The thing about these lists is that no-one in the world has ever, at any point, actually read any of the books on them. No, it’s true. It’s not even like these lists are all that inspiring either. I can’t imagine anyone has looked at one of them and suddenly felt the need to read the likes of the amusingly ironically-named Great Expectations.
I’ve never met any of the people that put these lists together but one imagines them to be the sort of person who’d be able to tell you the year, location and type of grape used in the wine you were drinking, give you a full and uncompromisingly thorough run-down of the tasting notes and then laugh at you for choosing it because the chardonnay is soooo much better. The sort of person for whom cars were better when they were horse-drawn, everything was better in black-and-white and Twitter is what birds do.
For these people, anything written after 1642 isn’t worth the time of day, because all the modern world can churn out is a shitstorm of noise and guff and aimless airhead bimbo waffle. Magazines sing the praises of arse-on-legs Kim Kardashian and boy eunuch turned out-of-mummy’s-care rebel Justin Bieber, picking over the empty, bony carcasses of their lives every time one of them so much as breaks wind, while the homogenised literature factory scrapes the dark, dank bottom of a very deep barrel and pulls out the online-porn generation’s bonkbuster Fifty Shades of Grey, a book so aptly named that actually being tied to a bed and having it read to you would be enough to make anyone repeatedly scream their safe-word at the top of their ball-gag muffled voice.
But I think these people are missing the point. For all its dubious claims to be a book worth reading, Fifty Shades of Grey at least got people doing that, even if it was only the country’s army of sex-starved housewives with a rolling pin suspiciously close at hand. For all the people that read the literary classics, a catch-all term for the books you’ll never read, there are just as many weaned on diets of body-shaming fashion mag tittle-tattle, written-once-and-never-redrafted trashy novellas, books with pretty pictures and word balloons, and those paperbacks with the word “angel” in the title that always seem to make the Summer Beach Reads lists. In a world where any reading is good reading, even Mills & Boon has its place. Just.
Isn’t it better that people just read something? Child literacy rates seem to be falling faster than ever, and while a lot of that falls at the feet of Dark Overlord of the Lizard Men Michael Gove and his not-going-anywhere changes at the Department for Helping Kids Fail, the need to get children reading seems to be more important than ever.
You can be damn sure that Dickens isn’t going to do it.