The Problem with Climbing Book Lists on the Internet

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There are a lot of lists of climbing books on the Internet, and most of them are bad. They’re a hodgepodge of old, new, narratives, and guidebooks and instructional books all amassed into one most often. And when the list is shorter and more focused, it tends to be ambitious for whoever is posting it.

I’m guilty of writing a bad list. Several years ago, a blogging friend invited me to write a guest post. He wanted the top 10 climbing books ever written. He thought I could write it. I knew it was more than my reading experience, but I felt I had enough knowledge to fake it. I disclosed that to him and he actually agreed and said that’s why he asked me. Well, the post still comes up either number one or in the top 10, depending on our search query and I cringe at it.

Now allow me tell you what’s wrong with that list and just about every other one on the Internet, including that one I wrote years ago.

The list’s have titles like the “top 25 best rock climbing books,” “best mountaineering adventure books ever written,” or “climbing books serious climbers should read.” There are even titles aiming for more credibility, by adding “definitive ranking,” and sometimes they attribute the list to an expert or celebrity. Mine was foolishly titled, “10 Best Mountaineering Books of All-Time.”

(By the way, I don’t link to them because I don’t think it wise. The more connections of attention, the more credibility the search engine gives them. Besides, they’re easy to find; all 87,000 search results.)

WHAT MAKES A GOOD LIST?

These Internet lists, however, all contain some flaws, except one from Climbing Magazine (now Climbing.com only) by Dougald McDonald: 33 Must Read Climbing Books. Dougald wisely wrote that this isn’t an end-all be-all “best ever” ranking, and only promised you’ll enjoy those stories. What I appreciated was that it was vetted by people that read them, I was told. And not all of the books were even in print at the time of being published, so I know they weren’t peddling affiliate sales or anything.

A good list doesn’t contain lots of caveats, it simply states what it is attempting to do and does it with knowledge and without including the book that was just released, even if it was included on the best seller list of New York Times, or (gulp,) Amazon.com.

In actuality, making a list of the “best climbing and mountaineering books” is a gargantuan task. anyone with real knowledge knows is nearly impossible to accomplish. I know this. But I am plodding forward to do the things I accuse these Internet lists of not doing well, and because I know that it’s not really about the final product but the process or the journey. If this were a climb, think of it as a purists approach to the last great problem.

HOW TO RUIN A LIST

Lots of climbing books are worth reading but not all are good for recommending on a short list. I give Dougald and his advisors kudos for making a respectable list of 33 on the surface of things. But several inclusions, or categories of inclusions, can be a dead giveaway of a list that was cobbled together just to make content. Although I respect lists of suggested books to read, mixing new print with books printed in previous years that really are not quality works are reason for distrust.

Including several popular titles can ruin a list. Take Jon Kraukauer’s Into Thin Air for instance. It captivated non-climbers and entry-level climbers, but established and well-read climbers generally don’t hold it in high regard. Including Ed Viestur’s book No Shortcuts to the Top has the same problem. I genuinely liked both books, but I have found more advanced and significant books.

Including Mark Synnott’s The Third Pole seems odd. Having reviewed it and seeing it on several lists, I can’t tell if the list writer was suggesting it because it was new, had affiliate marketing behind it, or they genuinely thought it was significant. It had some notable new theories about George Mallory and Sandy Irvine but nothing concrete to warrant it on a short list.

Including a book by Mick Conefrey sends up red flags. Although he is a credible documentarian, his works re-introduce past works for readers new to the subject. And the works are bland compared to many of the current books being written by climbers first-hand published alongside his. His work feeds a need, but don’t list it among “best” or “must-reads.”

I was charmed that several prominent lists included Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. The half the story is about how Mortenson arrived in Afghanistan, through mountaineering, before he found a calling. Regardless of the credibility of the account, I never considered it a climbing book. It included climbing but it wasn’t about conquest or a gentler aesthetic desire for self-discovery through a mountain experience. It’s a good story but I wouldn’t include it on one of these lists.

Short lists or 10 or 15 titles that include a mix that include established and well-known works like Annapurna by Herzog and Everest: The West Ridge by Hornbein, which are think are credible recommendations, and then includes a new book by Ashima Shireshi, How to Solve a Problem, confuses me. Shireshi’s book is very different and might below. It’s illustrated, sometimes thought of as a children’s book, which is terribly limiting to readers. I’m curious about it, but it doesn’t seem to be in the same category of books and type of climbing.

The shorter the list the more likely it won’t be cohesive. The longer the list, well, you’re more likely to cover more of your bases. But in both cases, I don’t think the authors of the lists read the books their recommending. I think many are also pulling from other’s recommendations. Making a list based on sales or Internet searches are misleading about what style of books to include. One list using such methodology grouped several guidebooks with narratives. Either way, and too often, the headline is click-bait.

READING — REALLY READING — IS KEY

I wish more of the lists proliferating the Internet would just list author’s personal favorites, and say that that is what they are, and I also wish that best seller lists are say that’s what they are but the author of the list takes the time to separate the narratives from the instructional books. Of course, as a general rule, best sellers lists do not make a good recommendation list for this genre.

The key to this knowing good books in this genre is reading them and getting reviews from people that read them. I am trying to help you in that regard. At least a little. I’d read all the time if responsibilities and my need to hike, climb, ski, and golf didn’t get in the way. Sometimes we read in sips, sometimes in gulps.

I sincerely want to tell you what the best mountaineering books of all-time are, but I haven’t read enough of them yet. That’s a big part about what my quest is about. And reading them all, or enough of them, and reading them with a critical point of view, is not what produced these lists. Of course, I am trying to identify classics, the way an English literature professor would recommend several classics to appreciate for various qualities, including their long-lasting appeal, even if they are not timeless. Naming climbing and mountaineering books that are worth reading and owning on a small shelf — essential reading — is the key.

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