Nerds love literature too, it seems

Anyone with the right equipment will tomorrow be able to read, on the BBC's website, the result of its month-long poll to identify the "greatest writer" of the millennium. For those with the wrong equipment - well, here is the news.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?