There’s a meme doing the rounds on Facebook at the moment to list out your 10 favourite books. At risk of turning this into Buzzfeed I thought I’d note my choices here, mainly in the spirit of trying to reflect on what, if anything, I could glean about my own writing from my selection of reading. Other than oh-my-god-I-could-never-write-as-well-as-that, of course…
Subject to change on a whim, with a break in the weather, or depending on what I’ve just had for breakfast here are the 10:
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey. This is my all time favourite and the book that fired my entire interest in 60s counter culture in the States. From here I went back to Kerouac and forwards to Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Sadly I never drove across America in a brightly painted bus with flowers in my hair but perhaps there is still time. If you know the film then you’ll know that it is a brilliant thing but the book is far richer and more nuanced. It works as a straightforward story but also allegorically to describe the entire movement Kesey was associated with: a freeing of the mind from tradition and authority. It’s very funny, deeply sad, and, by the end, redemptive and hopeful.
The Lord Of The Rings – JRR Tolkien. Yes it’s somewhat predictable. And yes I have read many fantasy genre books since that I consider “better”. However, this is the one that opened an 11/12 year old me up to an entire genre that has given me significant pleasure and escape over the past 30 years. If there’s a fantasy closet then I’m coming out of it. Two books in and another that’s possibly now more famous for the film version which may say something about either my taste or the steady decline of Western Civilisation. Or both. Either way the films nail the scale and scope but the key to why I love this, which the books inevitably had long before Peter Jackson could speak, let alone speak Elvish, is imagination. All of that stuff. Out of one person’s head. Imagination was Tolkien’s great gift to me.
Unreliable Memoirs – Clive James. I’m not sure if the rules for this list specified works of fiction. I’m not particularly sure that Clive James took much notice of the fiction / non fiction distinction in his collection of memoirs anyway so it probably evens out. This is here simply because the man writes so beautifully; few craft a phrase as eloquently as James and few could guide you through their formative years with such humour, candour, and grace. His command of voice leaves me mildly awestruck – each page is perfectly and consistently him. This is the book that made me look at fifteen odd years’ worth of diary entries and want to chuck them all in the bin.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy – Douglas Adams. Eminently quotable, much cleverer than it’s given credit for, and extremely funny. I think, reflecting on it, that what I really like about Hitchhikers is the sheer number of ideas in it. Whilst it’s difficult to know how much ended up on the cutting room floor I like to imagine that Adams chucked everything in that was running through his head, inventing ever more complex problems for his narrative to solve. The slight cheat, of course, was that he was writing both SF and comedy so when things got too tough he could always fall back (with a knowing wink) on deus ex machina.
Generation X – Douglas Coupland. I’m instinctively wary of something that had the whole “defines a generation” tag foisted on it but this book caught me at exactly the right time. Reading it in my mid 20s it felt authentic to me at a time when I was wondering what else was. I haven’t read it since and suspect that it may not speak as loudly now as it did then albeit it’s interesting that the central premise of the book – that three disempowered friends tell each other stories as a means of expression – is one that I seem to have unconsciously processed and am vaguely channeling in this year’s writing project.
The Lions Of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay. There are a number of fantasy books (other than LOTR) that I could have picked but Kay has steadily worked his way to the top of my pile in recent years. His early work was very Tolkien-esque (relatively unsurprising given that he worked on editing some of Tolkien’s unpublished writing) but he has subsequently mined a richer seam that weaves fantasy with historical fiction. Al-Rassan is set in a parallel mediaeval Spain and chronicles a regional power struggle between various political and religious factions. The central characters are brilliant, it’s tightly plotted, lyrically written, and a fabulous exercise in world building (or, I guess, world borrowing).
The Unbearable Lightness of Being – Milan Kundera. Another book I read in my mid to late 20s and which, I think, stuck with me precisely because it was so overtly philosophical. It was probably the first time I’d encountered a style that very consciously called out the themes that the book was seeking to explore in its narrative, often directly framed to the reader almost as non fiction. I like that authorial voice speaking from the page alongside the narrative voices and I like that this is a book that is unashamedly about the big stuff: existence, love, being, life.
Stoner – John Williams. The newest book on my list in terms of when it was read. This popped up last year to a fair degree of fanfare as a “lost classic” and I picked it up whilst taking a 6 month sabbatical from work. In that sense it’s probably another case of right book at the right time given that it deals almost exclusively in reflecting on the course of a relatively ordinary life and its significance. It’s quite slow, nothing much happens, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly sad.
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald. I read it for English Literature A level. I didn’t get it. See also Pride And Prejudice. I had one teacher, a man, who taught me Arthur Miller, dystopian visions of the future, and Shakespeare. I got all that. I had another, a woman, who taught me Gatsby, Austen, and the Romantic poets. For a long time I didn’t get it all. She persevered with my immaturity and wall of rationality until, between us, we knocked it down (or, at least, took a couple of bricks out). Gatsby is magical, poetic, heady, dizzying, and, in a common theme for me, also, at its core, very sad. I love it now, just as I also learned to love Austen, and Keats, and anyone else that understood how to make your heart beat a little faster through words.
Fantastic Mr Fox – Roald Dahl. This is the one I read and read and read as a child. Reading Dahl again now, to my daughter, is a great pleasure but this was the one that I loved as a kid and probably most obviously started me off into all of the other books listed above. I also loved those Enid Blyton books about all girls’ boarding schools as a kid: not really sure what that was all about and perhaps best we let that one lie…
Tomorrow I will remember with a groan something really obvious that I’ve missed out. Let me know in the comments what your favourites are and what I’m missing out on.