Of the Top 21 books in the BBC’s Big Read I had only read 11 at the time. I read a lot, but to that date hadn’t read many classics; so I decided to read the other 10. Here’s what I thought of them.
I thought Pride and Prejudice was excellent: crisp, efficient writing, sparkling humour, good observational descriptions of life and mores of the period; and a surprisingly good read. Jane Eyre wasn’t as good as P&P, but a deserving classic nonetheless. I’d already seen a number of film and TV adaptations of Rebecca, so I was very familiar with the story. It was enjoyable enough, and clearly a classic, but it just didn’t fire me up; apparently it particularly appeals to teenage girls. I’d previously dismissed Little Women as a girl’s book; it was an easy read, and I got into it more than expected. It read like it was aimed at a younger audience than the other books above. These four are all deserving to be in a “best novels” list, I think.
One of the classifications I’d use for books on this kind of list is whether it ever feels like hard work reading them. Catch-22 was the first one that felt a bit like work. I just don’t get why people rate it so highly. It was ok, but I wouldn’t put it in my top 21. Gone with the Wind was never hard work, but read more like a holiday read, or romantic / historical pulp fiction. Most of the books I’ve kept, but once I’d finished with Gone with the Wind it went straight to a charity shop.
Birdsong was one of the books I enjoyed the most: well written and a gripping story. I haven’t really read much about the first World War, just picked stuff up from TV and films. The descriptions of trench warfare, tunnelling, and bodies trampled into muddy battlefields were eye opening – making me think beyond my cliched sound-bite view of WWI. I know some people think the love interest detracts from the book, but I think it’s better for having the human interest interwoven.
I hadn’t read any Dickens prior to this list, and had a expectation of dry prose that would probably make my “hard work” list. Great Expectations was none of those things. A good story, very well written; most of these books are well written, but Dickens reads like he really crafted his sentences. One thing with all Dickens that I’ve read so far: most of the characters feel like caricatures. Maybe that’s a result of the initial serialisation in periodicals?
I was up to date on my Harry Potter, but hadn’t read any of the His Dark Materials trilogy; the two series seemed in some sense to be competing at the time. I was sucked into the world of HDM, and thought the writing was better than Harry Potter; it feels more literary, and better suited to an older age range. I got bogged down for a patch in the third book (The Amber Spyglass). Overall I thought this was good, but I wouldn’t score it as highly (it came 3rd in the Big Read).
I bought all of the books I had to read well ahead of reading them, and had them all sitting on the shelf. War and Peace was intimidating, partly just down to the size of it (approx 1500 pages), but also because of the comments I’d get from people when I told them W&P was in my reading queue. So this ended up being the last book I read from the Top 21. I really enjoyed it, and it never felt hard work, apart from perhaps when trying to keep track of the who’s who. It felt deserving of the epic epithet, and a true literary classic. I could imagine Tolstoy really working hard on this book.
Here’s a quick classification of the ones I read in this batch:
|Better than expected||Good||Didn’t Care For|
|War and Peace||Jane Eyre||Catch-22|
|Pride and Prejudice||His Dark Materials||Gone with the Wind|
|Great Expectations||Little Women|
Many of the books I had already ticked off were read when I was a teenager or younger. At some point I’ll go back and re-read them.