And the loser is...literature

25th July 2003 at 01:00
The nation's favourite book? A ridiculous idea that makes a mockery of diversity, argues John Simms

What are you moaning about?" asked my wife, while we watched the BBC's campaign to find the nation's favourite book. It's a simple enough idea.

Get two engaging, animated bookworms to try to persuade the viewing public to vote for their favourite book.

Nationwide competition. Promoting reading. Promoting books. Where's the harm? It's similar to what I've been doing in English lessons for years: generating interest in books and reading.

I suppose each school operates its own variation. In my school, we have the "Write your favourite book title on a leaf-shaped cut-out, then stick it on the tree branches painted on the wall" version; and the "Make a whole-wall display board look like bookshelves, write your favourite book title on the book-spine-shaped piece of card, then shelve it" version.

Either way, you can get parents, staff, children, younger brothers and sisters, governors, cleaners and caretakers to take part. Bang the drum for reading. It generates interest. It makes children aware of books, and it sometimes gets them to look at books they would not otherwise bother with.

So, why am I less than enthusiastic about the Beeb's version? A little voice inside me is uncomfortable with the notion that there is such a thing as the nation's favourite book. It strikes me as doing the opposite of what is intended. There can't be a favourite book; there must be thousands, possibly millions, of favourite books.

And what does "favourite" mean? The book I re-read when I want cheering up? The book that amuses meimpresses memakes me think? Do all kinds of books qualify? Fiction only? Picture books? Non-fiction?

I met a man recently who told me his favourite book, the one he most often read in bed, was filled with the technical specifications of classic cars.

We need to show children that reading is about difference and diversity.

The Beeb's well-intentioned campaign implies that books are somehow in competition with each other, and that there can only be one winner.

It's really only another version of the current mania for celebrity. Making something the "winner" of a contest, however ludicrous, gives it a false importance, and makes it more difficult to see things as they are. Then there's the problem of what to do when we know which is the nation's favourite book. The quickest way to kill any chance of getting people to read a book is to tell them it's part of the literary culture. And if it is the nation's favourite, most will have read it anyway.

I can see areas set aside in bookshops where these celebrity books will be displayed. Spotlight, of course. Red and gold velvet backdrop. Perhaps a short section of rope or chain to keep reverent viewers at a respectful distance.

Then there is the question of who should be eligible to vote. One school of thought says anyone who takes the poll seriously enough to vote should have that vote automatically disqualified.

Are authors allowed to vote for their own books? What about coteries of fanatics who devote their time to promoting particular writers? What if they set up round-the-clock voting committees to rig the result? What if they vote early, and often?

The whole idea seems fraught with insurmountable problems. Perhaps we should just let readers carry on in their usual way, and recognise that there are as many favourites as there are readers.

And in case we are ever in danger of taking it all too seriously, I remember a remark made by a well-known bibliophile when asked by a bookseller what he was looking for. He replied: "If I knew, I wouldn't be wasting my time in bookshops."

John Simms lives in Wolverhampton

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