Britain's '100 Best Books.' (Listing Based on Waterstone's Booksellers Ltd.'s Survey of Shoppers)

By May, Radmila | Contemporary Review, April 1997 | Go to article overview

Britain's '100 Best Books.' (Listing Based on Waterstone's Booksellers Ltd.'s Survey of Shoppers)


May, Radmila, Contemporary Review


Anyone who can write, so the saying goes, can write a book. And anyone who can lay their hands on a bit of money can publish it. That's the easy part.

What's difficult is to sell the wretched thing, to persuade the public to part with their pounds, dollars, francs, marks, whatever. Few individual books, at least in the eyes of publishers, merit substantial marketing campaigns. Those that do get exclusive promotion are those which would probably sell well anyhow, with or without hype. It had been expected, at least by some, that the demise of retail price maintenance in the book trade in Britain (which forced all shops to charge the same price for a book) would result in lower prices and higher sales. But it did not. In fact, prices, except prices of discounted books, have increased and publishers' lists have been cut. And sales are static.

So booksellers had to think of fresh ploys to get customers into the stores where most sales are still made. And Waterstone's, one of the three chains which dominate the British retail book trade, came up with a spiffing wheeze. Customers in their bookstores and viewers of TV Channel 4's Book Watch programme were invited to fill in a questionnaire with 'the titles of the five books you consider the greatest of the century' and return it to Waterstone's with, if wished, a comment of 50 words or less on their favourite title. The questionnaire was clearly a marketing device: respondents were asked for their names and addresses, prizes were offered for the 5 most persuasive comments, and those not wishing to receive further information from Waterstone's had to tick a box. Over 25,000 people replied nominating over 5,000 titles and the names and authors of the 100 most-nominated books were published in 'W', Waterstone's own magazine, in January 1997 together with a leaflet giving further facts about the survey. Most of the books in the Top 100 were British; there were 21 by US writers and a spattering of titles from elsewhere. 'W' also contained an article by the noted critic and writer Germaine Greer giving her views of the results of the questionnaire.

There was an immediate furore, which must have been everything that Waterstone's hoped for. The reason for this was that far and away the most popular book nominated was J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Chris Woodhead, the Chief Inspector of Schools (a Government post whose job is to monitor standards of teaching in English schools) deplored this: in The Times he was quoted as saying 'If The Lord of the Rings is our favourite book, what is it saying about our attitude towards quality in the arts?' And the views of Germaine Greet were widely reported: since coming to England from Australia in 1964 and finding 'full-grown women . . . babbling excitedly about hobbits, it has been my nightmare that Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century.' But Malcolm Bradbury, Professor Emeritus of American Literature at the University of East Anglia, defended the book: 'It has a very special cultural value. It is a book that crosses the magic line between childhood and adulthood.' Controversy. The media salivated.

What does the list actually mean? First of all, the question asked in the questionnaire should be examined. It is an axiom of such surveys that the question is more important than the answer since the former determines the latter. And so it is in this case. The word used was 'great': But 'great' can mean anything from 'of the utmost significance and profundity in a truly cosmic sense' to 'a thundering good read which was quite unputdownable'. Only four of the respondents' comments were printed: on The Lord of the Rings, Midnight's Children, Proust, and Hemingway's Fiesta (Hemingway didn't make the Top 100 although The Old Man and the Sea gets into the next 50). Dr. Greer uses the word 'influential' but this is not normally taken as a synonym for 'great': fortunately so, since the two books of the century which arguably had the greatest influence on events, Hitler's Mein Kampf and Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, are undoubtedly also the most evil. …

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