I’m trundling through Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow at a very slow pace. It’s not the fault of the book (although my feelings about it are pretty mixed so far). It’s just that it’s full of references to so many things I don’t understand and I keep pausing to look them up on Wikipedia: cryolite, the Inuit, parasitic worms, the social and economic history of Greenland…. and so on. It’s taking a while.
I’m nearly finished but since I don’t have a review to publish just yet I thought instead I’d post a few thoughts on the BBC Big Read, since my friend B and I were discussing it in the pub last Saturday night. B and I have been friends for years but back in April 2003, when the Beeb announced the results of their poll into the nation’s favourite novels, we were at universities on other sides of the country. We didn’t see each other often but we got great enjoyment from working our way through as many of the top 100 books on the list as we could and comparing notes whenever we saw each other.
Back then, when the list was published, I’d already read 32 of the books in the top 100. Last time I counted I’d read 73. B, of course, finished her 100th book ages ago.
Last weekend, over a bottle of wine, we got to reminiscing. We compared notes on our favourite novels from the list, those which were better/worse than we expected, those we would cross from the list altogether… It got a bit silly, this conversation, because we fundamentally disagree on several of the entries, but here are my answers to some of our questions:
The first new book I crossed from the list: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, borrowed from my university library shortly after the results of the poll were released. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, it was a perfect book to start with: full of suspense and just the sort of thing to spur you on.
Most surprising: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres (completed in 2004). I blame my dread of this book entirely on Nicholas Cage… but you know what? It’s actually a great book and doesn’t deserve the crappy film it spawned. I feel a bit resentful on de Bernieres behalf.
Most disappointing: The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho (completed in 2004). I’d looked forward to reading this and my initial impressions were good… but wore off quickly. I read it twice to make sure I didn’t like it and concluded that I’m turned off by books that are supposed to be profound.
Most infuriating: The Magus by John Fowles (attempted in 2007). I got nearly two thirds of the way through before the rage kicked in. I don’t like to give up on books but I was really struggling with this and never really felt like I understood what was going on. It made me feel like I must just be very stupid.
Most daunting: Ulysses, which I’ve still not read. Also Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (completed 2005). This was a whopper, by far the longest on the list. I took it on holiday so I could read without distractions (ha!) and fell in love with it. Of all the books that I was introduced to by the Big Read it’s the one I remember most fondly.
The last books I crossed from the list: I’ve crossed two new books off the list this year. They are Persuasion by Jane Austen and Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Both were worth waiting for.
Books I’m still looking forward to reading: War & Peace, Perfume, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists…. there are quite a few. I’ve not yet tackled any of the Terry Pratchett books on the list and I intend to read at least one of them (I’m not going to commit myself to reading all five – what if I hate them all?).
I’m not sure that I’ll finish all the remaining books in the top 100 and I’m fine with that. In fairness, I think I’ve grown out of reading from ‘best’ book lists and I’m not sure that I like the idea of this one as much as I did twelve years ago. But the Big Read introduced me to many books I would never have touched otherwise and I’m grateful for that.
I still have a copy of the list in my purse although it’s now been upgraded to include the full 200. I don’t use it much but it comes in handy sometimes when I’m stuck for a book and need inspiration!