Aug 2008

Well read?

It’s a blog meme. Another one.

This time though, it’s not about music but about literature. Specifically it’s about the books nominated by the BBC’s “Big Read” as being the 100 best in the English language. Actually, scanning the list, there’s a few translations on it (The Bible, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc.) so I assume it’s “the best ever” rather than the best in the English language (though the small number of translations obviously reveal the Anglocentric nature of the list).

That said, the fact that there’s not a single book by Thomas Pynchon — who would have at least 3 in my top 10, let alone top 100 — suggests that whoever compiled the BBC’s list (possibly “the public”) don’t share my view of what makes good literature. In fact, the more I look at the list, the more I cringe at the utter dross to be found on it, and all the excellent writing not there. I suspect my response to this meme will be relatively controversial as I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of books written prior to 1920 (or thereabouts) that I consider worthwhile.

Anyways, the BBC apparently reckons that “the average adult” has only read 6 of the top 100 books. It kind of goes without saying then, that I’m a long way from “average”, though to be honest, I feel certain that the BBC is short-changing the public with that claim. Surely most people have read more than six from the list, even if only at school.

So yeah, via Phil at The Gaping Silence, on with the memery…

1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or hated.
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
    Let’s kick off with a sound kicking. Jane Austen (like the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens) is staggeringly over-rated. Criminally so. It still mystifies me how anyone can read this pre-modern toss and not find it contrived, stultifyingly-dull bullshit.
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
    Read this when I was a kid and it had a deep and lasting impact on me. Looking back on it, there’s flaws a-plenty, but it’s definitely some of the finest children’s literature ever written (even if that wasn’t JRR’s intention).
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
    See #1
  4. The Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling
    I read a quarter of the first one and saw the film. Neither made me want to journey any further with Rowling. Ursula K. LeGuin did it so much better.
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
    A work of genius. My taste in literature tends towards the American. I blame a shop-lifted Bukowski when I was 11 years old for that. To Kill A Mockingbird was borrowed from the library soon afterwards, though.
  6. The Bible
    I’ve read it start-to-finish (skipping a few chapters of who-begat-who) twice. Both times it left me feeling confused and a little depressed. I mean, most of it isn’t even particularly well-written; how the hell did it cast such a dark shadow on the human heart?
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
    See #1
  8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
    I suspect regular readers will already know my opinion of this book, and of Orwell’s writing in general (finest essayist in the English language). This is his crowning achievement as a novelist.
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
    I’ve heard the rave reviews. But it just doesn’t appeal to me for some reason.
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
    Fucking Charles motherfucking Dickens! What a complete waste of paper. Yeah yeah, shining a light on Victorian society blah blah fricking blah. I read this at school and recall thinking very early on, “hang on a second, even back then nobody spoke like this”. It’s sanitised, soul-less writing that fails to evoke even a single emotion in me. Just as with Shakespeare; it’s British colonialism that has secured the worldwide reputation of Charles Dickens; nothing to do with innate talent. Nothing at all.
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
    Don’t need to read it. Hardy is shit. End of.
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
    This was so highly recommended that I recall being a little disappointed when I finally read it. Still a worthy thing. Not a patch on Vonnegut though, who did this kind of thing so much better, and is unsurprisingly not on this list.
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
    Oh come on! The complete works? That narrows it down to a few fools with more time than sense. I’ve read most of the famous ones, a couple of lesser-known ones and a handful of sonnets. None of them roused more than a yawn. Yeah, I know that puts me firmly in a tiny minority. But then, that’s where I’ve always been happiest. Shakespeare is a great writer, Oasis is a great band, Last of The Summer Wine is great television. Seriously, what the fuck does “the majority” know about great art?
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
    Always felt it was a wee bit over-rated to be honest. But again, like Catch-22, a worthwhile read all the same.
  19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
    First one on the list I’ve never even heard of. Guess there were bound to be a couple…
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
    Read it at school. Rather wish I hadn’t.
  21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
    One of the few great examples of pre-modern literature. Though obviously, published in 1925, it’s actually in the modern era, this is not a post-Ulysses novel in anything but chronology. All the same, it rises above the dry, emotionless bullshit of pre-modern literature thanks to some wonderfully crafted characters. It’ll probably be the only novel of its type that I’ll end up underlining.
  23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
    Don’t even get me started on this one. I read this as part of a book club I joined at university. I read it under duress (having made my feelings about Dickens well known) but decided I’d stick it out… after all, I wouldn’t like it if the others in the group refused to read my picks. I left the club soon after though… everyone but me claimed to get a lot out of Dickens. And hell, maybe they did. Maybe they weren’t just dazzled by the emperor’s presence. But clearly it wasn’t the book club for me. Thankfully I met my friend Justin soon afterwards, who was reading Gravity’s Rainbow at the time. A far better class of comrade.
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
    To my shame, I’ve still not got round to it. Pre-Joycean Russian literature doesn’t seem to suffer from the same lifelessness as almost all of the English-language stuff (obviously there are exceptions to that, by the way). Or perhaps it’s just the fact that we’re only aware of the exceptionally good stuff over here beyond the translators?
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
    A fine book. And the follow-ups were largely excellent too.
  26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    A fine novel, but if you’re new to Dostoyevsky, then you should really start with The Idiot, which didn’t make this list.
  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
    Complete wank.
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
  34. Emma – Jane Austen
    I read this. See #1
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
    I didn’t read this. See #1
  36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
    Overwrought. Over-rated. Over-long.
  40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
    A classic. A work of towering genius.
  41. Animal Farm – George Orwell
    This is a decent novel, but it doesn’t scale the heights of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell was best as an essayist anyway.
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
    Frankly I’d rather eat my own flesh than read this airport-novel nonsense.
  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
    Far From The Madding Crowd? Bollocks, more like.
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
    I actually thought JG Ballard’s quasi-retelling of this story in Rushing To Paradise was ultimately better. Golding’s is a fine book though.
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
    Enduring Love was a good novel (shit film though. Really shit film). I’m not sure he’s really written anything half as good though. Certainly I thought Atonement was very weak; like so many on this list, frighteningly over-rated; and more concerned with making sure the reader spots the intricate allusions to literary “greats” than telling a story. A let down.
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert
    I read all the Dune novels as a teenager. Yes, even the later ones when he was obviously milking a cash-cow. That said, God Emperor of Dune turned out to be the best in my view (in the sense of the most mind-bendingly far out, which is kind of what you want from your science-fiction)
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
    Second one on the list I’ve not heard of. Am I missing out, I wonder?
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
    Just fuck off, will you. How much “I’m told this is great, so I’ll vote for it” shit is on this list anyway?
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
    Meh. Over-rated.
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
    I’m surprised this made the list as it’s pretty obscure (I think) as well as being rather good. It’s heavily influenced by Borges (of course) and kind of suffers by comparison in my eyes. All the same, well worth reading, both as a commentary on Franco’s Spain, and as a well-spun yarn.
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
    Not read this one. Safe to say I never will. Fucking Dickens!
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
    One of my favourites. For the ideas, not the writing (which I grant you is a tad ropey at times). One of the few “must reads” in my opinion.
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
    Any good, this? I’ve heard all the praise, but am yet to be convinced.
  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
    Third one I’ve not heard of.
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
    This one’s been recommended by a couple of people whose views I respect. And the synopsis certainly sounds intriguing. On the “will get to it eventually” list.
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
    A classic. People call it over-rated, and then go back to reading Charles Fucking Dickens. They need a good slap, frankly. This is a hugely important novel, and a wonderful read. Another on the “must read” list.
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
    It’s just bad writing. OK? Read some Pynchon ferchristsakes! Something with soul. Something with balls!
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
    There’s a bigger chance of me eating my body-weight in goldfish than of reading this novel.
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
    Rushdie is another writer I find somewhat overwrought and over-rated. This is probably the best of the three of his books that I’ve read. Still quite dull though.
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
    When you look at the number of books on this list that I’ve read and hated, it’s a wonder I’ve not been put off literature for life. Because this is real, passionate, deep-seated hatred here not some casual dislike. I hate the way Dickens writes English. I hate every word that emerges from the mouths of his cardboard cut-out characters. And I find the social commentary trite and obvious to the point of absurdity.
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker
    Meh. Good for its time. But that’s not saying much.
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
    Bryson holds no interest for me whatsoever. I’m willing to be convinced on the matter, but frankly, I’ve never met anyone who felt strongly enough about his writing to bother trying. Which says all I need to know about it.
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce
    Let me start by saying that if I was compiling this list, Ulysses would be #1. It’s one of the very few books that deserves the incredible critical acclaim it has received. In my view, you can firmly locate the beginning of ‘the modern era’ with the publication of Ulysses. For better or worse. It’s one of the very very small number of novels that I’ve read more than once (three times so far, and I’m planning on a fourth next year) and one of the very very small number of things that makes me positively proud to be a human being. If aliens from SpaceLand arrive and threaten to obliterate us unless we can demonstrate our worth as a species, I’ll be there, clutching a copy of Ulysses, and insisting that a species that can produce this novel deserves to survive. People tell me it’s an impossible book to read. I just look at them as though they’re mad. For me, it’s an impossible book not to read.
  76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
    Meh. Over-rated but worth a read if you’re interested in 19th century England. I was when I read it. I’m not really anymore, but I’m glad I was when I was. Y’dig?
  80. Possession – AS Byatt
    It’s been recommended. Not sure I’ll get round to it any time soon, but it’s another for that “eventually” list.
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
    Never read it. Scrooged was a funny film back when I was seventeen, though. But that had more to do with Bill Murray than Charles Dickens I wager.
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
    Supposed to be wonderful. I doubt it somehow, but it’s on the “eventually” list nonetheless.
  86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
    I was given this as a gift just prior to a trip to the States. I never finished it, and wound up watching Mr. Bean re-runs on the plane instead. Which tells you a lot about the book. I find Mr. Bean very irritating.
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    I’ve read them all. Every single one. At least twice. Holmes was a hero of mine (still is to an extent) and I could read those stories again and still get a huge amount from them.
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
    I have fond memories of these books from when I was 7 or 8. Not sure how well Enid Blyton would stand up to an adult-reading, but heartily recommended for 7 year olds!
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
    Not as good as some of his subsequent novels (The Crow Road still being my personal favourite and one that would be underlined were it on this list), but a classic all the same. Filled with disturbing imagery though.
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
    Neither the novel nor the film ever really grabbed me the way they grabbed lots of people I know. Not a complete waste of time though.
  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
    Not content with having this on the list once (as part of the complete works) the BBC have insisted on putting it in twice. And sadly, Shakespeare’s no better a writer second-time round. Dumb nonsense filled with unlikeable characters, plot holes and incomprehensible dialogue. Fuck off Mr. Shakespeare and take your rhyming couplets with you, you big arse.
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
    Not a patch on Danny The Champion of The World. But a good kids book nevertheless.
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

So yeah, 64/100 and some controversial statements, no doubt. But what else is a blog good for, eh?

To wrap up, let me add a short list of books that would have made the top 100 if it had been compiled by someone concerned with good writing rather than tradition. No particular order, by the way, and consider them all ‘underlined’.

  • Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
    Considered the least of his novels, I think Vineland is damn-near perfect. Gloriously absurd and vitally important all at once. I would also, genuinely, add every single other novel he’s written to the top 100 list. There’s only seven of them, so if you take out Dickens, Austen, Hardy and Shakespeare you’ll have plenty of room for them.
  • Vermillion Sands – JG Ballard
    One of his lesser known books, Vermillion Sands is actually a collection of 5 or 6 short-stories set in the same town. It’s my favourite of his books, but isn’t the only one that merits mention. Rushing To Paradise, The Day of Creation, Concrete Island, Cocaine Nights and all of his short-story collections are highly recommended.
  • Timequake – Kurt Vonnegut
    Like with Pynchon’s Vineland, I seem — even with those authors I love dearly — to gravitate towards the less critically-acclaimed novels. Timequake is a bleak, depressing and very funny book and is probably my favourite Vonnegut novel. Others I loved… Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sirens of Titan, The Breakfast of Champions, Player Piano and Slapstick (or, Lonesome No More).
  • Collected Essays – George Orwell
    Utterly essential. There’s more wisdom and insight contained in the essays of Orwell than can be found in the combined literature of the preceeding 6 centuries.
  • Dubliners – James Joyce
    It’s not Ulysses. But then, other than Ulysses, what is?
  • Huckleberry Finn / Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
    Only read these quite recently, oddly enough, and they are far far better than any pre-20th century writing has a right to be.
  • Nova Express – William S. Burroughs
    And you can add pretty much his entire output to the list. To me, Nova Express is the absolute zenith of the cut-up technique. It manages to deconstruct not only language, but the very thought-processes of the reader, while simultaneously telling a story. It’s the novel that The Ticket That Exploded was trying to be, but just fell short of.
  • Tales of Ordinary Madness – Charles Bukowski
    The collection of stories that made me decide to become a writer (after The Lord of The Rings had sown the initial seed). It was the first time I’d read a book that felt genuine and real to me. It’s dark and unpleasant at times, and entirely inappropriate for an 11-year-old. But if anyone wants to trace the major influences on my own strange writing style, then pick up a copy of this book and all will be revealed.
  • Stone Junction – Jim Dodge
    It takes balls to walk in Pynchon’s footsteps. Jim Dodge has them. And isn’t doing too bad a job of it.
  • Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse
    A huge novel for me in my teens. Helped me realise I wasn’t just mad, and that other people had thought the same things as me. Which was comforting if nothing else.
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
    Not the greatest writer in the world (technically speaking) but a man with more great ideas than almost anyone else. His short-stories tend to be better than his novels (in my view). No doubt there’ll be those who point to his final three novels as being The Great Ones, and they are indeed Great, but this is the one that had the greatest impact on me when I first read it and the one that has lingered most prominently in my memory.
  • Pattern Recognition – William Gibson
    Although I’m a big fan of his early cyberpunk stuff (I loved his cameo in Wild Palms… “Hi, I’d like you to meet William Gibson, he’s the man who coined the term cyberspace, you know?” Gibson (under his breath); “yeah, and they won’t let me forget it!”) I feel he’s really started to come into his own as a writer more recently. Like Jim Dodge, his later stuff is — dare I say it — “Pynchonesque”.

And there’s plenty more of course. Those are ‘top of the head’ suggestions. My fiction is in another room, so I’m probably missing out someone utterly vital. Looking at the bookshelf in this room, however, I’d suggest that the complete works of Freud (all 24 volumes) should be on the list, as should The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology, Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions as well as Relativity, Colin Tudge’s So Shall We Reap, Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, the collected works of Nietzsche, Lacan’s Écrits (still not read most of it, but I recognise its worth) and — it goes without saying I’m sure — Gregory Bateson’s Steps To an Ecology of Mind.

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