So I was stumbling around on Twitter this morning (it’s still early for most people (7:30ish)) when I came across a question: If you had to curate a shelf of only 12 books that represent you, what would you pick? I realised that this is a question that most readers and writers are asked in one way or another (usually “What’s your FAVOURITE book?” or “Who’s your FAVOURITE writer?”)
And that question is either pretty much unanswerable or is entirely flexible depending on whether you ask me while I’m browsing in the library or if I’m just sitting on my bum in front of the computer trying to write flash fiction and you keep interrupting me with ALL THESE DAMNED QUESTIONS! WHO ARE YOU? WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY HOUSE?
*Ahem* Anyway, 12 favourite books…I’m going to be assuming that it’s just novels, novella or collections/anthologies, and not include any of my reference books or other non-fiction. Nor am I going to include any of the religious books I’ve got (the Qur’an, Bible and the Bhagavad Gita,) although some of the poetry is divine (see what I did there?) And I don’t think I’ll include any poetry or plays other than to mention some here, before the list, which I guess you could consider cheating, but hey, my blog, whatcha gonna do? If you haven’t read any Shakespeare, or George Bernard Shaw (The Applecart is the one I’m thinking about) or Kahlil Gibran (The Prophet) or Allen Ginsberg (Howl).
Also, in no way should you take this list to be in some kind of order other than how they came out of my head, as if I could choose a NUMBER 1! book from this list…
12: Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is my off-the-cuff answer to the question “What is your favourite novel?” I guess that’s because I’m a bit of a hipster (you’ve all seen the beard,) and I like it that I’ve met very few people who have actually read this book. It’s also fantastic, probably one of the best explorations of poverty and of an anti-hero railing fruitlessly against the consumerist spirit (or lack of spirit) in fiction. The descriptive work is unparalleled, and in this book Orwell shows off (and it’s absolutely wonderful!)
“Bored in advance by tomorrow’s tobaccoless hours, he got up and moved towards the door — a small frail figure, with delicate bones and fretful movements. His coat was out at elbow in the right sleeve and its middle button was missing; his ready-made flannel trousers were stained and shapeless. Even from above you could see that his shoes needed resoling.”
Gordon Comstock is the angry anti-hero, watching his folio of poetry Mice moving further from the eye-line of potential customers, higher up the shelves in the dead-end job as a book-store clerk (sounds heavenly.) Gordon is struggling to combat the poet’s equivilant to Second-novel Syndrome with his magnum opus London Pleasure, but keeps running up against his position as a revolutionary against the money-god:
“His mind was sticky with boredom. He couldn’t cope with rhymes and adjectives. You can’t, with only twopence halfpenny in your pocket.”
I love this novel, and if you haven’t read it then I would suggest that you do – after all it’s available for free as an eBook thanks to Project Gutenberg.
11: Lord of the Flies – William Golding
This is one of those books that will cause people everywhere to roll their eyes, moaning over the memories of acned boredom in the back row of Year Ten English classes. But let’s be realistic. There were only so many seats in the back row of any class, too few for the multitudes who claim ownership of that fabled row. This is the high school version of Woodstock (500,000 people went, but an entire generation claimed they were there.) Why should you re-read this book? Because when you where in high school you probably weren’t paying attention. You probably just read the crib-notes version of this masterpiece, didn’t you? And when you were forced to read it for English class there were probably a thousand other things to do – like smoking in the toilets or gazing wistfully at that one guy/gal whose name you spent hours tracing through your notepad.
Read this novel if you have any dreams of writing an effective action scene – the final chapter shows Ralph fleeing the rampage of the other boys gone wild, his death on their lips as they set the entire island aflame. The moment the naval officer appears and Ralph collapses on the beach is a perfect example of a chase, as sentences shrink into themselves, dragging you along as breathless as Ralph is before the sudden, jarring shock at the appearance of a responsible adult.
“The ululation spread from shore to shore. The savage knelt down by the edge of the thicket, and there were lights flickering in the forest behind him. You could see a knee disturb the mould. Now the other. Two hands. A spear.
He builds this tension beautifully, your heart racing before he stops you abruptly, with the calm, stiff upper lip of a British naval officer.
“I should have thought,” said the officer as he visualized the search before him, “I should have though that a pack of British boys – you’re all British aren’t you? – would have been able to put up a better show than all that – I mean -“
“It was like that at first,” said Ralph, “before things —–“
“We were together then ——–“
The officer nodded helpfully.
“I know. Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island.”
And then he portrays the little boy returning to Ralph and the unease with which honest emotion is so often met:
“And in the middle of them [the sailors], with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.
The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.”
What a way to end a novel.
10: The Trial – Franz Kafka
Another book for writers to read if you want to learn how to set the mood effectively. This novel is incredibly frustrating to read, as we meander slowly through undecipherable legalese and a Byzantine, labyrinthine legal system. I really struggled with this book until it finally clicked in my head just how clever Kafka was in its construction – the frustration and confusion is absolutely deliberate, as we feel first the confidence and then the confusion of the protagonist Josef K. A psychological thriller without a true crime, as the Stasi-like secret police seem hell-bent on breaking K and receiving his confession, and the confused judiciary maintain their power over him. A story of power and fear living in a police state.
“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong.”
And from the very first sentence the madness (and vivid descriptions) begin.
“I see, these books are probably law books, and it is an essential part of the justice dispensed here that you should be condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.”
Brilliant. Read it.
9: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksander Solzhenitsyn
Most people would’ve heard of Solzhenitsyn from The First Circle, a mammoth and mostly autobiographical novel about the author’s fall from grace and his outrage at the corruption in the Politburo of the Soviet Union. Needless to say, he was quickly shipped off for *ahem* re-education. One Day in the Life is an earlier account of the gulags, told in the third-person about the titular character Ivan Denisovich.
“How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?”
My wife loved this novel, and she’s not usually one for the gloominess of the Russians. Neither am I, truth be told. The despair of a political prisoner (who feels he has done nothing wrong) is tempered by the small hopes of a prison camp (a shared cigarette, a Red Cross care package, a second helping of dinner) it’s a novel about maintaining your principles in the face of adversity.
“Next, he removed his cap from his shaven head – however cold it was, he wouldn’t let himself eat with his cap on.”
Another brilliant character study, again about a police state and crime and punishment.
“There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail. Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days. The three extra days were for leap years.”
“A convict’s thoughts are no freer than he is: they come back to the same place, worry over the same thing continually.”
8: The Tree of Man – Patrick White
An Australian writer (some say THE Australian writer) who shares my last name. No we are not related, although my parents wanted (apparently) to call me Patrick, except they thought the other kids would tease me for sharing my name with this gay icon. The Tree of Man is brilliant, just brilliant – a pioneer’s novel, as a man and his dog set up house in the bush, prepare a farm, settle down and get married. Spartan, like the stereotypical Australian male’s emotional range, nevertheless this book hooks you with those descriptions White does deign to give us.
“Because he had nothing to hide, he did perhaps appear to have forfeited a little of his strength. But that is the irony of honesty.”
And of his wife, stranded in antipodean isolation:
“She had begun to read in the beginning as a protection from the frightening and unpleasant things. She continued because, apart from the story, literature brought with it a kind of gentility for which she craved.”
7: The Outsider – Albert Camus
This book is apparently not available on Kindle, so please click that little button down the bottom to request the publisher releases it. Another character study, I know, but isn’t that endemic to great fiction? People are what matter in telling stories, even if those people are aliens or anthropomorphic animals. Camus’ novella is brutal, jarring and despairingly tragic. Another novel about crime and punishment, about the humans who commit crimes, and mental illness. Existential.
“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: ‘Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.’ That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”
I can’t say much else without entirely ruining this novel, so I’ll leave you with another quote:
“On my way out, I was even going to shake his [the policeman’s] hand, but just in time, I remembered that I had killed a man.”
Every sentence is perfectly weighted, perfectly delivered.
“He [the Chaplain] wanted to talk to me about God again, but I went up to him and made one last attempt to explain to him that I only had a little time left and I didn’t want to waste it on God.”
6: The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
Ah, finally, some science-fiction. Or is Alternate History its own category now-days? One of my favourite writers, Philip K. Dick is responsible for a stack of box-office films like Minority Report, Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep), Total Recall (We Can Remember it for You Wholesale), The Adjustment Bureau (Adjustment Team), A Scanner Darkly (holy shit, see this movie if you haven’t yet. Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, Robert Downy Jr. Brilliant, confusing, perfect.)
NAZI Germany and Imperial Japan have won the Second World War, and as time passes resentment disappears, as former US citizens become invested in their lives under their new Emperors.
The man in the high castle is an author, safe in his fortress in the Rocky Mountain States, an independent buffer-state between the Japanese and German Empires, who has written an alternate history novel in which the Allies win the war. Safe until an assassin is sent for him.
“They know a million tricks, those novelists. Take Doctor Goebbels; that’s how he started out, writing fiction. Appeals to the base lusts that hide in everyone no matter how respectable on the surface. Yes, the novelist knows humanity, how worthless they are, ruled by their testicles, swayed by cowardice, selling out every cause because of their greed – all he’s got to do is thump on the drum, and there’s his response. And he’s laughing, of course, behind his hand at the effect he gets.”
5: Eight Tales of Hoffmann – E.T.A Hoffmann
Author of the now-famous The Nutcracker and the Mouse-King (you know the one, the ballet written by Tchaikovsky,) which is one of these Eight Tales. While this might conjure up images of children dancing badly and amateur musicians, the tales themselves are clever and twisted, dark little short stories. He was also a composer and a playwrite, and was renowned in Germany for both his fiction and his music. He is also my wife’s great-great-uncle. He’s family, so of course we have an edition. Hoffmann didn’t only write fantasy, and some of his horror stories are not only terrifying but are also bitingly sad. In his own words,
“Why should not a writer be permitted to make use of the levers of fear, terror and horror because some feeble soul here and there finds it more than it can bear? Shall there be no strong meat at table because there happen to be some guests there whose stomachs are weak, or who have spoiled their own digestions?”
4: Stories – edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
We all know who Neil Gaiman is, right? Anyone who says “No” should go out immediately and buy American Gods or Neverwhere, or watch Coraline or some Doctor Who. Al Sarrantonio is a writer of weird fiction, and is considered a Master Anthologist. Features some of the best science fiction I’ve read in the last few years, with Joe Hill, Gene Wolfe, Jodi Picoult, Roddy Doyle, Chuck Palahniuk, Oh God, the list goes on and on. Well worth being on the list for its size as well as the unending quality, coming in at 448 pages of top quality science fiction. I’m waiting for my copy to come in the post…
3: Mademoiselle Fifi and Other Stories – Guy de Maupassant
Merciless yet gentle with humanity, he looks with an eye of profound pit upon their troubles, deceptions and misery. I have a ancient little paperback copy of this collection, prefaced by Joseph Conrad, who is smitten with Maupassant, saying his words are not “glass beads but precious gems.” He was Flaubert’s protégée, who recognised his Boule de Suif as “a masterpiece that will endure.” He is the father of the short story as an artform, and Somerset Maugham, O Henry and Henry James all acknowledged his brilliance. Every word is perfectly placed, well thought out and delivered.
“Why does one love? How queer it is to see only one being in the world, to have only one thought in one’s mind, only one desire in the heart, and only one name on the lips–a name which comes up continually, rising, like the water in a spring, from the depths of the soul to the lips, a name which one repeats over and over again, which one whispers ceaselessly, everywhere, like a prayer.”
2: Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
Some more science fiction for my list, this one devastatingly sad, a character study on humanity’s inhumanity to man. Another story that I don’t want to ruin with spoilers, so all I’ll say is that this novel explores the concept of ‘voice’ in an amazing fashion. Another MUST READ for writers everywhere, about science and friendship.
“I was seeing them clearly for the first time – not gods or even heroes, but just two men worried about getting something out of their work.”
1: Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
Oh, this book is amazing. But there are so many others I’ve left out – which is where the whole original dilemma comes back to haunt me. Would I run out of room for my favourite 500? Probably. This book will show you why people revere Ray Bradbury, the concept, the characters, the denouement. I wish I could write like this. One day. One day.
“With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”
“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door…Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”
Who stars on your list? Who have I left out of mine that demands to be on the list? If I went back and started again I’d force in Vonnegut, Satre, Roald Dahl – but who would they replace? Who would lose their place? Let me know below…