Today is World Book Day. (Thank goodness it's not World Web Accessibility Day: "The results of our Happy Endings survey is [sic] published on World Book Day", says the aforelinked website, but they don't warn you that said results are only available as a large Word doc...) The BBC provides a readable summary, while the Guardian's 'culture vulture' blog pretends that the question of what makes a 'happy' or 'sad' ending wasn't crashingly obvious to anybody who'd ever read a book.
Meanwhile, librarians vote Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to the top of the "books to read before you die" hit parade, with the Bible and Lord of the Rings following in second and third places. The before-you-die meme irks me, as my internal jury is still out on whether the great Senior Tutor in the sky will be writing reports on us at the end of our threescore-and-ten, and I suspect that if they will be, then the question of whether I finished everything on the reading list is not going to be the main criterion for deciding whether I pass or fail. (And after you die, it's too dark to read.) However, if I were forced to compile this list, then I'd say that at least one of those three (though I'm not sure which one) was a sensible candidate for inclusion. I've read them all, incidentally, though I probably skimmed some bits of Numbers, Leviticus, and the Treebeard bits.
But griping about the entirely predictable responses ("A happy ending is the preferred choice of people all ages, genders and regions"; "the nation's favourite happy ending is the one that they saw most recently at the cinema starring Keira Knightley") to the necessarily bland questions is merely second-order tedium, as is trotting out the time-honoured retort that "if it gets them reading then it's got to be a good thing". The question of whether these lists "mean" anything might be worth asking, but it's a veritable quagmire of sophomore solipsism.
Often, the first response to a list one disagrees with is to make one's own list -- a list containing all the things that obviously should have been on the original list. This approach is not without its merits, as it reveals far more about the list-maker's cognitive processes than the likely explanations for the original objection ("that's nowhere near as good as this", "that doesn't count"). Unfortunately, lists beget lists, and lists beget lists, and eventually we all know an awful lot about the contents of our own heads and not a lot else. In this spirit, I've made my own list of twelve books (not necessarily the top twelve) which I first read while still in full-time education and which I believe significantly changed the way I think. You can't argue with that, now, can you?
* Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
* Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, The School at the Chalet
* Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveller
* T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
* Alan Garner, Red Shift
* Herman Hesse, Demian
* Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings
* Pauline Reage, The Story of O
* Christopher Ricks, Beckett's Dying Words
* Shakespeare, Hamlet
* Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
* Diana Wynne Jones, Fire and Hemlock
Can we please assume, for the purposes of argument (and in the interests of saving everybody's time), that having read this list, you all answered the following poll for each book:
and that all possible combinations of response were represented? Thanks.
Having got that out of the way, I'm hoping that some of you people can come up with more interesting angles of discussion: the floor (or the comments page) is yours.