Every now and again lists circulate purporting to show the 50 best this or the 101 best that, inviting the reader to assess their worth by deciding how many of the books shown they have read.
I say “deciding” how many they have read, because this is rarely a binary decision. Have you read “A Christmas Carol”? You almost certainly know the tale from numerous film adaptations, but have you actually read the book? What if you have read some of the book but weren’t able to finish? (An example in this category for me is Don Quixote – many years ago I made a genuine and sustained effort to read this, but failed miserably). The Bible, The Canterbury tales, and Moby Dick are other examples of “books” that often appear on these lists, but for most readers the prospect of genuinely reading them from start to finish is remote.
But these are just quibbles, because there are no rules in this game, and if the “reader” decides that owning the book, having seen the film, or read a summary on Wikipedia is sufficient to merit a “read it” tick, then no-one is really to know. My real concern is that these lists are designed to make you feel bad about your reading habits. No-one with a family and job will have ever read all of the meritorious heavyweight volumes of “A Remembrance of Things Past”, “The Barchester Chronicles”, or “A Dance to the Music of Time” (“God, no!”, “partially”, and surprisingly, “yes, but a long time ago”, would be my answers). But should I really feel bad about all those Russian classics glowering at me from my bookshelves while I indulge in yet another Pratchett?
From previous entries in this blog it will be clear that I have made a concerted effort to fill some obvious gaps in my reading record – Frankenstein, Dracula, The Great Gatsby, etc – but despite this I still find myself admitting “not read” as I run through each list more often than I would have expected. The other trick played in this game is to include less popular works by popular authors – for example by listing “The Quiet American” instead of “Brighton Rock”, or “Men Without Women” (which is a collection of short stories) instead of “For Whom the Bell Tolls”.
I know I am taking this way too seriously, but there is a point underneath all this – if people read these lists on FaceBook or wherever and think “I must be really dim because I haven’t read any of these” they will be put off even trying them, rather than filling in the gaps. So let’s start writing “These are really fantastic books that you should read if you like romance/thrillers/historical novels/etc” lists, which would be a much more constructive approach to list making wouldn’t it?