Re: BBC’s “Big Read” Top 100 List

Mysterious goings-on over here… Holly Willett, a New Jersey librarian & dear old friend from H.S. days, posted a list of the B.B.C’s “Big Read” Top 100 List, or something very like it, on Facebook. It had been calculated by the B.B.C. that the average reader (British reader?) had read only six of the 100 books.  But Holly had read about 56,  she is an Illuminati in a world of mental midgets when it comes to reading;   I’m proud to say that, although a runner-up, at least I’ve read 43.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s 51, in which case I’m really breathing down her neck!   Why the difference?  Because there isn’t one list, there are two lists.  Maybe more than that!   I’m not sure anymore.  I’m not sure of ANYTHING anymore… because I can’t find her list,  and I’m too obtuse about how Facebook works to find where it may have disappeared to…   Why is Facebook set-up like a Chinese puzzle box?

Anyway,  now in trying to find another copy , I found this other version “out there”. There is a 2003 version, which I believe the original list Holly posted was based upon… and a version which seems to be more recent which I found brightly emblazoning the B.B.C. site. I believe it is more recent, in that it has 5 or 6 Rowling titles, which the other one lacks,  or at least, it doesn’t specify titles which can’t be right.  (You’ll see what I mean when you get there!)   The original list had the Bible as book #6, for example!  This latest list has the Bible as ... umm… My God,  it doesn’t list the Bible at all!

earlyphotos4-035Well,  I am out of my ‘metier’ here… I write books but I can have no claim on really understanding those many diverse and intricate, well-seasoned and well-traveled books which infest the English-speaking world.   (There are so many! Who would think the Victorians, for instance, would be so prolific?)  Yet I do have my clairvoyant opinions.

No matter what, I was disappointed in the first (2003?) list.   It made we wonder WHO comes up with these? Until I realized it is The BRITISH READING PUBLIC! This is nothing less than a popularity contest! Maybe that explains why the controversial, but incontrovertibly best-selling “Da Vinci Code” got on this list! That’s about as literary as “Dianetics” or one of the Eckankar books.  (Are they teaching that in English Lit? “Da Vinci Code?”)

The original list I saw is very heavy on 19th Century authors whose day in the sun, I would’ve thought, is streaked with long dusky shadows by now… names, some of which should have sunk over the horizon by no later than the time the Britons lost their “Raj”  in South Asia!   Familiar 19th C. authors like:   Bronte,  Alcott,  Austin,  Dickens,  Hardy, George Eliot…  Are we living in the past,  is that it?  Or just the folks who keep Greenwich mean time?

At this point, I think I should post the two lists so we can see what the Britons have been up to, and how their taste differs from some here on the North American continent;  the only thing that puzzles me is the origin the first list, which can be said to have been covered by the sands of time now, like the Dead Sea Scrolls so that it would take a literary archaeologist to figure out how certain books take ‘pride of place’ in one,  but do not fare so well , or ‘fail to show’, entirely,  in the other !  Here’s the lists…   I  thought of comparing the lists, item-for-item, but that does not sound feasible,  that is too scholarly and sedentary a task.  I’m an independent, not a pedant.  I’ll continue my analysis below:

B.B.C. “Big Read” Top 100 List

(With Our Most Grateful Thanks to the B.B.C.)  

(Bold = I read it & you should, too!)

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher
51. The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
52. Of Mice And Men, John Steinbeck
53. The Stand, Stephen King      <—- of all his books, why this one?
54. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
55. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
56. The BFG, Roald Dahl
57. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
58. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
59. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
60. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
61. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
62. Memoirs Of A Geisha, Arthur Golden
63. A Tale Of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
64. The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCollough
65. Mort, Terry Pratchett
66. The Magic Faraway Tree, Enid Blyton
67. The Magus, John Fowles
68. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
69. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
70. Lord Of The Flies, William Golding
71. Perfume, Patrick Süskind
72. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
73. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
74. Matilda, Roald Dahl
75. Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding
76. The Secret History, Donna Tartt
77. The Woman In White, Wilkie Collins
78. Ulysses, James Joyce
79. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
80. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
81. The Twits, Roald Dahl
82. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
83. Holes, Louis Sachar
84. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
85. The God Of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
86. Vicky Angel, Jacqueline Wilson
87. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
88. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
89. Magician, Raymond E Feist
90. On The Road, Jack Kerouac
91. The Godfather, Mario Puzo
92. The Clan Of The Cave Bear, Jean M Auel
93. The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchett
94. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
95. Katherine, Anya Seton
96. Kane And Abel, Jeffrey Archer
97. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
98. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
99. The Princess Diaries, Meg Cabot
100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

( I scored 43,  how’d you do?)

The Other “B.B.C.” List I Saw

(with grateful thanks to Holly & the site she got her list from!)

1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
4. Harry Potter series – JK Rowling    <— wrong!  Book, not a whole series!
5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
6. The Bible
7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
14. Complete Works of Shakespeare <—- who the hell can read that?!
15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
34. Emma – Jane Austen
35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
41. Animal Farm – George Orwell
42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52. Dune – Frank Herbert
53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72. Dracula – Bram Stoker
73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75. Ulysses – James Joyce
76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78. Germinal – Emile Zola
79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80. Possession – AS Byatt
81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White
88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

Wow!  51 on this list!  Super!  (Unless I  only dreamt that I read a book , but really only saw in a TV or film version!)

First,  I’m embarrassed to realize how many books I’ve read that are basically nothing more than children’s books.  But maybe this should not be any reason to be embarrassed at all.  Maybe there’s nothing better in the whole universe than the simplicity, fantasy, and appeal of a book for children!

The Best French I Have on Hand!

The Best French I Have on Hand!

An observation! You can see from these lists how the British do seem to hate the French!   They face each other across the English Channel, but they’re a light year away in their reading.  Are there any French classics at all?  Dumas,  Flaubert, Balzac, Moliere…?   Oops, playwrights should be excluded.  A play is not a novel. By that rule, the list that has Shakespeare’s Hamlet by itself should exclude it, too.   But these guys don’t even have Voltaire or Rousseau.  Forget the symbolists and followers of Poe.  (Not that Poe is here, either!  Then again, that’s Poe’s tough luck to choosing poems and stories rather than more substantial works.  If he had written The Raven as long and complex as Moby Dick, he’d be eternal.  Ehh,  He’s eternal anyway!)

How about Providence’s notable thin man, H.P. Lovecraft, a century later?  Again, the fiction was too short. Algernon Blackwood wins my support for amazing and beautiful, often spooky, short stories…  Looking back on the French, again:L   Baudelaire never really wrote a popular book.  Rimbaud has some wicked prose, but if he had written a novel they wouldn’t show it to school children, not even in Britain. Where’s Proust?  Not his entire multi-volume “In Search of Lost Time” or “Remembrance of Things Past”, perhaps, but surely one volume at least, “Swann’s Way” would do.

How tastes have changed!  I don’t think I spotted a single title by Hemingway!  Is he being excluded for being too macho?  He was the literary darling 40 years ago! I can’t blame the British reader for having no stomach for bullfights, old men landing gargantuan fish in a small boat, The Spanish Civil War not to mention W.W.I injury stories… Tales of the African veldt and Gulfstream smelt…

Hey, guess what? Hemingway wrote standing up. I’ve always admired that, I can scarcely write laying down being fanned with ostrich plumes by nubile females.  Writing, standing up!  Maybe his butt hurt. No wonder his sentences were terse, his words so mean & lean!  More likely, the British never really got “into” Hemingway.  He may have been a purely American phenom.  Oh!  He spent a lot of time in Paris. That may has disqualified him, right there!

The American South has been disenfranchised in these lists.  Faulkner?  Caldwell?  Williams?  The only obvious selection is “A Confederacy of Dunces”. By John Kennedy Toole.  Terrible title, eh?

There's Lots of Holy Books!

There's Lots of Holy Books!

Let’s go 2,000 years ago.  The Bible is here, on the 2nd list, but not on the admittedly  ‘better’, first list…   but not another example of writing from the entire ancient world.  I keep thinking the Greeks and Romans wrote some impressive and important books.  Wasn’t there an Iliad and an Odyssey out there, at one time?  I must be dreaming, though, thinking the Greeks and Romans would be read in the shires and urban jungles of modern Britain.  That ended when Latin I, II and III stopped being mandatory.  Widening our perspective,  shouldn’t we try reading the Upanishads, Vedas, or some Asian literature?  Haven’t books ever been written in China or Japan?  Why don’t we discover some.  (The Upanishads make GREAT reading, as I recall from my bygone college days… especially if the air is smoky and the wine is warm!  “Om…peace…peace!”)  Let’s read some of Rajneesh’s 100+ books.

A penchant for Patchen!

A penchant for Patchen!

Only one or two in the Beatnik / Post War generation — “On the Road” by Kerouac.   Man, that book makes me want to travel!  Did Alan Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti of the S.F. ‘Beatnik’ school — did they ever write anything?  Nothing that’s on this list!  Kenneth Patchen was cool, too. (See photo!) Where is HENRY MILLER?  Ha, ha, ha, ha!  That’s a joke.  He’s been censored out, obviously!  Along with his sweetie, Anais Nin.  Henry Miller was unlikely to be included in any English classes… Funny how if an author writes some risque prose, he is off the Top 100 lists for 100 years until he’s rediscovered again.  Well, maybe not.  Balzac’s Droll Stories isn’t on here, neither is Rabelais’ Gargantua or Pantagruel.   The mad Marquis de Sade is one of France’s most amazing authors of all time.  A thousand years from now, he will be referred to like a mummy of Khufu or Tut:  “still in that position!” But we shouldn’t expect the ladies to be reading “Juliette” or “The 101 Days…” over tea and scones in the Shire.  Neither is D.H. Lawrence here.  I don’t think he’s here!  It’s a long. abundant list, and a spooky one, at that, since it holds up a looking glass to the heart of the human experience which could make an angel wince.  That’s why I’m starting to think it may be a haunted list, too.   Well, anyway,  I mentioned Henry Miller, so here’s a well-rounded tribute from Miller’s tolerant, loving daughter, Valentine:   http://www.henrymiller.info/bio/bio.html

Two by Steinbeck — “Grapes of Wrath” is fine, but I am so tired of seeing “Of Mice and Men”, that awful novela that is universally inflicted on school children to “toughen ’em up“, I guess!  It keeps popping up in Catholic high school English classes, making kids wince… along with that other old chestnut, “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Wouldn’t “Cannery Row” or “The Red Pony” be more fun to read, at list?  Who makes up book lists for kids based on making the kid suffer, anyway?  How about his ” Log From the Sea of Cortez” , so the kids get travel, science, fishing, male bonding, and good prose?

Does anyone remember when big, thick Michener volumes were all the rage?  I don’t know anyone who actually READ anything of Michener’s once he left the South Pacific,  but you must admit that score of thousand pagers was impressive.  I’ve heard Michener dissed for having used a writing team, grad students, et al, working for him.  They’d gather the huge amounts of info that he would then weave into some kind of story line.  But,, grad students or not,  the books weren’t good enough to get  on this list.  Nor is Updike…  None of the American favorites of recent decades.

All the  mysteries and detective and science fiction — darlings of American fiction — are missing!  (Let’s see.. except “Dune” by Frank Herbert.  The book AND the movie would put me to sleep now in 20 minutes flat.  I don’t care how jumpy the sandworms are or how blue the eyes of the stars.  I don’t care if the young Lord-so-and-so IS the “Shadderack-of-Hackensack” or whatever the mythic title.

I guess Edgar Rice Burroughs is considered a lightweight?  As is — Zane Grey?   They were beloved in their time!  What of Heinlein?  What of Asimov,  Bradbury and Arthur C. Clarke?   I know I saw a Sci-Fi writer other than Herbert on this list awhile ago, now he’s gone into hiding,  I can’t for the moment spot him…   But why the lack of our best forward-looking fantasists on the British list?  Do these authors, symbols of American scientific superiority,  make the British public  a bit distracted, dismissive, or nauseous?   I see Gormenghast is here!   Sure, the chaotic cipher of a suicidal fantasist rather than a good American fantasy writer.  Gormenghast is British!  Titus’ city could be London!

Another Missing Author!

Another Missing Author!

Speaking of Americans… where is Mark Twain on here?  What did he do wrong!  If the list contains silly little preachments like “Animal Farm”, and childrens tales like “Winnie the Pooh”, and “The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe”, why can’t it contain a few of the Mark Twain constellation of novels?  I guess Mark Twain is “out” with the B.B.C.  Maybe Britons don’t read American 19th Century fiction, any more than most Americans don’t really relish Fielding or  Dickens or Thomas Hardy.  Why pick on Mark Twain, though?  Was it because some of his tales show actual mid-19th Century life,  slaves and all?  Twain has other wonderful things that lift the reader far, far from that dusky, creaky  Mid-America,  like “Following the Equator” and “Connecticut Yankee…” and “Innocents Abroad”, among many others!  Well, let’s face it.  He does make fun of the stuffed shirts…  and sometimes the stuffed shirts are Britons and Colonialists.  His brooding stories which he wrote late in life are also all winners, but many sensitive souls object to his unique combination of humor, pessimism, and skepticism!

Two by Master J. L. Borges!

Two by Master J. L. Borges!

Speaking of  “silly little preachments” and “children’s tales”,  this list must have been made-up by adults, children, and children of all ages…  A child would surely have been at least as likely to have read “Alice in Wonderland”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “The Little Prince”, “Watership Down”, “Charlotte’s Web”, “Wind in the Willows”, and “Chronicles of Narnia” as any adult!  Kipling wrote for kids and young adults, and he’s not on this list, either.  I think this slight must be a P.C. kind-of-thing, too, don’t you?  At least Tolkien is on here with The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. (Ah, but he’s British!)   In my first version of this blog I said:  “One of the best short story writers of all time, Jorge Luis Borges, missed the flight when this list took off.”  But I see now that it contains “The Alchemists” by Coelho, which is based on a Borges’ short story from his book “A Short History of Infamy” (1935).   There are some other great Latin American authors ( Carlos Fuentes of Mexico,  Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa,  and Pablo Neruda of Chile, for example),  who well deserve to be translated and read in the English speaking world.  I must have had 10 hardcovers by Llosa at one time.  I think he’s great!  But the books drew blank stares from the crowds.  So, these Latin American authors are not much translated, so they’re not read…  So they haven’t appeared on these lists!

Yes, I am stunned!   “The Da Vinci Code”,  burrowing under the roots of Christianity is on the B.B.C. list,  but not geniuses like Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway or J.L. Borges. And the Bible went from #6 to invisibility.  Ah!  Such is life! “Riding high in April, shot down in May!” 

Best,  —e.a.