Nerds love literature too, it seems
Sunday 28 February 1999
The winner - excuse me while I fumble with the envelope and affect astonishment - is ... William Shakespeare. Then come Austen, Orwell, Dickens, Iain Banks, Tolkien, Joyce, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, and Mark Twain, in that order. In what might be one of the neatest coincidences of the millennium so far, two of the greatest writers in the last thousand years (Shakespeare and Cervantes) turn out to have died within a few hours of each other, on April 22-23, 1616. The god of literature must have lost at cards that night.
It is all too easy to shrug off lists such as these. What, for a start, does "greatness" mean? A list of most-influential books would have to include people such as Darwin and Marx, or perhaps - to cite a topical example - Germaine Greer. A list of the most resonant creations ought really to find room for Frankenstein, Dracula and Tarzan. So the first of several intriguing things about this list is that the voters instinctively decided to locate greatness in imaginative literature. It represents a resounding triumph for the novel. Even as little as a hundred years ago, such a list might well have been composed mainly of poets.
The freakish inclusion of Banks is a tribute to the fact that this survey was conducted on the Internet. No offence to the only living author in the frame, but if the poll had been conducted in Ely Cathedral, say, then he would probably have been edged out by a grander or older writer. But even this would have been sad: one of the functions of charts such as this is to agitate our idea of what greatness is, and enlarge our sense of who can claim a slice of it.
In any case, the really surprising thing is just how orthodox, predictable and high-minded this ranking has turned out to be. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Tolkien - what else is new? And there is one truly astonishing citation: I mean ... Cervantes? A 500-year old Spanish satire on medieval romance? One might have expected the voters involved - web-surfers, by definition - to have come up with more iconoclastic, contemporary, even nerdish names. But Don Quixote can be admired even by those who have not read it. It is about essential and vivid stuff: romantic illusion. And the essential relationship - between a foolish old buffer and a sharp peasant - is archetypal. It has given us enduring comic partnerships such as Watson & Holmes or Wooster & Jeeves, or even, to stretch a point, Wise & Morecambe.
Indeed, the list as a whole is not far out of line with what any university department of literature might have recommended. It might be that this signifies no more than that the received wisdom is a tyrant, and that it takes a brave and well-informed voter to look beyond Shakespeare, Austen and Joyce. But it also signals that the traditional canon of great books is, after all, a resilient beast.
If the list itself won't make anyone throw their mouse at the screen in frustration, elsewhere there is a welcome cracking of stereotypes. It is nice to be reminded that computer connoisseurs are not all geeky Net-heads in anoraks and trainers, avid for pornography or new-age thrills; if that were true, The Celestine Prophecy, or the sayings of Nostradamus, could hardly have been overlooked. Information technology is for everyone, and that includes librarians and schoolteachers. On the evidence of this poll, the kind of historical imagination often presumed to be an ebbing force in our brave new electronic world really does survive Net practice.
It is inevitable that only two writers are popular primarily in translation (what, no Tolstoy?). In Britain last year, to cite a too-little-known fact, only two per cent of the novels published were translations. So we can hardly be surprised. Despite the fact that one of our Desert Island books - the Bible - is a translation, we remain nervous of them.
Is the list hypocritical? Do people really sit around reading Measure for Measure? Obviously not. But they read or study such works, and feel or are persuaded that they might be the best they have ever read. What's wrong with that? The books we most admire are rarely the ones we read most of the time. They are simply the ones we decline to throw away on the grounds that we might need them again. Modern life - probably very much like ancient life - persists in distracting us away from the things we believe to be important. It is nice to know that we still treasure them, even when we are only surfing.
The Greatest Writer of the Millennium: www.bbc.news.co.uk.
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