In 2018 the folks at the Beeb (BBC) came out with the Top 100 Stories that have influenced the world. “Good on ya!” I love lists: by definition, they’re always controversial. It’s true that scholars very seldom throw punches (I’d pay money to see that!) but normally a list such as this would generate more than a few white wine arguments over which book is where and why. Unfortunately, this particular list does not fulfill that basic requirement because, even at first glance, it’s obviously total bullshit.
Yeah, yeah, yeah! All lists are subjective; however, there are some things in this world that are just dead wrong. Let’s take an objective look at what the Beeb is trying to pawn off on us.
The Odyssey (#1) — No problem. (You’ll probably get a fight from the Shakespearians, but they’re always pissed off about something.)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (#2) — We can all agree on Simon Legree. This book may very well have caused the American Civil War, which not only changed the social structure of Western civilization but also gave us the first glimpse of the military-industrial complex.
Frankenstein (#3) — This is where things start to get a little weird. It’s true everybody knows who Frankenstein is — although most people get him confused with the monster. But I’m pretty sure Frankenstein is not as big an influence on young lovers (anybody who ever lived) as Romeo and Juliet which doesn’t show up ’til #13. And from there, everything just goes sideways. According to the list, Beloved (#11) is a bigger influence on the world than Animal Farm (#18) and Ulysses (#17) — which no living person actually understands — is ahead of To Kill A Mocking Bird (#27). Meanwhile On The Road (the universal anthem of rebellion) is nowhere to be found!
And what about the other sins of omission? — OMG! There’s no The Great Gatsby, no Grapes of Wrath, no Fahrenheit 451, no Brave New World, nothing by Hemingway, nothing by Hardy and nothing by Kipling who sent two generations of imperial Brits out to change the world. Paradise Lost and Le Morte D’Arthur are conspicuous by their absence, and where the hell is Dr. Seuss?
However, it’s not what’s missing from the list that’s burning my bacon: it’s a couple of titles that the Beeb included.
JK Rowlings’ Harry Potter series (#15) — Yes, we all read these books (or saw the movies.) Yes, we all thought Harry (and eventually Hermione) were hot; and yes, Quidditch is now the national sport of Nerdovia — but #15? That’s ahead of Aesop’s Fables (#29) and Cinderella (#52.) I don’t think so! If nothing else, Aesop and Cindy have about a 1,000 year head start on that little wizard. They were bedtime stories for millions and millions of children, long before Millennials decided that they were the only generation that mattered. And besides, everybody knows Rowlings didn’t write seven Harry Potter books; she wrote two Harry Potter books — three and a half times.
But, my biggest bitch is The Handmaid’s Tale (#16). WTF? This little ditty is ahead of King Lear (#33), The Canterbury Tales (#58) and A Christmas Carol (#73)? Basically, the BBC is telling us Margaret Atwood has a bigger influence on the world than William Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer and Christmas! Not bad for a book one reviewer called “paranoid poppycock.” You want some serious grins? Walk down any street in the English-speaking world and ask people if they’ve read the book — the book! Chances are good you’ll get an overwhelming NO. Why? Because the vast majority of people who have even heard of The Handmaid’s Tale have only seen the TV series. For the first 30 years of its existence (before Hulu pick up the option) The Handmaid’s Tale was about as influential as Pinocchio — probably less. And here’s the kicker: the TV series isn’t even written by Margaret Atwood! It’s written by Bruce Miller, whose last outing was The 100; Leila Gerstein, who wrote for Gossip Girl and a bunch of other people who don’t even have Wikipedia entries. So much for spreading Margaret Atwood’s influence on the world around like marmalade on cold toast!
The bottom line is this list does serve one purpose, and one purpose only: it clearly confirms we’re living in the shallow end of intellectual history, dominated by cultural illiteracy. Harry Potter, my ass!
Several years ago I spent some time in Italy and when I got back to North America I was hit with a bad case of reverse culture shock. North American streets were too wide, too clean and too new. The food was too much and too fast. And the language was too quick and colloquial. After hearing a lot of English spoken as a second language, I realized that it’s a damn good thing I was born with English because there’s no way I could ever learn its nuances second hand. And honestly, I applaud anybody who can, because they’re tons smarter than I’ll ever be.
Check it out:
In English, we “take” things. I think it comes from our marauding imperious past.
We “take” a bus.
We “take” a taxi.
And we “take” the train.
Of course, we give them back when we’re done with them, but there are other things we “take” and just devour, like:
We “take” a look.
We “take” a vacation.
We “take” a nap.
However, we can’t simply “take” everything in life because (thank God) a lot of stuff we just “get” like some kind of all-inclusive gift package.
We “get” an education.
We “get” a job.
We “get” married.
But when we “get” married we don’t automatically “get” children. They’re not a gift. We “have” children. It’s as if they were some pre-ordained possession, like:
or “having” an attitude,
or “having” dinner.
Unfortunately, once again though, we can’t just “have” everything. Sometimes, we must become active participants and “make” it first. For example, unless you’re incredibly wealthy, you need to “make” dinner before you can “have” dinner. It’s a curious thought, but we “make” all kinds of things.
We “make” mistakes (by screwing up.)
We “make” progress (by not screwing up.)
We “make” money (although, strictly speaking, that’s illegal: we should “earn” it — like trust or good credit.)
And we also “make” love.
Although this is actually changing and most people don’t “make” love anymore, they just “have” sex and if that doesn’t say a bunch about contemporary society’s willingness to active participate in romance, I don’t know what does.
And now that you’re hopelessly confused, there’s the other side of the coin. Not only do we “take,” “get,” “have” and “make,” we can also “lose” things.
We “lose” our keys.
We “lose” our patience.
We “lose” our tempers.
These are all things we can find again if we try hard enough. However, there are other things that we can never get back. Sometimes, when we “lose” our temper, we “get” into an argument, and if we “lose” that — well — it’s gone forever. Kinda like “losing” your virginity — which, as we all know, can only happen if we “make” love, “have” sex or get “wasted at a sophomore kegger” — a phrase that’s impossible to translate into any other language — although most people understand the reference.
So to all those people who endured my terrible Spantalian (Spanish/Italian) and spoke to me in my language because I couldn’t really speak to them in theirs: I’m still in awe at your linguistic skill because — take it from a native speaker — the intricacies of English must be a bitch to learn.