100 Greatest American novels of all Time
Britain is a nation of inveterate book readers. Per capita, we borrow, buy, and possibly steal, more books than any country on earth. Literary festivals and book clubs, an extraordinary contemporary phenomenon, flourish here as nowhere else. Like Shakespeare's Don Armado and Holofernes we have 'lived long on the alms-basket of words'; we have eaten folios and drunk ink.
In a few days, the BBC's Big Read campaign is going to ignite this papery landscape in a firestorm of bookish discussion. In place of the eternal 'What shall I read next?', a series of nine programmes will answer that not-so-simple question, 'What's my favourite novel?' and broadcast the result of a massive poll into the nation's 'best loved' books.
The BBC should be congratulated on this bold initiative, which is bound to excite controversy. It's safe to predict that there will be every possible reaction, from eye-rolling disdain to chin-wagging enthusiasm. Lists - we love them and loathe them. Books - we care passionately about our reading. The books on the bedside table and in the coat pocket shape the inner landscape of our secret lives. Put the two together and you have the fissile materials for some literary fireworks.
Here at The Observer, we have no idea what the BBC's list, a closely guarded secret, will look like, though we have heard on the grapevine that it reflects the popular reading preferences of the past 20 years. No doubt Gandalf and Harry Potter will be competing for votes with Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett. To add to the debate, and to join the beginnings of a national conversation, we have humbly compiled our own list of One Hundred Books which, we felt, our readers could not do without.
Ours is not a list of 'best loved' books. It is less sentimental, and probably less contemporary. It is a catalogue of just a hundred 'essential' titles - as we see it. Of course it is not scientific. Neither Mori nor Gallup was involved. It is partial, prejudiced and highly personal. It reflects whim and fashion. And as we compiled it we began to see actually how difficult - even questionable - the idea of such a unified literary inheritance has become at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Even more agonising are the impossibly hard choices that a list of a hundred forces one to make.
First of all, our list is fundamentally English and inevitably reflects the age, sex and education of its Observer contributors. We started with an intra-office email, inviting nominations for a top 10. The matrix of replies produced a surprising unanimity.
Top of the list were the universal favourites: Austen and Dickens, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. When a vociferous and influential minority, led by the editor, argued for Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, we had to introduce a few basic rules. This is a list of prose fiction, not poetry, and not plays. Never mind that Beowulf has the same plot as Jaws, it's a long poem in Old English, by Anon. This rule also eliminated the Iliad and the Odyssey, both of which are, by any standards, books for a desert island. In that category we also included the Authorised Version of the Bible.
The play and poetry rule also excluded Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot and Auden. With great reluctance we also decided that The Canterbury Tales could not be part of our list. We began at the beginning, with Daniel Defoe and the founding fathers of the English novel. So far, so good.
But what about the European tradition? A new set of anxieties hove into view. Ever since Skelton translated Don Quixote, English readers have been dazzled and diverted by the importation of foreign classics. The English Channel exercises its own rough form of literary criticism, and no doubt some important French, Spanish and German titles have been overlooked down the centuries, but we felt we could not exclude, for example, Cervantes, Laclos or Flaubert. Among reluctant omissions were Victor Hugo and Chateaubriand.
Once we had passed the Romantics and reached the Victorians, a coherent English list became further complicated by the competing claims of American literature. Just as many nineteenth-century English writers crossed the Atlantic to find audiences and make money in the New World, so American writers became enthusiastically adopted here. Once again, we let the tastes of previous generations of English readers shape the list. Exercising some retrospective affirmative action, we replaced James Fennimore Cooper with Melville and Hawthorne.