The Telegraph has produced a list of what it calls must-read books. The telegraph did not publish the list online (the link is to someone else who did) but, as at least one of the purposes of the list is to flog the books to the unsuspecting punter, you can also effectively view them through their online bookshop. Must-read? The article in the paper starts by telling you what they don’t mean. They don’t mean, for example, that you must read them (sic!). It is a set of suggestions, a list of books to peruse as you might glance at a menu when hungry. On dear. It gets worse. If you look at their listings in the Review section (called Where To Go, What To See), you will note that even where there are as few as four listings, each section’s compiler gets a credit. No-one gets a credit for the 500 books. That’s not surprising. If I had helped compile this list, I would not want my name on it. I am a great lover of lists of all sorts and have looked at many lists of best books and, with the possible exception of the readers’ response to the Modern Library 100 best novels, this has got to be the worse I have ever seen.
They have divided the books into twenty categories. We start off with War and History. They include novels, such as A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead and Catch 22; indeed all the novels are English or US, apart from The Good Soldier Schweik and All Quiet on the Western Front. Though the category is War and History, the novels are all war novels, so no Dickens, no Mantel (though she does appear in British classics), no any number of historical novels and, for war novels, no War and Peace, no Parade’s End, no Dr Zhivago (though he is in Romance), no Iliad (which appears under Antiquity Classics), no Stendhal, no Shakespeare. As for non-fiction we have 1066 and All That, no Macaulay, nothing on the US or English civil wars, nothing on the US War of Independence or its early history, nothing on the Russian Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, nothing on colonisation or decolonisation, nothing on Asian, African or Latin American history… So here’s the perfect video for the anonymous Telegraph compiler.
Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the French I took
Moving along to the other categories, it is not much better. Latin America includes your obvious Latin American authors but also includes Graham Greene and, aaargh!, Paulo Coelho. Surely, J K and Dan Brown cannot be far behind. American Classics includes Lionel Shriver, Anne Michaels, Hunter S Thompson, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Bonfire of the Vanities, no Pynchon, no Faulkner, no Oates and two African-American women but no African-American men – no Invisible Man, no Baldwin. Money includes Ayn Rand (the one author who is absolutely a must-not-read) and Who Moved My Cheese?, another book that is… (yes, I have. Idiot boss.) Of the Asian classics, half are Indian, one quarter Japanese, one eighth Chinese (counting Timothy Mo as half Chinese), with the Arabian Nights being the token Middle East entry. Seven of the twelve African classics are by white authors and one of the five who is not is V S Naipaul. British classics includes four writers who are definitely not British (they’re Irish), Henry James, who is generally considered American, though he did become a British citizen on his deathbed and, God help us, Jilly Cooper (and, if that is the case, why not J K?) (I am being facetious with the last remark, by the way).
Terrible list but what, I suppose, one might expect from the Daily Telegraph. Here is a line from elsewhere in the paper – British wildlife would be in a poorer state without the unique contribution of shooting. Yes, it would be alive. As for Telegraph book list compilers, I am not so sure.