Miles Kington: The 100 greatest lists of 100 greatest lists of...

I did show the list to my wife, who looked at it for 10 seconds and passed it back, saying, 'I think these have been selected by a man'
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The Independent Online

"The 100 Greatest Books" proclaimed the front page of The Times yesterday. "How many have you read?"

If we ever compile the 100 stupidest questions ever asked by a newspaper, that would surely qualify. It's all very well for trivial television channels like BBC and ITV to base programmes on people voting for the 100 best films, sitcoms, funny scenes, musicals, etc etc etc, and thus to manufacture meaningless broadcasts out of cheap material, but to have a serious newspaper get in on the act is...

What am I talking about?

It's only to be expected.

Nowhere is safe these days from the compulsion to make meaningless lists.

Not even Penguin Books.

For it is they who have decided to issue their choice of the 100 greatest books of all time, and what The Times has done is merely to print the list, and to promise that debates about the inclusion and exclusion of certain books will rage across the dinner tables of the kingdom.

Not across the Kington dinner table, baby. I did show the list to my wife over the Kington lunch table, and she looked at it for 10 seconds and passed it back, saying: "I think these have been selected by a man," and certainly I cannot imagine any top 100 list of books chosen by a woman which would include Three Men In A Boat, but I did not answer her, because I was thinking of something in a book by Milton Shulman called Voltaire, Goldberg and Others.

Do you know this book? I would certainly put it in my Top 100 Anthologies. Over a long life, Milton Shulman has been accumulating his favourite remarks and stories and observations by other people, and in his section on reading and books he quotes this from Martyn Harris in The Daily Telegraph:-

"I think it was Graham Greene who said that the only reason everyone thinks Don Quixote is such a wonderful book is that nobody has ever read it. Anthony Burgess immediately swore that he had, but elsewhere the silence was deafening. Cross your heart and hope to die - have you ever read Don Quixote? All the way through ...?"

No, I haven't, Mr Harris. On the other hand, it isn't on the Penguin Top Great 100 list, so I don't have to. And if nobody else at the dinner table has read Don Quixote, what is the point of my having done so?

It was Chris Beetles, the art dealer, who once said that the whole purpose of dinner parties was not for enthusiasm; it was for the British middle classes to get together and warn each against books, films and restaurants they had recently experienced and which they felt were not worth reading, seeing or patronising.

You won't find that in a book of quotations. I was actually sitting next to Chris Beetles at a dinner party when he said it.

But back to books, and to an extract from Arnold Bennett quoted by Shulman:

"Does there, I wonder, exist a being who has read all that the person of average culture is supposed to have read, and that not to have read is a social sin? If such a being does exist, surely he is an old, a very old man, who has read steadily that which he ought to have read 16 hours a day, from early infancy. I cannot recall a single author of whom I have read everything - even of Jane Austen. Then there are large tracts of Shakespeare, Bacon, Spenser, nearly all Chaucer, Congreve, Dryden, Pope, Swift, Sterne, Johnson, Scott, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Edgeworth, Ferrier, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Wordsworth (nearly) all, Tennyson, Swinburne, the Brontës... A list of the masterpieces I have not read would fill a volume."

You must not presume from this that Shulman had actually read Bennett's diaries. In fact, he implicitly confesses he has not, by acknowledging in a note ("Ian Irvine, Independent, 21.10.89") that he got it from "Days Like These" in this very paper.

But then, if ever I were to compile a useful list of books, it would not be a duty list. It would be of "100 Great Books You Need Never Read".

Any suggestions?

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