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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

The Big Read

I do not know whether it is the done thing on Samizdata to get involved in the statist plots of the BBC to stop us thinking, and to get us wasting our thoughts on irrelevant trivia, but after watching Ray Mears’ excellent Big Read program on ‘The Lord of the Rings’, I thought it might be interesting to work out which of the twenty-one books was the best from a libertarian point of view:

Birdsong: Shows the horror of the state in action, destroying human life for no real reason. But I look for entertainment in a book, not misery, as real libertarian novels entertain for the dollar price, rather than depress, or as Robert Heinlein said, ‘my books were written for entertainment to pay my grocery bills.’ So I can not comment further on this book as I will never be able to get beyond the first page. Unless someone tells me it’s full of Blackadder IV style jokes, of course.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin: Come on, this book is only in this list because of the recent film. Just why are British people so shallow? However, being secretly in love with Penelope Cruz, as I am, I am as shallow as the rest so I won’t comment any further.

Catch-22:Yet another war story pointing out the futility of inter-state destruction, so quite libertarian. But I could never get past that part in the film where the bloke’s entrails fall out, so I ca not comment any further.

The Catcher in the Rye: Oh no, the usual socialist obsessions with teenage sex and do-gooding. Alas, I have never read the book. The cover page always puts me off. It is probably great. Shame I will never read it then, unless someone kicks my eyes open.

Great Expectations: The state education system in England always tries to stuff Dickens down the throats of its inmates, presumably because Mr Dickens encouraged the growth of do-goodery in Victorian England. However, aside from televised adaptations I have never been any further with Dickens than ‘The Tale of Two Cities’, which I was forced to study, I think, at English ‘O’ level. I can not remember the details, except it was a far nobler thing to fall asleep in English lessons than it was to fall asleep when my unrequited love goddesses read out their essays on it.

Gone with the Wind: We really are a bunch of bananas in Great Britain. How can ‘Gone with the Wind’ be in a top 21 of great all-time books? There’s obviously still ten million women in England in love with Clark Gable. And who can blame them, I suppose? Still the greatest moustache of all time.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Arrgggghhhhhhh!!!! “Oh come on,” he said, pathetically. It would need three hundred pages just to describe what I think of this book. Much like it took three hundred pages for J.K.Rowling to start this book. But she has made a lot of money, and got children back into book reading. So she can not be all bad.

His Dark Materials: Loved the armoured bear. Aside from that I felt the novels leant too much in the direction of Channel 4-style leftieness, though could not put my finger on why. Did not manage to finish the third one. Just could not see the point.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Fabulous. We vote for the lizard to stop the other lizard getting in. We make sure the President of the Galaxy is the man least likely to be any good at it. Douglas Adams, RIP, surely a closet libertarian, like most sci-fiers. Top quality. Jane Eyre: Excellent commentary on the gentility of living before the nanny state. I always get it confused in my mind, however, with ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Both books are excellent for impressing ladies at University though, for showing them that you are well-rounded, i.e. that you would like to sleep with them.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: C.S.Lewis, superstar. Read all of these, including all of the Prince Caspian novels, but stopped reading them when I was about thirteen, so I can not remember the details. I have the hazy recollection that the state is represented by the Witch-Queen of Narnia, and her perpetual winter of discontent, and individual freedom is represented by Aslan the Lion. So probably libertarian. I will stock them up again when my children get to eight.

Little Women: Unfortunately I’ve never read it, and unfortunately, from the cover story, probably never will, as again it seems a bit too miserable for my tastes. But I do remember a great joke by ‘Fletch’ about it, in ‘Porridge’, as he tried to get some cigarettes for it, in prison, by pretending it was pornographic. I suppose you had to be there.

The Lord of the Rings: Ah, ‘Lord of the Rings’. Surely the greatest book ever written. Perhaps the most libertarian novel ever written, the free western peoples of Middle-Earth trying to throw off the yoke of Stalin/Hitler/Sauron. When it wins this BBC competition, I will retain my hope that the British people will one day wake up and throw off this evil socialist Euro-yoke monster we are currently sleepwalking towards.

Nineteen Eighty-Four: The only mystery remains, how did Orwell manage to write this, and still profess to believe in socialism at the same time? Perhaps this was some ironic form of double-think? Surely the greatest book ever written. But did not I just say that? Oh well, that’s double-think for you.

To Kill a Mockingbird: Have not read it, I’m afraid. Sorry. Looks a bit too miserable.

Pride and Prejudice: Again, as with Jane Eyre, great for impressing the ladies, for gentlemen seeking company amongst intelligent women. That, and as with most men who read this who have been plagued by numerous instances of unrequited love, it has the ending we’ve all dreamed of when the unrequited woman is revealed as having been in love with us all along. Tragically, this seldom seems to occur in real life. Not really libertarian, but a damn good yarn.

Rebecca: Oh this is ridiculous. What about ‘East of Eden’? What about ‘The Old Man and the Sea’? What about ‘The Godfather’? What about ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’? What about ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’? What about ‘Smiley’s People’? What about ‘The Stand’? God forgive me, but what about ‘Atlas Shrugged’? But ‘Rebecca’? I’m sorry, we in Britain are obviously a bunch of childish romance obsessed emotional retards. This is of course why we are so great!

War and Peace: Rubbish. Rubbish. Rubbish. Read by people desperately trying to either impress themselves or their friends. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of characters, all of whom blend into a chaotic mass by about the five-hundredth page. People are voting for this to impress the watchers of this poll that the British people are intelligent. Will this madness never end? When trying to impress myself and attempting to read this for the umpteenth time, about ten years ago, I resolved to give up and start having a life. Absolute rubbish.

The Wind in the Willows: Pure genius. Toad, the ultimate libertarian. Total superstar. What can I say about his dressing up as a washerwoman to escape the clutches of the state? Magnificent.

Winnie the Pooh: The wonderful thing about Tigger is that he is the only one. Surely the ultimate libertarian slogan, that each individual is unique. Top quality.

Wuthering Heights: I always think about Kate Bush singing ‘Kathy’, so I just can not take this book seriously. However, I do remember being rather tearful reading it as a teenager, perhaps in the grip of yet another period of unrequited love, but we need books that make us think, not that make us cry, so therefore it fails on the libertarian front.

A strange list then. Lots of romance and lots of children’s books mixed in with real mind-benders like ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. ‘Lord of the Rings’ will win, as is surely its right, and because the ‘Return of the King’ will be coming out around the time of the final voting, but who can tell which book will come second? I guess ‘Pride and Prejudice’ will, for its girly soppiness, but wouldn’t it be great if ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ came in riding shotgun, or Toad of Toad Hall got the anti-environmentalist vote? Poop poop!

40 comments to The Big Read

  • David Crawford

    About the following books:

    Captain Corelli’s Mandolin
    Catch-22
    Gone With The Wind
    To Kill A Mockingbird

    Oh come on, practically no one’s read those frigging books. Everybody’s seen GTW and Mockingbird, and a lot have see Mandolin and C-22, but damn few have read the book. And the BBC is supposed to be some kind of cultural oasis in a desert of popular silliness, yeah right.

  • Chris Goodman

    As for your skills as a literary critic, do not give up the day job.

  • I still read To Kill a Mockingbird upon occasion. It’s a “classic” that is actually worth reading for entertainment and also for conveyance of values (“stand up for what is right, no matter the consequences” is one, also the fact that right doesn’t always succeed…)

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    Forgive me for offending anybody, but I’ve never understood why Lord of the Rings and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are considered such classics. I found the whole middle-earth thing dreadfully dull, and didn’t get the point of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

  • Bernie Greene

    I remember Catch 22 as the funniest book I had ever read at the time. Don’t remember a thing about it except sitting in the canteen at the place I worked at the time with tears streaming down my face at the line, “pass the salt, Walt”. It doesn’t seem so great out of context …

    Dickens was a master in the use of language but so was P. G. Wodehouse who doesn’t seem to be in the running at all.

    Jerome K. Jerome was way up there as an English comic writer. “Three Men in a Boat” is an all time classic and many of the jokes are still in use today.

    But how about we all make a big group push for J. M. Barrie’s “My Lady Nicotine” 🙂

  • S. Weasel

    Hmph. I’ve read…mmm…16 of those 21, and think a dozen of them pretty list-worthy (including Catch-22, Gone With the Wind and To Kill a Mockingbird). Friend of mine used to read Catch-22 annually. Funny, I was just asking him Friday if he still did (he doesn’t).

    When a book and a head
    collide and there is a hollow sound, is it always from the book?
    – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 – 1799)

  • Patrick Banks

    Hmph. No Waugh.

  • Catcher has no political themes whatsoever. It’s about a teenage kid who’s fighting tooth and nail to resist the approach of adulthood. That’s what the title is all about – Holden Caufield wants to keep the boys in the hypothetical rye field from going over the cliff – to keep them from adulthood and all its perceived snares.

    Catcher in the Rye was one of the ways public education taught me to hate reading when I was in school. I got stuck with boring drivel and the at least one other thoroughly depressing novel – A Separate Peace. A challenging read every once in a while is fine, but there’s gotta be some entertaining stuff so that people will have a chance to discover that reading can actually be enjoyable. And let’s not have too many reading assignments that make you want to beat up the central character in the schoolyard – even if you’re not the violent type.

    I’m in the middle of reading Will Durant’s The Life of Greece. It’s like 1984 – some fascinating portions and a lot of ponderous prose. There is no way in Hell I’d have the discipline to read through the thing if I had stuck with the sort of uninspiring reading material I’d read (and have since mostly forgotten) in school.

  • toad

    There are some books that you feel you should read but are just too much of a grind. I’ve found that one way to do it is to leave it the bathroom and read a page or two of it once a day while you are in there. That’s how I got through “Wealth of Nations.” But even that method couldn’t get me through “War and Peace.”

  • Guy Herbert

    Pride and Prejudice soppy? Damp from being soaked in irony, perhaps…

    Lord of the Rings libertarian? It’s certainly conservative-inclined, what with its anti-industrialism, societies of loyal servants and kind masters, noble and ignoble races. But libertarian, where everyone is driven by fate and duty? Michael Moorcock has a very funny (if unfair), attack on Tolkein’s Shire as an English middle-class idealisation of life in his collection of essays Wizardry and Wild Romance

    I do think LOTR is a great story. But still the political/moral message, if any, is: “Out of noble altruism Atlas bore his burden to the end for the greater good of society”. Its individual is important, but only to the extent he plays his part in the grand plan.

  • John Nowak

    Gone With the Wind, but not Crime and Punishment? Piffle.

    I’d go with God Knows instead of Catch-22, but one of them deserves to be there.

  • Ann

    Jane Eyrehead is an idiot. From a political standpoint she is the perfect example of the numb adult infant the nanny state seeks to make us. There is a key point in the novel when she is cast adrift, out in the world to–in the words of Jane Austen–starve in the hedgerows. She is rescued by some do-gooders.

    But does she then take matters into her own hands and work to better her situation? Nope. She sponges off her benefactors (who unconvincingly turn out to be cousins) with little thought to paying them back. She wallows in her self pity, even though she knows there is a wealthy relative out there who is trying to find her. Does she whip off a letter to the guy’s solicitor? Certainly not. She’d rather wallow than take an action in her own behalf.

    Pitiful–in that she loves being pitiful. Yuck. A worse example of a woman in literature would be hard to find.

  • To Ted,

    Lord of the Rings is considered as a classic because it popularized the mythical beings. In a way, it is like Star Wars. Star Wars popularized sci-fi to another level (Star Trek sucks). Also, a lot of other fantasy books have a scent of Lord of the Rings in it.

    But what I don’t understand is, why Harry Potter is considered a classic? It’s crap and nothing but crap.

  • The dangers of reading books through a political prism. Life’s too short.

    I always think if you haven’t read a book cover to cover you can’t criticise it. After all, you don’t know what it’s about.

  • I’ve only read about half of _Captain Corelli’s Mandolin_ (very depressing), but if being anti-war counts as libertarian, then CCM should be of at least mild interest to libertarians. It bashes communists and fascists equally, and makes the point that even minor wars (the Italian Fascist invasion of Greece) cause huge amounts of misery.

    I don’t know what the book implies, if anything, about government in general, but the good life shown at the beginning of the book is definitely people on the fringes of things making good enough lives for themselves.

  • A Crawford

    Hmmmm. Libertarian, eh? Candide? Moby Dick? A Confederacy of Dunces! Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas!

  • Tony H

    At least the BBC merely invites people to vote for their “best loved” book without making any claims to literary greatness – though this does not make the enterprise much less crass than other things we’ve had to endure such as the “greatest people of all time” farrago, which just shows the narrowness of most people’s views. Like Paul Macartney being up there with Shakespeare, etc.
    David Crawford says nobody’s read (those four) books; I read CC’s Mandolin recently, and thought the effort wasted; I would admittedly never bother reading Gone WTW (though I did finally see the film not long ago – mildly entertaining); TKAMockingbird’s subject matter does not interest me; and I read Catch-22 when I was fourteen, as did most of my friends – a classic piece of comic writing IMO.

  • As neither Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas not Puckoon were listed, I could not care less. And I agree with Philip Chaston about the danger of seeing everything through one’s political reading glasses. LOTR does rock, however.

  • Michael Hiteshew

    I’ve only read three on the list.

    LOTR – I read The Hobbit & LOTR when I was a teen and loved them. So did my daughter. Beautiful story. I’ve read it several times since. Lots of flaws on many points but still an amazing literary achievement.

    1984 – I’ve read it twice, including recently. Another my daughter has read also. An important, frightening book. Friederick Hayeks’ The Road To Serfdom is more insightful and thought provoking though. Hayek offers solutions and alternatives, instead of merely raising the question.

    Wuthering Heights – An English instructor tried his very best to force this down my seventeen year old throat. I hated it. Not quite as much, though, as The Autobiography of Samuel Johnson – possibly the most boring, overhyped book ever written. God I detested that book. Put me to sleep every time I cracked it open. On the other hand, I loved Kidnapped! and The Scarlet Lettter.

    Books that should have been there:

    Fiction:
    The Foundation Trilogy (Isaac Asimov)
    The Little Prince (Antoine De Saint-Exupery)
    2001: A Space Odyssey (Arthur C. Clarke)
    The Short Stories Of O. Henry
    Aesops Fables
    Dracula (Brams Stoker)
    Dune (Frank Herbert)
    The Killer Angels (Michael Shaara)

    Nonfiction:
    Undaunted Courage (Stephen Ambrose) {Lewis and Clark}
    A Brief History Of Time (Stephen Hawking)
    The Road To Serfdom (Friederick Hayek)

  • John Nowak

    One of the odder experiences I’ve ever had was reading Saint-Exuperey’s __Little Prince__ and __Night Flight__ back-to-back. __Night Flight__ is, in a way, “It is necessary to be cruel” and __Little Prince__ is more of a mournful, “Oh, God, why do we have to live like this?”

    It’s curious, because I don’t think that a reader’s knowledge of an author should affect the way a book reads, but I just can’t manage that with Saint-Exuperey. If some feeble little putz with an easy life — like me — had written __Little Prince__ it would strike me as whining. From Saint-Exuperey, it’s genuinely touching.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Why isn’t Animal Farm on the list? It’s also a classic!

    And as a sci-fi fan, I agree with Michael Hiteshew’s additions. If anything, Starship Troopers by Heinlein should be thrown in as well.

  • rkb

    Ooh, ooh, books!

    War and Peace. Written by a privileged nobleman who retreated from the challenges of his time to a pretend society of life with the peasants … socialism a la Rousseau. Nope, not one that probably will appeal to libertarians. Try Crime and Punishment instead. Not libertarian in the western sense but Dostoyevsky’s great characters are definitely individuals!

    Durant. I really liked Stringfellow Barr’s books The Will of Zeus and The Mask of Jove better. But then I did my undergrad work in the great books program at St. John’s, which Barr helped found. Barr’s evocation of the differences between Greek and Roman culture have echoes in today’s libertarian vs. conservative distinctions and overlapping concerns.

    His Dark Materials – this author really really dislikes those who choose a position of principle / virtue of any sort, especially if it is not currently the popular one. May be the source of the leftiness you sense.

    LOTR – One place where Tolkein’s values intersect with those of libertarianism is the great emphasis he places on the value of the individual. Each of the main characters makes choices that impact the world in lasting ways, for good or for ill. None is allowed to remain a “victim” needing rescue by a nanny state. The Fellowship forms voluntarily and each must choose his own way throughout the books.

    Too tempting to list my own favorites … Must Put Down Keyboard ……..

  • Tony H

    Well as another sci-fi fan I’m amazed that anyone should suggest the Foundation trilogy – I’ve read practically all the great sci-fi canon, but not this because I found it balls-achingly turgid and utterly without literary merit. It also suffers from a failing common to a great deal of sci-fi of the “galactic imperial” school, which is a breathless admiration of pseudo-aristocratic hierarchies dependent on a labouring class held in political thrall – even some Larry Niven is like this. And of course LOTR, in which the ruggedly individualistic heroes are free to gad about on their admittedly gripping adventures only because a forelock-tugging peasantry keeps them in bread, cheese and swords… As for Arthur C Clarke he’s a great man, very far sighted, but not exactly gifted or inspiring as a writer…

  • Michael Hiteshew

    Tony wrote:

    “…the Foundation trilogy – I’ve read practically all the great sci-fi canon, but not this because I found it balls-achingly turgid and utterly without literary merit. It also suffers from a failing common to a great deal of sci-fi of the “galactic imperial” school, which is a breathless admiration of pseudo-aristocratic hierarchies dependent on a labouring class held in political thrall…”

    I agree. You didn’t read it. 😀 Or if you did, you didn’t comprehend it. Asimov clearly holds aristocracy in contempt. What he does, without apology, is demonstrate that all societies evolve political/social hierarchies; some more just, more liberal than others. As an escapee from the the Soviet Union, it’s clear from his writing where his political and social admiration lies; with liberal, democratic, scientifically advanced societies. It is weak on character development, that’s a widely voiced criticism, and the plot is a bit silly at times – but it’s heavy with ideas about the needs that people and societies have and the way social, scientific and religious developments affect the social and political development of societies over time.

    Then you wrote:
    “…Arthur C Clarke he’s a great man, very far sighted, but not exactly gifted or inspiring as a writer..”

    What? Are you kidding me? I found his prose absolutely poetic. He had a gift for communicating his awe of our spectacular universe. His writing is art. Not to mention the profound insights he demonstrated in 2001. Maybe we just have different tastes.

    By the way, another book that belongs on the fiction list is Don Quixote (Ceravantes). There’s a little of him – or a lot, I fear – in all of us. We’re all jousting at our own personal windmills; heroic, misunderstood, unrequited, hapless, silly, but ultimately each beautiful in our personal humanity. Very poignant book.

  • Tony H

    Michael, I fear we do have different tastes. As a (ex-) teacher of English Lit I used to employ extracts from a diverse range of literature quite deliberately, including sci-fi – I’m no literary snob. But it would never have occurred to me to use Clarke: he’s a good example of the scientist-turned-novelist whose facility with prose could never match either his imagination or his technological vision. Larry Niven (former physics student) is a welcome exception, with a great gift for narrative vigour and considerably more credible characterisation than Clarke. Sorry, but the latter is very dry stuff. “poetic”? – no way!
    As for your comments re Asimov, I’ve always been aware that he has tremendously loyal fans but frankly when you say he’s “weak on character development” that doesn’t begin to describe his literary shortcomings…
    I think you’re on stronger ground with Cervantes. How about Jonathan Swift? Strong polemicist, vigorous prose, even credible credentials as an early sci-fi author…

  • No mention of Mark Twain – Huckleberry Finn?

    Twain had a decided libertarian tone and the novel celebrates self-reliance and personal freedom. Also, he is very funny!

    Cydonia

  • Michael Hiteshew

    Tony,

    I didn’t realize I was boxing above my weight class here. No wonder you’re so opinionated on this! 😉

    Jonathan Swift? I’ve only read Gullivers Travels. Very good, I agree. I found it fascinating but it never really enthralled me for some reason. The taste thing again. I’m much more drawn to adventureous story lines. Robinson Crusoe for example. I loved it. Between ages 13 and 16 I read my way through Jules Verne like a starving child at a banquet. Great books for young guys but they don’t seem to appeal to women the same way. As with everything, what we’re drawn to is heavily influenced by the hard wiring associated with our gender. As a teenager, I would have given anything to escape the civilized world and be on that island with Robinson. It would have been heaven for me. The movie Dances With Wolves had the same effect on me. I would have been ecstatic to have been young, alive and free in the vast and beautiful American West. What a place and time to live your life!

    Finally, I’ve never read Larry Niven. Since you recommend him so highly I’m gonna visit Amazon and order something. Any suggestions?

  • As for the Foundation series, I think the way Asimov wrote it, in a way runs parallel with the religion. In the book, there’s this psychohistory that extrapolated the course of the society into the future.
    In religion, like Chritianity and Islam and a lot of others, “the end time” is also mentioned through, obviously not through psychohistory.

  • I mean religion, not “the religion”

  • The Wobbly Guy

    The Kintzi series! I love spacefaring sentient cats without a clue!^_^

    But for the libertarian sci-fi fan, I’ve heard that the Culture series is pretty good.

  • How about A Clockwork Orange? Boy meets State. State assumes boy’s thuggishness rooted in aggressiveness (not, as truth would have it, in thuggish attitudes toward human welfare). State deprograms aggressive traits from boy. Boy lacks aggressive instinct to defend self against thugs.

    Makes me think of gun control and calls for Israeli “restraint.” And those pantywaists who complain that contact sports breed criminal tendencies into impressionable children.

  • Andy,

    You are quite wrong about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin being there only because of the film. I spent the best part of the 1990’s managing various branches of a major UK bookshop chain in London. For as long as I can remember Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was at the top of the best selling paperback chart. The popularity of this book is enormous, the film, made to cash in on the popularity of the book, by contrast, was generally regarded as a big disappointment.

  • Andy Duncan

    As for the Foundation trilogy, and subsequent books, I was with Asimov all the way up to the point where Trevize chooses Galaxia, surely the ultimate super-state, where every individual gets snuffed out in some mass symbiosis thereby preventing the chances of someone like Trevize himself from arising again. Terrible.

  • Simon Jester

    Surely there’s an obvious choice for best libertarian Science-Fiction book?
    (hint, hint)

  • Alfred E. Neuman

    I can’t believe that none of you people have mentioned, and therefore seemingly have not read, David Brin. He’s about as libertarian as you get. His Uplift series is fantastic (Sundiver, Startide Rising, The Uplift War); his first book, The Practice Effect, is fantastic; and he wrote The Postman (which Kevin Costiner changed drastically, so do not use that as any kind of measure–the book is very good). His more recent stuff has remained high quality as well.

    Read this article by Brin to get an idea of his views. Trust me, it is interesting. And you might want to check out other articles linked on his site as well.

    I am still amazed that no one has mentioned him. He must be available in the UK.

  • For a famous expatriot writer (Nabokov) one source of contact with America was to be found in the books optimistic publishers sent him to read. After he had received CATCH-22, Vera wrote back on his behalf that he made it a rule not to give his opinion”since he is a harsh judge. But he agrees to make an exception in this case…: ‘This book is a torrent of trash, dialogical diarrhea, the automatic produce of a prolix typewriter.’ Please do not repeat this either to the author or to his publisher.”

    – from VLADIMIR NABOKOV: THE AMERICAN YEARS by Brian Boyd

  • astro

    ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ – R.A. Heinlein

    There you go, simon jester…

  • No Communist Manifesto?

    I guess they didn’t consider the most successful books in the “Fantasy” genre eligible for the list.

  • Doug Collins

    I second the remark of an earlier commenter who noticed the absence of P.G. Wodehouse. I can’t imagine a more libertarian character than Uncle Fred. Or Galahad Threepwood. Or Ukridge.

    And as for symbolism for the nanny-state: Lady Constance. Or sundry Aunts.