Bob Jackson read all 315 shortlisted books in the Booker Library in less than four years. Here, he explains how he did it and tells us which titles he loved the most - and which were the most challenging
As a lifelong reader, Bob Jackson was familiar with the Booker Prize, but it wasn’t until 2018, when his daughter gave him a copy of that year’s winner, Milkman, that he was inspired to delve a little deeper into the Booker Library.
Bob loved Anna Burns’ novel so much, he made it his mission to read all the other Booker winners. And when he finished those, he started on the shortlisted books, too. In a little over three years, Bob has read all 315 - every shortlisted and winning book since the prize’s inception in 1969.
We spoke to Bob to find out more about the inspiration behind his project, just before he embarks on its next phase - reading the 2022 shortlist.
What inspired you to tackle such an enormous reading list?
The project started after listening to a radio discussion about the 2018 winner, Milkman by Anna Burns. What caught my ear was when they referred to the key character - the woman who read whilst walking - and that really sounded quite exciting. I was talking to my daughter about it, and she bought me a copy.
I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it, and as I began to look out for previous winners of the Booker Prize I thought, ‘My goodness, I’ve got quite a few of those books on my shelf, just waiting to be read’. I had things like Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam - which is an odd little book - and I also had Graham Swift’s Last Orders. So, I started on them.
I then began to buy and source winners from previous years, and by the end of 2019 I had a back catalogue of all of them.
At what point did the shortlisted books enter the fray?
In March 2020, the unimaginable happened and we went into the first Covid lockdown. I thought to myself ‘well, I’ve got plenty of reading material’ and began working through the winning list in earnest. As I did, I began to wonder what the competition had been like in each year. So, I started to get hold of the non-winning shortlisted books too, initially on a fairly random basis.
I then attempted to approach the project a bit more scientifically, by trying to read the five non-winning shortlisted books for each year, back-to-back. This wasn’t always possible, because some books were extremely difficult to find, but I eventually acquired all the shortlisted books going back to 1969. On the evening before this year’s winner was announced, I finally read the 315th book.
What have friends and family said about the project?
People tend to think I’m either unimaginably bonkers or have got nothing better to do - both of which might be true! When I talk to people about this, I never bring it up. I always wait until the conversation comes round to books, then offer a comment.
Once we start talking about it, people are almost exclusively interested. And I think the thing I often say that really catches people’s attention is how this project has exposed me to an enormous range of authors who I would otherwise never have gone near in a month of Sundays. The titles would have been meaningless, the writers’ names largely unknown to me.
315 books in just under four years is almost Booker judge speed. How did you find the time to read so many books?
From start to finish I averaged about two a week. Some of them are very slight, short books, while others are monsters. But I’ve never found reading to be a chore. At school, if I decided to read a book I would never abandon it, and I think that kind of attitude - or disability - is probably what has seen me through the project. I’m retired, too, which means I have more free time than most.
Which book(s) made the biggest impact on you, both at the time and upon reflection?
My favourite of the whole lot, and probably more upon reflection than immediately, is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It’s the most beautiful novel - its prose is super, the pace is marvellous, and the characters she develops are just spectacular. I keep running it over in my head, asking if there’s anything better. But I don’t ever come up with anything that has generated such lasting fondness.
Are there any books from the shortlist you think should have won, but didn’t?
Oh, quite a few. Take last year, I wouldn’t have given first place to The Promise, although I thought it was absolutely fantastic. For me, it would have been a toss-up between three of the other shortlisted books, which I thought were stunning and all edged out The Promise. The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed and Bewilderment by Richard Powers were both wonderful. Just pipping those two, however, I would have chosen Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead - which was really fantastic.
And I must mention Doris Lessing - who I think should have won at least twice. She was shortlisted in 1981 for The Sirian Experiments, one of a series of books about an alien civilisation many times more advanced than our own. It’s told from the standpoint of one of the alien characters, and she does it so brilliantly. And her first shortlisted book, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, right back in 1971, is equally mesmerising. She was also shortlisted in 1985 for The Good Terrorist, one of my personal top 10 Booker books. Quite an extraordinary author.
Which book from the shortlists would you recommend to a friend?
A book I’ve recommended to a lot of people, without reservation, and which is very much in my own top five, is The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. I love Julian Barnes; he’s got real breadth and he comes up with some really interesting and quite different stuff.
Did you have a least favourite from the list?
I think that James Kelman’s How late it was, how late, is right at the top of that list, if that’s not a contradiction in terms. I’m also not a terrific fan - and I know this might sound sacrilegious to a lot of people - of the Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker. And there is a very odd one by Tim Parks called Europa, which left me thinking ‘I’m not particularly keen on that’.
But the overwhelming conclusion from reading all these books is that the exercise has put me in front of dozens and dozens of authors who I hadn’t heard of - or certainly hadn’t read anything by - and it’s been immensely rewarding and satisfying. When I read the books I give them a score of one to five. There are very few ones, and lots of fives!
Were there any books you found particularly challenging?
Yes - Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman, which is basically the musings of an American housewife over 1032 pages, in five sentences. There are very few paragraphs, and every page is a wall of solid text. I thought ‘this is going to be absolute purgatory, it’s going to take me a month’. In the event, it took me a little over a week. The mind’s an incredible thing, isn’t it? It just kind of forgets there’s not an ounce of punctuation on any of the pages.
Another tricky read was 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster. It features one central character, with four iterations of how his life panned out. That sounds reasonably straightforward, but the different iterations aren’t in sections. There’s a lot of referring back and jumping about and it’s a terribly difficult book. I’ve read something about Auster’s intention, and it seems it was to make the narrative something like an overheard conversation between two people, when you knew nothing about them or the background to what they were saying. I think he succeeded!
Were you a fan of any Booker authors prior to undertaking this project? Did you read their books again with a fresh eye?
I had read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies before I started this project. I reread them back-to-back, which was a valuable thing to do because I’d missed so much the first time. And, of course, the first time I read them I wasn’t comparing them with a long list of other winners or shortlisted books, I was just reading for their superb handling of an important time in our history.
I’d also read a couple of Salman Rushdie’s books before I got on to the project, including Midnight’s Children, which I tackled as kind of ‘required reading’ years and years ago. What did I think of it then? Probably not much. But when I went back to it I thought, ‘that’s tremendously constructed and there’s huge scope to that book, and it’s a deserved winner’ - because Rushdie had some tough competition in 1981.
How did you discover reading?
As a 10 or 11-year-old, I had a job working on a farm where one of the guys was a big reader. He would just pass me a book and say ‘read that and tell me what you think’ - historical romances like Boscobel or adventures like King Solomon’s Mines, and also thrilling real-life stuff about explorers and suchlike. I’ve since recognised that this was phenomenally fortunate - at an impressionable time in my life, someone who loved reading was introducing me to literature and non-fiction that I would probably never otherwise have gone near.
Do you gravitate towards a particular fiction genre?
That early start has given me a very eclectic attitude towards literature, and I’ll pick up anything. However, I really love crime fiction. My favourite crime fiction writer, without any shadow of a doubt, is P.D. James, and I think her Adam Dalgliesh series is just fantastic.
Where and when do you like to read?
I can’t imagine going through a day without picking a book up some point, or several points. I’ve always got a book in my hand. And, of course, I read last thing at night. I’ve read in bed, whether it be for three minutes or two hours, every night since I can remember.
Which books or authors do you think are missing from the Booker Library?
I absolutely love Joseph Heller and Norman Mailer, although as American authors neither would have qualified prior to 2015. I think one British author who’s missing is John Le Carré*. I’ve just read a novel of his that was published posthumously, Silver View. It’s a spy-thriller and it’s just wonderful. It makes you question what the process of exclusion is for the Booker - I’m often left scratching my head, wondering!
Once you’ve rattled through the 2022 shortlist, what do you plan to read next?
I’ve recently gone back to crime fiction, reading one of my all-time favourites, Elmore Leonard. He’s probably best known for creating the character Chili Palmer, adapted for film as Get Shorty. The way he creates his characters and engineers his plots is fabulous.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
*Editor’s note: John Le Carré refused to let his work be entered into literary prizes, including the Booker.
I’ve thought and thought about first and second. Can I declare (as Booker judges have done on three occasions) joint winners?
Joint 1st place: The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (winner, 2014)
The Burma Death Railway and the shocking mistreatment of POWs by the Japanese - but Flanagan’s masterpiece is not just another book about WW2, it is a moving examination of human fortitude, passion and loss.
Joint 1st place: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (shortlisted, 2015)
The unforgettable, compelling story of Jude and his university friends, set over several decades in New York. In Jude, Yanagihara has created a character of such rare depth and complexity that he will stay in your memory for years.
3rd place: Confederates by Thomas Keneally (shortlisted, 1979)
From the four-time shortlisted Keneally, this is a brilliant and tightly structured snapshot of the American Civil War. Outstanding descriptive prose, deftly woven into an accurate historical framework of 1860s America.
4th place: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (winner, 2011)
From another four-time shortlisted author, this is Barnes’s greatest achievement to date. Only 150 pages long, this wonderful, precise and gentle novel has an utterly unexpected ending.
5th place: The Elected Member by Bernice Rubens (winner, 1970)
The complex, funny, sad but gloriously portrayed existence of Norman Zweck, his Rabbi father and sister Bella, in 1960s East End London. Rubens’ quote at the beginning of the book is a perfect taster: ‘If patients are disturbed, their families are often very disturbing.’
6th place: The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing (shortlisted, 1985)
It is puzzling why any, or all, of Lessing’s three shortlisted books failed to win. Especially this one. A part satirical, part comedic, part disturbing delve into radical politics in contemporary England. Perfect pace and outstanding structure.
7th place: Last Letters from Hav by Jan Morris (shortlisted, 1985)
A unique travel book by accomplished journalist Morris, who was the Times correspondent with the 1953 Everest expedition. But Hav isn’t to be found on any map and Morris has never visited it. In fact, Hav doesn’t exist. A special book, which has you convinced you are reading about real events in a real place. I guarantee that when you finish the book, you will look for Hav on the internet.
8th place: Arthur & George by Julian Barnes (shortlisted, 2005)
A wonderful and engrossing journey into Arthur Conan Doyle’s growing obsession with spiritualism and his relentless, often courageous, campaign to win justice for the wrongly accused, wrongly convicted and wrongly imprisoned George. Superb.
9th place: Joseph by Julian Rathbone (shortlisted, 1979)
The Peninsular Wars in the early years of the 19th century, where Wellington clashed with France (Napoleon), Portugal and Spain, in the years leading up to Waterloo. Rathbone has produced one of the finest marriages of fictional heroes (and antiheroes) with historical fact. The eponymous Joseph is a genuinely memorable creation.
10th place: The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (winner, 2000)
One of only two authors to be shortlisted six times (with Iris Murdoch) and one of only five people to win twice, this is probably Atwood’s finest work, in which she delivers a complex, multi-level, narrative beautifully and convincingly. Features one of the most memorable opening sentences in the Booker Library.
The most memorable opening sentence, in my opinion, comes from Earthly Powers, by Anthony Burgess (shortlisted 1980):
It was the afternoon of my 81st birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.