Saturday, 21 April 2012

Books I Have To Read

A little while ago, I got caught out by a colleague during a conversation in which I was forced to admit that I've never read The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger. I say 'forced', which implies I was reluctant to admit it, but in fact I was quite happy to - until my colleague told me she was surprised I hadn't read it. Immediately, I felt a little bit embarrassed; it's a well-known modern classic, and yet not only have I never picked it up, I've never even felt a vague interest in reading it. To be perfectly honest, until about 3 years ago, I suspected it was something of a horror book, of a Freddy Kreuger-type; it's the whole, there's something in the rye, it's coming to catch you thing, and I'm not a fan of horror books. Obviously I know differently now, but it didn't change my feelings towards it - I simply wasn't interested. But since then, it has got me thinking about all the books I kind of should read, but haven't, and recently I've been pondering the idea of finding a list of the Top 100 books, and working my way through it - as a blog-related challenge, but also in an effort to broaden my own literary horizons.

There's no question that I love books, but sometimes I do find myself reading for the sake of reading, just for something to do, and not noticing what's on the page. Of course, there will be times when I don't want to read something clever; I had a moment like this just this week, when, after what can only be described as a monumentally awful working-week, involving all kinds of crap, I flung aside Catch 22 - another modern classic - in a fit of pique and picked up The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller, which I bought last week but wasn't letting myself read out of respect for finishing Catch 22. The Song Of Achilles is really enjoyable, well written and yet another intriguing take on the Trojan War story, but it's not great literature. So, in the most pathetic rebellion known to man, I said 'screw it!' to cleverness, modern classics and mind-broadening, and went for comfort-reading. Sometimes, you don't want to read except for the sake of reading. But, nonetheless, there are thousands of brilliant books out there that will make me think, question, discover and learn, and all the while I will be doing one of the things I love doing most - reading (and drinking tea at the same time - heaven). So, give me the list, and let's get cracking!

Except, of course, nothing is that simple - such is life. A quick Google of 'ultimate top 100 books' (I like the word 'ultimate' - it's so powerful) lead to more results than I'd care to look at. There's the BBC's collection, compiled about 8 or 9 years ago from nominations for their Big Read campaign; then there's a list from The Guardian, from 10 years ago; then there's all the fan-compiled lists, such as's Top 100, and's Best 100 Novels. I myself have previously been checking novels off a list that I found via an app on Facebook - in fact, when I Googled 'ultimate top 100 books' I was intending to find my list, and link it to this here blog, but I can't find it. Now, with so many options, I find myself a bit stuck; how do I pick which list I am to use as my guideline? What really are the best 100 books? (That, by the way, is not a question I am even going to bother attempting to answer. Call me lazy, but let's face it, if there's that many options out there, you could be there forever. Maybe one day - who knows? - I will compile a list but it will not be today.)

Looking through these lists, several names seem to crop up in each one, a bit like London socialites at swanky events. John Steinbeck, for example, and C.S. Lewis. Salman Rushdie occasionally puts in an appearance but can be a bit unreliable, but George Orwell's always there and so is Fyodor Dostoevsky - they even turn up twice on a few occasions. Shakespeare and Harper Lee are often there, and there's usually something by Jane Austen and Margaret Atwood. These, it would seem, are some members of the hardcore gang, the authors of the books you really must, must read - although there sometimes seems to be a bit of indecisiveness about which novel of theirs is the One to Read. As I perused these lists, I did start to get a bit concerned about why some of these books are on the lists; not because I doubt their worth, but I do sometimes wonder - are they on they just on the list because to miss it off would be noticed? War And Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, for example - that's a title everyone knows, and yet, I myself haven't got a clue of what the plot is. Simply, it's reputation precedes it, and it has become so well-known that it's inclusion on any Top 100 list is almost like a free pass; it's War And Peace, so it has to be on there. Other ones, however, I do find surprising; The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger is one such title. Now, I love this book; it's a heart-breaking romance of fantastical proportions, it's beautifully written and it's a brilliantly unique, clever idea - but I'm not sure I would include it on a Top 100 list. Personally, I'd swap it for Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson, and that's not just because Pettigrew is my favourite book, and I'm biased, but because it's a little lost piece of history, it's charming, it's delightful, it's funny, it's hopeful, it's a classic fairytale. Books shouldn't be included on Top 100 lists just because they're cleverer or more well known than other books.

I think the list I'm going to use will be the Best 100 Novels; it just seems like a more concise list of titles, both modern and pre-20th century, and there's actually quite a few titles on the list that I've been wanting to read anyway, which obviously makes it more appealing! There are, however, quite a few I have no interest in reading - The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, for example. My sister read that one quite a while ago, when the film came out, and gave me the basic rundown of the plot, and I can't say it appealed to me - as frequent readers of this blog will know, I prefer my novels to be more about escapism; the less realistic or political, the better. But then, I was positively dreading reading 1984 by George Orwell, and I actually really enjoyed it, so what does that tell you? However, they have included The Twilight Saga by Stephenie Meyer on this list - now, I know that, culturally, these books are quite significant, given it's fanbase, the revival of interest in vampires it caused and just the general hype surrounding both the film and book series, but I'm a bit disappointed to see it. But then it is the only duff title on the list, so I guess I can let it slide.

If I'm going to work my way through this list, I'm going to have to commit to it, and that's that. I'm actually quite excited really; I've usually been a bit of a book nomad, reading what I like, when I like. Now I feel like I have a bit of a sense of purpose with my reading. I'm sure at times it'll be a hard slog, especially with books I don't want to read, or find hard to follow, but I think it'll be worth it. I'd like to say I've managed to read my way through 100 of the finest novels written. I've already read 22 of them, and I'm currently reading Catch 22 (when I'm not casting it aside in favour of Greek love stories) so I've got a bit of a headstart, but still got 78 to go. Mind you, I'll probably have to buy a Kindle now - can't afford to pay full-whack all these books, financially or space-wise. That's a bit of a bummer.

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