The Book List

There is a trend going around Facebook at the moment (not the one where you pour icy water on your head for charity – I’m getting around to that). The rules are to list ten books that impacted upon or resonated with you, without thinking about it too much, no Shakespeare, Bible &c (whatever that ‘&c’ means). I owe my nomination to Jenny Bishop, and here, in no particular order and with some extra notes, are my choices. I haven’t added links for the books because there’s nothing especially obscure here.

King James Bible
I am breaking the rules straight away with this one, and I recognise that this choice is probably controversial both inherently – obviously a lot of people will disagree about the nature of its ‘impact’ – and because it’s a double composite, a translation by a team of scholars of a book by many writers. In fact, I think I should get away with selecting this specific rendering. Both the clear, simple-but-lyrical wordings and the message certainly resonate for me.

The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
Probably the first book I really loved, swept away by the imagination behind it, the joy in storytelling, the indulgence in language and legend. It’s a cliché, but this book made me want to write.

The Colour Purple – Alice Walker
This was an assigned book at sixth form, but one which more than stood up to the classroom analysis; challenging and fascinating, introducing me to a world and perspective I had never encountered before.

War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
An eighteenth birthday present. Like Tolkien, another grand, panoramic drama, but with compelling characters and historical philosophy thrown in. Though even I struggle with the rambling two(!) epilogues.

Bright Day – J.B. Priestley
I read this on holiday in Malta immediately after submitting my thesis, and then felt ashamed that I’d not discovered Priestley sooner. I particularly like the tight, crisp, not-a-word-wasted style. The rest of his writings are also brilliant.

The First Man – Albert Camus
I don’t know which Camus book is my favourite – The Fall is a strong contender, though they’re all great – but in the end this, his unfinished last work, gets the mention for three reasons: its vivid portrayal of a childhood in stark poverty in Algiers; its vibrant love for life and people; and as a consequence of these two, the way it seems to be closer to Camus himself than most of his other books.

The Temple – George Herbert
Very difficult to pick a single book of poetry, but this one contains one of my favourite poems, The Collar, and it’s also from the seventeenth century…

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World – Fernand Braudel
Even more difficult to pick from the many, many historical books I have been inspired by, but undoubtedly Braudel’s most well-known work is one of the top. Engaging, provocative, still unmatched in its ambitious scope, and, astonishingly, written while Braudel was in a prison camp during World War II.

The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton
Another birthday present, but I only really Got It on the second reading. A surprising and paradoxical combination of lighthearted thriller and deep, moving imagery.

Society and Puritanism – Christopher Hill
Similar to Braudel, how to pick historians? Or even one book from Hill’s huge list of publications? Although other scholars have probably impacted more on my subject and my methods, Hill wrote extremely well, and with the strength of his convictions (even where this made the accuracy of his conclusions questionable) and this one stands out for me, though I can’t say exactly why.

I found it hard to pick just ten – of course, everybody does – and I feel this list is quite unrepresentative, but there you go. I have chosen largely on the basis of first-that-came-to-mind, so it’s quite possible this list would be different on another day. I also resisted the temptation to embellish or change the list once I made it, as difficult as that was, given that many of my favourite writers aren’t here. I’m not sure what deeper implications to draw from the choices, if any. Some represent specific moments or periods in my life, others are more ‘free-floating’. Perhaps there’s a tendency towards long books and the epic scale (revealing delusions of grandeur?), although not all the books fit that description. Both the historians are writers I don’t always agree with, or try to emulate, but whose impact is more in the quality of their writing and the distinctiveness of their ideas. I think the same can be said for the other choices (and for all the other books that I could add to the list, but then we would be here forever…).

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2 thoughts on “The Book List

  1. Pingback: The English Common Reader | travelling histories

  2. Enjoyed your list, like the idea, don’t use Facebook – so here’s my list:
    Bleak House – Charles Dickens (may be ‘&c’, sorry)
    I could include any of Dickens’s novels, to which I keep returning, finding new delight with each rereading. I pick Bleak House because it was a set reader in my final year at high school, and I couldn’t get much past page 100. Crossed its path again in literature studies at university, and loved it. You need some life experience to appreciate Dickens.

    Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett
    Again, prescribed reading at university. Absurdist philosophy and Sartrean existentialism lit sparks in my youthful brain – but Beckett said it all so simply – we each have to identify our own ‘Godot’.

    Collected Poems – Dylan Thomas
    Another one from university days. Thomas’s anarchic use of language to burst through the limitations of words to the truths of the human heart affected me strongly then and can still bring a tear to my eye. ‘Fern Hill’ is my all-time favourite poem.

    Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
    Could have chosen any one of a number of Steinbeck’s novels. He was a later discovery for me, and Cannery Row was the first one I read. It encapsulates the author’s humanist philosophy, his persuasive sympathy for the common man (and woman). A short novella full of memorable characters (Doc, Mack, Hazel), humour and pathos.

    The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
    Undoubtedly one of the literary greats of the late 20th century, Adams uses the medium of science fiction to satirise the post-modern world. Its patchwork of unforgettable episodes disguises the fact that there is an overall concept explaining the entire purpose of life on Earth.

    John A Lee –Erik Olssen
    A biography of my number one New Zealand hero: born in poverty, one-time juvenile delinquent, WWI war hero and amputee, charismatic soap-box orator, champion of the labour movement and an economic theory that deserved (maybe deserves) more attention. Drummed out of politics by the forces of conservatism.

    The Season of the Jew – Maurice Shadbolt
    A novel by one of New Zealand’s better-known authors, part of a trilogy on the 19th century wars between the indigenous Maori people and the colonial government. Focuses on the exploits of a brown-skinned charismatic who inspired his people to rebel against their exploitation by land-hungry settlers.

    Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernieres
    The author is better known for Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but this gets my vote because it deals with people, events and a land little known and understood in the West. De Bernieres weaves a spellbinding tale of villagers in southeastern Turkey caught up in international events far beyond their control.

    Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
    Once again, I could have chosen any one of Bryson’s books which combine exhaustive research with a knack for finding the quirky episodes of history and culture that bring to vivid life whatever subject he choose to focus on. This was the book that hooked me on Bryson, a sympathetic view of life in the UK by an ex-pat American.

    The Ottoman Turks – Justin McCarthy
    Finishing off with some serious history. McCarthy is professor of Ottoman History at the University of Kentucky. When I came to live in Turkey, I needed some historical context in which to view this much misrepresented land of contradictions. Prof, McCarthy is the man.

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