Is that BBC’s “100 Books” List A Giant Hoax?

BBC_list

“The BBC believes you only read 6 of these books” reads the headline on one page. “How many have you read?” It’s followed by a list of 100 literary classics, including Pride and Prejudice, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Jane Eyre and the Harry Potter series. Book lovers all around the web (and on Facebook) are taking this irresistible quiz, but there’s just one problem with it.

It’s a hoax. The BBC never made any such claim.

I’ve searched the BBC’s web site, but there’s no mention there of any list of books that they supposedly believe people aren’t reading. With a quick Google search, I found more web pages where people were posting the same list — even as far back as 2009 — and even a couple pages where people were asking the same question I did: why doesn’t the original list anywhere on the BBC’s web site? Finally I discovered an obscure blog post from 2009 where someone in the comments (named Julie) had finally tracked down the answer. The original list apparently dates back to 2007.

But it wasn’t from the BBC — it was from the Guardian newspaper. And they never claimed that most people hadn’t read more than 6 of the books…

Instead, their list was titled 100 books that “you can’t live without”. It appears to be based on a poll of their readers, which might explain why the results contain so many British authors. Six of the 100 books were written by Charles Dickens, and four were written by Jane Austen. Yet there’s not a single book by Mark Twain — or Ernest Hemingway, or William Faulkner.

But it’s still nice to know that there other people who like some of the same books that I do. (Yes, I have read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as well as The Wind in the Willows…as a free Kindle ebook!) But as I was going through the list, trying to see if I’ve read more than six of its titles or less, I start to wonder if there’s a better way to see if I’m reading enough great books. And the best thing I read today was probably the response from the blogger who first figured out (in 2009) that this challenge was a hoax.

“So, feel free to see how many of those hundred books you’ve read,” Julie writes. “As a reader, I always find it fun.

“However, know that the BBC isn’t judging you.

“The only thing you’ll discover is if you’ve read the same books that a bunch of people in the UK couldn’t live without…”

A Confederacy of Dunces

Favorite Free Christmas Stories

A Christmas Carol original book cover illustration

If you’re looking for something Christmas-y to read, here’s four of my most favorite holiday stories. (Maybe reading on the Kindle can become a new Christmas tradition!) These stories are all available as a free Kindle ebooks, and at least one of them has been around for almost 200 years! Lots of people enjoy curling up someplace cozy, and taking a quiet reading break over the holidays. And this year, more and more of them will doing it with the Kindle!

Old Christmas by Washington Irving

He was America’s first internationally popular author, and he wrote two timeless stories — Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But he also fathered many of our Christmas traditions. At the age of 29, when he was starting his career in 1812, Irving added five nostalgic Christmas stories to a collection of writing, and for one dream sequence, imagined what would happen if St. Nicholas flew over the forests in a flying sleigh. That’s believed to have inspired many of the subsequent stories about Santa Claus and his flying reindeer!

And the stories had an even greater impact. Irving also researched holiday traditions as far back as 1652, according to Wikipedia, and his popular stories “contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.” Even Charles Dickens himself said that Irving’s stories influenced his own famous novella, A Christmas Carol.


A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

It’s not just a story about Christmas. It’s partly responsible for the way that way celebrate it. The story by 31-year-old Charles Dickens “was one of the single greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England,” according to Wikipedia, which notes it was published just as new customs were established like tree-decorating and Christmas cards. The book helped to popularize these traditions, though ironically, the story was immediately pirated after Dickens published it, and he realized almost no profits from the story himself!

I’ve always enjoyed the way Charles Dickens writes, with simple yet very moving stories — and I’m not the only one. Every year on Amazon’s list of the best-selling free ebooks, A Christmas Carol always crashes into the top 20. And interestingly, it turns out that Charles Dickens followed this up with even more Christmas stories — including The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

And all three of these stories are also available for free in Amazon’s Kindle store…


A Visit From Saint Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore

Here’s something fun to download: the original text of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (One historian called it “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” according to Wikipedia.) And there’s some interesting trivia about this story. In its first printing in 1823, Santa’s reindeer were named “Dunder” and “Blixem,” which are the Dutch words for “thunder” and “lightning” — but over the years their names changed into the more familiar-sounding “Donner” and “Blitzen”!


Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark by Nelson Algren

There’s one short Christmas story that I absolutely love — by one of my favorite authors. Ernest Hemingway called Nelson Algren “one of the two best authors in America” — and his greatest novel, The Man With the Golden Arm, offered an unforgettable look at Chicago and its lowlifes. (In 1950, it won a National Book Award). But my personal favorite Algren book was always The Last Carousel, another dazzling collection of short works from throughout his career, which he’d published in 1973.

At the age of 64, the author had hand-picked each story himself – though unfortunately The Last Carousel isn’t available on the Kindle. But one lucky December, I discovered that you can still read one of its most touching stories online. On December 4, 1949, the Chicago Sunday Tribune published “Merry Christmas, Mr. Mark,” a story Algren wrote at the height of career, at the same time as his award-winning novel. The 40-year-old novelist remembered being a young newsboy in the 1920s, braving the snows to sell The Saturday Evening Blade at an intersection by the cemetery — and how the newsboys had tried to swindle their customers!

But by the end, they’d all learned a valuable lesson about Christmas…!

Amazon Announces a New Kindle of eBooks – Serials!

Kindle serials

Amazon made another big announcement on Thursday. They’re actually launching a new kind of ebook — the Kindle Serials — where the purchase price covers not only all the current chapters of an ebook, but any new chapters that the author writes in the future. “Kindle Serials are stories published in episodes,” Amazon explains on a new web page in the Kindle Store. “When you buy a Kindle Serial, you will receive all existing episodes on your Kindle immediately, followed by future episodes as they are published.”

And in a new twist, Amazon’s creating discussion areas dedicated to each serialized books, so authors can monitor ongoing discussions about what they’re writing in real-time — and maybe even get some new ideas about how to finish their stories

You can browse the complect selection of available Kindle Serials at tinyurl.com/KindleSerial.

To celebrate, Amazon is releasing free editions of two famous 19th-century novels that were both originally published in a serialized format in monthly magazines. And they’ve also lined up eight more serial novels to inaugurate the launch of this new format for Kindle content. The selection includes Neal Pollack’s new thriller, Downward-Facing Death, and Amazon featured him prominently in their announcement of the program. “When Amazon Publishing told me about the Kindle Serials program, I wanted to participate right away,” Pollack admits in Amazon’s press release. “I’ve been writing serialized fiction since I was a kid, and I’m thrilled to be doing it again, nearly 30 years later, with an (at least somewhat) adult sensibility.”

The page for Pollack’s book in the Kindle Store gives a good idea of how the program will work. The book’s description identifies how may “episodes” are already written — right now, just one, published on September 6th — and it provides a schedule for when new episodes will be released. Pollack is estimating that he’ll ultimately write a total of six episodes, with a new episode being delivered once a month — whereas the web page for Andrew Peterson’s new thriller promises his new episodes will be delivered every two weeks. “Serialized fiction is perfect for contemporary book culture,” Pollack added in Amazon’s press release, “where writers interact with their readers directly and books can be delivered with an immediacy that the old pulp writers never could have imagined. It’s fast and fun and you barely have time to blink.

“I can’t wait to see how my book ends!”

My first reaction is that Amazon’s discussion boards really could offer a radical and exciting new way for authors to create fiction. Amazon’s calling it “another innovation for authors and readers,” and bragging that it extends the Kindle’s “already rich and unique content ecosystem” (which also includes the ability to publish shorter ebooks as “Kindle Singles” and the special Kindle Owner’s Lending Library that’s available for Amazon Prime customers). I’m not sure if the new feature is targetted at amateur authors, in order to attract the next big sensation into Amazon’s own publishing universe — or if this feature is designed to appeal to big-name, established novelists. But there’s one very important caveat: Kindle Serials are made available exclusively in Amazon’s Kindle Store, so authors that choose to publish them for Kindle audiences apparently won’t be able to reach readers on, for example, the Nook.

It’s an interesting approach, and Amazon’s press release insisted that, “As with Kindle Singles, we’re aiming to open up new ways for authors to write and customers to enjoy great writing,” adding “we think people are going to love this format.” And I really have to give Amazon some credit. They announced this new program in one of the most philosophical press releases that I’ve ever seen.


Long before the advent of digital publishing, great writers like Charles Dickens wrote many of their works serially, a practice that offered a particular rhythm, often punctuated by cliffhangers to keep readers looking forward to the next episode….

“Serialized content, whether it’s a TV show, movie trilogy or written work, is a great and much-loved form of entertainment – it leaves viewers and readers wanting more, eagerly anticipating the fates of their favorite characters,” said Jeff Belle, Vice President, Amazon Publishing. “With Kindle Serials, we’re bringing episodic books to readers in a unique way that’s seamless and hassle-free, with new episodes being added to the book as they’re published.

And readers can discuss the stories on Amazon discussion boards as they’re being written – like virtual water cooler conversations – perhaps even influencing where the next episode may go…!”

The Day I Held a 100-Year-Old Book

Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte

The new year always gives me a special feeling, as I think about how the last year is gone forever, and remember all those charming moments that are slowly falling away. In 2012, ebooks will continue changing our world — but that’s going to make some memories even more precious. And there’s one particular story that I’m always going to cherish…

Mark Twain once co-authored a play with a forgotten writer named Bret Harte. Their legendary meeting was even depicted in an advertisement for Old Crow whiskey (above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.

“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”

In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elated, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”

Bret Harte’s short story (as a free Kindle ebook)

Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (as a free Kindle ebook)

Right before Christmas, I wrote about how Harte’s words had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California…

But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”

The Luck of Roaring Camp and other stories
Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Kindle ebook)

So on one chilly November afternoon, I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from a shelf at my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.

Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first ebook I’d ordered on my Kindle. I’d checked for print editions but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc. Days later, I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.

“SEP 21 1905.”

Bret Harte library book - checked out in 1905Close-up of library check-out date for Bret Harte book

I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.

Bret Harte library book - old check-out datesCheck-out dates for old library book

More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.

I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.

Four MORE Free Christmas eBooks

A Christmas Carol original book cover illustration

I’ve already written about how much I enjoy reading special Christmas ebooks on my Kindle each year. I’ve done a little research through Amazon’s site, and each year it’s full of fun surprises. It’s just delightful when you discover a new ebook about Christmas especially when it’s by an author that you already know. And yes, it turns out that some of the greatest authors in history have written Christmas stories — and they’re all available for free in Amazon’s Kindle store!

A Christmas Carol by Charlies Dickens
It’s not just a story about Christmas. It’s partly responsible for the way that way celebrate it. The story by 31-year-old Charles Dickens “was one of the single greatest influences in rejuvenating the old Christmas traditions of England,” according to Wikipedia, which notes it was published just as new customs were established like tree-decorating and Christmas cards. The book helped to popularize these traditions, though ironically, the story was immediately pirated after Dickens published it, and he realized almost no profits from the story himself!
I’ve enjoyed the way Charles Dickens writes, with simple yet very moving stories — and I’m not the only one. On Amazon’s list of the best-selling free ebooks, A Christmas Carol is currently #11. And interestingly, it turns out that Charles Dickens followed this up with even more Christmas stories — including The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes, and The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain.

All there stories are available for free in Amazon’s Kindle store.

Old Christmas by Washington Irving
He was America’s first internationally popular author, and he wrote two timeless stories — Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. But he also fathered many of our Christmas traditions. At the age of 29, when he was starting his career in 1812, Irving added five nostalgic Christmas stories to a collection of writing, and for one dream sequence, imagined what would happen if St. Nicholas flew over the forests in a flying sleigh. That’s believed to have inspired many of the subsequent stories about Santa Claus and his flying reindeer!
And the stories had an even greater impact. Irving also researched holiday traditions as far back as 1652, and according to Wikipedia, and his popular stories “contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.” Even Charles Dickens himself said that Irving’s stories influenced his own famous novella, A Christmas Carol.

A Visit From Saint Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore
Here’s something fun to download: the original text of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (One historian called it “arguably the best-known verses ever written by an American,” according to Wikipedia.) But you can only find the free ebook if you search on its original title — “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”. If you search for its first line — “Twas the Night Before Christmas” — Amazon’s Kindle Store will only show paid versions

There’s some interesting trivia about this story. In its first printing in 1823, Santa’s reindeer were named “Dunder” and “Blixem,” which are the Dutch words for “thunder” and “lightning.” But over the years their names changed into the more familiar-sounding “Donner” and “Blitzen”!

Christmas Eve by Robert Browning
He’s one of the most famous poets of the 19th century — and he in 1850 wrote a stark but thoughtful poem about visiting St. Peter’s church in Rome. It ultimately turns into a discussion about the nature of faith, but it was the first poem he published after his marriage, according to Wikipedia, and gives rare hints about the famous poet’s own religious views. One reviewer on Amazon described it as “A strange flighty trek in and out of trances and chapels to see rainbows and versions of God.” But another reader complained that they’d found it difficult to even read the poem, because the ebook wasn’t formatted properly.
“Who in their right mind eliminates line breaks and thinks they can get away with it?”

The Day I Held a 100-Year-Old Book

Mark Twain writes a play with Bret Harte

Mark Twain once co-authored a play with another forgotten writer named Bret Harte. Their legendary meeting was even depicted in an advertisement for Old Crow whiskey (above). Here’s how Twain himself described it.

“Well, Bret came down to Hartford and we talked it over, and then Bret wrote it while I played billiards, but of course I had to go over it to get the dialect right. Bret never did know anything about dialect…”

In fact, “They both worked on the play, and worked hard,” according to Twain’s literary executor. One night Harte apparently even stayed up until dawn at Twain’s house to write a different short story for another publisher. (“He asked that an open fire might be made in his room and a bottle of whiskey sent up, in case he needed something to keep him awake… At breakfast-time he appeared, fresh, rosy, and elate, with the announcement that his story was complete.”) I was delighted to discover that 134 years later, that story was still available on the Kindle, “a tale which Mark Twain always regarded as one of Harte’s very best.”

Bret Harte’s short story (as a Kindle ebook)
Biography of Mark Twain by his executor (Kindle ebook)

Harte’s career had already touched another famous writer — Charles Dickens. Before his death, 58-year-old Dickens had sent a letter inviting Bret Harte for a visit in England. But ironically, that letter didn’t arrive until after young Harte had already written a eulogy marking Dickens’ death. (It was a poem called “Dickens in Camp,” suggesting that to the English oaks by Dickens’ grave, they should also add a spray of western pine for his fans in the lost frontier mining towns of California.)

But two of Harte’s famous short stories had already captured Dickens’ attention — “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” John Forster, who was Dickens’ biographer, remembers that “he had found such subtle strokes of character as he had not anywhere else in later years discovered… I have rarely known him more honestly moved.” In fact, Dickens even felt that Harte’s style was similar to his own, “the manner resembling himself but the matter fresh to a degree that had surprised him.”

The Luck of Roaring Camp and other stories
Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (Kindle ebook)

So last year I’d finally pulled down a dusty volume of Bret Harte stories from my local public library. I’d had an emotional reaction to “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” — and an equally intense response to “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” But Harte’s career had peaked early, and it seems like he spent his remaining decades just trying to recapture his early success. (“His last letters are full of his worries over money,” notes The Anthology of American Literature, along with “self-pitying complaints about his health, and a grieving awareness of a wasted talent.”) Even in the 20th century, his earliest stories still remained popular as a source of frontier fiction — several were later adapted into western movies. But Harte never really achieved a hallowed place at the top of the literary canon.

Yet “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was the first ebook I’d ordered on my Kindle. I’d checked for print editions but hadn’t found a single one at either Borders, Barnes and Noble, or a local chain called Bookstores, Inc. Days later, I’d decided to try my public library, where I discovered a whole shelf of the overlooked novelist (including an obscure later novel called The Story of a Mine). And that’s when I noticed the date that the library had stamped on its inside cover.

“SEP 21 1905.”

Bret Harte library book - checked out in 1905Close-up of library check-out date for Bret Harte book

I felt like I was holding history in my hand. The book was published just three years after Harte’s death in 1902, and there was an old-fashioned card, in a plastic pocket glued to the inside cover, which showed some of the past check-out dates, including FEB 12 1923 and APR 8 1923.

Bret Harte library book - old check-out datesCheck-out dates for old library book

More than a century later, my local librarians had tagged this ancient book with an RFID chip so you could check it out automatically just by running it across a scanner. A computerized printer spit out a receipt, making sure that the book wouldn’t remotely trigger their electronic security alarm when it was carried past the library’s anti-theft security gates.

I hope that somewhere, that makes Bret Harte happy.

The Day the Kindle Died

I’d been reading a free Charles Dickens novel — Hard Times — and realized I was more interested in learning some details about Charles Dickens’ life. Charles Dickens died in 1870. My Kindle died on April 18, 2010…

I’d pressed the search button on my Kindle, and then used my favorite shortcut — typing @wiki to begin a search on Wikipedia. And soon I was reading another page of trivia about Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop straight from Wikipedia.


Dickens fans were reported to storm the piers of New York City, shouting to arriving sailors (who may have read the last installment in Britain), “Is Little Nell alive?”

In 2007, many newspapers claimed the excitement at the release of the last volume The Old Curiosity Shop was the only historical comparison that could be made to the excitement at the release of the last Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

I hit the back button, but my wireless connection had blipped out. The Kindle wasn’t even able to reload the page about Charles Dickens (which I’d already been reading). Frustrated, I pressed the Back key, and the Home key, but nothing happened. I even tried pressing Alt-P — to at least see if I could make it play music!

“She’s not answering my helm,” I told my girlfriend — doing my best impersonation of either Captain Kirk or an old British sailing captain. I turned my Kindle off, but even that didn’t affect its screen. It continued displaying the blank beginning of the Wikipedia page which it hadn’t been able to download.

My beloved Kindle…was dead.

Come back tomorrow to find out what happened next!

(Oh boy. My first blog post with a cliff-hanger ending…)