I was recently nominated by a friend on Facebook to post a list of the 10 books that had made the most impact on me. It was a lot harder than I thought and I’ve had to miss out some real favourites.
I could have written ten lists, let alone ten titles, featuring almost entirely different books that I love, but those perhaps wouldn’t have been so honest. To help me cut this one down to size I haven’t allowed in anything I first read in the last 10 years, as good as many of those books might be, I think the ones I read earlier in life have probably had a more profound, lasting effect.
The list is in the approximate order that I first read the books from about age 12 to my 20s. Several of these I have re-read more than once. In some ways I wish it was a different list, filled with less obvious more obscure but infinitely more interesting, or difficult, literary works. But that really wouldn’t be the point.
1. The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien.
Almost certainly the novel I’ve read the most times. Disliked by many literary critics, but for sheer thrill and adventure, a love of landscape and as a hymn to the potential of ordinary, (small) people to overcome the odds, fired on by love, friendship and a stubborn inner grit, it can’t be beaten. My first born son is named Sam for a reason.
2. The Ghost Stories of M. R. James.
First introduced to me by my Dad, I’ve loved this kind of ghost story ever since. Never in your face horror, but slowly, but surely, the strange, inhuman revenants that haunt these stories take centre-stage, eventually delivering abject terror and even death to the protagonists, often for little more than being curious. James is a master of saying a lot with few words.
3. The Hound of the Baskervilles. Arthur Conan Doyle.
Enter the great detective. Superficially I fell for this because of the ghostly, folklorific and legendary elements, the gothic background and of course the character of Sherlock Holmes himself. I think it was also the first time that a work of fiction made me think that perhaps nasty, greedy, brutal human nature is in reality always worse than anything the supernatural world might throw at us.
4. Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte
A thunderbolt of literature striking at an impressionable teenage boy. As a pure story I loved the sense of elemental passion that fizzed off the pages as Bronte told of Heathcliff and Cathy – Heathcliff at one point so unhinged that he bangs his head against a tree until his forehead bleeds – the sense of wild, danger in a remote and stormy place, with its own utterly specific character and conventions; and those unforgettable ‘unquiet slumbers’ beneath heath, harebell and soft wind at the end.
This book was also the first that, via my teacher, made me properly realize just how many different ways that a novel can be read critically. Should you wish to, the tale of the Earnshaws and the Lintons could interpreted as: class struggle, town v country, nature v nurture, proto-feminist tract, North v South, establishment v outsiders, gothic romance, Freudian dystopia or any combination of the above.
5. The Ballad of the Sad Café. Carson McCullers.
There are elements of the fairy tale and the classic Western plot in this short novel, as the three main characters, Miss Amelia, Cousin Lymon and Marvin Macy come together and apart in a bitter, vicious and ultimately tragic circumstances. Mostly I like McCullers’ spare, deceptively simple writing style, spinning a haunting portrait of a small southern American town and the simple day-to-day pleasures involved in the beginning of the café, before the seemingly calm domestic scene is shattered as the past comes crashing back into the present. I can also never resist referring to this book to others as ‘The Salad of the Bad Cafe’, usually to groans.
6. Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain.
I never really liked The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, partly because of the casting of an early 1980s TV series, which also had an annoying theme tune. But this, although featuring many of the same characters, was something totally different. My first impressions were that the book was a ‘big’ one, both thematically and in terms of the sense of the vast scale of America, as place and idea. There are some memorable set-piece moments I’ll never forget during Huck and Jim’s journey down the Mississippi, not least the floating shack that the pair come across at one point and the dreadful contents that they discover.
I remember being excited reading this: the idea of ‘lighting out for the territories’ voyaging down a massive river, through a threatening but fascinating land, populated with all kinds of different people and possibilities. I love the way it shows that the ‘right’ behaviour morally, is not the same as the ‘right’ behaviour legally. Here the law is an ass, in particular with regard to Jim’s slave status and the whole hideous slave culture of the southern states.
7. Waterland. Graham Swift.
Part rites-of-passage novel, part topography, this is a brilliant portrait of a very particular landscape – the fens – but also a moving and skillful investigation into the painful gap between the personal histories we record, share and wish to believe and the truth. A delicious stew of ingredients are carefully stirred together as Swift concocts a tale of Tom Crick’s past, mixing crime and gothic elements – the fen witch’s cottage – with a love story and intriguing snatches of local, family and Natural history. A fascinating novel. ‘Children, be curious.’
8. The Buddha of Suburbia. Hanif Kureshi.
Funny, wise, sexy, angry, cool – Kureshi’s debut novel has a lot going for it. In some ways it is a straightforward coming of age novel, packed with memorable, comic characters, but doubles as a serious examination of life in post-war Britain.
From the perspective of the main character Karim, we get a homegrown outsider’s take on late 20th century English politics, race, pop-culture, London, prejudice, feminism, religion and sex. Mainly I identified with Karim’s desire to escape the boredom of the suburbs, or small town, for the excitement and potential of the big city. A journey I made myself not long after first reading this book.
9. Soft City. Jonathan Raban.
My first job in London was at The Gloucester Road Bookshop in Kensington. One day when pricing up some stock that had recently come in – the shop was a second-hand one – I was struck by a paperback with a distinctive dark blue-black cover with a kind of mysterious shimmering nocturne painting of a tall building on the front. Intrigued I took it home. Soft City is a portrait of London in the early 1970s as the author then saw it. The book is a kind of travelogue about Raban’s then home, but also a wider exploration of how cities work, how we perceive them and how they change and evolve around us.
The book contains many wonderful descriptive passages, capturing an invigorating, but also sometimes regretful sense of constant flux and reinvention, as some areas of London became gentrified, while other parts were knocked down and transformed utterly. What has really stuck with me is the notion of the Soft City itself – that every citizen (or visitor) carries with them a unique mental map or landscape of a place – as distinct from the shared Hard City of physical geography, bricks and mortar. Each Soft City is different, because it is constructed from and reflects personal experience and memory; making certain areas, streets and districts loom larger in the mind and resonate deeply, while others because never thought about or visited, cease to exist. Since reading it I’ve never looked at a city or street in quite the same way.
10. Devil in a blue dress. Walter Mosley.
The Chandler archetype of private detective is often something of a loner, a man apart, who does the right thing, the heroic thing, in the mean streets of the big city. Unlike predecessors Chester Himes’ Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones stars of A Rage in Harlem et al, Easy Rawlins tends to work alone. He is perhaps the ultimate outsider hero, a black war veteran making his way through the streets of late 1940s East LA, with occasional, often violent assistance from his sometimes terrifying sidekick Mouse.
Easy introduces us to a world that is at once alien, yet strangely familiar. A slick, spare style of writing rapidly draws you in to what is on the surface a crime novel, but is really about a lot more – race, politics, men and women, sex, death and the search for identity, purpose and home, within a fractured, frightening, modern world.
Bonus list – the books that nearly made it:
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
The Book of Illusions – Paul Auster
On the Black Hill – Bruce Chatwin
Common Ground – Rob Cowen
Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
A Time of Gifts – Patrick Leigh Fermor
The Sportswriter – Richard Ford
A Room with a View – EM Forster
The Magus – John Fowles
The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
Seven Tenths – James Hamilton Patterson
Tess of the Durbervilles – Thomas Hardy
The Go Between – L P Hartley
High Fidelity – Nick Hornby
What I Loved – Siri Hustvedt
A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving
Dubliners – James Joyce
I want my hat back – Jon Klassen
Into The Wild – Jon Krakauer
The Rainbow – DH Lawrence
The Wild Places – Robert Macfarlane
Gossip from the Forest – Sara Maitland
Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantel
Moby Dick – Herman Melville
The Quincunx – Charles Palliser
England’s Dreaming – John Savage
The Secret History – Donna Tart
Rabbit Run – John Updike