#24 – Read the BBC Top 100 books: CHALLENGE COMPLETE!

I can’t quite believe I’ve completed this challenge with a year to spare!  There were times when I thought that I just wouldn’t have the time to read all of these books and that this might be the one of the 40 that beat me but back in October, when I last updated progress on this challenge, I had just two books left – Winnie the Pooh and Ulysses.  Winnie the Pooh was a story I thought I knew.  Pooh and friends are characters who have just always been around, since I was a child.  However, after reading the book I realised I didn’t know the stories, the original tales which shaped who these familiar characters are.  And the stories are delightful.  So entertaining, but also trying to get the reader to learn, to think of others, to be a good friend.  I really enjoyed reading about Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore and the rest of the crew.  It was a bit of light hearted, charming entertainment.

Ulysses was, as expected, a total contrast.  Despite being nearly five inches thick, I was relieved to find that the actual story was only 552 pages (so only about a third of the length of War and Peace) but it was equally as torturous.  The remaining several inches of book were taken up by notes, which should give you a clue; any book that requires in excess of 300 pages of footnotes is not going to be comprehensible.  I started it in November.  I ploughed doggedly through the novel with very little idea what was going on and even less interest.  In the end it came down to simple mathematics.  By January, I calculated that if I wanted to finish it by the end of March I had to read 4.5 pages per day.  I did not like Leopold Bloom, I had no interest whatsoever in what was going on in the minutiae of his life and mind.  However, it was the 100th book of the challenge so I had to read it.  And that is what I did.  4.5 a..g..o..n..i..s..i..n..g..l..y.. d..u..l..l.. pages per day.

I may have read it but I certainly didn’t digest it.  I had to resort to the Wikipedia summary to figure out what it was all about.

The summary is here if you’re interested.  I’d heartily recommend reading that rather than the book because in my opinion it’s a waste of six months of your life.  Basically, Joyce wanted to show off.  He’s written a book the plot of which allegedly parallels the Greek classic The Odyssey, and for good measure decided to write every chapter in a different literary style.  There’s reportage, stream of consciousness, script, prose, and so on.  Some are much easier to read than others.  The last chapter is exhausting – 30 pages of Molly Bloom’s inner monologue in only seven sentences.  Technically it might be a literary masterpiece but a good read it is not.  I curse those who voted it onto the Top 100 list and if I ever find someone who did I will be asking them to justify their actions.

So, my experience of the last two books on the list was one good, the other bad.  And that, in essence, sums up my experience the BBC Top 100 Books.  I’ve been bored senseless and I’ve discovered some real gems.  I’ve certainly broadened my reading.  There are some books I would never have opened if it wasn’t for this challenge.  Some, Ulysses included, I don’t feel were worth the effort as I really didn’t enjoy them: War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina (note to self, don’t bother reading any more Russian literature you obviously don’t like the style of it), A Suitable Boy and Midnight’s Children (I didn’t enjoy visiting India so perhaps no wonder I didn’t enjoy reading about it), The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist (again no surprise, I find politics tedious), Gormenghast (a surprise this one, I generally like fantasy).  Some books I know many people enjoy but I just didn’t get: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Catch 22 and Birdsong.  Perhaps these are ‘gendered’ novels?  In the main I know more men who’ve enjoyed these than women.  I was sadly disappointed by both Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they were not as magical as I had expected them to be.  Maybe the extensive adaptations of these stories have built them up to be something they’re not.   Wuthering Heights, Little Women and Middlemarch are favourites of mine anyway and would be certainly be on my personal shortlist for the best books of all time.  In fact, never mind Joyce, for me, Middlemarch is the best novel ever written in the English language.  The way she weaves all the different stories together and gets you get to know and care about all those different characters…  So clever.  The list meant I made some new discoveries in The Pillars of the Earth and the Clan of the Cave Bear – books I enjoyed so much that I have had to read more by the same author since.  I also enjoyed Dune, the Count of Monte Cristo, The Shell Seekers, Katherine and to my surprise, The Stand.

Completing this challenge has been a canter through some of the best books in the English language and an interesting and varied list.  Fourteen years on from its publication, I wonder if there are books on the list which wouldn’t be on there now; ones which were products of the moment and haven’t stood the test of time. I also wonder what to read next as the list has shaped my reading for the best part of the last three years.  It’s strange now not to have a reference point and to realise I can read anything I like!  I’m also wondering what my personal Top 100 books would be…

What would be on your list?


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