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The Big Read - trashy TV or reinstating great books?

3 November 2003

Last week WritersServices featured Bob Ritchie's astringent look at the Big Read in his Journal. The BBC's big literary idea has certainly come in for its share of harsh comments over the past week or two. Roy Hattersley calls it 'showbiz, not lit crit' and the poet Michael Horovitz says the choices are 'predicatable' and show how 'commerce and television affect our reading habits.'

Catherine Bennett, writing in the Guardian, goes for the jugular: 'To ignore books is easy. So is burning them. You just need a match. But to make independent reading sound dull and great books look stupid, to transform literature into a vehicle for celebrities, polls, lists, voting opportunities and confected rivalries, to get books confidently debated by experts who have never read them, to set up a competition between Winnie the Pooh and War and Peace: that takes a kind of genius.'

But the fact is that the Big Read has given books new prominence and coverage in the media. A surge in their sales has taken several backlist titles into the bestseller lists. Libraries are reporting increased demand for books on the 21-strong shortlist. At a party to launch the Big Read I heard the BBC's Jane Root described how one woman bookshop customer staggered both her and the bookshop staff by setting out to buy all 100 books on the original list. People are using it as a reading list, a means of re-exploring the classics. This is an idea which really could be picked up and copied all over the world to stimulate discussion about books and make them controversial. However 'literary one' own tastes, whatever your personal view of the list, it's hard to see how anything which provokes so much interest in books can be bad.