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Home > Culture and Society

The Big Fib

18 December 2003

You've got to wonder about the people who voted for the Big Read.

On one level, there's nothing surprising about the chart, certainly the top 50. Of course people voted for Lord of the Rings. It's a classic that lots of people have read and which also happens to benefit from three rather good, extremely popular film adaptations. The same is true, to a far lesser extent, of Harry Potter.

In the higher reaches of the chart are more literary books like Birdsong and Captain Correlli's Mandolin which, sort of, qualify as modern classics. They probably don't deserve their high placings in the chart, but hey, the whole thing was a popular vote. Of course people are going to vote for the book they enjoyed reading last year.

But what the bejesus was going on with the rest of the voting?

One strange thing that emerges from the list is the suggestion that large numbers of adults are sitting around reading children's books. In the case of Harry Potter, this is tragically true - but who on earth is sitting around reading Winnie the Pooh and Wind in the Willows?

It appears that the voting was skewed by people voting for books they thought they ought to vote for. 'Winnie the Pooh? It's a classic, innit? With that little yellow bear with his pot of honey and Eeyore and that thing with a spring in its arse, Zebedee. Classic. I've never read it, mind, but I liked the bits I remember from The Disney Club.'

The same logic appears to have applied to grown-up books. How many people can, hand on heart, say 'I really enjoyed Pride and Prejudice'. That's 'enjoy' in the 'enjoy' sense, not the 'S'pose it's alright once you get past the impenetrably complicated sentence construction and archaic language' sense. Were there millions of British holidaymakers reclining on Mediterranean beaches this summer reading War and Peace, Tess of the D'Urbervilles and David Copperfield?

We suspect not. When people voted for a book as being their favourite, it appears they instead used one of the following criteria:

- Having seen the film/BBC1 costume drama, I'm considering reading this, which makes it the nearest thing I've got to a favourite book.

- I read this at school and it was OK (and I'm voting by default because the only thing I've read since then is The Hunt for Red October / Foetal Attraction).

- If I vote for Bravo Two Zero, I'll look a bit thick, so I'll vote for the New York Trilogy instead. (Even though I bought it thinking it would be an espionage thriller about Al Qaeda).

Admittedly, the list seems to better reflect what people actually do read the further down you get (High Fidelity, Bridget Jones, Pratchett's dismal oevre, etc.) but some important questions remain unanswered:

- Who on earth believes Dune is the best book they've ever read? Is there a tiny enclave of Dune fans living on an island that is cut off from the mainland by rising tides every 30 years and where the only books in the public library are Dune, Children of Dune, Cousins of Dune, Pets of Dune etc.?

- Is it time to put the reading public out of its misery and burn all remaining copies of Clan of the Cave Bear?

- Whatever happened to 'Smarty Marty' Amis? (And, for that matter, people like John Updike, Kingsley Amis, Norman Mailer, Charles Bukowski, Julian Barnes, Iris Murdoch, Kurt Vonnegut and Anthony Burgess, to name a random handful of fairly contemporary writers? OK, reading is a minority activity, but have people just stopped reading modern novels apart from Catch-22?)

But perhaps the biggest question is: what was the point of the Big Read?

'It's encouraged reading,' says the BBC. True. The problem is that it's also probably discouraged reading.

There's a distinct danger that people will actually start to think that literature is just the stuff in the Big Read list: kids' books about magic, kids' books in general, Jane Austen and all those sodding Dickens novels full of contrived names (Mr Narkyscritch, Lady Grindgravel, Chipper Sunbright etc.) that you laboured through aged 13. It won't exactly have you rushing to Borders, will it?

The BBC seems to be incapable of distinguishing between popularising and dumbing down. The vast sums spent on the Big Read might better have been spent taking literature out of the South Bank Show ghetto by making genuinely populist programmes with some actual substance (they managed it with food), instead of all those pointless 'Vote now!' comparisons between wildly different books. What's better, The Magus or The AA Road Atlas?

Instead the Big Read just manages to tell us that popular books are popular, that people fondly remember Winnie the Pooh, and that there are some total liars out there who claim they'll be reading Ulysses on the beach in Portugal next year.

Or maybe they were just thinking of the cartoon.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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