D J Taylor: Reading is not a spectator sport

Anything that encourages interest in books must be good. Well, up to a point
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Yesterday evening, amid a deluge of televisual ticker-tape, the BBC moved into the second phase of its "Big Read" extravaganza. Six months on the road, this search for "the nation's best-loved novel" realised an initial shortlist of a hundred books, now reduced to the somewhat arbitrary figure of 21. Some 140,000 voters participated in the opening round. Given the zeal with which the scheme has since been marketed, no doubt even more will be shown to have taken part in last night's winnowing process. Participative, inclusive (as a glance at the longlist soon reveals) "democratic": what could be more imaginatively framed than this attempt to drive the nation's TV dullards from their addiction to soaps and steer them in front of some edifying - well, more or less edifying - literature?

On paper the Big Read seems exactly the kind of thing the BBC ought to be doing at a time of widespread confusion over its cultural role - an inspired welding together of public service broadcaster responsibility (ie, the subject is books) and populism (lots of people are involved). No philistine newspaper columnist or radio hack could possibly accuse it of elitism. Its judges are not a handful of supposedly Olympian literary insiders - the eternal complaint levelled at the Booker judges - but the general public. Never mind that the BBC hasn't been able to run a decent books programme for half a decade, or that its wider commitment to literature could probably be summarised on the back of a postcard, this, clearly, will do as a start.

Down at the procedural coalface, however, rises a faint spark of disquiet. Three months ago I was bidden to a television studio in south-west London to take part in one of those "Battles of the Books" that have been so roundly relished by the small proportion of the populace with access to BBC Four. The two novels adversarially conjoined were William Golding's Lord of the Flies and George Orwell's Animal Farm. A jury composed of members of a Willesden reading group stood by. The judge - Sandi Toksvig - extemporised in her inimitable way. A file of expert witnesses, including a jungle explorer and a political analyst - were cross-questioned by the respective advocates, one of whom turned out to be the godfather of my youngest son. Quite a lot of fun was had (Golding won, for the record) but in the end, there beneath the cameras' merciless light, one was conscious that, whatever the merits of these literary contenders (and two books farther apart in conception than Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm would be hard to imagine) what remained was simply a spectacle, in which the subject matter grew ever less important than the personalities ranged on either side. The medium, in other words, was throwing its customary blanket over the message.

There is, you suspect, nothing very new in this. Literature, like many another art form, has nearly always been sold to the doubtful consumer in the form of lists. Just as music magazines keep their readers alert with The 100 Best Albums polls or - in this month's Mojo - "100 defining moments in rock and roll" - so the literary world tends to promote itself by way of works such as Anthony Burgess's Ninety-nine Novels or Martin Seymour-Smith's dense compendium of The Hundred Most Influential Books. The tendency goes all the way back to the library primers of the Victorian age, the contemporary twist being that the didacticism of the 19th century sage has given way to the democratic vote.

As to what the democratic vote offers up in its place, the curious thing about the Big Read Hot 100 is its complete lack of pattern, or rather the chaos produced by the multitude of contending patterns. On the one hand there are standard English classics (Austen, Dickens, Hardy) alternating with significant 20th century Americana (Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Salinger). Then comes a clutch of best-selling latterday favourites, including Paul Coelho, Bridget Jones and Terry Pratchett. Popular modern children's books are well to the fore (Philip Pullman, JK Rowling, Jacqueline Wilson) along with one or two altogether preposterous items such as Jean M Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear. Best of all, from the point of view of literature, is the presence of one or two real mavericks - obscure but wonderful novels such as Robert Tressell's The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, kept alive over the generations (Tressell's account of the travails of his down-trodden band of Edwardian decorators was first published in 1913) by a die-hard fan base.

Put all these categories together and what do they tell you? Nothing, other than that what might be called "literary taste" is by no means as homogenised as everybody assumes, is nothing more in fact than a series of contending constituencies, each fighting savagely for their own man or woman, style or genre, in which the spectre of relativism comes capering through the library stacks. The only thing, perhaps, that unites David Copperfield and The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy is that they both happen to be books. A literary list that brings together works by Tolstoy and Ken Follett might be thought to be extending its catchment area beyond manageable limits.

Then there is that all-consuming participative pull, that stern injunction to make a spectator sport out of a pursuit that is essentially solitary and derives most of its sheen from that sequestration. Why not get talking on the message board, the BBC website breezily enjoins, and discuss how these books are making you feel? Alternatively, why not get on with the business of reading and leave the emotional massages to Oprah?

Inevitably as a professional writer I am biting the hand that feeds me. With the world and the "information" that sustains it turned into a kind of endless shop window, books are as obliged to market themselves as any other product and who am I, with a living to make and children to feed, to demur? Here we are, us novelists, biographers and whatnot, forever moaning that television ignores us. Wham! Along comes a whole nine months of literary partying and, base ingrates that we are, we have the cheek to complain about it.

However, it is possible to wish the Big Read all the best, and silently to applaud the hundreds of thousands of readers taking part, while wondering if there aren't better ways in which the BBC's literature budget could be laid out. To be specific, 2003 sees the start of a whole roster of literary centenaries. Practically anyone who was anyone in 20th century British literature turns out to have been born in the years between 1903 and 1910. George Orwell's hundredth (of which appropriate fuss was made) fell in the June of this year. Cyril Connolly's (September) passed with barely a flicker. Evelyn Waugh's is at the end of this month. Graham Greene, Patrick Hamilton, Christopher Isherwood, Anthony Powell, John Betjeman, WH Auden and Stephen Spender will follow. What, it might be wondered, is the BBC going to do about them?

No one could decently protest about an initiative that encourages people to acclaim Terry Pratchett and co as modern masters, but there are mighty talents out there without whom modern literature would scarcely exist, more or less invisible beneath television's popularising gaze.