You're the top!
You're the Coliseum.
You're the top!
You're the Louvre Museum.
You're a melody from a symphony by Strauss
You're a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare's sonnet,
You're Mickey Mouse.
You're the Nile,
You're the Tower of Pisa,
You're the smile on the Mona Lisa
I'm a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I'm the bottom you're the top!
Cole Porter, "You're The Top"
Janet W. sent me her Top 100 Romance Novels list the other day. She'd prepared it as part of AAR's Top 100 survey from 2004. I gather there are 29 novels that appear on both AAR's list and Janet's.
I did a breakdown of Janet's list by author: 15 titles by Mary Balogh, 14 Georgette Heyers, 10 Jo Beverleys, two authors with 4 and two with 3 titles respectively, 8 with two titles, and the rest appear on the list only once. AAR's #1 book, Loretta Chase's Lord of Scoundrels, doesn't make Janet's list and her #1, Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child, doesn't make their list.
None of which is surprising. With thousands of romance novels published every year, and different readers liking different things, I would hardly expect anyone's Top 100 list to match up with anyone's else's -- or even with their own from years before.
I've never attempted to write out a top 100 list. For one thing, what precisely would I be using as the criteria? How much I loved a book? How good I thought the book was? How likely I was to reread it? How tightly I would be gripping it when the men in white jackets came to take me away? And what do I do with the books I have yet to read? Assume they won't make the list, or leave some spots blank for the "player to be named later"? As I pointed out to Janet, it's like hugging fog.
I understand better the lists of the top 100 movies ever made (AFI's being perhaps the most famous) because there's some distance between the moviegoer and the movie; I might not rank Citizen Kane as the best movie ever, but I can appreciate why it has that spot. When I first read Lord of Scoundrels, on the other hand, I didn't like it enough even to keep, let alone love. (That was before I knew it was famous. I still don't love it, but I keep it because I adore so many other of Chase's books.) I get it that other readers adore it, but I can't see why it was the best of the bunch in 2004.
All we can do to generate a Top 100 list is pool a bunch of people's relatively arbitrary lists. That's because a book is like a piece of clothing: it either fits and flatters us, feels comfortable and does its job, or it doesn't. And if a piece of clothing doesn't fit, it hardly matters if it's the most sumptuous garment ever made. It just doesn't fit.
My hypothetical Top 100 list would list the books that fit me best as well as the ones whose fit was just okay but I can tell how masterful the work is. Patricia Gaffney's To Have and To Hold, for example: I love its predecessor, To Love and To Cherish far more, but I can see why TH&TH is nearly always ranked higher. It is the better book; TL&TC fits me better, that's all.
What's so wonderful about books is that we have a vocabulary to discuss them. By contrast, I have next to nothing to say about music. I know what I like, but I barely know why I like it -- and when I read a music review, I can't begin to tell if I would like what the reviewer liked.
So Janet W. and I can (and do!) debate books with passion and depth. I don't suppose we've convinced each other yet of anything beyond our own fervor. But I know a book better after I've discussed it with another reader. That may be the appeal of the Top 100 lists; they force us to think about books in more concrete terms -- weighing them against each other.
In the end, though, we're each entitled to love the books we love for our own reasons. And if those reasons provide the reader with sufficient basis to rank them, that's okay too. After all, I wouldn't necessarily rate the Coliseum above, say, the Acropolis.