Books, we are continually told, particularly by people who rarely read them, are going the way of the dodo. The shops that sell them are closing at an alarming rate, as the dreaded Kindle takes over, and public libraries are being encouraged to turn themselves into noisy ‘resource centres’, designed to attract the feckless young.
One might think that the places continuing to sell such glorious, old-fashioned things would be eager to put their best foot forward. So a post-Christmas visit to the biggest bookshop in Europe, as Waterstone’s in Piccadilly likes to call itself, was an eye-opener.
It’s a shop that evokes happy memories. I have been buying books there for years, including a complete set of Proust, which is not so much a purchase as an investment for life. The fiction list is less quirky than it was, but it remains a good place to browse and buy. At least I thought it was, until I met the duffers.
The first duffer was anonymous. On a shelf of ‘staff picks’, he or she had recommended Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh, as ‘her most evocative novel’. It takes exceptional ignorance not to know that the greatest writer of English prose in the last century was a man, but it was an ignorance that the second duffer, a shop assistant whom I invited to comment on this absurdity, did his best to match.
‘Doesn’t that strike you as odd?’ I asked, pointing to the offending card. He gave a blank look. ‘There’s a rather embarrassing mistake.’
‘I’ve never read Brideshead Revisited,’ he replied.
‘No, but you must have heard of Evelyn Waugh.’ Silence. This time, a puzzled look. ‘He was a great writer, and it is a he. You work in a bookshop. You should know such things.’
The look turned to befuddlement. Presently (an adverb Waugh loved to use) there came a sigh of exasperation, as though it was I, not the card-scribbler, who had committed an indiscretion.
Once, Waterstone’s employed only men and women who had degrees in English Literature. That is not the case now, as a press spokesman pointed out when I raised the case of the two duffers. Company policy was ‘more inclusive’, she said, which seems fair enough. George Orwell worked in a bookshop (he wrote a lovely essay about it), and he didn’t have a degree.
Yet this strange interlude left me eager to pick up the scent. So the next day I visited Waterstone’s in Notting Hill Gate to see if there were clangers among their staff picks. By Jove, there were. Ghostwritten, a novel by David Mitchell, was considered by ‘Nick’ to be ‘fantasically written’, and ‘Ali’ had this to say of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity: ‘a brilliant book, its gripping, moves fast and very enjoyable’. Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, wrote ‘James’, was ‘inspired by Gaugin’. By now the curiosity had turned into a kind of lust. Surely the Northumberland Avenue branch would salvage company honour? No; more torment. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, was a ‘classics’ of ‘american’ (lower case a) literature. Saul Bellow was a ‘thought provoking US authors’. A volume of Thucydides was offered as ‘an overview and analysis of the early 20th century’.
Punch-drunk, as though I had gone 15 rounds with messrs Webster and Fowler, I staggered back to Piccadilly to check whether Waugh had changed sex, but he was still a she. Looking more closely at the shelves of recommended books, I noticed that, as with the families of the Old Testament, error had begat error. Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate was, apparently, ‘entierly original… irresistable’, and The Beautiful and Damned brought forth the finest tribute of all: ‘If Fitzgerald did not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.’
As I studied this list of approved books, it was impossible to ignore the foghorn-voiced assistant at the counter, who was addressing the room in a manner that brought to mind Michael Heath’s Great Bores of the World: ‘I really like books that are relevant… y’know, books that reach out to the wider world, that have a social meaning… I think you’ll like this one.’ At least he didn’t say ‘mate’. Defeated utterly, I left with my book token in my pocket.
Waterstone’s have done good work in the past, and they will have to do good work in the future: for many readers, they are the only bookseller in the high street. But surely it is not beyond them to employ people who are comfortable with English, written or spoken; and surely they can find staff who know that the novelist who brought so much distinction to our language was not a lady but a man.
As long ago as 1592, second-rate poet Robert Greene was complaining about Shakespeare's rise to the top of the list. In the modern age, writers as diverse as Cyril Connolly and John Cowper Powys have produced lists of great books.
Now Waterstone's booksellers, in conjunction with Channel 4's Book Choice, has polled more than 25,000 people on their books of the century.
J R R Tolkien 's The Lord of the Rings (written 1954-5) came first, receiving just over 5,000 votes. Some distance behind, George Orwell secured second and third place with Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945), with James Joyce's Ulysses (1922, France, 1936, UK) and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961) being the others in the top five. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1995) is at number 10. Only 13 of the 100 books on the list are by women.
Martin Lee, marketing director of Waterstone's, said: 'This must be one of the widest-ranging surveys of reading tastes ever to be compiled. We are very excited about the list of books and hope that it will stir a passionate debate about the merits of the century's writing.'
Tolkien 's other bestseller, The Hobbit, is at number 19, while Wild Swans, Jung Chang's history of three generations of Chinese women is the highest non-fiction entry at number 11. There is no poetry on the list, which includes two science books, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene. Children's books proved popular choices: among them Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows, A A Milne's Winnie the Pooh, and four titles by Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The BFG.
The list, compiled by the public rather than pundits seems to be based not so much on 'greatness' as on appropriateness to certain stages in psychological development. Thus Peregrine Worsthorne, among the celebrity choices canvassed by the Guardian, gives a favourite book from each period of his life.
Many of the books on the Waterstone's list seem to fall into two main categories, narratives of integration and disintegration. In the former category are a large number of books about fantasy worlds, such as Tolkien 's works, C S Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the second category are books like J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Albert Camus's The Outsider and Franz Kafka's The Trial.
Yet these categories are by no means distinct. Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy is on the cusp, and so is John Fowles's The Magus. It is also a commonplace to argue that fantasy books like Tolkien's, with their insistent quests and complex internal value systems, encourage escapism and obsession, powerfully integrating the reader into a fictional world while having deleterious effects in everyday life.
Questions of literary value are necessarily involved here, in the sense that F R Leavis and T S Eliot understood them. Leavis had doctrinaire views about the virtues of certain types of writing, which he trumpeted as part of a crusade against industrialisation and mass culture.
Eliot argued (in his famous essay Tradition and the Individual Talent) that new entrants to the continuum of the canon drew succour from and refreshed old ones, in the way that his own The Waste Land (just missing out in the Waterstone's list at number 101) did with Dante and much else. This sense of a 'great conversation' was at the heart of a much-mocked initiative by the University of Chicago, whose Great Books of the Western World programme (1952) offered everything from Aristotle to Zola in 60 smart leather-bound volumes, along with an index that highlighted connections between all the different works. In other words, you could look up the word 'culture' and find references to it in books by Plato, Matthew Arnold, Marx, etc. More recently, American academic Harold Bloom evinced an essentially Leavisite position in his book The Western Canon (1995), and the distinguished British critic Sir Frank Kermode has argued that a classic book is one that invites multiple positive interpretations in different eras.
Kermode's 'old wine in new bottles' position - first laid out in his book The Classic (1975) and reiterated in an article in the Guardian last year - lies some way between that of Leavis, Eliot and the newer breed of post-theoretical critics.
The latter would include Antony Easthope, Professor of English and Cultural Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University, who welcomes the popular appeal of the Waterstone's venture but doesn't think that it proves The Lord of the Rings is intrinsically 'better' than Ulysses. 'Better for what?' he asked. 'There are all kind of reasons why people value things. Nothing is valuable in itself, and never was.'
Galen Strawson, who teaches philosophy at Oxford University, said: 'The Waterstone's list has more than merely sociological interest, yet it doesn't tell us what we should read. Some of the books have been subjected to the test of time and some have not. Will Trainspotting, for instance, be there in 10 years' time?'