Great books I've still to read

7th July 2000 at 01:00
TEN modern classics for a tenner. Sounds like a good deal, doesn't it? I thought so, and bought a box of Penguins from those people who periodically slip unseen into staffrooms and leave books for teachers to buy.

Modern classic number one, A Clockwork Orange, gripped me. Number two, On the Road, I found sort of entertaining. Number three, The Heart of the Matter, had me on the point of praying for the soul of a fictional character.

Number four, which is as far as I've reached, has put me in my place. Until I began Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude, I was on the point of announcing the final proof of my long-held theory on why some English teachers hate physicists, which runs: while few English teachers can get a handle on the world of physics, most physicists at least dabble in the realms of literature. (Yes, I know you all know a physics teacher who never reads anything other than Practical Fishkeeping. I know him, too.)

The standard English teacher defence is to pretend that physics doesn't matter when it comes to "human" issues. Like people who boast they are unable to assemble MFI furniture, they expect their lack of knowledge or skill to be seen as indicative of a higher level of thought in anoter field.

But I am wrong. I am not the polymath I thought I was. While there are bits of One Hundred Years of Solitude that I found to be amusing or interestingly allegorical, my strongest reaction was, time to put it down for a while and get steamed into another Inspector Rebus novel.

Everyone in One Hundred Years of Solitude had pretty much the same name and none of them spoke more than about three sentences of dialogue throughout 400 pages. Some of them did strange things like piddling daily against chestnut trees or not staying dead. Others had strange-thingyness thrust upon them. Only in the last 20 pages did I find myself sort-of caring what happened to anyone.

So what have I missed? It wasn't a bad book but I cannot suss why learned critics have hailed it as one of the major works of the last century. "Magical realism," said the colleague and friend who also taught me to say "postmodernist irony", though that's another story. I'll give you a magically realistic scenario: part of my intellect went missing during One Hundred Years of Solitude but fortunately returned in time to let me appreciate The Fanatic by James Robertson.

Gregor Steele can be freed from solitude on

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