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That BBC book list thing

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The alleged BBC book list meme seems to be making the rounds again, so I thought I'd clear up a couple of things.

  • The original list was compiled in 2003, as part of the BBC's “Big Read” project.
  • The idea was to find “the nation's best-loved novel,” rather than to list books that everyone should read. The list wasn't created by the BBC; it derived from over 750,000 votes submitted by the general public.
  • There were 200 books on the original list, narrowed down to 21 for final voting, and then to one winner.
  • I'm not clear on where the idea came from that the BBC thinks most people have read only six of the books on the list. There's nothing on the Big Read website that suggests that, nor in the Wikipedia entry. I had read at least a dozen of them before finishing high school (several of them were assigned reading, and several others were beloved childhood classics), and I suspect that's true of most people who go to mainstream American or British schools.
  • The version of the list I've been seeing on Facebook lately has some weird bits, like including both The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. That's because it's not the original list. My guess: over the years, people have substituted their favorite books or series for books that were on the original list. Also, various books from the original 101-200 list have been moved into the top-100 list that's in meme circulation.
  • Among the works not on the original list: anything by Shakespeare. According to Wikipedia, that's because he wrote plays and they were looking for novels.
  • All four of the Harry Potter books that had come out by the time of the survey are in the top 25.
  • Fifteen Terry Pratchett books are in the top 200.

I've read about 40 of the top 100 on the original list, and about 17 of the 101-200 list. (And, perhaps oddly, I've read two of the top 100 in the past year, and I'm partway through two more in the top 200.)

I should note that I don't mean this to chastise those of you who've gone through the meme version of the list; that's fun too. I'm just saying that the Internet has worked its usual Telephone-like transformative magic, and the list that's going around isn't the same as the original one.

1 Comment

Thank God. Because there are more than a few books on there I'm pretty sure nobody should read.


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