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The Big Read finds the best-loved books

19 May 2003

The Big Read, a television spectacular designed to find Britain's favourite book, has just come up with its top 100 titles. This follows the format of the highly successful Great Britons, which eventually voted Winston Churchill the Greatest Briton, after many happy hours of argumentative TV-watching. The Big Read has already attracted four times the number that voted in the early stages of Great Britons. 140,000 voters had originally nominated 7,000 titles, which the voting has now whittled down to 100.

The Big Read has thrown up some strange bedfellows. James Joyce vies with Jeffrey Archer, Lord of the Flies with Lord of the Rings. Charles Dickens and Terry Pratchett had the most titles nominated, with five each. One-third of the titles were children's books, with 4 Harry Potters, 4 Roald Dahls and titles from Enid Blyton, Kenneth Grahame and Jacqueline Wilson.

It was an insular choice too, with 66 out of the 100 titles by British authors and over half of he books set in the UK. 20% were by American authors. 41% were published in the last 30 years. Literary figures have condemned the choice as mediocre. The novelist and Booker Prize winner A S Byatt said; 'Even the good books on the list are the sort that weedy nerds would like. I can't stand Jeffrey Archer or Enid Blyton. They both make me feel quite ill.'

In going for the books that they 'loved best', voters ignored Hemingway and H G Wells, but they also omitted the hugely popular Catherine Cookson. This was a truly popular choice, a real list of favourites. And no-one can deny that it has sparked off a huge amount of interest and argument about books. Jane Root, the Controller of BBC2, said that more than 14,000 messages were posted on the website by 'people engaged in heated, passionate and funny debates about why their book was the best choice.' The public will vote to find the top 20 and documentaries on each of them will run in the autumn. Whatever your views, how can books fail to benefit from this huge publicity bonanza?