Are These the Greatest Books Ever Written?; as the BBC Aims to Get Britons Voting Again, We Ask

By Sexton, David; Hodgson, Jessica | The Evening Standard (London, England), December 10, 2002 | Go to article overview

Are These the Greatest Books Ever Written?; as the BBC Aims to Get Britons Voting Again, We Ask


Sexton, David, Hodgson, Jessica, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: DAVID SEXTON;JESSICA HODGSON

By David Sexton, Literary Editor and Jessica Hodgson, Media Correspondent

AFTER the success of Great Britons, when three million viewers tuned in to the debate on which historical figure should be crowned the nation's greatest, BBC2 chiefs are now adapting the idea for literature.

The Big Read - part of the channel's winter schedule unveiled today - will ask viewers to vote for their favourite books. Reading groups will be set up around the country and the BBC will work with schools and colleges over the following months to narrow the list down to a top 10.

As with Great Britons, each contender will have an advocate - drawn "from the worlds of literature, celebrity and politics" - and the list will be put to a poll. BBC2 Controller Jane Root said: "Great Britons has shown us that viewers can be just as passionate about, and get just as involved in, big-scale factual events as they can about entertainment formats.

"Over 1.6 million people voted for their greatest Briton and many more watched, enjoyed, debated and learnt from the series. We want to give everybody the opportunity to be passionately involved in the pleasure that books can bring."

So here's the latest attempt to make books - those obstinately mute, static objects of private enjoyment - into a public event.

A few years ago Waterstone's conducted a survey, asking customers to name the greatest book of the 20th century. Its result? JRR Tolkien's The Lord Of the Rings was judged the ultimate literary experience of the modern era.

There's every chance that, come next year's poll, Harry Potter might be considered just as worthy as Hamlet.

The vote itself does raise questions about whether some books are timelessly superior to others.

The very existence of a "canon" of great literature has been the subject of furious debate in the universities. Some resent the very idea, while others argue that more women writers or postcolonial literature need to be included.

So, we all quietly construct our own private canons - our own lists and hierarchies - in which we are at liberty to be as feckless as we like. We can greedily prefer PG Wodehouse to Virginia Woolf, say, or the works of Tolkien to those of James Joyce.

Here, in preparation for The Big Read, is one quick "private canon" from Literary Editor David Sexton. He begins with a fairly proper interpretation of "great" before "collapsing into a more colloquial sense of the word". He says: "Please don't complain that it is outrageous, that there are so few women writers, contemporary books, works of science or history or books from other continents. I know. Just make your own list instead."

My top 100 by David Sexton, Literary Editor

The Bible

The Works (William Shakespeare)

The Divine Comedy

Essays (Michel du Montaigne)

A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu

Anna Karenina

Trilogy (Samuel Beckett)

Madame Bovary

Les Fleurs Du Mal

The Life Of Samuel Johnson

Collected Shorter Prose (Samuel Beckett)

Collected Poems (TS Elit)

Alice's Adventures In Wonderland

Works (Samuel Johnson)

Pensees (Blaise Pascal)

Odes (Horace)

Canti (Giacomo Leopardi)

David Copperfield

Great Expectations

Bleak House

Ulysses

Dubliners

Poetical Works (William Wordsworth)

The Iliad and The Odyssey

Collected Shorter Fiction (Leo Tolstoy)

Metamorphosis And Other Stories

Stories (Anton Chekhov)

Trois Contes

Eugene Onegin

The Brothers Karamazov

If This Is A Man

Plays (Jean Racine)

The Tale Of A Tub and other works

Gulliver's Travels

The Annals Of Imperial Rome

Peloponnesian War

Plays (Sophocles)

Canterbury Tales

Don Juan

Poems (Andrew Marvell)

Paradise Lost

Don Quixote

Confessions (Augustine)

Letters (John Keats)

Poems (John Keats)

Poems (Alfred Tennyson)

Philosophical Investigations

Poems (Alexander Pope)

Reflections On The Revolution In France

Maxims (Francois La Rochefoucauld)

Dead Souls

Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy

Collected Poems (Philip Larkin)

Aphorisms

War And Peace

Middlemarch

Pride And Prejudice

Poems (Emily Dickinson)

Poems (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

Lolita

Morte D'Arthur

Decline And Fall

Poems (Wallace Stevens)

Fair (William Thackery)

Illusions Perdues

Poems (AE Housman)

Memoires (Louis de Rouvroy de Saint-Simon)

Seven Men

Apologia Pro Vita Sua

A Far Cry From Kensington

Essays (George Orwell)

Leviathan

The Sherlock Holmes stories

Herzog

Collected Poems (William Epsom)

The Scarlet Letter

Poems (Henry Vaughan)

Anatomy Of Melancholy

Collected Poems (Geoffrey Hill)

Jeeves Omnibus

The Diary Of A Nobody

Poems (WH Auden)

The Rabbit Novels

The Wind In The Willows

Stories (John Cheever)

The Book Of Common Prayer

Short Stories (Ernest Hemingway)

Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire

A Hero Of Our Time

Meditations (Marcus Aurelius)

Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde

Plays (Anton Chekhov)

Plays (Samuel Beckett)

Poems (Christina Rossetti)

Lives Of The Artists

My Father And Myself

Notebooks (Geoffrey Madan)

My Early Life

Essays (Arthur Schopenhauer)

The Silence Of The Lambs

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