A Very Non-Legal Reading List
In December 2003, my wife, Dorey, and I took our first trip to England and Wales. While there, we watched a BBC television program, The Big Read. The producers had surveyed UK readers, and came up with a list of the UK’s 200 Most Beloved Fictional Books. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/bigread/ On the plane ride home from Heathrow that December day, I decided that I would read all 200 books–no matter how long it took and even if I had read the book previously. Usually, I decide on a project, only to be distracted by life or disinterest. (All that exercise equipment doing double duty as a place to dry clothes is a testament to my inability to follow through with any resolution). But for once in my life, I have soldiered on. Last night, I finished Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and am now down to the last 10 books. It has been quite a ride.
When I began, I estimated that it would take about five years to complete the project. I was wrong–it has taken about twice that time. I have taken detours as I have slogged through this list. Often I would become enthralled with a writer, and deviate from the BBC list of Beloved Books by reading all of the books I could find by that author. Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes of a Museum led me to her Jackson Brodie novels, and then to her new, strange and wonderful, Life After Life. Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity stopped the straight forward progression through the list as I devoured About a Boy, A Long Way Down, and Juliet, Naked–all of which are now on my most beloved books–even if they are not on the BBC’s list. A couple of my detours are a bit embarrassing–after reading Meg Cabot’s The Princess Diary, I was hooked, and just had to know what happened to old Mia, and waded through the remaining books of the series as fast as I could find them. But after each of these detours, I would return to the BBC list.
Happily, the BBC list has its own treasures. I read or re-read several English novels of Dickens, Austin, and Hardy, authors whose books remain in my top 200 Beloved Books. I found a group of writers whom I had neglected, much to my sorrow in the neglect but joy in the finding. My current mantra is that Indian authors such as Vikram Seth (A Suitable Boy) and Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) are writing the best literature today. Perhaps best of all, in reading the list, I could remove a couple of books from the bucket list–and I am talking about you, War and Peace.
Of course, I had my quibbles with some of the books on the list. One Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Wilson book, and not nearly 10 books from each–would have sated my curiosity. Some books were simply too long–I generally enjoyed Les Miserable, but at the end, I was hoping that Jean Valjean would be swallowed up by the sewers of Paris. Some books–Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers and Parsons’ Man and Boy–were ok, but not list worthy. Some books were too long. Stephen King–you tell a good yarn, but Mr. King, I’m begging you, find an editor. I understand that I am in the minority on some of the beloved books–I was bored silly reading Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books, but I could understand why the books made the list, even if the books were not on my personal list. And some books–Andrew’s Flowers In The Attic and Ellis’ American Psycho–I found not to be beloved in any sense. They were awful, horrible, unbeloved books.
But the good books–even if they are not exactly beloved–far outweigh the truly awful ones. Welsh’s horrific Trainspotting deserves a higher place on the list than number 187. Dodie Smith’s largely forgotten I Captured The Castle was a delight. Joyce’s Ulysses and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children were worth the effort–even if, at the end, I didn’t understand a word of either book.
I have saved the shortest book, Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpiller–for last. I will be a little sad when I make that last tick next to this book in a few months’ time. But happily, I have found a new list to guide my reading. It’s Bloom’s list of the Western Canon, and it is just a few books longer than the BBC List of Most Beloved Books. It probably numbers 2000 books. I will report back when I finish that list.