Top books? You're kidding

Waterstones' 'best books' survey shows that the nation is hidebound by GCSE syllabuses, says Ann Barnes

What is this obsession with lists and quizzes? Waterstones' list of the Top Hundred great books of the century, as chosen by their customers, is more baffling than illuminating. A sort of cross between a best-selling list and a guide to modern snobbery, it reads as a pretty depressing view of the nation's reading. Are we really so hooked on fantasy as the list suggests? What is it that we - or Waterstones' customers - are so hell bent on escaping from that we look back for solace to The Wind In The Willows and Winnie The Pooh, or to elaborate sagas about imaginary creatures (Tolkien's Lord of the Rings cam top) to find expressions of our lives in the 20th century?

Perhaps it tells us something about our reading when we were children, or when we were at school. At least a quarter of the books named regularly appear on GCSE and A-level syllabuses. Some have been on literature syllabuses for at least 30 years. Does this mean that they are part of the heritage, and will be regarded as the "canon" prescribed for teenage reading for ever?

It is a dismal thought. This is not, of course, intended to be a list that recommends books we should read, but one of the things Waterstones has done is to show up the irrelevance of any sort of book list either to real reading tastes, or to an understanding of literary quality.

This particular list has a predominantly masculine tone. It is not just that out of the first 50 titles only six are written by women; it is that in the list as a whole, the emphasis is on the sort of fantasy or horror fiction which particularly appeals to adolescent boys. How does this relate to the idea that boys under-perform in English because they don't like reading? What are we to make of a list which is, on the whole, utterly predictable, but also manages to include The Horse Whisperer, American Psycho, Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? They appear alongside Remembrance of Things Past and A Passage To India. There isn't, however, one single book of poetry. Waterstones' list may be just a bit of fun, but it does also spell out an important warning about lists generally. They don't really tell us much about reading. At a time when there is recurring pressure from some quarters to have a national curriculum for English which specifies the books all children should read to bind them into the national heritage, and perhaps improve their moral outlook, it is essential that we don't get trapped into the idea that any list, in itself, is going to help. The art of encouraging reading, as all good teachers know, is to match the reader's interests and past reading experience to a particular book, which will then lead them on to others. In order to do this, teachers need the freedom to range over as wide a field of available literature as possible and the opportunity to read a lot themselves, always finding new books. A list - any list - seldom contributes to this search. It is much more likely to limit the imagination and discourage exploration. Perhaps it also contributes to the quiz mentality, suggesting that these particular books form a body of knowledge, and if you know the title or the author or the name of the main character, you get a point. Limited horizons, indeed.

The writer is General Secretary of the National Association of the Teaching of English.

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