The Big Read — The BBC's Top 100 Books

On May 6, 2011 I embarked upon 'The Big Read,' the BBC’s list of the top 100 books everyone should read. Now, in 2017, looking at this stack of books reaching to the ceiling, I doubt I would have had the courage to begin. Though I’m a book worm and adore reading, this goal was more about committing to an impossible task. Now that I’ve finished this 6-year project, no other project seems quite so daunting. Read on…

With a light heart, I began the BBC’s ‘The Big Read’ project in May of 2011. I vastly underestimated the amount of sheer physical effort and discipline it would take to complete this goal. Upon starting the project, I noted to myself, “This might take me years, but it’s time. I think this project will help me better understand a wealth of cultural references.” How naive I was to think it would be easy.

There were times, mainly when I was reading each excruciating page of Joyce’s Ulysses, that I wanted to scream with frustration. I fantasized about throwing the spine against the wall, a sickeningly satisfying thud would certainly make me feel better. It didn’t. It was a library book. The laughter, joy, and inspiration from books, like Bill Bryson’s

Notes From A Small Island fueled my motivation to carry on.

They say there are two kinds of people in this universe. Those that can readily abandon a book they aren’t connecting with, and those that are compelled to continue reading until the last page is turned. If I didn’t fall into the latter category, I would not have completed this foolhardy challenge. I can’t even open a magazine without feeling compelled to read every single word. I must get that from my father, who has stacks and stacks of ‘reading material’ he feels obligated to wade through.

There were times I didn’t think I could complete 100. There were occasions when friends or family suggested I stop, that I was ruining my love for reading. I slogged on, and in all honesty, what motivated me to persevere was a desire to achieve a goal that seemed impossible. Now that I have done this impossible thing, other tasks seem minuscule in comparison. I’m not impressed by the amount of time it took me to finish this project – 6 years and 3 months – I could have read faster, but I FINISHED. I now know I can do anything if I set my sights on a distant finish line. (Except maybe a marathon, screw running!)

I thought it would be useful to reflect on my Big Read journey and share a few of my favorites and some of the biggest hurdles along the way. I feel as though I’ve experienced nearly every emotion in reading these books. In retrospect, I wish I had consulted the New York Times list first—as the BBC list was a bit heavy on the Dickens and Shakespeare. Note that I did make a handful of substitutions, which are noted on the image of my checklist, and that not owning a TV made this project possible.
Read on…

To see how you fare on the BBC’s Big Reads challenge – take this quiz!

100 books, pages to the ceiling. 123 if you count the handful of series on the BBC’s list.

Favorite Big Read #1
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
Though it was long ago, I think Moby Dick is what actually motivated me to begin tackling The Big Read. Upon graduating from college, I moved to Nantucket Island for 9 months. Buildings in the western United States, where I grew up, are seldom older than 100 years. Roaming the cobbled streets of old Nantucket, where it’s not unusual to stumble upon a saltbox house or the mansion of a whaling captain dating back to the 1700s, was enthralling. For me, my time living in Madequecham on Nantucket illuminated the tale of Moby Dick. The story hummed to life as I wandered through the boat docks, trailed my hand along the banister in the Athenaeum, or listed to the tolling bells from the church tower. My imagination and experience of Moby Dick was far richer for having lived in Nantucket.   

Favorite Big Read #2
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
I finished The Handmaid’s Tale in 2011, long before it was a hit series on Hulu. I had been alerted that it was a feminist version of 1984, which sparked my interest since I found fascination in the images of dystopian society when reading Orwell in high school. The Handmaid’s Tale is especially significant now, in light of the issues facing women in the news headlines today. The current political climate actually inspired me to read this story again, now, after having completed The Big Read. If you’ve watched the series, you must pick up the analog version!

Favorite Big Read #3
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
This will be one of the few books on The Big Read that I will read again. With a plethora of characters, time periods, and settings, it was difficult to piece this tumultuous tale together with a single reading. The premise is that we are all connected, across time, distance, and culture. Given today’s current climate of divisiveness, it’s useful to remember the power of unity. Though challenging to read, this book rewards with its central message, character development, and vivid imagery.

Best Science Fiction
Dune – Frank Herbert
I’ve never sought or preferred the sci-fi genera, so I undertook reading Dune with a bit of a begrudging attitude. Five pages was all it took to draw me in to the austere landscape of the planet of Arrakis. Fun fact: in 2003, Dune was cited as the world’s best-selling sci-fi novel. As testament to this enduring tale, some of the plains and geographical features of Saturn’s moon, Titan, have been named after the planets of Dune. What most struck me in this work was the character development, watching Paul grow from a frightened, uncertain child to a powerful commander and prophet was engrossing. It’s time to tackle the series! I’ll become a sci-fi nerd yet…

Best Psychological Ride
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
Though closely followed by The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, Plath’s Bell Jar was a jaunt into the slow decent of madness. “I couldn’t put this down—riveting,” I wrote in my journal. I also sympathized with the protagonist’s metaphor of life as an abundant fig tree—so many possible futures or goals represented by ripe, gleaming figs. Her fear and indecision holds her back while the figs rot and drop to the ground. Esther’s slow decent into madness is made all the more convincing by how sane it all seems. The story itself mesmerizes when the reader understands it is somewhat auto-biographical and that the author struggled with clinical depression.

Worst 3
Of all the books on this list, there were three that absolutely drove me mad to read. The idea of picking up the book was loathsome, and I stalled, lagged, and struggled.  Those were Les Miserables by Victor Hugo due to the length and my general disinterest in the history of war. It was laborious to wade through hundreds of pages detailing history that wasn’t particularly pertinent (ok, mildly so) to the action at hand. The sheer volume of information and tiresome sections of historical information cost me 6 months of grueling effort.

I also found hearty distaste for A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. The main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, was so grotesquely helpless and slothful, I grew to find him unbearable. A chore of magnificent proportions it was to finish this book and pay attention to his useless blunders.

Finally, I’ve yet to meet another human who has finished James Joyce’s Ulysses. If you’ve done such a monumental thing as this, I will salute you. This. Book. Was. Horrible. The author’s obscure references and obscene delight in all things erudite made this novel unapproachable, unpleasant, and downright torturous. If my hatred of this book demonstrates my lack of sophistication, I do not care. I did not know it was possible to hate a book so thoroughly. Eight months of my life. Gone.

Lushest Setting
Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez
Lyrical prose rich with stunning imagery, Love in the Time of Cholera is a vivid tale about the ability of love to flourish in unlikely environments. Amid a putrefying tropical landscape where rotting buildings decay and crumble, love takes root. A story like this stays with you because the imagination is awakened and the landscape and characters attain a realism that not many authors effectively convey.

Best Story
Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
When I learned that this story wasn’t true, I felt shocked, deceived. Golden’s meticulous research into the secret life of geisha was so thorough that I had difficulty believing this wasn’t a biography. Enchanted from page one to the last, this is another book that should not be spoiled by first watching the movie. I cried, laughed, hoped, and dreamed alongside Chiyo. The mystical landscape of Kyoto comes alive in this rambling tale of love, triumph, devotion, and war.

Most Shocking Plot Twist
The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
This book is not comfortable to read. You will not, however, be able to stop reading because you can’t help but wonder what the murderous child, Frank, will get up to next. Expressing no remorse or guilt over having killed three children before turning ten himself, Frank’s level of depravity knows no bounds. Yet, I was reminded of my own childhood in his shamanistic approach to placating various spirits and maintaining totems in the woods around his home. Frank was oddly relatable and likable despite being a psycho killer. The ending of this novel hits with a resounding smack out of left field. It left me reeling for days…