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Reacher for the top

Reacher for the top

The annual UK library loans figures for 2018-19 have just been released and show that the Booker Prize judge Lee Child has had another very good year. The thriller maestro was the fourth most borrowed author last year – up from 10th place in 2017-18. If that weren’t cause enough for taking a brief break from reading Booker Prize submissions and popping a cork, he also bagged first, fifth and seventh slots for the most borrowed books (Jack Reacher numbers 22, 23 and 21 respectively). Reacher 22 is also at second spot on the most borrowed e-book list while Reacher 1 is at number 10. It should be enough to settle any prospective arguments with his fellow Booker Prize judges during their deliberations: how can they respond if he says “And how many places did you occupy on the most borrowed books list?” Indeed such is Child’s eminence that even the woman of the moment, Sally Rooney, is overshadowed. Her Booker Prize longlisted Normal People was the eighth most requested e-book – though now that the television adaptation has come to its bitter-sweet end that placing might be somewhat higher next year.

There is nothing new about Booker Prize controversy. One of the early examples of writers causing a fluttering in the dovecote was Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, shortlisted for the prize back in 1980 (William Golding won with Rites of Passage). What raised eyebrows and blood-pressure was the novel’s opening line: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.” Papers have now come to light showing that Burgess had prepared less striking alternative openings, including the more decorous: “It was the siesta-time of my eighty-first birthday and our Moroccan butler announced that the Archbishop of Malta had come to see me.” Burgess hoped the book would cement his place as a top-notch literary novelist and his Booker Prize nomination seemed to justify his confidence. But, as Robert McCrum – then an editor at Faber & Faber which bought the book in a bidding war for a whopping £40,000 – recalled: “When William Golding’s Rites of Passage pipped Earthly Powers at the Booker ceremony a year later, it was a strange kind of poetic justice. Not that Burgess saw it that way, of course. He threw a hissy fit and refused to leave his suite at the Savoy.”

The world is connecting in curious ways at the moment, as evidenced by the coming together of the current Booker Prize champ Bernardine Evaristo, the cosmetics conglomerate Lancôme, and the National Literacy Trust. Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other has been selected by the make-up firm as part of its “Words for Work: Women in Leadership” programme. The idea is to tackle poor literacy among women from disadvantaged backgrounds and the novel is the subject of its first “Behind the Cover” audiobook release. Participants receive a link to an audiobook and can also hear Evaristo discuss her work.

Evaristo has also made the shortlist of the Orwell Prize for political fiction. And she finds herself in familiar company: also on the list is Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which featured on last year’s Booker prize shortlist, and another Booker Prize alumnus, Colson Whitehead (The Underground Railroad, 2017 longlist), for his most recent novel The Nickel Boys. The winner of the £3,000 prize will be announced on 25 June and maybe, given the nature of the prize, the writers should form a coalition.