were really popular in times of low-literacy (and limited volumes of publication). But if you step back and just think of works (delivered orally, written, visually, watever) then everything will fall into place based on the predominant methods of communicating stories in every era.
    Odds are the same works would still be at the top of the list (A few of Shakespeare's plays, The Bible, etc.) but you have less hair-splitting about how they are arguably universal and can move on to the more interesting questions about why they are arguably universal.
    Wow, that's overthinking this isn't it? I should go for a walk on my lunch-hour or something.

    Posted 19 Mar 2007 at 5:03 pm
  18. Anonymous wrote:

    My initial idea for this question was “the book” but you're right that this is a sticky point, especially for works that have no definitive version or alternate versions and so on. So should we focus on the work or the container for that work?
    If we're trying to define a universal book instead of a universal work, at least, the “what is a book?” question isn't too hard to answer – at least, if you believe UNESCO. They say: “Non-periodic printed publication of at least 49 pages exclusive of the cover pages, published in the country and made available to the public.”
    The Sask Book Awards, who I thought used the UNESCO definition, also include “professionally printed” and “having an ISBN”.
    Hmmm, I think I need a walk too! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Posted 20 Mar 2007 at 5:10 am

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