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The Hundred-Book Challenge

What does your reading say about you?

When students tell me they want to be writers, I ask them three questions. The first is: “Why?” The answers are usually vague. Seldom, indeed never in my experience, does anyone talk about being rich and famous. The commonest response is: “I just enjoy writing.”

This is better, but not as promising as it sounds. Plenty of people enjoy writing without being good at it, and professional writing, with its endless drafts and revisions, involves difficult and often frustrating work that the most hardened professional won’t, in any immediate sense, enjoy. No worthwile occupation is enjoyable all the time. Being a writer is an activity as serious as being a doctor, a lawyer, a farmer, or a physicist. If you think that’s a pretentious thing to say, fine. But you’ll never be a good writer unless you’re sustained by a deep and abiding sense of mission.

The second question is: “How often do you write?” If the answer is “Every day,” and it’s the truth, that may be promising. Of course, prolific writers can be bad writers: some would-be writers fling down words willy-nilly, without a thought for how to use them best. But productivity, at least in the beginning, is a virtue of sorts, and if such writers keep working – and educating themselves – they have the chance to improve.

The third question is the killer: “What do you read?” Sometimes this gets an embarrassed silence; sometimes, recollections of childhood favourites; sometimes, dutifully, a list of high-school set texts. Worst of all is the student who, with sublime confidence, reels out a list of reach-me-down bestsellers. What to say? I know what I’d like to say: “I’m not impressed that you’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m even less impressed that you liked it.” The notion that reading – reading anything at all – is an inherently virtuous activity is one of the many absurdities with which modern culture presents us. Nobody deserves praise for reading trash.

I’m not suggesting you must be well read in the classics, let alone in that often dreary contemporary category known as “literary fiction,” to be a promising writer. That could be the last thing you need, if all it does is make you academic. What you do need are writers that fill you with excitement, preferably writers you’ve discovered for yourself, writers who feel like yours – not your teacher’s, and not everyone else’s. Reading tells us a lot. You won’t, as every writer-on-writing from Stephen King to Samuel R. Delany to Francine Prose points out, become a writer if you don’t read. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter, “A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year.”

I used to have an exercise I made students do: list your top ten books (and be honest). Lately I’m thinking that ten isn’t enough. If you’re twenty years old, you’ve already been reading independently, or should have been, for well over a decade. A ten-book list lets you fill it up with obvious stuff: Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights ­– great books to have read, but they don’t tell us much about your individual tastes. We need more than ten. Twenty? (More!) Fifty? (More!) I think we need a hundred. A hundred-book list tells us something. Or, more to the point, it tells you something. If you can’t, without faking, list a hundred books that you don’t just like but love, it means you haven’t read enough. You’re not ready to be a writer.

But let’s say you get a hundred. You’ll have created a portrait of your mind and heart. A hundred shows what sort of person you are. And, if you have talent, it might just show you what direction to take it in. What kind of books, most frequently, come up on your list? A hundred books takes you well beyond “set texts.” Of course it might just show how ignorant you are, how defective your taste. If all you read is trash, you have a decision to make. Are you going to stay with trash, or rise above it? (Trash will entertain you in the moment. It will not educate your spirit. It will not grow in your heart. And it certainly won’t help you become a better writer.)

Ideally, the hundred-book list will show you not only where you’ve been, but where you must go. Look at your list and ask yourself: What does this tell me? Does a certain type of book, a certain genre, predominate over others? What issues, what themes most stir my intellect? What settings, what atmospheres compel my imagination?

I have one rule. You must list only one book by each author. You can’t have all seven Harry Potter books – or, for that matter, all thirty-seven Shakespeare plays. Choose one, the one you love above the rest. Other than that, there are several possible variations. If you already know what kind of thing you want to write (fiction, drama, poetry, children’s books, non-fiction), list works in that form. If not, list works regardless of form and see which form predominates. What do you like to read? Be honest. If you don’t want to show the list to anyone else, don’t. The list could, and I think should, be based on a lifetime’s reading. But if you’re an adult, I’d recommend you list children’s books only if they remain books you’d still want to read. When I was eight years old, I loved Enid Blyton. I couldn’t read her now.

Here, as an example, are my own hundred books. It’s a list of novels. Plenty of poets, dramatists, and essayists mean a lot to me, but it’s fiction that remains at the core of my reading, and fiction I most want to write. I don’t claim that all these books are equal in quality. Many classics haven’t made the cut. Many, too, are the recent books I’ve read and liked but, in the end, haven’t liked enough to list. There is a bias, no doubt, towards books read in youth: only a few books thrill me now in the way that many books thrilled me before the age of, say, thirty.

Let me be clear: this is not a “Top Hundred.” The books aren’t ranked by preference; the order is alphabetical, by author’s surname. It’s not a list of the “best” books ever written. Nor is it a basis for argument. I’m not asking you to agree with my choices. I’m suggesting you make your own. It’s an eclectic list. There are masterpieces and there are popular novels. Perhaps it’s perverse to include Agatha Christie and Dostoyevsky on the same list. But Christie is one of the authors who formed my imagination. I love her.

The list doesn’t represent my all-time, set-in-stone favourites. These aren’t the only novels I’ve loved: they’re the ones I could think of when I made the list. That’s the point of a hundred-book list. It need not be definitive and it need not be exhaustive. Because it’s a hundred, not ten or twenty, it’s big enough to create a real and even searching portrait of the compiler’s taste. No doubt mine would be different if I’d done it five years ago; it would be different if I did it again in five years’ time. But not completely different. What does it say about me? Everything, I suspect. Morrissey puts it best: “There’s more to life than books, you know. But not much more.”



January 2014

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  2. Amis, Kingsley. LUCKY JIM. (1954.)
  3. Austen, Jane. MANSFIELD PARK. (1814.)
  4. Balchin, Nigel. A WAY THROUGH THE WOOD. (1951.)
  5. Balzac, Honoré de. LOST ILLUSIONS. (1837-43.)
  6. Blakemore, Michael. NEXT SEASON. (1968.)
  7. Bowles, Paul. THE SHELTERING SKY. (1949.)
  8. Brontë, Charlotte. JANE EYRE. (1847.)
  9. Brontë, Emily. WUTHERING HEIGHTS. (1848.)
  10. Buchan, John. THE THIRTY-NINE STEPS. (1915.)
  11. Cameron, Peter. ANDORRA. (1997.)
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  14. Christopher, John. THE DEATH OF GRASS. (1956.)
  15. Clarke, Arthur C. THE CITY AND THE STARS. (1956.)
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  18. Conrad, Joseph. THE SHADOW-LINE. (1917.)
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  28. Flaubert, Gustave. MADAME BOVARY. (1857.)
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  37. Hartley, L. P. THE GO-BETWEEN. (1951.)
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  41. Holleran, Andrew. THE BEAUTY OF MEN. (1996.)
  42. Howard, Elizabeth Jane. THE LIGHT YEARS. (1990.)
  43. Hughes, Richard. A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA. (1929.)
  44. Irving, John. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. (1978.)
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  47. Jefferies, Richard. AFTER LONDON. (1885.)
  48. Johnson, Samuel. THE HISTORY OF RASSELAS. (1759.)
  49. Joyce, James. ULYSSES. (1922.)
  50. Kafka, Franz. THE METAMORPHOSIS. (1915.)
  51. Kipling, Rudyard. KIM. (1900.)
  52. Larkin, Philip. JILL. (1945.)
  53. Lawrence, D. H. WOMEN IN LOVE. (1920.)
  54. Lee, Harper. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. (1961.)
  55. Lewis, Matthew. THE MONK. (1796.)
  56. Lewis, Sinclair. MAIN STREET. (1920.)
  57. Malouf, David. THE GREAT WORLD. (1990.)
  58. Mann, Thomas. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. (1924.)
  59. Maugham, W. Somerset. THE MOON AND SIXPENCE. (1919.)
  60. Maxwell, William. THE FOLDED LEAF. (1945.)
  61. Melville, Herman. BILLY BUDD, SAILOR. (1891.)
  62. Murdoch, Iris. THE BELL. (1958.)
  63. Mykle, Agnar. LASSO ROUND THE MOON. (1954.)
  64. Nabokov, Vladimir. PALE FIRE. (1962.)
  65. O’Connor, Flannery. THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY. (1960.)
  66. Orwell, George. NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. (1949.)
  67. Peacock, Thomas Love. NIGHTMARE ABBEY. (1818.)
  68. Phillips, John. THE SECOND HAPPIEST DAY. (1953.)
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  70. Priestley, J. B. BRIGHT DAY. (1946.)
  71. Renault, Mary. THE LAST OF THE WINE. (1956.)
  72. Richardson, Samuel. CLARISSA. (1747-8.)
  73. Ryman, Geoff. “WAS …” (1992.)
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  75. Shute, Nevil. ON THE BEACH. (1957.)
  76. Spark, Muriel. A FAR CRY FROM KENSINGTON. (1988.)
  77. Spencer, Scott. ENDLESS LOVE. (1979.)
  78. Stead, Christina. THE MAN WHO LOVED CHILDREN. (1940.)
  79. Sterne, Laurence. TRISTRAM SHANDY. (1760-7.)
  80. Stevenson, Robert Louis. TREASURE ISLAND. (1883.)
  81. Stewart, George R. EARTH ABIDES. (1949.)
  82. Stow, Randolph. THE MERRY-GO-ROUND IN THE SEA. (1965.)
  83. Swift, Jonathan. GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. (1726.)
  84. Tarkington, Booth. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. (1918.)
  85. Tartt, Donna. THE SECRET HISTORY. (1992.)
  86. Tevis, Walter. THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. (1963.)
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  88. Tolstoy, Leo. WAR AND PEACE. (1869.)
  89. Vidal, Gore. KALKI. (1978.)
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  92. Warner, Rex. THE AERODROME. (1941.)
  93. Waterhouse, Keith. BILLY LIAR. (1959.)
  94. Waugh, Alec. ISLAND IN THE SUN. (1955.)
  95. Welch, Denton. IN YOUTH IS PLEASURE. (1945.)
  96. Wells, H. G. THE TIME MACHINE. (1895.)
  97. White, Patrick. THE TWYBORN AFFAIR. (1979.)
  98. Wilde, Oscar. THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. (1891.)
  99. Wilder, Thornton. THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY. (1927.)
  100. Wyndham, John. THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS. (1951.)