Bored with the Rings? Try Proust, Rilke or Delia

24th January 1997 at 00:00
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, beloved of Waterstone's clientele, would not be chief inspector Chris Woodhead's first choice for the book of the century. Nor would it be the hot favourite of Dr Nicholas Tate, chief executive of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

The TES this week asked teachers and educationists to name their favourite books of the 20th century and give their reaction to a list of the 100 most popular books of the century compiled by the booksellers Waterstone's from the nominations of 25,000 customers.

The list, described by one pundit as a "satchel-and-rucksack" list, certainly showed the formative influence of school set texts on a nation's reading habits. George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm both came into the top five, The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger came sixth.

Joanna Porter, an English teacher at King Edward VI Handsworth school in Birmingham, felt that the list said more about the stage that people began reading than the quality of the books. As Bethan Marshall, a lecturer in English in Education at King's College, London, said, "The Catcher in the Rye may be the first book that people have read and thought 'Yes! I am that angst-ridden adolescent! It speaks to me!'."

Our nominees found selecting their own top five books of the century an ideological minefield, and struggled with different interpretations. Was it the books that had made the most social or the most personal impact? Those that have influenced the course of literary history or world history? John Marenbon, a fellow of Trinity College and chairman of the English committee of on the now defunct School Examinations and Assessment Council, chose Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. "I wouldn't recommend it to anyone but historians of mathematics. What Russell was doing was one of the most important developments in the intellectual life of the 20th century, but if anyone wanted to understand it they would do much better to get a modern textbook."

John Mole, head of English at St Albans School and the current TES Young Poet of the Week judge, listed the poems of Elizabeth Bishop and W H Auden for their personal significance but not for the classroom. "I would say to any bright student 'For God's sake read them', on the basis of individual books for individual people. The monolithic classroom text is often a short cut to putting people off. It is a matter of the right books at the right time. "

Choices for teaching stayed conservative, many of them on the list already.

The erstwhile progressive English teacher turned traditionalist Chris Woodhead, found the list "very predictable". His two books of the century, A Dance to the Music of Time (all 12 volumes of it) by Anthony Powell and Wolf Solent by the esoteric Thirties novelist John Cowper Powys, are less so. Unlikely ever to form part of an A-level syllabus, Wolf Solent is a modernist epic with folkloric elements, of more selective appeal than even The Lord of the Rings.

A surprising selection from Dr Nicholas Tate of SCAA, who recently emphasised the importance of "key texts from the English literary heritage" in schools, included Proust, which he read in his early twenties, Jorge Luis Borges and Nabokov (author of that classic story about sex with a minor, Lolita). "There is an excitement about these foreign writers; they are more interesting perhaps due to their disturbed histories."

He admitted that the national curriculum little reflected his preference for texts in translation, which are more prevalent in Spanish and French education. "It is one aspect of the national curriculum that, as we move into the next stage, we will be looking at again."

The Waterstone's list begs comparison with Harold Bloom's controversial list of literary heavyweights published in 1994. Like many, Chris Woodhead was sceptical about the number of people who had actually read Ulysses (at number four, above Catch 22). He felt its selection "must predict cultural aspirations rather than reality".

Peter Traves, headmaster of Wakeman School in Shrewsbury, nominated both Proust and Ulysses as his core texts. "I am a big Proust fan, I have read it right the way through twice. Ulysses, I have read three or four times, I read it last two years ago." TS Eliot's The Waste Land just missed inclusion in the Waterstone's list, which contained no poetry at all, at number 101.

Only 13 of the books on the Waterstone's list are by women - including Delia Smith's Complete Cookery Course which came in at 83. As a redress, Angel Scott of the National Association for the Teaching of English chose a top 10 of women writers.

"The explosion of women's writing changed my life," she said. "It opened up a whole new world for women readers and for others too. It changed what was acceptable for people to read."

books of the Century:

The top fives


1 The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien 2 1984 by George Orwell 3 Animal Farm by George Orwell 4 Ulysses by James Joyce 6 Catch 22 by Joseph Heller Dr Nicholas Tate

School Curriculum and Assessment Authority 1 Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust 2 Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov 3 The Four Quartets by T S Eliot 4 Collected Poems of Jorge Luis Borges 5 Collected Poems of John Betjeman John Marenbon

Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge 1 Principia Mathematica by Russell and Whitehead 2 Philosophical Investigations by Kurt Wittgenstein 3 A la Recherche du Temps Perduby Marcel Proust 4 The Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke 5 The Four Quartets by T S Eliot Angel Scott

National Association for the Teaching of English 1 Beloved by Toni Morrison 2 The Bone People by Keri Hulme 3 Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy 4 The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood 5 The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

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