The Big Read

March 11th, 2004

The Big Read is under way. Its purpose is to find the Nation’s Favourite Book. The BBC has decided to do for books what it did for Princess Diana and Winston Churchill, but this time the documentaries will follow the vote. When the Nation (and capital letters are important here) has spoken, our Top 100 books will be reduced to 10, and these 10 will all enjoy 60 minutes of BBC2 airtime. Never say that Auntie isn’t keen on culture.

At the end of it all, there will be an outright winner, and we shall probably be treated to an Austen or a Dickens love-in, or maybe a new adventure in Middle Earth. About this time, I shall probably move to Paris.

The British are such brutes when it comes to culture. We are so embarrassed by art, that when can’t ignore it, (new classical music), or make fun of it (new visual art, especially at the Tate), we try and make it like everything else – that is, comfortable, marketable, and above all, safe.

Books are a bit of problem for the British. We know we have an astonishing literary tradition, well, Shakespeare innit? We know that every available classic can be turned into sentimental television. Thanks to the marvels of costume drama, many people sincerely believe they have read most of nineteenth century literature, and you can be sure that is where the most energetic voting will take place. Virginia Woolf might do all right, now that Nicole Kidman has pointed us in the direction of Mrs Dalloway, but the fact is that we Brits love the Victorians; they make us feel cultured without having to do any work.

The Big Read is a typical British inanity, or do I mean insanity? People who don’t read books will not start reading them because they can ring a hotline and register their vote.

People who do read, might feel that narrowing a lifetime’s journey into one book is as stupid as it is untrue. If you love books you have a dialogue with them, and it changes as you do. Passage to India read at sixteen, will not be the same book at forty-five. The book that changed your life in your twenties, cannot do the same job in your sixties. So either you have no life, or you have read no books – which is it? Don’t blame me, this is the choice the Big Read is offering. One book, folks, that’s what we’re looking for.

What is this? Literature or an episode of Survivor? Is it about the democracy of reading or is it the Big Brother of culture? Why are we taking a world class library and submitting it to the tactics of Reality TV? You love Jane Eyre? Then vote her in! You hate Heathcliffe? Vote him out!

Reading is an act of free will, not mass market entertainment. It is a private dialogue that cannot be monitored or controlled by the State or the Media. One of the reasons why tyrants hate books is not so much what they contain as what they symbolise. The privacy of reading protects it from the necessary control of the dictator.

Democracy is our new dictator. Does everything we do have to be on television? Do we have to do it collectively? Do we have to vote on it? How about giving culture and the arts a real place on mainstream TV? There is no need for this game show mentality.

Tonight’s extravaganza kicks off with a bunch of celebrities chatting about their favourite books for an hour and twenty minutes. This is the Posh n Becks approach to culture – big names and small talk. Think how much you could read in eighty minutes. Sadly, the Big Read is not about reading, it’s a frantic exercise in Popularity TV – fastest finger to turn the page.

I don’t care what the Nation decides. Collectivity is a bore. Culture is not a list. Choose a few exciting well-read individuals and get them to make programmes about books that matter. Best of all, don’t ask Clive Anderson to present any of them.

The Big Read appeared in The Thunderer column of The Times on April 12th 2003