What Makes a Book Meaningful?

Recently I posted a list of the 100 Most Meaningful Books. It can be found at: http://thestarsarenotmadeoffire.com/2011/02/12/100-most-meaningful-books-of-all-time/
The list was derived from a survey given to several primarily literary authors. While I think the list is an impressive list and anyone who has read all of the titles or chooses to take on the endeavor of reading all of those books would be doing something quite commendable, I would argue that that list is rather elitist. Further, I would say that meaning is something individual and to be determined individually.

I think many more books could be added to that list because of their contribution to cultural movements or political thought. Nostromo by Joseph Conrad is on the list that I posted about earlier this week. Nostromo is incredibly dense reading. I personally would not have put it on that list. I would have chosen Heart of Darkness instead. Conrad was a riverboat captain in the Congo and he based the novella on his experiences. Shortly after it was published another expose that had been clandestinely investigated was published revealing King Leopold’s brutal exploitation of the Congo. Heart of Darkness helped to change public perception of the Belgians on the world stage. As I mentioned in my previous post, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin could also be added to that list of most meaningful books if one is looking at contribution to political thought. Uncle Tom’s Cabin added to the Abolitionist’s movement in the United States.

In my opinion, a book cannot be truly meaningful unless it has been read by someone who has found it meaningful. Further, I don’t think this necessarily has anything to do with literary merit because some books come along at just the right time and speak to a person’s soul. I have known many people who have listed Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye as their favorite book because something about Holden Caufield’s story they could relate to. When I was in high school Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land that described a human brought back to earth from Mars who only wished to understand and help humanity and felt alienated resonated with me. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan for one of my literature classes, I read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and was transformed by the book. In my late twenties, Margaret Laurence’s novel The Diviners spoke to me. In my thirties, John Berendt’s non-fiction story Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil made me rethink my connections to my past and to dead relatives, made me rethink my place in my community, and reoriented my perspective on the possibilities of things greater than myself. When life had worn me down to a stub, left me lonely and humourless, I had the good fortune of picking up one of Jim Butcher’s Dresden File books. I raced through the entire series. It was like freedom to read just for the fun of it and to follow the adventures of Harry Dresden, Wizard and Private Investigator, who took a regular beating, fought a poo flinging purple Monkey-Tron, and just kept fighting the good fight. The Dresden Files got me through a dark time.

While I think that a list composed from a survey of literary authors can create a great syllabus for an independent study of world literature, I also think that which books are meaningful is really up to individual readers and their reasons for why those books would be on their lists will be as varied as the books themselves.

Borders Bankruptcy, the Demise of Arborland Borders, and the Rise of E-Books

I worked for Borders Bookstore in Ann Arbor for two separate stints. The first time I was employed by Borders I worked in the downtown store in Ann Arbor in the heart of the University of Michigan. When I worked there it was not the original location where the Borders brothers had first opened, but rather a remodeled Jacobson’s store that provided a larger space.

I have very fond memories of the original store with its center area and gallery that ran around the outer walls. I can remember sitting on the steps of the store on State Street and reading Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. I would sit there for hours and the staff there knew me and knew to leave me alone because the books themselves would seduce me. I spent far more money than a college student who worked three jobs to get her Bachelors degree in English Language and Literature should ever have spent on books. The original Borders was a magical place for a girl who loved books and came from a rural area where it was forty five minute drive to even get to a mall with a small Walden Books and there was no such thing as ordering books online.

The first time that I worked for Borders before being hired we had to take a test of our knowledge of books. I passed the test and Joe Gable who was the manager at the time hired me to do special orders. Working with special orders I got to see the best of books and ones I would never have looked at on my own. The best I can remember from that time period were books like “Manifold Destiny” which was a cookbook that gave step by step directions, recipes, and mileage for cooking tasty dishes utilizing the heat from a car engine. Another book was a book of poetry called “Gorillas of Grace”. Such a lovely book. The first time I worked at Borders was an exciting time in the history of the company. They had gone corporate and the Borders brothers worked within the corporation. The company was expanding and opening stores all across the country. Friends from the downtown store were scattered across the United States as they took store management positions. Joe Gable fought to keep the stores feeling like the original Borders on State Street where patrons could browse for hours undistrubed by pesky booksellers and where booksellers were appreciated for their knowledge of books and their ability to make good recommendations. There was a love of books that permeated the store.

Several years ago I applied for a holiday position at the Arborland Borders store. I think it might have been November 2005. I worked that mad and rather crazy holiday season in the Seattle’s Best Coffee cafe within the Borders at Arborland. The lines for people purchasing books ran to the back of the store and it was very busy. But I noticed a few things. The staff at Arborland were very knowledgable about books and did an amazing job recommending books and helping customers to get what they needed, but now there was a kind of script that was to be said at the cash register. In part the recognition of the people coming into Borders were no longer that they were people but rather they were customers to optimize sales from. The Borders Rewards card was continuously “suggested”. Perhaps to show the financial district that Borders was still viable? I don’t know. In my opinion, the memos coming from the corporate office had a feel about them that did not mesh with the original Borders that I remembered.

I continued to work for the next few years for Borders as a part time employee. This included watching in amazement as the corporate office decided to empty the shelves one November to make the company more liquid. This was right before the holiday season and we were told to place the books on the shelves facing out so that it looked like the shelves were still full. No one was fooled by this. There just wasn’t the selection available that customers wanted. Sales were dramatically down that holiday season and the Borders’ company stock dipped under a dollar and stayed there.

One semester I was taking three classes and working as a math and writing tutor so I decided to take a leave from Borders. When I came back in June of 2009 I was horrified to learn that the number of booksellers had been cut dramatically, good book people who had been assistant managers had been fired, and there was a new training and sales initiative. The new training I was given was to greet anyone who came in the door or any customer within fifteen feet and to recommend two corporate chosen books that were the books for that two week period. I was told that we had no choice as booksellers about this we had to push those specially chosen titles. This kind of forced handselling I found reprehensible on many levels and I quit because of it. Maybe it made good corporate sense, but it bothered me.

I miss Borders. I miss the people that I worked with. I miss the people who were regulars. The sales of e-books are on the rise, more people own dedicated e-readers, and I don’t think the trend towards more electronically published titles and greater sales of such books is going to go by the wayside. Bookstores however are important. The Borders brothers so many decades ago knew what they were doing. Bookstores are community places. Places where booklovers can sit and absorb the written word, feel a new book in their hands, look over the chapters. Bookstores are places where people can feel at home. A local bookstore should foster that sense of community and be part of the neighborhood. The events should be things that bring people together and help them feel some ownership towards the store. A bookstore should never just be a commercial enterprise, that is a sure-fire way to not sell books in an age where they are cheaper online and can be downloaded in seconds.

I will miss the Borders at Arborland that is scheduled to be closed in the bankruptcy and cost cutting plan. What I will miss is not the books but the people that made Borders a great place to come in to work to.

100 Most Meaningful Books of All Time

Tonight on a whim I googled “most meaningful book” and this list of the 100 most meaningful books of all time came up.

According to the Christchurch City Libraries website a “2002 survey of around 100 well-known authors from 54 countries voted for the most meaningful book of all time in a poll organised by editors at the Norwegian Book Clubs in Oslo. Voters included Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, Carlos Fuentes and Norman Mailer. Miguel de Cervantes’ tale gained 50% more votes than any other book, eclipsing works by Shakespeare, Homer and Tolstoy.” The link for the original post can be found at: http://christchurchcitylibraries.com/Literature/Best/2002/100Meaningful/

The books beyond Don Quixote, which was voted most meaningful, are arranged alphabetically by author as opposed to in order of meaning. Here is the list:

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe
Fairy tales and stories by Hans Christian Andersen
Pride and prejudice by Jane Austen
Old Goriot by Honore de Balzac
Trilogy: Molloy, Malone dies, The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
Collected fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The Outsider (The Stranger) by Albert Camus
Poems by Paul Celan
Journey to the end of the night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine
Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Nostromo by Joseph Conrad
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Great expectations by Charles Dickens
Jacques the fatalist and his master by Denis Diderot
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin
Crime and punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Invisible man by Ralph Ellison
Medea by Euripides
Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner
The Sound and the fury by William Faulkner
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
A Sentimental education by Gustave Flaubert
Gypsy Ballads by Federico Garcia Lorca
One hundred years of solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Love in the time of cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Dead souls by Nikolai Gogol
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
The Devil to pay in the backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
The Old man and the sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Iliad by Homer
The Odyssey by Homer
A Doll’s house by Henrik Ibsen
The Book of Job by Anon
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka
The Trial by Franz Kafka
The Castle by Franz Kafka
The Recognition of Sakuntala by Kalidasa
The Sound of the mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis
Sons and lovers by D H Lawrence
Independent people by Halldor K Laxness
Complete poems by Giacomo Leopardi
The Golden notebook by Doris Lessing
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
Diary of a madman and other stories by Lu Xun
Mahabharata by Anon
Children of Gebelawi by Naguib Mahfouz
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Essays by Michel de Montaigne
History by Elsa Morante
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
The Man without qualities by Robert Musil
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Njal’s saga
1984 by George Orwell
Metamorphoses by Ovid
The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
The Complete tales by Edgar Allan Poe
Remembrance of things past by Marcel Proust
Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo
The Mathnawi Jalalu’l-Din Rumi
Midnight’s children by Salman Rushdie
The Bostan of Saadi (The Orchard) by Sheikh Saadi of Shiraz
A Season of migration to the north by Tayeb Salih
Blindness by Jose Saramago
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Othello by William Shakespeare
Oedipus the King by Sophocles
The Red and the black by Stendhal
The Life and opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne
Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo
Gulliver’s travels by Jonathan Swift
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other stories by Leo Tolstoy
Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov
Thousand and One Nights
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Ramayana Valmiki
The Aeneid by Virgil
Leaves of grass by Walt Whitman
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
To the lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

I am not certain what to make of this list. After perusing it I do think that if one were to read all of these books the reader would have a very good survey of world literature and would have read a vast range of really amazing books. While I am not so certain about the inclusion of Pippi Longstocking, I do have to say that I have read articles stating that Steig Larson based his Lisbeth Salandar from the millenium trilogy on a grown up version of Pippi Longstocking. I might also add a few books to the list. Books like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin because it made such a contribution to the Abolitionists’ movement in the US and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden for adding to the Transcendentalists’ movement. Let me think on this list and see if there are others that I might add. To anyone reading this post, can you think of others? The Bible? The Volsung Sagas? Metamorphosis?

What do you like to see in the books you are reading?

I am laying on the futon and listening to the birdsong this morning. I was thinking about an article that I read yesterday that was an interview with four agents. It was in Poets and Writers and can be found here: www.pw.org/content/agents_amp_editors_qampa_four_young_literary_agents
One of the topics in the article was about finding books that readers will want to read. One of the agents was talking about yucky books and authors writing about characters that they and no one else really likes. So this got me thinking this morning. What do I like to read? What characters do I like to see in books?

For me, I don’t like to read about only powerful characters. I want them to have dimension– areas of strength and areas where they have vulnerabilities. I would like to see more general fiction about everyday people drawn realistically to illustrate their everyday heroism especially in extraordinary circumstances. I despise vapid, weak female characters. Simple, unrealistic love stories and meaningless, action plots both leave me a little cold. I like unusual ideas, new takes on old themes, and the imaginative fantastic. I want good solid writing. I want the writing to say something, challenge my ideas, and haunt me. If it is for entertainment only, I want some sparkling humor and deftly drawn quirky characters.

I like explorations into whatif. I like forays into other points of view– especially ones that put humans not at the center of the universe but rather as one voice in the cacophony. I like writing that sees things from a new perspective.

More later.

What do others like to read? What characters do you like to see in books? Or movies?



We have a broken system in need of repair. Now, you ask what system am I referring to. I refer to the way that books are published and reach readers.

Our Current Publishing System

Our current broken publishing system is broken works only to the advantage of a few people. Only a small proportion of fiction writers are monetarily compensated in a way that substantially rewards their creativity and efforts. The major publishing houses, while realizing profits every year for the last several years, typically do not recover the cost of most author advances and the outlay of expenses to get a book published. As a result they focus more and more of their resources on known authors every year.

One of the three major retailers of books has been struggling and showing a net loss for over a year. The independent bookstores struggle to make ends meet as well. Lastly, book lovers are short changed by a system that is focusing on a narrow slice of creative possibility and they are drawn to other forms of leisure entertainment that capture their interest. The entire industry needs revamping because it is in a creative funk and a state of demise.


According to Jerrold Jenkins and posted on www.JenkinsGroup.com
81% of the population feels they have a book inside them.
And 27% would write fiction.

6 million people wrote a manuscript of some kind, either fiction or non-fiction, and 6 million manuscripts are making the rounds.

Tara Harper on her website at www.tarakharper.com says that 3 out of every ten thousand writers gets published.

Advances are Peanuts

There are a very large number of people all over the world who are currently creating written works. However, according to Ridley Pearson from www.ridleypearson.com only roughly 5000 novels and 200 first novels by new authors are purchased each year by publishers. Also, new authors are not paid very much for their work. They typically receive an advance between $1500 and $7000. Further the royalties specified by contract usually stipulate that for every book under 5000 copies sold the author gets a royalty of 10 to 12%.

This may sound like it could be lucrative. However, the Authors Guild states “A successful fiction book sells 5000 copies” on their website at www.authorsguild.org. According to Jerrold Jenkins 70% of the books published do not earn out their advance. So for the effort of writing a novel a writer might only receive $1500 to $7000.

Lost Novels and Leaky Roofs

This information makes me wonder how many outstanding novelists we have lost because they decided to become accountants to be able to afford a home. Or how many teachers who were writing for years in their spare time finally gave up because their novel was lost in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Or how many published authors have leaky roofs and sweat it out every time the power bill comes due.

Publishing Houses are Doing OK

Now, the publishing houses are doing better and all showed profits last year in the millions of dollars. In the June 4, 2007 edition of New York News and Features Arianne Cohen writes that for Random house the best way to make money is to underpay writers. She quotes the CEO of Random House, Peter Olson, as saying “The most profitable books are highly successful authors early in their career with a contract that doesn’t reflect their success.”

Not By Supporting Newer Authors

However despite they have made profits, the publishers are doing so by not supporting the efforts of their newer authors. The publishers are doing well by giving successful authors better compensation and publicity, focusing more and more of their resources towards publicizing their top authors rather than the midlist authors, and relying on revenues from their lists of what are called ‘backlist’ books.

Dan Poynter on www.parapublishing.com writes: “Last spring (1999) an uneasy Authors Guild, which had spent more than a year looking into these trends, released its report on midlist publishing. It laboriously toted up the figures for the top fiction and nonfiction titles on the Publishers Weekly annual bestseller list, then showed how those 30 megabooks suck up a growing proportion of sales. In 1986, the bestsellers accounted for about 7 percent of all adult hardcover trade book sales; a decade later they accounted for 13 percent. In 1999, applying the same methodology, the proportion reached nearly 15 percent.” The end result of this is that fewer and fewer book titles are being sold and circulated.

A newer author’s novel needs to catch on on its own. And books often are given only four weeks to move in a bookstore before being sent back to the publishers. Otherwise, the author might not ever get the full efforts of their publisher to publicize their book. They may labor in obscurity no matter how marvelous the book is.

70% of the Books Published Don’t Make a Profit

Currently according to Jerrold Jenkins 70% of the books published don’t make a profit.

In Ms. Cohen’s article she writes that “Fifteen to twenty best sellers at a time” and a huge volume of steadily selling older titles support Random House. She goes on to say that 80% of Random House’s profits come from its back-list books.

In the January 12, 1998 issue of U.S. News and World Report the breakout of costs for a hardback book is as follows:

  • 22% Royalties, rights, and permissions
  • 8% editorial
  • 12% Administration and other associated costs
  • 16% Production
  • 17% paper, printing, and binding
  • 4% warehousing
  • and 21% sales and marketing.

Focusing on books by known authors is a way for the publishers to minimize their risks. According to Tara Harper on her website, it costs her publisher DelRey/Random House $150,000 to publish a mass market paperback book. It takes quite a few sold copies to recover this cost and publishing any title involves risk. However, when the publishers narrow down the number of titles that they are publishing and backing, they are reducing their own chances to create profitable successful titles. Their list of backlist books is going to grow at a much slower rate or go into decline.


The picture in the bookstores is not entirely rosy either. Borders has been struggling a bit in the last year. Last May the CEO of Borders announced that the company was potentially for sale and Barnes and Noble began looking into the possibility of acquiring Borders. In November 2008 as reported in the Detroit Free Press, despite a third quarter loss of $0.64 per share and a revenue decline of 9.4%, George Jones, the CEO of Borders, announced the company was no longer for sale. The company is still possibly looking to sell off its Paperchase Products unit. Barnes and Noble also reported a drop in same store sales for the third quarter. Only Amazon reported an increase in sales of 15% of books, cd’s, and other media.

Now to increase the health of the company, Borders reduced costs and got rid of some of its debt. It also reduced its inventory by 19.5% over the course of the last year as reported by the Detroit Free Press. Some of this inventory shedding was good and necessary. However, it did reduce the number of books on the shelves.

The Squeeze

Where this whole scenario becomes tragic is the squeeze between the profit optimization of the big publishers  and the struggling retail outlets. The publishers dominate and publish less books (and more of those are by known authors). The retailers struggle and use the square footage of their stores to the best advantage to make money as the selection of titles becomes very narrow. Cool, interesting books get lost and the selection on the shelves dwindles. Titles that might have been on the shelves ten years ago– no longer make it to the chain store shelves.

What this potentially means is a vicious downward cycle where unknown authors’ works may not be noticed, published, and on the shelves. Or if the works are published they may not be fully publicized because they are being squeezed out of the public’s vision by the few bestselling authors who are hogging the spotlight. And if the midlist and unknown authors are on the shelves but they don’t sell well, then they are less likely to be published again. And the entire system is less likely to take the financial risk of publishing the works of unknown authors. It ends up being kind of a form of censorship– generated by the desire for greater profits. And it means less creative works for distribution.

The Culling of Books

Further, over time many works simply end up disappearing because they didn’t sell and there is no chance for them to be reprinted. So all the written works get culled over time not based on merit or any other quality, but simply by how well they sold.

In my experience, people love books. Hardcopy in their hands that they can peruse. It has a magic. Books are gateways and potential and so many things. People will buy books that they can look through and get a sample of.

That’s where bookstores come in. People want to be able to be lost in the experience of the store and they want to be able to look over a wide selection in their area of interest. It discourages people from buying when they get to the store and there isn’t a diverse selection. So, in my humble opinion the publishing houses and the chain bookstores who are optimizing profits by not supporting authors and limiting selection are not only adversely affecting what written art is available– they are also causing their own demise. And potentially the demise of the written word.

While libraries are in my mind one of humanities greatest accomplishments, bookstores are equally fabulous because they are where the new printed material emerges. It typically takes libraries some time to get enough copies of new books onto their shelves for distribution. But at the bookstore a person can go in and find the latest and newest.

Fewer People Reading

However, the average age of people who read is going up and the number of hours that is spent reading is going down. According to a Consumer Research Study on Book Publishing by the Book Industry Study Group that was done in 2001, “customers 55 and older account for more than one third of all books bought.”

According to Erin Allen in the article “Americans Read, Understand Less” on the Library of Congress website at www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0806/reading.html: “In 2004, the NEA published ‘Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America.’ That study showed that Americans in almost every demographic group were reading fiction, poetry and drama—and books in general—at significantly lower rates than 10 or 20 years earlier, with declines steepest among young adults. This newest 2007 study attests to the diminished role of voluntary reading in American life.” The article goes on to say that half of all young adults aged 18 to 24 read no books for pleasure. Michael Levine on his website www.LevinPR.com writes that “70% of Americans haven’t visited a bookstore in five years.”

Competition for Leisure Time

According to Business Trend Analysts, Inc. as reported in Publishers Weekly, October 27, 1997, “While the US Population is growing and education levels are rising, book sales are not—due to heavy media competition for leisure time.” People are doing other things with their time.

Revolution of Thought and Word

In conclusion, the written art form needs to gain vibrancy to pull people back to it. A revival of the grand dialogue of thought through the written word is badly needed. An infusion of fresh ideas, raw talent, and creative verve could drive a renaissance of the written form. In the past the written word was the platform for creative and inspirational discussion that caused the Enlightenment and subsequent revolutions in thought.

I think in the time period we live in and with the technology we have available to us, the internet offers a forum for an expansion of creative thought and a stage to highlight the works of new authors. And to do so at little cost.

While I am advocating for electronic media, I don’t wish for hard copy to go away. I want both! Let’s maximize the variety and amount of written art available! Let them support one another and fuel ideas and dialogue. I read and listen to stories and novels from the internet, but my many bookshelves are crammed with books in the dead tree format.

Hard Cover and Electronic is OK

Being able to flip back and forth in a book and compare the way an author phrased something in one passage with their language usage in another passage makes hard copy books invaluable. Or being able to check a fact from a previous chapter. Or being able to look at the table of contents and determine if the book fits a need. For me all of these actions, in addition to simply liking the feel of a book, mean I don’t want hard copy to be totally replaced by electronic copy. I hope electronic copy by having written art circulating freely, generates more creativity and greater expression. Further, people will see what all is available beyond the limited selection in the department store or being promoted by the publishers and bookstores and risk reading something more obscure.


While I do believe changes in our current publishing and bookstore distribution system are necessary, I hope everyone will be able to benefit. Further, I think we are still working out how the relatively new frontier of the internet will support commerce and give monetary value to the efforts of the people putting their time and skills into presenting content on the internet.

Hopefully, a new system arises that will present readers with a greater amount of interesting ideas to entertain, provoke, and inspire them. The bookstores will have more sales because there will be greater interest in the written word. Lastly, readers will be more aware of authors who are writing innovative works. The publishing houses will see more of their lesser known authors gain success and they will profit as well. And writers will no longer labor uncompensated and in obscurity.


What do you think will happen with the more widespread use of electronic media? Do you think books will disappear and everyone will have their own Kindle? What place do you see books having? Do you think bookstores and libraries will survive into the future? What role do you see the internet playing in either encouraging new writers/artists or discouraging them? What do you see the role of books being?