Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The tyranny of book lists

The Telegraph has released a list of 100 books that defined the noughties. It's interesting. It doesn't claim these are the best books written in the past decade; just the ones that have had the most impact on the book-reading (and even non-book-reading) populace.

Top of the list is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - fair enough. The publishing world would certainly be a different place if it weren't for the boy wizard. As the author of the piece, Brian MacArthur notes, "If you don’t know what a Muggle is by now, you’re either Rip van Winkle or enormously stubborn."

He also points out the influence of the Richard and Judy book club (the 100 titles they selected sold 30 million copies), the politics of the Blair years, and the impact of the war on terrorism and the resulting conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was the decade of the rise of the non-celebrity (Jade Goody) and the runaway best-seller (Dan Brown).

Of course, there are the usual spurious splutters of indignation from the faux-literati; "Can't believe you've not included..."; "Don't make me laugh"; "I'm not being a snob, but..."; "Are these things written to reflect the vox populai?"; "A list to give any aspiring writer who still has a clean conscience a lifelong stomach ache. Filled with trivia, morbidity, and sheer horror."; "You missed..." These from people who clearly didn't get the point of the article.

And MacArthur writes well - how about this description of Speaking for Myself by Cherie Blair - "Prime Minister’s wife turns into Lady Macbeth. The rest of the country cringes." - this one of Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss - "Bossy, humorous punctuation primer that taught us to love the semicolon." - or this of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold - "Grim, grim grim: teenage girl is raped and murdered, and watches her family from heaven. Everyone loved it."

Naturally, being a list-loving Libran, the first thing I did was see how many books on the list I have actually read (14), how many are on my bookshelves waiting to be read (14) and how many others I might actually read having seen this list (19).

I say I love lists, but actually they tyrannise me. When I see such a list, I feel compelled to somehow validate myself by measuring up to it. And I end up buying more books. Every time we move house, we cart boxes and boxes of my books from place to place and yet I still buy more and go regularly to the library. It's a serious addiction.

I realised recently that even if I never buy another book and live to an average life expectancy, I won't be able to read all the books I own. It was a sobering thought. And yet I still buy them. I blame the reviews and the lists which point out failings in my literary knowledge. I think perhaps I need help.

Susan Hill has the same problem as me, but she is famous, so she has written a book about it. In Howard's End is on the Landing she describes how she eschewed bookshops for a year and only read books from her own bookshelves. She came up with a list of 40 books that "I think I could manage with alone, for the rest of my life". I don't think I need to read this list as it would only put more pressure on me.

Also, despite assurances that the book is "charming", I'm really not sure that I could cope with the envy sure to ensue from reading descriptions of cosy farmhouse life snug around the aga in the sumptuous kitchen while her Shakespearean scholar husband (I didn't know she was married to Stanley Wells) potters about in the background. They're bound to have a big ginger cat too.

Anyway, I have my own system. It's not exactly fool-proof, but it sort of works, and I do work my way through several of my volumes. I'll tell you about it in another post. Meanwhile, I've got some books to return to the library...

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