Breaking down over bad books – why the BBC’s Big Read has to be a joke!

Everyone knows you’ve never read War and Peace – you’re all still stuck on Jacqueline Wilson!  The BBC poll of our Nation’s favourite books is a big fat sham…hopes Hattie French

I was going to write about Jacqueline Wilson this week.  And not in a good way.  I’ve long despised her smug, over-rated books.  So, researching in the traditional student manner, I looked her up on Wikipedia.  I discovered, in close succession, the nauseating sentences “Jacqueline is the proud foster mum to a little cat called Whisky” and “Over 25 million of Wilson’s books have been sold in the UK alone.”

Then something catches my eye which stops me in my tracks.  “In the list of the UK’s 200 favourite books there are 14 books by Jacqueline Wilson.”

What list?  Where?

Wikipedia has all the answers: it’s The Big Read – a BBC poll from 2003 to discover “the Nation”s best-loved book.”  Not best, remember.  Best-loved.

Who, me?

And apparently, it’s The Lord of the Rings.

Can this possibly be true?  I doubt it.  I’m certain – and Wikipedia confirms it – that the films-of-the-books had just been released in 2003 and people were going mad for Tolkien’s epic.  If you have a couple of months to spare, it’s a good read.  But the best-loved book in the country?  Hmmm…

The runner-up only deepened my suspicions: it’s good ol’ Pride and Pap, of course.  And our friend Harry Potter occupies the number five spot – surprisingly with Goblet of Fire, which I remember as an overlong, contrived thing about inter-school competition and dragons.  It was, of course, the most recently published of the Potters and so was fresh in the minds – and shelves – of the general public.  Wikipedia also informs me, without a hint of irony, that it somehow won the Hugo Award, which bleakly cheapens that prize for me.

The other three Harry Potter books are all grouped together at numbers 22-24.  This seems odd, but when I read the rules of the voting, I discover:

The System:

“The British public voted originally for any book that they wished.  From this, a list of 200 was drawn up, with the highest 21then put forward for further voting, on the provision that only one book per author was permitted.”

This probably means that J.K. Rowling got the most votes overall, at first, completely filling the top four.  But when Goblet of Fire turned up in the re-shufflable top twenty-one, people retained a shred of dignity and independence and couldn’t call it their favourite book ever, so voted for Tolkien instead, the other current cinema blockbuster.  They then screwed it up by making Pride and Prej second fave.  It was an embittering experience, reading this list.

Who can I blame??

I finally found Jacqueline Wilson lurking at number 31 with The Story of Tracy Beaker.  If the story of some cross-eyed tantrum-prone little brat is honestly the 31st-best loved book of 750,000 people, then there had to be something wrong with the selection process.  It was either that or I was living in a country of untrustworthy lunatics.

So I started to analyze the groups of people which might make good survey fodder for the BBC.  The first thing I noticed was the proliferation of Kiddy Lit.  Roald Dahl featured heavily, but there were many others including Artemis Fowl, Anthony Horowitz and, surprisingly, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (squeaking in at number 199).  Maybe they asked Dubya.

But clearly, schoolchildren, used to government testing, had been an easy target for the BBC.  In my eyes, that invalidated half the data straight away.  Children have limited reading privileges, not to mention attention spans and vocabularies.  With their impaired judgement, why were they consulted in such droves?

Next, there were the Impressive Classics – or, as I like to think of them, Books Which Approximately 1% Of Those Consulted Have Read All The Way Through.  This was also a large category, headed up by War and Peace, Ulysses, Middlemarch and Jude the Obscure, and with plenty of Dickens to fill out the numbers.

I was unable to think of anyone who might have voted for number 172, a book I have literally never heard of, entitled They Used to Play on Grass by Terry Venables and Gordon Williams.  Checking up, I see that this opus is a work of fiction currently ranked at 622,430 on Amazon’s sales rank.  Who reads this stuff?  Who voted for it?  How did it beat The Old Man and the Sea, or Sophie’s World, or Trainspotting?

Final analysis…

I did what everyone does with these lists and counted up which ones I had read.  My total was 96 – not quite half.  Annoyingly, I could only give myself two Jacqueline Wilson books, for (although I’m sure I’ve read more than that) they were all so indistinguishable in my mind that I couldn’t remember if I’d read one or not.  Another strike against her, by the way.

Then I counted up the books which, in my view, were respectable choices – or at least not actively disagreeable.  I will admit that I have not read some of those which I vetoed – though I was prepared to extend the benefit of the doubt to some.  To Kill a Mockingbird, okay.  But not The Princess Diaries.

And I calculate that there are at least – I am being generous – at least 85 books on this list which I would have to be paid, or possibly threatened, to read.  Well paid.  Badly threatened.  You’d have to be holding me out of a tenth-storey window by my ankles before I’d willingly re-open Emma.

So I can only conclude that the list was well-intentioned, but badly constructed.  Children were given a vote.  No-one was checking if anyone had read the books they nominated.  Terry Venables apparently voted for himself ten thousand times.  The data is worthless.  If it’s not, then I may be forced to emigrate.

Check out the full list, and watch this space for my pick of the best next week.

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10 responses to “Breaking down over bad books – why the BBC’s Big Read has to be a joke!

  1. Wow you’ve read a lot of books – I’m stuck on the Henry Root letters, it’s the only book you really ever need to read: fact.

    Interesting post though, nice to read something that isn’t about cats or babies, or maybe I’m just innately drawn to those kind of blogs – I hope not.

  2. I found that I had read most of the books in the top 60, though some i had not finished, like Jane Eyre and War and peace. I did finish Ulysses recently, but wouldn’t rate it as high as that.

    As for kiddylit, I wouldn’t have put The magic faraway tree there — the first Enid Blyton book I read (about age 10) was The secret of Kilimooin, which I liked, but it was downhill all the way from there.

  3. Wow! I started Ulysses about a year and a half ago and haven’t even tried to finish it – good work Steve! I read Jane Eyre but hated it – definitely not worth finishing, in my view.

    • It took me a year and a half to read Ulysses, but I don’t think it’s one I’ll want to read again. It was one one of those lists of books to read before you die, so I did.

  4. Never read Ulysses, despite the attempts of my uni tutor. I wouldn’t have had time to read much else.
    I must look up the 100 books to read before you die. How does that differ from the best-loved?
    Guardian have gone a bit over the top here: 1000 books to read before you die.
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/jan/23/best-list-novels-1000-explained
    Can’t be bothered to count. Looks like a more interesting collection than the BBC’s, mind. There’s a blinding sci-fi section, Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs makes it in, and the only kiddy lit I can see on an initial sweep is Asterisk the Gaul, hooray! J. Wilson doesn’t make it in.

  5. Okay, I did count. (I’m putting off writing my next blog.) 170. Disgusted to see all the Austens making it in – all of them! And putting the Discworld series as one entry was a bit of a cheat. But otherwise it’s a top list. My longtime favourite novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon appeared. Anyway, enough procrastination…

  6. I don’t read nearly enough nowadays and certainly haven’t read many on the list. As far as some of those listed, there is no accounting for taste. After all, a lot of people actually buy ( and I suppose read) books by Katie Price!

    Interesting,
    Mike

  7. What about the science fiction? The most underrated genre I feel. Terry Pratchett, Hitchhiker’s, and some “borderline” sci-fi like 1984, HP, and LotR – hardly representative of the greats.
    I’d have Haldeman, Bester, Pohl, maybe some HG Wells or Arthur C Clarke.
    And where was PG Wodehouse? Too many to choose from, I suppose. Undone by success.

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