I do not understand the American obsession with ranking things. (It does seem to be a quite American thing, doesn’t it?) I thought of this because I was just looking at Newsweek‘s Top 100 Books list, and the “most important books EVAR” thing is certainly a trope, but there’s also the series of college rankings from a variety of different publications and companies (I thought Princeton Review‘s were so ridiculous that I wrote a rare humor piece mocking them). It’s a cultural phenomenon, this conviction that there’s an objective truth of what is Best, which some nameless experts have evaluated using some sort of scientific metric, and that it’s possible to make this kind of evaluation regardless of any arguments that the merits of individual works of literature might be an objective thing, or that different colleges might suit students’ needs differently.
I had an American history teacher in high school who was very enthusiastic about rankings of the best American presidents, and took a great deal of interest in what the rankings said and whether they were accurate. It’s true that these types of lists can be mildly diverting as polling data—I remember that there was a certain amount of interest a few months ago in how far down George W. Bush would fall on the presidential rankings when he left office. But that’s all they are, and a list with 43 slots isn’t going to convey the incredible nuance you get when you take four or eight years of daily policy decisions and try to make a determination about how effectively someone ran the country. Those sorts of opinions are also going to vary in accordance with political ideologies and differing historical frameworks. There isn’t an absolute right answer.
And if there isn’t an absolute right answer with presidents, how can there be one with books, or with colleges? I don’t see how it’s possible to arrive at the conclusion that War and Peace is an objectively “better” book than 1984 (as Newsweek does), when they were written at different time periods in different countries by different authors exploring different themes. I’m sure someone could write a very interesting paper comparing War and Peace and 1984, but those kinds of papers don’t attempt to rank the works of literature they compare. I’m sure many critics have written many different reviews of Tolstoy’s and Orwell’s writing, but that kind of qualitative assessment is very different from assigning a hard numerical evaluation to each book. Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Other Poems changed my life, but am I upset it didn’t make it onto this list? No, because it’s a volume that’s personally significant to me. I don’t expect anyone else to find the same beauty in Ginsberg’s language that I do, and in fact many people think I’m hopelessly gauche for liking him. The thing that matters is that his writing is personally significant to me and my life experience, and that’s what writing is supposed to do. I would no more esteem writers simply for being on this list than I would wish that I were attending Harvard because it surpassed Princeton on the US News college rankings. I’m happy I go to Princeton because it’s the right school for me, not because it’s ranked highly. These rankings are largely irrelevant to our personal lives, and it puzzles me why Americans seem to set such great store by them.
But what is even more puzzling to me is how many Americans seem to desire the imposition of concrete data upon wishy-washy cultural phenomena, but are very keen to disregard it when it comes to health care reform, or Obama’s American citizenship, or what it is the organization I work for does, exactly. I’m not equating listmania with extreme right-wing nutcases, but it strikes me that whereas Americans often like to use lists to simplify things they don’t know a lot about, like historical analysis or literary criticism or educational philosophy, there are certain instances when being uninformed is perfectly acceptable, and it is practically mainstream to compare moderate reformist policy with the Holocaust, or even to suggest something as ridiculous as that Stephen Hawking is not British, or indeed that Barack Obama is not American. Whither has this obsession with objective truth gone when we actually are confronted with verifiable facts?
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