With the BBC having recently unveiled its list of 100 Novels That Shaped Our World picked by a panel of experts, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow and 2017 New Generation Thinker, Dr Emma Butcher, discusses the challenges of producing such a list and why she believes this selection has given us something new to think about, while also celebrating a diverse range of writers.
When I walk into a classroom at the start of term time, I often ask my new batch of students an icebreaker question: ‘what is your favourite book?’. A look of horror descends as each mind whirs around in a desperate attempt to pick out that one life-changing novel that’s had the biggest impact on them.
Often, the answer is…‘but there’s too many to choose from’. This dilemma doesn’t seem to have deterred the BBC from asking that difficult question as they launch their year-long celebration of novels that have shaped our world. A panel of six experts, all writers, curators and critics, have racked their brains to produce a list of the most impactful genre-busting novels that have had the biggest effect on their lives.
This isn’t the first time. In 2003, the BBC took on a similar challenge, launching the Big Read in a bid to find the nation’s best-loved novel. Three quarters of a million votes secured a long-list of 100 books, with The Lord of the Rings securing the top spot. Flicking through, the list is full of familiar names: Jane Austen, the Brontës, JK Rowling, George Orwell, Charles Dickens. Undoubtedly these books are classics, but the list is painfully Western. Despite a fairly balanced gender divide and welcome inclusion of children’s classics, like Winnie the Pooh and Goodnight Mr Tom – it’s clear that the books we hold dear have become a symbol of nostalgia, the legacies of bedtime storytelling and classroom introductions.
Some 16 years later, this new list has smashed through these barriers and given us something new to think about. True, this is not the word of the mass public and only the choices of a few, but it’s thoughtfully constructed to celebrate a wide range of global literature, offering everything from beloved classics, resurfacing old favourites such as Tolkien, Austen and Orwell, and peppering these with modern triumphs such as Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games. Important marginalised texts are revived: such as the gender-fluid Orlando by Virginia Woolf and the feminist marvel of Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
There is no discrimination of texts, with Stephanie Meyer’s teen vampire series Twilight and Jilly Cooper’s romance classic, Riders, front and centre. Important international authors such as Yaa Gyasi, Chinua Achebe, V. S. Naipaul, Khaled Hosseini, Salman Rushdie and more enlighten us of treasured relics held by societies, cultures and our desire to learn about other countries, migration and belonging. It is a list that gives and gives, crafted with care and driven by a pure desire to communicate why the term ‘classic’ does not merely rest in our traditional canon.
This is a labour of love, and one that will hopefully encourage people who feel overfaced by the sheer volume of literature out there to explore styles, themes and subjects they like. We all have our own perfect book list, I know mine ranges from the stories of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, which was read to me every night as the wind howled at my bedroom window, to Nella Larsen’s Passing, which moved me so much during a second-year university class that I cried silently in the snow on the way home.
We all have our memories attached to books, and all of us will feel the exclusions that glare from our own personal readings of this list. But it offers so much more than it takes away, encouraging us to break through the safehouses of tradition and to celebrate the diversity and talent of writers all over the world.