Finding The Best Science Fiction Books To Read

Why read an average book when you could read a great book?  With so little time to read, why waste time on a so-so book?  But how do you find the best books to read?  Most people read whatever they stumble across at the moment.  Other folks read book reviews and get recommendations from friends.  Even fewer join book clubs.  About 25-30 years ago I pondered this problem for finding the best science fiction books to read when I developed my Classics of Science Fiction list.  It was first published in a fanzine, then on a gopher server, and finally at a series of web sites.  That was one solution.  Since then I have found a number of web sites that offer other solutions.

worlds-without-end

Worlds Without End

Worlds Without End is a reader database discussion site that’s pretty much like GoodReads, but focuses exclusively on science fiction, fantasy and horror.

Worlds Without End collects lists like my Classics of Science Fiction, fan polls, awards lists, author recommended lists, and puts them in one location and then links the titles to a database.  If you join their site – it’s free – you can tag books on the lists to monitor your reading progress, or even add your SF/F/H books to their database.  You can create your own reader challenge in their Roll-Your-Own reader challenge.  Right now they have 32 challenges for 560 members having read 1077 books and reviewed 527 of them.

If you’re a blogger who reviews SF/F/H books, you can join Worlds Without End, tag the books you review, add an introductory review to their site, and then link to the full review on your site.  If you’re a reader you can read the reviews, or discuss the books on their forum.  All the book lists, forums, and reader challenges link back to the books which allow you to track your reading habits, and even measure your progress reading through the reading and awards lists. Since everything is linked to everything else, it makes researching a potential book to read a snap.

Here are my reading stats for Awards lists and Book lists.  Click to enlarge.

Award Books Read

 

Book Lists Read

You can also look up books by publisher.  For example their site lists 256 authors for Tor covering 1,056 titles, of which 335 have been nominated for awards with 55 of those books winning an award.

You can quickly call up an author and easily check off which books you own, read or want to read, and mark whether or not it’s one of your all time favorites.  You can also rate your reads, and then list them, or see how your ratings compares to other members.

Another way to find books to read is see which members have rated books you also rated high and then look at other books they’ve rated high that you haven’t read.  There are many ways to use this site, and the social aspects are very good at helping you find like minded readers.

Best Science Fiction Books

Best Science Fiction Books

BestScienceFictionBooks.com is a newer site that’s not even completed, but has some features to start working with now.  It looks like they hope to compete directly with Worlds Without End, but for now they have mostly lists up.  Some of their lists are pretty good, others are questionable.  But I assume over time they will be refined.  For example their list for Best Alternate History books is pretty good.  Unfortunately most of their features link to file Not Found pages, which is a bad sign.  There was another site, SFFMeta that was going for a couple of years, that wanted to identify the best SF/F/H books and has recently disappeared.

I wish the people at BestScienceFictionBooks.com luck because building a big site like this takes a tremendous amount of work, and even building a great site doesn’t always draw in readers.  I mention this site to mainly give them some attention that might boost their efforts.

Good Reads

GoodReads

GoodReads has been around a very long time, and now that Amazon has bought them, they’ve become the 800-pound gorilla of reader reviews/book database sites.  Just look at the numbers attached to the books on the Time Travel book list.  The #1 book is The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger which has 899,564 ratings that average 3.93 stars out of 5.  #2 is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon with 285,187 ratings.  The Time Traveler’s Wife has just 73 ratings and 141 reads at Worlds Without End.

This brings up the problem which site to use.  Worlds Without End is a site for hardcore science fiction fans.  GoodReads is a massive site for all bookworms, so science fiction has to compete with many other kinds of books.  All the time travel books you find on GoodReads will be on Worlds Without End, but the reverse won’t be true.  Logic sort of dictates to go with GoodReads, but I find it more appealing to consider Worlds Without End.

Sometimes its better to be a small fish in a small pond.

I have reviewed other book database sites before, and directly compared LibraryThing to GoodRead.  It took a lot of work to get my collection entered into LibraryThing, but then I didn’t maintain it.  I exported my LibraryThing data and imported it into GoodReads.  I like GoodReads, but didn’t maintain my data there either.  By now I realize that I’m not that interested in maintaining a database of my books.  The value of these sites is for finding out what books other people like.  So the appeal shifts to social media.  I’m in two online book clubs at Yahoo Groups, each with a small number of members.  That works out well for a discussion group.  That’s why I’m leaning more to working with Worlds Without End than GoodReads.  About one quarter of my reading is science fiction.  So hanging out with a small group of people who read a lot of science fiction is an attractive idea at the moment.

However, taking the time to list my favorite SF books will help me meet other members that share the same reading tastes.  I will take that time to enter in my favorite books, but not all my books, or even all the books I’ve read.  Spending any time on so-so books is just a waste of time, especially reading time.

GoodReads is very enticing, as is LibraryThing.  I’m tempted to use Worlds Without End for science fiction, GoodReads for classic and literary books, and LibraryThing for nonfiction.  And in each case just focus on my favorites.

One thing I’d really like is to discover a way to find the best new books to read.  Every year when I write my reading summary I wish I had read more books published new in that year.  What I’d like is a Rotten Tomatoes for various kinds of books, especially for nonfiction.  SFFMeta.com used to do that for science fiction, but they are now out of business – a reminder that new sites will have a hard time making it, because SFFMeta was a well designed site.  Amazon with GoodReads might knock out all competitors like they are doing to local bookstores, but I don’t know.

There are other book listing sites that cover the “best books ever” concept which I wrote about in “Identifying the Greatest Books of All Time.”  These are the true classics, and not just science fiction books.  It’s also fascinating to see which few science fiction books make it to the general classic lists.  Here is the Top 10 site for fantasy and science fiction.  The only SF genre title is Dune.  It’s amazing how few SF books are recognized by the literary world at large.

A List of Books is one of my favorite sites for identifying all-time classics.  It uses the same methodology I used to create the Classics of Science Fiction, but allows members to track their reading.  I’m using it to track all the books I’ve read on the 100 Best Novels by Modern Library.  That list contains just three SF novels.

And what I’ve found out over the years is the books considered classics by literary scholars and readers really are some of the best books I’ve ever read.  Few science fiction books come up to their level.  Another site that does this is The Greatest Books.  Just glance at their page about Ulysses by James Joyce, and look at the lists that pick Ulysses.  When you consider all books, the competition for the best gets tough.  Right now science fiction books are in the minor leagues, so it will be fascinating to see if I live long enough to see if more science fiction books get recognized to general classics.

If you study these sites its possible to pick books to read that have a much greater chance of wowing you than randomly buying a book at the bookstore, or taking a friend’s recommendation of what to read.  And even if you don’t like these classics, you’ve at least educated yourself about science fiction history.

JWH – 8/21/14

Identifying the Greatest Books of All Time

Books, whether novels or nonfiction, are inherently subjective in their appeal, so is it even possible to claim to know the greatest books ever written?  I don’t think any one person can objectively claim any list of books are the best ever written.  However, I think it is possible, by using statistics, and the wisdom of crowds, to identify the books that have had the greatest impact on the most people.

marilyn-reads-joyce

There is a long tradition for critics and scholars to list books they proclaim are great.  This is subjective no matter how well educated the selectors are in literature.  Now, if we take a hundred literary authorities and ask them to list their top 100 books of all time, put those books into a database and then create a list that shows which books were on the most lists, I think we can consider this more objective.  But even still, there is no Platonic ideal form of a great book that exists in reality.  How great is War and Peace if you can’t stand to read it?

That doesn’t stop people like me, life long bookworms addicted to books, to always search for our next fix, hoping for the most intense literary high yet.

Aggregating best of book lists is different from fan polls, although if we poll enough readers, standout titles will emerge.  Critics and scholars have read widely and studied literature, so their opinions count for more, but their opinions aren’t perfect.  Scholars know the older books better, whereas fans know the newer books.

Back in the 1980s I created a meta-list of science fiction books for a fanzine called Lan’s Lantern.  It was simple, I used eight best of lists, to produce a final list that contained books that had been on at least three of the eight lists.  I called the list The Classics of Science Fiction.  In the 1990s I updated the system with more lists, and put it online.  In the early 2000s I got some outside help and expanded the citation lists to 28 best of lists and set the cutoff to seven lists.  You can see the ranked results here.  The top three books had been on 25 of the 28 lists.  I thought that represented a kind of validity.

Ever since then I’ve wanted to build a database for all books, not just science fiction.  Several years back I got a domain name and hosting service and set up the beginnings of such a system, but the database got hacked and I gave up.  Recently I discovered that Shane Sherman has developed a database system at The Greatest Books of All Time that is similar to my dream book site.  He covers fiction and nonfiction and works with 43 best of lists.  However, Shane uses a different method for creating his final rankings by selective weighing of lists.  Yet another approach to identifying the great books.

Shane’s site is quite wonderful.  It’s simple and elegant.  Create an account or sign in with Twitter, and then start scanning the lists.  You can check the books you’ve read and the ones you want to read and the site will remember.  If you’re a book lover, you’ll enjoy going through the various lists, both the 43 best of lists and Shane’s two generated lists:  Fiction and Nonfiction.  I love best of lists.  I collect books recommending the best books of all time.  Over the years I’ve been teaching myself about the history of books.  When I make new friends I love talking to them about their favorite books.  I find the fame of books fascinating.

Best of book lists can be created from fan polls, critic lists, scholars lists, awards lists, library lists, and other criteria, such as whether a novel has been made into a movie, or was an all time best seller.  Popularity is important, but it’s not the only factor.  Critics and scholars are far more knowledgeable about the history of books than normal fans, but if the fan polls are large enough, they can be effective.  Various book awards, Pulitzer, Booker, Newberry, etc., have their own systems for selecting books, that try to go beyond the subjective, but the award judges have limitations too.  No one person can know about even a tiny fraction of published books.

If one list can’t be perfect, what about aggregating many?  Combining lists can generate interesting results.  For example, I’ll use four lists.

Shane Sherman’s top dozen books are:

  1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  2. Ulysses by James Joyce
  3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  6. 1984 by George Orwell
  7. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  9. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  10. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  11. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  12. Middlemarch by George Eliot

If you look at the 43 lists at Shane’s site you will be hard press to find another one that has the same top 12 novels.  One that does come close is The Novel 100: A Ranking of Greatest Novels of All Time by David Burt.  From what I can tell, Burt doesn’t use a system but just claims to be an expert.  His top 12 are:

  1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
  2. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  3. Ulysses by James Joyce
  4. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  5. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  7. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  8. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  9. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
  10. The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
  11. Emma by Jane Austen
  12. Bleak House by Charles Dickens

The overlap suggests that Burt is a very savvy literary scholar because he comes very close to the results generated by Shane’s system.

J. Peder Zane found another way to use the wisdom of crowds by asking 125 writers to submit their favorite 10 books and then built a database to see which books were recommended the most.   The list was called The Top Ten.  Using a point system, these 12 books came in at the top:

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  2. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
  6. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
  7. Middlemarch by George Eliot
  8. The Stories of Anton Chekhov
  9. Hamlet by William Shakespeare
  10. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
  11. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  12. Ulysses by James Joyce

As you can see, many of the same titles are showing up over and over again.  Ulysses, War and Peace, In Search of Lost Time and Madame Bovary were on all three of these lists.

Now compare this to a large fan poll.  The BBC got over 750,000 readers to vote on their favorites, these were their top 12:

  1. The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
  2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  3. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman
  4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling
  6. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  7. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
  8. 1984 by George Orwell
  9. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
  10. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  11. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  12. Wuthering Heights by Emile Bronte

The British are partial to British authors, with only two Americans making it to the top dozen, and no non-English writers in this portion of the list.  War and Peace did make it to the #20 spot, and Ulysses came in at #78.  Many of the others titles from the other three list did show up within the BBC Big Read top 100, so even average bookworms can love stogy literary classics, just not as much as fun books like Harry Potter.

If we could get one million bookworms from all over the world, what would that list look like?  What if there was a web site that allowed every bookworm in the world to submit their top ten favorite books, what might the overlap list look like?  If a hundred million Chinese readers participated, what Chinese books would we see?  It’s interesting that in the first three lists above, created by English speakers that so many non-English books made the list, but the western world does dominate.

The Top 100 Works in World Literature attempts to correct the western centric view.  You’ll have to visit the site to see the list, because it’s alphabetical, so there’s no top 12 to show and compare.  However, many of the books from the top three list above are on this top 100 list too.

There are a good many best books lists out there.  Shane has gathered 43.  I wonder what using 100, or 500 such lists would show?  If we could survey all the schools, colleges and universities around the world for what books are taught each year, what would that list look like?  What if we could see the long term sales figures for books, to see which books sell the most year after year?  And what books have inspired the most movies, plays and television productions?  Which books have been written about the most?  Which books have been quoted the most?

If somehow we could put all this information in one giant database, and develop a point system that weighs their different values, I think we’d come up with a very valid list of top books.  Of course, such a list would then cause a recursive effect.  If all readers felt certain books were not to be missed, wouldn’t that further reinforce their success?  Isn’t such an effect already happening with English majors?

If a novel came out in 2013 that was more powerful than anything written by Tolstoy or Joyce, how long would it take to be recognized by this statistical system?  Meta list statistical systems favors older books with momentum.  Only well trained scholars and critics could spot a new contender quickly.

Other Aggregate Lists

Fan Polls

Scholar/Critic/Editor/Reviewer Lists

JWH – 2/12/13

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