Professor Carey is a brave man to admit he prefers small books over big, easy over difficult

Years and years ago, when The Godfather Part II came out, it got a rave review from Margaret Hinxman, the then film critic on the Daily Mail. She wrote one of those phrases that seem to beg to be put on the poster for the film, as indeed it was: "I love this film so much I would gladly sell tickets for it." I had this idea, which was that I would phone her up and say: "Hello? Mrs Hinxman? I'm calling from the Edgware Odeon. We're showing The Godfather Part II and we're a little short-staffed at the moment. I noted your offer, and we'd therefore appreciate it if you could turn up at five to two tomorrow, so that you can be in the ticket booth in time for the first show." I never got round to phoning her. I was only 14 and still had a very squeaky voice, so it wouldn't have been very convincing.

One of the best books I've read this year is Celia's Secret, a wonderful account, written in collaboration by Michael Frayn and David Burke, of the elaborate hoax perpetrated by Burke on Frayn while he was starring in the director's Copenhagen.

Burke recounts how hoaxes of this kind have been a hobby of his. It began when he appeared in a play with Paul Scofield. Scofield told him how he had recently been returning home by train, when he had met Jimmy Edwards and Laurence Olivier. He had become so immersed in conversation with them that he noticed his station only as the train was pulling out. So he tugged the communication cord and walked off without being stopped. Next day, Scofield received a letter from a Sergeant Blenkinsop of the Railway Police: "He was wanted for questioning, said Blenkinsop, in connection with an incident at Hayward's Heath station. Two witnesses aboard the train had insisted on giving their names as 'Jimmy Edwards' and 'Sir Laurence Olivier', as a result of which they had been taken into custody and held overnight at Brighton police station."

I must confess to an impulse to do something similar when I read John Carey's introduction to his new book, Pure Pleasure: a guide to the 20th century's most enjoyable books. This "guide" is actually a list of 50 books, and a very remarkable list it is. I would be interested to see the response that the book provokes in America or on the Continent - bemused laughter, probably. No fewer than 39 of the 50 are by authors who were British, Irish or resident in England. It might seem odd to have Kazuo Ishiguro (and The Unconsoled at that) and not Kafka, Ian McEwan and not Beckett, Graham Swift and not Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, Stevie Smith and not Wallace Stevens, but then you only have to turn to the introduction to see that this is part of Carey's point. There, he writes how "books which I do not like, or have never been able to finish, were naturally omitted (no Proust, no Faulkner)".

This reminds me of the amusing game of "Humiliations" that David Lodge describes in his novel Changing Places. You play it with a small group of people, and each player in turn has to name a book he or she hasn't read, winning a point for each person in the group who has read it. Thus, the more familiar the book, the better you do, which means you have to humiliate yourself in order to win. In Lodge's novel, an American academic gets so caught up that he admits he hasn't read Hamlet. He wins the game, but loses his job.

Carey's apparent preference for small books over big ones, minor against major, easy against difficult, is in a curious English tradition in which it is considered slightly bad form to be too ambitious, to take things too seriously, to be interested in big ideas. You can see it in a figure like Isaiah Berlin, who was considered one of the most important philosophers in Britain, a major figure in our cultural life, yet who never seemed to do anything much and never produced any significant work longer than an essay. You can also see it in the insistence of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin that their favourite modern novelist was Dick Francis. In an interview, Larkin agreed with Dylan Thomas's statement that he never read "anything hard".

So I was going to write a letter to Professor Carey, pretending to be from the Oxford University authorities, saying something like: "We have noted your recent admission of your failure even to read the works of Marcel Proust and William Faulkner. Consequently, your professorship has been terminated, and legal efforts to recover all monies erroneously paid to you during your academic career will be set in motion." But I won't. I mean, I'd have to get hold of headed notepaper and all that. That's the problem with being a hoaxer. It's such an effort.

This article first appeared in the 09 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Schools that teach children to lie