In 2003, the BBC ran a series of programmes about books. People talked about books they loved, and nominations were opened for Britain’s best-loved book. Votes were cast and Lord of the Rings won.
Nearly ten years on, I think the BBC Big Read Top 200 is still the best pick for ‘books to read before you die’. So I’m going to try to read AND review every book on the list over the next few years. I’m going to start with the the top 21, then the top 100, then – if I stick to it – I might finally get all 200 done.
Why this list?
Because it does what it says on the tin: it’s a list of 200 books that people care about – that people cared about enough to nominate, vote for and probably encourage their friends to vote for, too.
Most lists of books whether they’re the best books of 2010, the longlist for the such-and-such prize or the 532 books you simply must read to be considered well read are collected and curated by a small group of people. As a result, the titles are often missing a bit (e.g. best books (that Tom, Jeff and John have read) of 2010, 532 (novels in the western canon, genre fiction doesn’t count) books…) and the lists are full of DWM and wankers.
DWM stands for Dead White Men. I like dead white men well enough – heck, I’m descended from a number of them – but when you get enough of them together, they turn into some kind of zombie hoard which means you can read all 101 or 1,001 books on a must-read list and still only encounter the following perspectives: young white male, older white male, really old white male, Jane Austen, Love in the Time of Cholera.
Wankers are authors who, when I see their name on the list, I go ‘wanker!’ in my head. I have strong personal objections to a number of the authors the lists often venerate. I find their personal politics are objectionable and invade their work so much as to make it unreadable for me. And I don’t care if they were a shining example of liberated thinking or artistic merit in their time – I’m reading it now and I don’t want rape, anti-semitism or slavery (for example) lauded as A Good And Right Thing. Particularly when there are so many authors from the same period who somehow avoided those pitfalls.
The Big Read list has lots of DWM but very few wankers and it’s not touted as the best of anything. It’s books which are loved by people in the country I live in which means it probably includes a lot of books which have shaped the cultural offerings in this country but mostly I expect the books to be enjoyable: the list looks fun, not painful. That’s important.
What’s the plan?
To review the books on the list I remember well, to read or reread the rest and then review them. I’m aiming for about 1 review a week or 50 per year, so I expect this to take 4 or 5 years. I’ve already read almost half the list and although I don’t remember them all very very, it includes a number which I can talk about for hours (lots of Pratchett, for example) so that should give me a head start. I won’t beat myself up if I don’t finish all the books on the list, but I intend to read the first 50 pages of each – enough to form a judgement and write a review.
As it happens, I’m already reading Great Expectations (number 17) and there are at least 40 books on the list which are available for free on Project Gutenberg so I’ll start there. I’m looking forward to reading more Jaqueline Wilson – I read some of her books as a teenager, but missed a lot. I’m glad to have an excuse to go back to them. I’m not looking forward to reading Tolkein, Hardy or Eliot – I tried all three as a teenager and didn’t enjoy the experience.
I’m going to try to finish Great Expectations on the train this week, so look out for the first review mid-March!