Titles to add to your guilt bookcase;Books

5th February 1999 at 00:00
THE TEST OF TIME: what makes a classic a classic?. Waterstone's. pound;1.99. It's easy to spend more time reading other people's lists of must-reads than reading the real thing. The growth of soundbites, questionnaires and book surveys as substitutes for book reviewing can only encourage this tendency.

This book, with its 47 views on why any book needs to be called a classic, plus accompanying "in" and "out" lists (several contributors dissociate themselves from the debate but can't resist a quick list), will help to kick-start "books of the yearcenturymillennium" discussions in school book weeks and the staffroom. The range of views is far wider than you'll hear in the debates on the C-word that appear on the programmes of literary festivals or on the radio whenever a public figure has issued a directive full of "oughts" and "shoulds".

Soundbites are unavoidable in such an exercise and my favourites are Cosmo Landesman's definitions of a classic: "a timeless read that I never have time to read"; "the ones sitting on my shelf that tell other people I'm a well-read chap"; "the ones sitting on my shelf that tell other people I'm a fraud for never having read them". For every smug creature ticking off the entries in the exhaustion-inducing "list of lists", there will be a dozen frauds with a car-boot-sale's-worth of great works collecting dust.

Still, even the frauds might enjoy the insights into their favourite writers as readers. I was intrigued to discover that A L Kennedy's Top 10 includes Moby Dick, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and decided that Julie Burchill must be all right if she likes Lorrie Moore's Anagrams.

The Test of Time is also worth buying for Shirley Hughes's inspirational account of a reading life which pushes illustrations and "the pictures in the head, as well as on the page" into the list of lists, for the unruly Top 100 of Philip Ridley (who couldn't stop at 10) and for Sarah Dunant's guilt-dissipating entry on that list-maker's favourite, Ulysses ("I can't get through it. Sorry").

This book kept me from starting Our Mutual Friend, which is third from the left on the second shelf of my guilt bookcase, for another two hours. Never mind, I've seen it on the telly.

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