Alternative big read

by Chris Bertram on November 26, 2003

The results of Norman Geras’s “Alternative Big Read poll”: are out, with _Pride and Prejudice_ in first place. The selection is pretty good except for the appearance of _Lord of the Rings_ in second place (ranked their top book by eight witless people).



Ophelia Benson 11.26.03 at 10:02 pm

Just exactly what I thought. A pretty good list, but what in hell is Tolkien doing at number two (anywhere on the list, but especially at number two).


Backword Dave 11.26.03 at 10:25 pm

Before the flame wars begin, let me say that I’m with you two. But I think that favourite for many people has to mean childhood/adolescence when everything was new (or you had no standards), and LotR is a book for teenagers.
Favourites are a mistake. Most people who read a site like this have read too many books which moved them and ranking them is silly. Arguing about them is something else.


Ophelia Benson 11.26.03 at 10:28 pm

Oh, sure, ranking them is silly, but it’s also good clean fun. And Mostly Harmless.


Swimmer 11.26.03 at 11:52 pm

OK, I love Tolkien, in the same way that I love pretty flowers and nicely colored blown glass. But to name LOR as one’s favorite book – it’s just..blech. It’s like saying that one’s favorite food is sugar lumps.


clive 11.27.03 at 12:28 am

I am outraged by the absence of Winnie the Pooh


Russell Arben Fox 11.27.03 at 1:08 am

I’m astonished that anyone who can write as intelligently about Rousseau as Chris can consider the appreciation of LOTR–with its invocation of natural belonging, constant laments about the alienating force of history, and fierce denunciations of power invested in artifactual things–to be “witless.” Some people just can’t see the forest for the trees, I guess.


W. Kiernan 11.27.03 at 2:49 am

Gee, didn’t anybody in the UK like Lolita? Didn’t even make the top 100! I can hardly believe it.


Curtis Crawford 11.27.03 at 5:25 am

Belongs at the top: The Brothers Karamazov.
Belongs in the top three: Tom Jones
Belong in the top ten: Along with Pride & Prejudice, Middlemarch & Anna Karenina, Bleak House, Madame Bovary & Red and Black.
Or were some of these not among the BBC 100?


eszter 11.27.03 at 6:32 am

I suspect the lists are influenced at least in part by what readings are required in various places and thus even get on the radar of people. I’m surprised that Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita didn’t make the BBC 100. And what about The Little Prince?


dsquared 11.27.03 at 7:52 am

I was sitting next to someone reading LOTR on a plane yesterday. The temptation to conversationally mention “Gollum dies” as I brushed past was overwhelming.


Chris Bertram 11.27.03 at 8:05 am

Since the choices had to be from the BBC list, most of the books Curtis lists weren’t available to vote for (including my personal favourite Scarlet & Black).


drapetomaniac 11.27.03 at 6:39 pm

OK, I love Tolkien, in the same way that I love pretty flowers and nicely colored blown glass.

You like Tolkein in the same way you like pretty flowers?

I can understand liking Baudelaire or Richard Wilbur or Victor Hugo or Colette or Henry James in the same way you like pretty flowers, tho I think both the ‘way’ and the flowers would be different in each case, but — you like *Tolkein* in the same way that you like pretty flowers? I can only look at my gerebera in bewilderment.


Ophelia Benson 11.27.03 at 6:55 pm

Yeah, I said the same thing to Norm, about The Red and the Black – an outrage that it’s not on the Beeb’s list at all, when it’s not a matter of English-language novels only, because there are plenty of other translated ones. It *is* an outrage! The Red and the Black is an absolutely extraordinary novel.


Jack 11.27.03 at 7:14 pm

My edition of Scarlet and Black (70s Penguin) has

“The story of Julien Sorel, whose tragic fate it is always to lose his head in a crisis.”

for a blurb.


Biff Boffo 11.27.03 at 8:23 pm

Interesting that nobody’s complaining about the unreadable crap that made #1. I’ll be the first to admit that The Lord of the Rings isn’t great literature in the sense of Crime and Punishment. . .but. . .Pride and Prejudice?! Jesus, The Very Hungry Caterpillar beats that overhyped, overlong,obscurist bit of soap-opera fluff. I mean really, it’s just a half-step up from reading Harlequin novels, folks.



Ophelia Benson 11.27.03 at 11:41 pm

Well, probably nobody’s complaining about P&P because it’s such a brilliant novel. I wouldn’t put it at number 1 but only because I would put Emma there. If only most 19th century English novelists had been able to write more like Austen – but then no one is able to write like Austen, as all the attempted sequels make plain – except possibly O’Brian, which nicely bears out the point people are making about genre. Only I don’t really think of O’Brian as genre – or maybe what I mean is just what I keep saying: if it’s good, if it’s well-written, who cares whether it’s genre or not. I don’t.

Anyway – overlong and obscurist are not the best adjectives for any Austen novel. Even for people who don’t like her – those seem like odd faults to mention. Odd as in not belonging to her.


Mikhel 11.28.03 at 4:53 am

I go for The Brother’s Karamazov all the way, for what it’s worth.

Anyway, the argument that Tolkien has no worth is rather unsupported: I can see not liking it, but claiming it is of less importance because of its relationship with childhood seems silly. I read Animal Farm before I read tLoTR, and I think that it is viewed as a more philosophical work merely because its dialectic or its argument is so much easier to see. One can find many interesting interpretations of Tolkien’s work, even while concuring that it is not the bulwark against which western literature is guared.

That being said, I cannot stand P&P.


Curtis Crawford 11.28.03 at 6:49 am

I notice that some comments, like Mikhel’s, have the titles properly and other words helpfully in italics. I can’t type or paste italics into the comment rectangle. Is there a magic button?

Do the translators who render Le Rouge et Le Noir as Scarlet and Black explain why they drop the definite articles, and substitute scarlet for red? French has a word for scarlet (ecarlate), available to but not employed by the author. If a translator can’t get the title right, why does the reader proceed? I realize that a different title may help to advertise a different translation. Is there an English meaning of scarlet that conveys what Stendhal meant by rouge better than red does?


Dave F 11.28.03 at 8:15 am

As one of the voters, I too was chagrined to see LoTR getting the dutiful nod. Surely in voting one should consider whether a book has in some way enlarged one’s own worldview. The Beeb list was bad enough: where was Pynchon? Etc. And I strongly suspect Pride and Prejudice voters were influenced by the Colin Firth factor.

Catch-22 finished third, and was one of my top three for the reason stated above. 1984, perhaps the most prophetic vision of our panopticon 21st century, is my top choice, given the limitations of the Beeb list.


Chris Bertram 11.28.03 at 9:59 am


You can get italics by using standard html tags in your comments.

As to your question about translation, it raises all sorts of interesting issues about what the task of a translator is, the permissibility of trading accuracy for euphony and so on. But since the title refers to the the choice between the army and the church and to the colours of their respective uniforms, scarlet looks like a fair English rendering.


A Canadian 11.28.03 at 1:06 pm

And I strongly suspect Pride and Prejudice voters were influenced by the Colin Firth factor.

Pride and Prejudice has consistently been a general favourite. With every generation it earns new fans. Every adaptation made has been widly popular. If they had best selling lists for older books, Pride and Prejudice would be on it nearly every year since it was published.

Right now, I’d say my favourite novel is Northanger Abbey. There is a difference between “favourite” and “best”. I acknowledge it isn’t as good a novel as Emma.

I can believe LOTR is many people’s favourite book, flaws and all. I dearly hope that those who voted for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire were children when they read it. I think having that as your favourite book is somewhat odd if you read it as an adult. It’s an enjoyable enough read, I suppose, but not exactly charming enough for such devotion.

Oh well…. There’s no accounting for trends. It’s nice to know we are good little corporate sheep, with the media as our dutiful, divinely appointed shepherd


Doug 11.28.03 at 5:33 pm

Right on, eh? “Favorite” (or indeed “favourite”) appears to mean many different things to the people who responded to the poll. It looks to me like there’s as much argument here about what favorite means, or ought to mean, as there is about the titles on the list.

As for the red or the scarlet, I like the sound of The Red and the Black better; good crunchy Anglo-Saxon words and a strong rhythm. Scarlet also summons to mind either letters or O’Haras or, at a stretch, Pimpernels. Given the time period that the books seems to be about, red could also summon connotations of Redcoats, giving us the soldiers. But when I do translations, I always have to keep the audience in mind the differences between British and American cultures that are a minefield of potential mistakes. Maybe scarlet has different associations for UK readers and thus works better. Apart from the inconvenience, I wouldn’t have a problem with translating something differently for UK or US audiences (simplifying madly and ignoring IRL, CA, AUS, NZ, etc) if you need different phrases to hit the right cultural note.


Andrea Harris 11.29.03 at 1:40 pm

You know, dsquared, if it had been me to whom your cute little “spoiler” would have been addressed, I would merely have said “I know, I’ve read the book several times already.” Then I would have punched you right in the groin, ‘cos I’m one of those unreasonable Tolkien fans.

PS: I’ve read Jane Austen too! I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey all the way through without once getting up and going to the dictionary! Do I get to be in the Cool Kids club now, huh, do I? do I?


Ian 11.29.03 at 5:04 pm

The problem with LoTR is surely the hundreds of appalling derivatives of it, which have to a degree devalued the currency.

I wouldn’t put it in my top 10 but it probably deserves a place in the top 100. It is a good story, generally well told. Even so, Philip Pullman’s trilogy is an order of magnitude better in terms of both story and writing. It deserves to be near the top of any list, childrens book or not.


Brad DeLong 11.29.03 at 8:45 pm

>>It’s like saying that one’s favorite food is sugar lumps.<< There speaks somebody who has never had maple sugar candy...


Avedon 11.30.03 at 11:29 am

I’m with Brad – I love maple sugar candy.

I’ve never read LOTR, but I’ve been enjoying the movies and frankly I don’t see what you all are being so prickly about – it looks like a good story, and no thanks for the spoiler, btw.

I thought 1984 was an important book but I don’t think I’d list it as a favorite, even though I value it highly. Emotionally, it’s a horror novel, and I’m no longer young enough to enjoy horror. I’d certainly much rather re-read a number of other books, such as A Deepness in the Sky. But then, my favorite book is very often whatever I am reading at the time. Right now I’m reading Pratchett’s Night Watch and loving it – there’s a lot more in Pratchett than many people seem to realize. And it’s fun.

Oh, and click here for a good HTML cheat sheet.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 12.01.03 at 3:47 am

I like The Lord of the Rings. It’s probably one of the five or ten books that’s most significantly affected my life.

So it’s interesting to hear from Chris Bertram that I’m “witless.” Then again, I’ve also been a copyeditor, so I guess this comes as no surprise to Chris.


jack 12.02.03 at 7:46 pm

Literary snobbishness is such an infuriating malady. The desire to denigrate the works of others as somehow not meeting the standards of a select group of recognised authors whose work is not considered ‘literature’–though their works faced the same wall of literary snobbishness when they first appeared.

You’d think by now they would have learned.


Dr Zen 01.05.04 at 1:36 pm

Patrick Nielsen Hayden says: “I like The Lord of the Rings. It’s probably one of the five or ten books that’s most significantly affected my life.”

How? You realised it was okay to love your inner elf? You realised you were wasting your time pursuing a career in the law and should take up your sword for Gonzo or whatever?

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