World Book Day – a little bit late
I’ve missed World Book Day by nearly three weeks, but there we are. The event, held on March 3rd this year, advertises itself as ‘a celebration of books and reading in over 100 countries’. I think this is unequivocally A Good Thing.
To coincide with the great day, a man named Professor Anthony O’Hear compiled a list of the greatest books in the world. Here it is: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus’ Oresteia, Sophocles’ Antigone, Euripides’ Bacchae, Plato (I’m not quite sure which Plato. There’s quite a lot of it. Let’s say his Republic for the sake of argument) Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s Henry V, Hamlet, Tempest, Cervantes Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Pascal’s Pensees, Racine’s Phedre and Goethe’s Faust. Everything in his list was written before 1832, when Goethe died, and less than 1% of the population have read them all.
When I saw the list I felt quite smug, because (if you don’t examine my credentials too closely) I was in the less than 1%. Now, I do have some advantages. I read Classics at university and so I had to read the first nine for my degree. I have read three of the others more than once: Dante, Racine and Milton. I haven’t read Chaucer cover to cover, but I have got through some of them (that counts, right?). I read Cervantes at school (there was less to do at boarding school in the 90s) and have forgotten nearly everything I read. Much the same happened with Goethe when I was a graduate student. I have definitely flicked through Pascal at some point in my life. And I have seen the three Shakespeare plays at least once. So I’m sticking to my slightly disingenuous claim and standing with the less-than-one-percenters.
Should I be smug? Probably not. Not all the O’Hear choices would make my list: Henry V isn’t even Shakespeare’s best history play about a guy called Henry; and Pascal? Really? All lists of this kind are partial, but world of World Book Day has just got a lot smaller. It surely says far more about the world view of a man Tony Blair once described as “an old-fashioned snob”. Would it be too much to ask for one title not written by a white, Western male?