Once a year, a list like this gets published. 100 books to read before you die. 100 books you should read. 100 books that changed the world. You know the sort.
Last Monday, the BBC published their latest version of this on the culture website. 100 Stories that Shaped the World. And every time I see one of these lists, I read it. Why? It’s not as though they’ll be a book on there I haven’t seen on there before. These lists are often copied and pasted from previous lists. Rarely will there be a new one and if there is, it’s an obvious choice.
What made me laugh in this case was the phrase “The list was determined via ranked ballots and first placed into descending order by number of critic votes.” Ask people to name famous books and these are the books they think of because they’ve seen them on every other 100 best books list. Talk about chicken and egg.
Herein lies my issue with Charles Dickens and many other authors who appear on the list like these. I’m told their books are some of the greatest written. When I argue that I still find them difficult to read and don’t enjoy them much, people usually agree with me. Then give me a dozen ways to get around it. Audiobooks, cliff notes… I find that sort of defeats the purpose of reading for enjoyment. Reading to study is a whole other matter.
But my major issue with lists like these is they’re usually a poke at you. Have you read all these incredibly worthy book/plays/stories yet? No? Well, what have you been doing with your time?
I haven’t read all 100 classics on any list you care to name. I plan to, but they’re going to have to join the pile with the rest of my to-reads. The UK publishes more books a year than China or the USA and last year, we even broke our own record. That’s a lot of books I have to read.
So let’s have a quick look at the BBC’s list this year. Here’s the top ten.
1. The Odyssey (Homer, 8th Century BC)
2. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1852)
3. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
5. Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, 1958)
6. One Thousand and One Nights (various authors, 8th-18th Centuries)
7. Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes, 1605-1615)
8. Hamlet (William Shakespeare, 1603)
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez, 1967)
10. The Iliad (Homer, 8th Century BC)
Thanks to an education in Classical Studies, I can tick two of those off my list straight away. Frankenstein has been one of my favourites my entire life, as I’ve raved about before. Hamlet, obviously. So that leaves me with a disappointing 4/10. Not doing well so far…
Don’t worry, I won’t make you sit through the entire list. After a quick tally, it seems I have read 23 of 100 stories listed.
And after my moan that all these lists are the same, I was delighted to see that Medea, a play written by Euripides in 431 BC had made the list. It’s not as well known as it should be, but if you want to read about one of the first real kick-ass woman (I know she does some pretty terrible things, but read it in context people!) then Medea is your girl.
Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven was also on there which was wonderful – it’s much overlooked and is perhaps my favourite poem of all time. I think I can still quote word for word the last stanza. That’s my party trick.
I’m no fun at parties.
I guess my point is, like 100 things to do before your thirty can put more stress on your shoulders than anyone needs, 100 stories to read before you kick the bucket turns reading into homework and a checklist. While I’ll never bar a book from my to-read pile, I will probably die no worse off having not read number 68, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967. If anyone has read it and wants to give me a recommendation, please do!
I’m currently re-reading Pratchett and Gaiman’s Good Omens for my Book Club and because the Amazon Prime series will be coming out soon. I’ll then be moving on to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. There are already too many books to read in a lifetime, so I’m going to start with the fun ones and work my way down.