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That bogus BBC book list

A friend on Facebook invited her acquaintances to take the “BBC Booklist Challenge,” which claims that most people will have read no more than half a dozen of the hundred books on the list.

I, of course, would have none of it. English majors, of which herd I was long a part, never do anything as vulgar as identify specific books that they have read. Their vast understanding extends to all literature that counts and is not to be pinned down to specific texts. We all bluff, you know. Do the Stephen Potter gamesmanship thing, you know. “Oh, you think Trollope is significant, do you?” “Fanny Burney, you say? Well, she’s no Aphra Behn.”

Besides, the “BBC Booklist Challenge” is bogus on its face. Run your eye down the list and it won’t take long for dubious items to crop up. The Da Vinci Code? Really? Mitch Albom. Mitch Albom! You want to give Harold Bloom an apoplexy?

That meme has been bouncing around the Internet for months, and someone went to the trouble of exposing its questionable origins. No gold star for you if you’ve read all one hundred.

Many years ago Esquire published a list of the ten or however many books you should have read if you have any pretension to being a civilized, educated adult. That was a list with some meat on it. I don’t recall the entire list, but I remember that it included The Canterbury Tales. In Middle English. And Boswell’s Life of Johnson (BOO-YAH!).

So come back to me when you’ve met your quota of dead white guys.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 AM | | Comments (30)


Well, I've certainly read The Canterbury Tales, but it's pretty evident that I need to read them again.

Beth Fama wrote a funny post on this--about just admitting she's never read anything:

I believe the espression is "ooo-rah," not boo-yah, whatever that may mean. I never consult lists of things I should read, hear. I usually find that they have been 'dumbed down' so much as to be pretty useless.

If Ms. the Terse doesn't know what boo-yah means, why should anyone credit her when she writes, "I believe the expression is 'ooo-rah'"? Or is this just further proof that knee-jerk snobbery is its own reward?

Get over yourself, JD. And it's Miss Terse, if you don't very much mind. And you didn't answer my question. Talk about snobbery.

Hey, you two, don't make me come back there.

(1) If a British juvenile expression of derision is really what's wanted, the fictional schoolboy Nigel Molesworth uses two fine examples: "chiz chiz chiz" and "yar boo sucks." (The Geoffrey Willans/Ronald Searle Molesworth series is hard to find in the U.S., but worth the effort.)

(2) And, McI, I hope for your own safety that your "quota of dead white guys" includes at least one dead white gal. Or, for the purposes of this discussion, are you considering Jane Austen as an honorary guy??

Those whose purpose is to deride the traditional canon of English literature appear to include Miss Austen in that category of dead white males. Regrettable, but hardly the sole instance of their myopia.

Also, white or male or not (and only a halfwit could think her male), dead she most certainly ain't.

James Wolcott explains "Oooh-Rah!" for you. (Not quite the same thing as "boo-yah"):

I tell you what, although I capture Mr Wolcott's drift in general, and am not unsympathetic, trying to understand it sentence by sentence is horribly treacle-like. Is this separated by a common language stuff, or is this really, as it seems, coming from another planet?

Something really bugged me about The Canterbury Tales. They don't get a boo-y or an ooh-r ah from me.

I'm curious about your use of "apoplexy." I've never heard it used with an article.

Picky: No, it's just boring uber-hipness, and it comes across to this Yank quite like wading through molasses as well.

J.D.: Ms. Terse is on record as not even knowing what "terse" means, and you expect an understanding of "boo-yah"? But to clarify these various boisterous expressions: "oo-rah" is U.S. Marine Corps, "hoo-ah" is U.S. Army, "hoo-yah" is U.S. Navy, and "boo-yah" is civilian. All of them mean anything from a simple "Acknowledged" to "Hurrah!" to an outright war-cry. In an episode of the U.S. television series Jericho (unrelated to the ITV one, Picky), some men in Marine uniform are exposed as Army impostors because they say "Hoo-ah!" rather than "Oo-rah!"

So, Christine, you didn't like Canterbury Tales. Is that what you're saying? Or does "something really bugged me" carry some extra, particularly weighty, meaning? Or, indeed, any meaning at all?

They don't like Chaucer, they don't like The Great Gatsby, they don't like this, and they don't like that. My suspicion is that they were the victims of bad teaching. Pedestrian teaching can kill any literature; good teaching can draw appreciation to unlikely places. I had a great humane, humorous Chaucer teacher, Professor John Yunck, who loved everything in the Tales: the high dignity, the low comedy, the shrewd portraiture. (He did disparage one book, the Commentary on the Vision of Scipio, by Macrobius, which he described as the single dullest book ever written. I've never felt an impulse to challenge his judgment.)

Treacle. Now there's an underused word (on this side of the Atlantic, anyway).

And I will fearlessly go on record as having loved Chaucer, Gatsby, and all of Jane Austen, including the juvenilia. Didn't the dull Macrobius supposedly inspire Chaucer? No one with a scintilla of literary sensibility could possibly call Chaucer dull.

I was thinking of the Marines.Much of my family was Navy and I never once hear a 'hoo-yah' out of any of them. (Plenty of risque songs, but hot a 'hoo-ya.') My mother, also Navy, learned some rather suspicious songs at St Mary's Junior College, (Episcopal) Raleigh, but never mind....

Do you not mine the stuff over there, Dahlink?

As to the Tales, I first met them in Nevill Coghill's jolly jaunty translation, and you'd have to be pretty dull of soul to read that and not want to get your hands on the original.

The Royal Navy is one of a number of groups to use the curious chant:

Oggy Oggy Oggy!
Oi Oi Oi!

I think it is Westcountry in origin, and the Navy picked it up in the bases at Plymouth and Portsmouth.

Um, Picky--treacle is mined? Really??

When it comes to Boswell, his London Diary is really much more fun.

Sorry Dahlink, daft traditional joke.

Over here we have caverns full of HFCS.

Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light presides over the treacle industry.

Yep, you won't go short while Mr Kinkade is around.

It's true that only parts of the USN use "hoo-yah", notably the SEALs (the naval special forces, Picky, roughly corresponding to the Special Boat Service).

The SEALs' reputation goes before them, John.

One doesn't want to mess with a SEAL. They are quite magnificently trained.

Indeed. I was thinking that if an SBS man happened to say "hoo-yah" to me I would nod politely.

Okay, just trying to be helpful.


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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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