I always perk up when I see a list of books. A friend recently posted an interesting blog entry with a list of books with the challenge to highlight those she had read. I was all set to follow her example when the question occurred to me: “who the heck made this list?”
What followed was an interesting diversion in random weirdness. It started when I tracked down the original claim made by someone named Jill that “The Big Read reckons that the average adult has only read 6 of the top 100 books they’ve printed.”
This piqued my curiosity further, prompting all kinds of new questions. Like “What’s the Big Read?” and “What criteria for selection were used for their list?” and “How do they know that on average people have read 6 of their 100 books?”
Well, the eventual answers have proven interesting enough to make the rest of this blog post (though I do mark those I’ve read in the end).
What’s the Big Read?
The difficulty started at once because it turns out that while there really is an organization called The Big Read and it really is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, they unfortunately don’t actually have a list of 100 books. They have a list of books they recommend, but there’s only 16 of them with another 6 “coming soon” (though I can’t imagine what is holding them up since all of them are already in print—some of them for over a hundred years). That’s some 78 shy of the list of 100 books being put forth as admirable.
Undaunted, I searched some more. Eventually, I found a five-year-old initiative by the BBC that is also called “the Big Read”. Plus bonus: they have a list of 100 books. Even better, the list of books starts off roughly similar. The list was voted on by folks in the U.K. which turns out to be significant. Still, the list simply doesn’t match and the BBC seems to have abandoned the Big Read after the single go ‘round, so it is unlikely that I’m looking at a yearly variation that later (or earlier) produced the precise list in question.
What Criteria Were Used to Select the List?
Well, at this point I abandoned the Big Read as a likely red herring and went for list composition. The ordering of the list is specific and that should be something I can search against, right? After all, how many lists start off with Pride and Prejudice, right?
Well, more than you’d think.
However, this line of enquiry eventually turned up an article in the Guardian from March of last year. The article mentions a number of books and gives their ranking. Better still, the numbers and titles all match “my” list. Best of all, the Guardian tells us where they got the list right in the subtitle of the article, “World Book Day poll places enduring quality of classics ahead of recent triumphs”.
So the list was put together by a bunch of stuffy Brits*. Unfortunately, World Book Day, while they have a spiffy website, doesn’t actually provide handy things like the results of their polls anywhere I could find (let alone anything so prosaic as how their list was gathered). The Guardian had another article that included the complete list so at least I was able to verify that they are the same. That’s something, right?
Still, I hate it when people/organizations don’t keep copies of things they’ve released to the public around. Have they no pride? No self-respect? And what about methodology? The best indication about their methodology that I could find is again from The Guardian. They include this little snippet in the original article “[the poll asked people] the most precious book they have read”. There’s no indication for how the people were selected or sampled, but I guess I’ll take what I could get.
On Average 6 out of 100?
Which leaves us completely in the dark for the claim that the average person has read 6 of these 100. Frankly, I can’t fathom where that claim comes from. It looks completely made up to me. I suspect that it comes from the common statistic that the average person reads six books in a year. (Being the suspicious sort, I looked that up, too, and it turns out to be true according to the NEA’s “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America” from 2004 (page 17 of the PDF document, page 4 of the report). I don’t know if that’s actually where this spurious-seeming number comes from, though.
All that aside, I still like the challenge so here’s my rendition of the list. Books I’ve read are highlighted.
1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4 Harry Potter series - JK Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
6 The Bible
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare (well... most of them...)
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis
34 Emma - Jane Austen
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
52 Dune - Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
So there you go. 47 of 100, though I have to admit that a good many of those came as assigned reading while obtaining my sometimes-useful education. I might also mention that if I had actually done all the reading I was assigned, I could have highlighted an additional half-dozen. And hey, if you counted posh movie versions I’d chock up another one or two here and there...