Waterstone's bookshops, in conjunction with Channel 4, yesterday launched the survey to find the 100 most popular books published since 1900. Ballot boxes are being placed in all 100 Waterstone's shops in the UK and Ireland.
Readers are asked to nominate five titles and to say in 50 words why one book, in particular, stands out above the rest. The survey is not only potentially larger than any previous effort, but, unusually, it includes all genres - not exclusively novels. So children's books, cookery books, science, history - even The Highway Code - can be nominated.
At the same time, Channel 4's Book Choice is broadcasting 15 programmes in which authors and celebrities talk about their own favourite books of the century. In that series, Jackie Collins nominates Enid Blyton's The Magic Faraway Tree; Will Self chooses JG Ballard's Crash; and Ruth Rendell plumps for Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier.
Martin Lee, marketing director of Waterstone's, said yesterday that the real attraction of the project was that it would reveal the public's choice for the first time. Previous lists of best books had largely been determined by literary critics, whose tastes were not necessarily the same as that of the public.
"We've been extremely anxious to find this out for some time," he said. "We really don't know what public taste genuinely is. There's a school of thought among our managers that this list will show that the books at the top of the list will be those that were on reading lists at school and had a formative influence on readers, books such The Catcher In The Rye, Catch-22 and 1984."
Mr Lee added that the public was also free to nominate books outside the fiction category: "Road atlases and maps sell in large numbers in bookshops, but are not conventionally thought of as books." The results of the public vote will be announced next January.
Last year, the BBC's literary programme, Bookworm, asked viewers to telephone in with the name of the book they had enjoyed most in 1995. The winner was Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks. A previous Mori poll on reading habits found 24 per cent of people regularly read non-fiction, with romances, enjoyed by 19 per cent, the most popular fiction choice.
Leading article, page 13
Our Literary Editor's Choice
1. Samuel Beckett: The Beckett Trilogy. (Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable). A seminal work that has made Beckett's the most imitated voice of late 20th-century literature.
2. James Joyce: Ulysses. Within a Homeric structure, Joyce uses every verbal and stylistic trick in the literary lexicon.
3. Marcel Proust: A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Massive, slow, and operatically ambitious. Showed how fiction can recreate the smallest psychological moments and the largest social panorama.
4. Joseph Heller: Catch-22. An anarchic satire, scorning society through logic, relentlessly, subversively and hilariously applied.
5. George Orwell: Animal Farm. Still the purest, simplest, neatest and most moving political allegory in literary history, not excluding Candide.
6. William Golding: Lord of the Flies. Uses a group of choirboys on a desert island to reveal the darkness at the heart of all mankind's attempts at civilisation.
7. Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim. Invented the "campus" novel, and re-invented the English comic tradition.
8. Gabriel Marcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude. Latin American fiction on the grandly ambitious scale. Poetry and casual exotica of magical realism.
9. DH Lawrence: The Rainbow. Essentially a family saga of Northern miners that is talked up by Lawrence's apocalyptic prose into something timelessly grand.
10. Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita. Scandalous in its time, Lolita has become the template for a quality of prose that evokes everything and apologises for nothing.