Thursday, July 23, 2009

Her Majesty Thinks We're Illiterate?

I love a good book meme. You all know that. But the BBC 100 is a bit over the top for me.

When it first appeared on my desktop, I was an annoyed as anyone by the idea that the Brits thought I was a troll. If it was just a list of "Have you read these great books?" that would be one thing but the claim at the top that the "BBC believes most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. How do your reading habits stack up?" immediately struck me as... improbable.

That didn't stop me from filling it out too, of course.

I'm weak, what can I say?

The claim is followed by a rather eccentric list of 100 books. On some The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe is listed separately from the series of which it is apart. There's never any Twain, but Harry Potter (as a series) and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy are always listed. (I like JK Rowling and Douglas Adams as much as the next guy but seriously?)

We will ignore for the moment that the entire Potter series is the best selling series in the history of publishing and that most Americans below a certain age will put a check mark by it, automatically bringing them above the alleged literacy threshold of six books.

This is sort of becoming a Facebook iteration of the urban myth and I think it bears addressing without wading into the comments threads for everyone's notes with what might come across as aimless snark and/or meaningless pedantry.

Here's the apparent origin of the list...

The BBC list was generated by a poll of Britons asking their favorite books. It is mostly pop-lit, but the resemblance to the 100 Books list is striking, with some 'highbrow' stuff appended in a seemingly random fashion. Note that they don't make any claims about Americans' reading habits, just these are Britain's favorites.

No matter how much I search neither I nor any of the others who've tried to track this down have succeeded in pinning the allegation of American illiteracy it to the Beeb. At some point - as is so often the case with these email and blog rumors - someone took an actual list or comment and appended a load of specious claims to it. In this case, they took this list of pop lit, grafted on some highbrow stuff and took advantage of our cultural inclination to feel inferior to the British education system.

By all means, fill out the list and let us have a rousing discussion of what's missing and what should be there and what should not. But don't blame the Beeb.


  1. Well, I've read 46 of these books so far so I guess that I'm qualified to comment on the list? ::wink::

    I think the most amusing things on the list are the back-to-back pairings ...
    A Suitable Boy and The BFG?
    The Princess Diaries and Midnight's Children?
    To Kill A Mockingbird and Winnie-the-Pooh?

    The problem with this list (and many similar ones) is the lack of any sort of criteria. The only prerequisite for submission to this list was that it was someone's "favorite". Well, I would list a bunch of books as favorites that I don't necessarily think are required reading for the masses. So, to turn this into any sort of reading meme other than "do you like what the Brits like?" is just silly. Who cares if the average person has only read six of these books? It's like lamenting that most people don't listen to your favorite albums of all times.

  2. Maybe this is just a local phenomena but here bookshops have top 100 shelves the best books of all time, I find it irritating that they seem to be dictating what is of value and what isn't. The list is based on a similar event to Britian's top 100. The book shops carry a limited range of classics, ie what's on the list and very little else, so if you want to read widely you certainly won't be doing it through what they supply.
    I'm sure what started out as a fun way to talk about books has become a way to be judgemental and superior but it has also become a tool for dictating what matters and what does'nt, not very helpful, also as pointed out it is a list that does not neccessarily reflect books that are of great literary significance more a kind of zeitgeist list. Not that it matters I also have read a significant number of the titles mentioned, 27 of the first 50, stopped counting after that. I find it really hard to believe that most people would have read only 6 of the titles listed, I know kids still in primary school who have read at least 6 of those titles, starting with the Potter stories. Interesting topic for discussion.

  3. Just wanted to add on the subject of the Queen and literacy check out Alan Bennet's The Uncommon Reader, a great comic novella on the subject of reading, what happens when the Queen discovers books.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).