One of the blogs I follow is 101books.net written by the excellent Robert Bruce.
In 2010 Time Magazine announced their definitive list of the 100 greatest English language novels (since 1923) and Robert decided that as an avid reader he would dedicate most of his limited free time to reading his way through the list.
I had a look at the titles and realised that some of my favourite books didn’t make the cut. The list is quite limiting in that it only considers those originally written in English so there would be no place for the likes of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or Cervantes‘ Don Quixote.
I went through a phase in my late teens when I began to tire of the weak bilge that passed as modern fiction and decided to give the ‘classic’ genre a try. Sure the authors might be long dead, and the scene set in Russia or some other far flung location a century or more ago but I figured there had to be something in those books that made them stand the test of time.
Once I started, I WAS HOOKED!
I’m not a historical or political buff so the backdrop of many of these Russian stories set in Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky‘s novels didn’t really strike a chord with me, but what did jump out from the pages was the incredible poise and grace which they weaved into their complex storyline, creating characters that still stand out in memory even to this day.
It was also around this time that the BBC launched their ‘Big Read‘ survey (2003) which was a nationwide campaign to find Britain’s most popular and best-loved novel. Before the advent of Facebook and Smart phones it felt like we had more time back then to indulge in a good book.
The year long survey culminated in a series of programmes which whittled the books down to 21 and various celebrities and famous authors championed their own personal favourites. Only one author title could be included in this select list which was good in a way because it prevented J.K. Rowling and the boy wizard from dominating the charts.
The campaign really caught the public imagination as we all had our own favourites going into the final countdown. It also helped raise awareness of other books such as ‘His Dark Materials‘ by Philip Pullman which upon hearing the premise I immediately went out to buy the trilogy and absolutely loved it.
The eventual winner was announced as Lord of the Rings which needs no introduction. After I watched the first movie in the cinema, I simply had to buy the other two books. It took an entire Summer to get through but was so much better than the movie (isn’t that usually the case!) which was still very good.
I secretly hoped that Tom Bombadil would make it into Peter Jackson‘s version of Middle Earth but he didn’t make the cut which is a crying shame.
A few weeks ago for Christmas I received 3 novels to get my teeth into. 2 of those were Stephen King books of whom I’m a big fan. They were easy reads. Nicely assembled with believable characters, an interesting plot that held my attention…
They didn’t transport me to The Shire. They didn’t transport me to a battlefield in Russia in the Napoleonic War. They didn’t engage my senses in a way that the frightening dystopian New World did in 1984. Perhaps it is a damning indictment of today’s rapid consumption culture that books are churned out to satisfy an audiences expectations with a bar that is set fairly low thanks to the titles currently dominating our charts.
For that reason, I’ve decided to dip back into the classics and specifically the BBC Big Read List of 100 which can be found here.
Stephen King once said that “the key to becoming a better writer is to read a lot and write a lot“.
The best teachers of the writing craft have never been more accessible to aspiring writers. If you’re going to spend an evening reading a book, why not make it something that has stood the test of time, universally acclaimed as a classic for decades instead of breezing through the next disposable 50 Shades addition.
Estimates reveal that between 600,000 to 1,000,000 books are published each year in the US alone. Against that backdrop of noise, it’s hard to stand out, and those that do have to be that little bit special. The shelf-life of said book in today’s market might be a few years before fading into relative obscurity again.
Lists like the ‘Big Read’ can help bring awareness to such books and I’d rather spend my time on those reads than waste it on another ‘connect-the-dots’ detective chase.