Wednesday 13 December 2017

Books: A compass to help readers navigate an ocean of print

Tess of the d'Urbervilles
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
How to be well read
Great Expectations
Harry Potter

Robert McCrum

How to Be Well Read: A Guide to 500 Great Novels and a Handful of Literary Curiosities, John Sutherland, Random House €28.99

THESE are trying times for readers. Thanks to the IT revolution, the biggest "paradigm shift" in 500 years, literary choices and opportunity are booming on a global scale.

Dazzled by an extraordinary menu of literary delights – in translation, in genre, and even in new formats – you might expect to find the hungry book lover behaving like a child in a sweet shop. Actually, many readers seem to find themselves in the middle of a collective nervous breakdown.

They won't get much help from the experts. The response to this print bonanza has been to take refuge in "theory", a crabbed reaction that diminishes, rather than enhances, the private pleasure of reading. The upshot is confusion about hallowed cultural values.

Today, people are asking themselves: What's good? What's permanent? What does "classic" mean? Is there a canon? Who's up? Who's down? And who's out?

Rarely has there been such uncertainty about criteria.

Everyone's at sea. As cultural values shift, readers crave fixed points by which to navigate. Enter the ubiquitous list and Professor Sutherland, who nails his colours to the mast, in his preface, with "in my opinion, literature is a library, not a curriculum or a canon".

Sutherland, who has taught English literature for about 50 years, is here to celebrate the much-disdained figure of "the common reader" in an attempt "to think big", and in the ocean of print to provide a compass.

This is welcome. If he's right to estimate that fiction in the vaults of the British Library runs to some two million titles, this kind of broad winnowing is a public service.

Thinking big also translates into "anything goes". There's no attempt here to discriminate between the novel-in-English and the novel-in-translation. Tolstoy, Celine, Barbusse and Suskind rub shoulders with Austen, Wilde, Tolkien and Lessing.

Sutherland has a generous and capacious mind. He welcomes into his catalogue EL James (Fifty Shades of Grey), Dennis Wheatley (The Devil Rides Out) and JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). Americans (Kerouac, Burroughs, John Grisham, Elmore Leonard) compete for space with the usual suspects from the UK (Daniel Defoe, Ian McEwan, George Eliot, Kazuo Ishiguro, Thomas Hardy).

His critical judgments are not bad, either. Reducing If This Is a Man or Moby-Dick to a few hundred words is no picnic, and his pithy summaries are generally on target. He finds new and surprising things to say about some familiar titles (Great Expectations, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Malone Dies) as well as making useful observations about more minor offerings (A High Wind in Jamaica, Treasure Island). Sometimes, these kinds of list can conceal a display of frankly mad opinion. Sutherland is too much of a pro to alienate the common reader with eccentric verdicts and personal prejudice.

There is, mercifully, no attempt at a ranking of his 500. That would be meaningless. Instead, Sutherland works alphabetically, from Aaron's Rod to Zuleika Dobson.

On my reading, there are few obvious omissions, though the professor does seem to have a blind spot with the works of PG Wodehouse.

Never mind. Books of lists are not to be taken too seriously. Besides, Sutherland conveys his own enthusiasm for the astonishing pleasures of the western prose novel in a spirit that's generous, enjoyable and well informed.

© Observer

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