(Alternate title: “What To Do While You’re Waiting to Move to Pakistan”)

There’s a new list making the rounds of Facebook this week. I know we’re all sick to death of these lists: the “25 semi-interesting things about me” list and the “20 questions about high school” list and the “5 movies I’d take to a desert island” list. And yet I keep reading them, and I keep making them. I am a sucker for these things.

This new list is even more potentially unpleasant than the others because it is designed to make you feel inferior. It’s the “BBC Book List,” a list of 100 worthwhile books as determined by the BBC, which comes accompanied by the claim that the average person has only read six of them. At least, this is how the list has been introduced. I can’t find any evidence that the BBC actually had anything to do with this list and that some nerdy grad student didn’t just throw a list together and tack “BBC” on it to make it more credible. In fact, I think this is exactly what happened. This is not stemming the tide of enthusiasm for this exercise in the least, however. The purported BBC Book List is all the rage this week on literary websites and blogs dedicated to things like proper punctuation. Put aside for a second the fact that I am a visitor to punctuation blogs and let’s talk about the books.

So, the average person has supposedly read six of out these 100 books. A snooty little prediction like that makes me want to prove the “BBC”/nerdy grad student wrong, so I filled out the list myself. Seeing as I have majored in English literature one way or another since I was sixteen and got an advanced degree in the subject, I should be blowing this list out of the water. It turns out I only did okay.

The instructions are to mark those you’ve read with a little ‘x’ and face those you haven’t read with self-loathing and guilt for all those hours you spent watching Dharma and Greg instead. Here we go.

1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (x)
2 The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien (x)
3 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte (x)
4 Harry Potter series – J.K. Rowling
5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (x)
6 The Bible – (x)
7 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte (x)
8 Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell (x)
9 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens (x)
11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott (x)
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 – Joseph Heller (x)
14 Partial Works of Shakespeare (x)
15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulk
18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger (x)
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch – George Eliot
21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell (x)
22 The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald (x)
23 Bleak House – Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
26 Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (x)
28 Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (x)
29 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
30 The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame (x)
31 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield – Charles Dickens (x)
33 Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis (x)
34 Emma – Jane Austen
35 Persuasion – Jane Austen (x)
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – C.S. Lewis (x)
37 The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh – A.A. Milne (x)
41 Animal Farm – George Orwell (x)
42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown (x)
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving (x)
45 The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery (x)
47 Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy (x)
48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (x)
49 Lord of the Flies – William Golding
50 Atonement – Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel
52 Dune – Frank Herbert
53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens (x)
58 Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck (x)
62 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov (x)
63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy (x)
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding (x)
69 Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick – Herman Melville (x)
71 Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
72 Dracula – Bram Stoker (x)
73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett (x)
74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
75 Ulysses – James Joyce (x)
76 The Inferno – Dante
77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal – Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession – AS Byatt (x)
81 A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens (x)
82 Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker
84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
85 Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web – E.B. White (x)
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (x)
90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton (x)
91 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (x)
92 The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery (x )
93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
94 Watership Down – Richard Adams
95 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas (x)
98 Hamlet – William Shakespeare (x)
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl (x)
100 Les Miserables – Victor Hugo (x)

When I originally did the list, I marked 65 books as “read.” But then I decided to get real. After all, just because it was assigned to me in a grad school seminar or I wrote a paper about it doesn’t mean I actually read the book. And I decided scanning a novel quickly for plot points in the half hour before class doesn’t count either. So I went back and took the ‘x’s off any book that I couldn’t reasonably answer a ten question quiz about. That shrunk the list considerably, to 48, which is less than half, which is only impressive if you didn’t spend 6 years of your life getting a PhD in literature.

Part of the reason I didn’t do so hot on the list was that I have wasted a lot of time reading Ulysses five times over. (And, I must confess, watching Dharma and Greg. It was in syndication while I was working on my dissertation.) But I’m okay with this. (The Ulysses part. The Dharma and Greg thing is just pathetic.) That’s because Ulysses is by far the best book on the list. It also happens to be very topical right now, as evidenced by the frenzy of excitement that was unleashed in the Joycean community when Benjamin Linus was seen reading the 1990 Vintage edition on last week’s episode of Lost. I could spend some time talking about why that’s such a great choice for him in that moment, and why the Gabler edition wasn’t used instead, and how the allegory of the journey works so well, except that you didn’t sign up to be bored to death reading about literature and you’re already fed up by the fact that I’m not in Pakistan yet writing about parasites and embassy intrigue.

The fact is, I’ve read a lot, but not enough. That’s probably the only “true” thing about this fake BBC list that most people will come away with. Every week I hear of a new book that has changed someone’s life or their thinking on a particular subject, and every day I think of all the great new books being written on the environment, and politics, and spirituality, and health, and agriculture, that I am itching to read. I think about the fact that I am totally in love with science fiction, and yet I haven’t read Dune. Or that I’m moving to Pakistan, and I haven’t read Three Cups of Tea. Or that I’ve read Bridget Jones’ Diary, but not Anna Karenina. No matter how many ‘x’s you can mark off an arbitrary list (The Da Vinci Code? really?), you can never actually read enough.

What I should be reading right now is the extremely useful if not overly exciting article sitting untouched in front of me this very minute: “The Political Economy of Growth without Development: A Case Study of Pakistan.” What I want to be reading right now is an email from my new boss with my exact departure date. What I am reading right now is a list from an old high school friend regarding “10 Albums that Changed His Life.” It just popped up on Facebook, and I am a sucker for these things.

Previous Article
Next Article