The nation chooses its big reads (well done, Seb, bad luck Fyodor)

Big names greet big-screen adaptations' domination of BBC poll with a barely disguised big yawn
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The Independent Culture

The BBC will doubtless present it as a selection of the greatest novels of all time. But nowhere on the shortlist for the final of its much-trumpeted "Big Read" poll to find the nation's favourite work of fiction is there space for anything by George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, Fyodor Dostoevsky or Henry James.

In fact, of the 21 books listed, barely half can be described as acknowledged classics. Of these, the bulk are "marquee name" novels familiar from countless television and film dramatisations, among them Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Dickens's Great Expectations, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and her sister Emily's Wuthering Heights.

Some choices appear to be inspired almost entirely by the public's love of big-screen adaptations. Gone With the Wind may be one of the most popular films of all time, but how many people can claim to have read the Margaret Mitchell novel on which it is based? Nevertheless, it has made it on to the shortlist.

Inevitably, the list includes a Harry Potter novel, the fourth adventure of the bespectacled trainee wizard, The Goblet of Fire. Still, fans of serious literature can at least be grateful for one small mercy: all three of the earlier Harry Potter novels are clustered just outside the shortlist, at numbers 22 to 24.

The announcement of the shortlist on last night's opening Big Read programme was greeted with a mixture of weary resignation and outright dismissiveness by some of Britain's leading literary authorities. Sir Frank Kermode, the eminent critic and professor of English literature at King's College, Cambridge, said: "I think it's a deplorable piece of nonsense."

Michael Holroyd, the award-winning biographer of George Bernard Shaw, said of the list: "There are 21 fastest runners, but there's no such thing as 21 best books."

His wife, Dame Margaret Drabble, author of The Ice Age and The Needle's Eye, said: "I don't like books on telly. I prefer reading them, and I'm going to do that now."

Not all were quite so unimpressed. Though he lamented the absence from the shortlist of Gulliver's Travels and Treasure Island, JG Ballard, the author of Empire of the Sun, said: "It accurately reflects the tastes of the British public. It's a mixture of great classics of the past and would-be classics of the future."

If the humdrum array of titles from The Lord of the Rings to Captain Corelli's Mandolin isn't enough to frustrate the literati on its own, the shortlist's other limitations certainly will. Apart from Tolstoy's War and Peace, all the other novels on the list were written in English.

Over the next seven weeks, the public will have the chance to vote on the final order of the top 21 by telephone, text or online. In the meantime, celebrities ranging from the former Conservative leader William Hague (a fan of Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong) to Alan Titchmarsh (speaking on behalf of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca) will take it in turns to champion their chosen winners on Big Read programmes, beginning next Saturday.

The IoS verdict: John Walsh picks five of the brightest and best in the top 21 and says why they deserve their place


Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)

What the world thinks: Amusing anti-war novel set on Italian island in WW2, peopled by wacky M*A*S*H-style GIs. Title refers to no-win situation, where you can't evade bombing-raid duty by claiming insanity, because knowing that you're mad to fly bombing raids is sign of sanity ...

The IoS view: Ferociously intelligent, bitterly funny satire on range of post-war tendencies, chiefly the rise of bureaucratic logic and irresponsible multinational capitalism, undershot by reminder of frailty of human flesh in war and elsewhere.

Verdict: *****


Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)

What the world thinks: Creepy convict on the fens, mad woman in wedding gown and crumbling wedding reception for 50 years, chap called Pip tries to become gentleman ... Ends with Bond-style boat-chase through Thames.

What we think: Perhaps Dickens's most perfect novel, balancing serious themes - ambition, snobbery, corruption and betrayal - with social comedy and drama in magic equilibrium. Most vivid Dickensian characters (Pip, Magwitch, Miss Havisham, Stella, Wemmick, Drummle, Herbert Pocket) outside David Copperfield.

Verdict: *****


The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (1979)

What the world thinks: Funny radio show (later quite funny TV show). Book wheedled out of author like blood from stone. Best bits were crazy SF names (Zaphod Beeblebrox, Slartibartfast, Eccentrica Gallumbits the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 3). Made fun of physics in droll if undergraduate way.

What we think: Despite not convincing as a novelist (rather than writer of joined-up sketches) Adams is a natural successor to Kurt Vonnegut, though his vision of the world is less tragic. Fizzes with surreal images but its humour remains as British and domestic as PG Tips.

Verdict: ***


Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier (1938).

What the world thinks: Overheated melodrama about lady's companion in Monte Carlo who's swept off feet ("I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool!") by grouchy old Max de Winter. She spends awful time living in shadow of posh-bitch first wife Rebecca, who died in odd circumstances. We never know girl's name. Joan Fontaine played her as soppy lambkin in Hitchcock movie.

What we think: Complex and absorbing psychological chiller about empowerment and loyalty. Little "romantic" about it. Unforgettable characters in Mrs Danvers, the Iago-like housekeeper, and murdered Rebecca, the most vivid absence in fiction.

Verdict: ****


The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

What the world thinks: Sweet kids' whimsy of life by riverbank, Toad, Ratty, Mole, Badger. Messing about in boats etc. Stoats and weasels as prototype punks invade Toad Hall. Cute, forgettable.

What we think: Best children's book ever. Characters are instantly recognisable (adult) human types, defined by different levels of education and social confidence. Central dichotomy between staying home in little nest and venturing out into the Wild Wood and to the Wide World beyond. Anthropomorphic but unsentimental. And gave Pink Floyd great title for first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Verdict: *****

The shortlist

Birdsong Sebastian Faulks; Captain Corelli's Mandolin Louis de Bernières; Catch-22 Joseph Heller; The Catcher in the Rye JD Salinger; Gone With the Wind Margaret Mitchell; Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire JK Rowling; Great Expectations Charles Dickens; His Dark Materials Philip Pullman; The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams; Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë; Lion, Witch and Wardrobe CS Lewis; Little Women Louisa M Alcott; Lord of the Rings JRR Tolkien; 1984 George Orwell; Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen; Rebecca Daphne du Maurier; To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee; War and Peace Leo Tolstoy Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame; Winnie-the-Pooh AA Milne; Wuthering Heights Emily Brontë