During the month of March, I have been given my own table at Waterstones bookshops. I have chosen to fill it with the books below:
Field Notes From A Catastrophe – Elizabeth Kolbert
Elizabeth Kolbert talks to the scientists who really know what’s going on with our planet, and her conclusions are devastating. A scrupulous, elegant, frightening book.
Samaritan – Richard Price
All of Richard Price’s novels are brilliantly plotted and utterly convincing. This is as gripping as his best, with an ethical dimension thrown in for nothing.
Brilliant Orange – David Winner
A clever, erudite, imaginative book about…football. Yes, it can be done, but you have to be as original a thinker as David Winner.
This Boy’s Life – Tobias Wolff
Funny, moving, and entirely without self-pity, this book taught a whole generation of writers how to approach autobiography.
Sweet Soul Music – Peter Guralnick
This was one of the all-time top five favourites of Rob Fleming, narrator of ‘High Fidelity’. And if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me. Definitive.
Scenes From A Revolution – Mark Harris
The sharpest book about the movie-making process that I’ve ever read. And like all the best non-fiction, it’s about a lot more than its subject.
Naples ’44 – Norman Lewis
Hilarious, tragic, surreal – a great travel writer’s non-fiction version of ‘Catch-22′.
What Good Are The Arts – John Carey
This book, together with the equally brilliant ‘The Intellectuals And The Masses’, should remove all those stubborn and lazy prejudices you’ve been having trouble with.
Spies – Michael Frayn
A moving, simple, clever, layered novel about the topography of childhood. Michael Frayn is a national treasure, and this, in my opinion, is his best book.
Birds of America – Lorrie Moore
I know, I know, you don’t like short stories. How can I convince you that Lorrie Moore’s are as rewarding and memorable as just about any novel you hold dear?
The Child That Books Built - Francis Spufford
An awe-inspiringly intelligent memoir about our first contact with books – what they did to us, and why they did it.
A Complicated Kindness – Miriam Toews
A fresh, quirky fictional voice telling us about a community of which we know nothing. What else do you need from contemporary fiction?
Stasiland – Anna Funder
Horrifying, of course, but also weird, and packed with extraordinary narrative incident, this book is a people’s history of the twentieth century’s strangest, cruellest and most ambitious thought-control experiment.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon
A deeply satisfying, brilliantly-imagined epic about mid-twentieth-century America, as seen through the prism of its comic books and the young men who created them.
Random Family – Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
An important, astonishingly ambitious piece of extended journalism about two young, attractive, winning and doomed young women, as illuminating and gripping as Michael Apted’s TV series ‘7 Up’.
The Republic Of Love - Carol Shields
A novel about love that is both smart and deeply romantic, and there aren’t too many of those. Carol Shields’ wise, warm and witty voice is still deeply missed.
Skellig – David Almond
Refusing to read this book because you are not a child makes as much sense as refusing to read crime fiction because you are not a criminal. A deep and lovely book.
The Fingersmith - Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters’ historical fiction is serious entertainment, like all novels should be, and ‘The Fingersmith’ has one of the most startling plot twists you’ll ever read.
The World’s Wife - Carol-Ann Duffy
In which Mrs Van Winkle, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Midas and others tell their side of the story, with bitter humour and a weary perspicacity.
The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut didn’t write an ordinary novel, which means that there are a lot of neglected gems: this, which contains a convincingly mundane explanation for why we are all here, is one of my favourites.
Sixty Stories – Donald Barthleme
Barthelme’s short fiction was enormously influential on a whole generation of American writers; it’s also funny, unique, otherworldly.
David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
It could have been any of them, just about. But this one is right up there with Great Expectations: comic genius, manic narrative energy, and some – a lot! - of his most memorable characters.
Father And Son – Edmund Gosse
The first misery memoir, but you won’t find any others as self-knowing, as deeply-felt or as well-written as this one. A Victorian ‘Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit’.
Molesworth – Geoffrey Williams and Ronald Searle
The only work of comic literature which makes me laugh every time I read it - a comfort and a joy.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
A “children’s classic”, according to some . Yes, well, that and one of the best and most imaginative descriptions of what it means to be an American.
Chronicles – Bob Dylan
A brilliant, angular portrait of the artist as a consumer of art, and the most thoughtful autobiography of a musician – of a performer in any medium - that I have ever read.
Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
Most works of literature do not compel you to walk into lamp-posts while reading them. But this is a work of literature, and it will.
Fun Home – Alison Bechdel
There have been several wonderful graphic novels published in the last few years, but this is perhaps the richest, and the most moving – it’s as dense and as complicated as a “proper” book.
The Accidental – Ali Smith
A dazzling tour-de-force, a novel about the ordinary and the extraordinary, a book that is both experimental and readable…Ali Smith is a true and valuable British original.
The Railway Man – Eric Lomax
A harrowing, deeply moving memoir, full of an awe-inspiring tolerance and forgiveness.
The Giant’s House – Elizabeth McCracken
Elizabeth McCracken has written two brilliant novels and a beautiful memoir. This, her first book, is a luminous, heartbreaking modern classic.
Empire Falls - Richard Russo
An epic, large-hearted, funny, downbeat and altogether magnificent portrait of a dying small town, and the people who just about get by there.
Housekeeping – Marilynne Robinson
Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, written a quarter of a century before ‘Gilead’, her equally dazzling second; a slow, extraordinary, yearning, mystical book about the dead and how they haunt the living.
Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant – Anne Tyler
This book changed my life: I didn’t know novels could be as warm and wise and engaging as this until I picked it up. I’ve been trying and failing to rip Anne Tyler off ever since.
The Wife – Meg Wolitzer
A razor-sharp novel about the sexual politics of writing. And if that sounds like a narrow subject, then it shouldn’t: after reading this, you’ll wonder whether fiction is about anything else.
Collected Poems – Sophie Hannah
Funny and melancholy, shrewd and real; Sophie Hannah is the heir to the brilliant Wendy Cope’s throne.
The Invisible Woman – Claire Tomalin
A terrific biography, as absorbing and as acute as any novel, about the complicated domestic arrangements of our greatest novelist.
The History of Mr Polly - HG Wells
Wells didn’t only write SF – this is a sunny, optimistic comedy about a man who refuses to settle for his lot.
The Blind Side - Michael Lewis
‘The Blind Side’ combines tactical analysis with an account of a young sportsman’s astonishing life and career. With this and ‘Moneyball’, Michael Lewis has written the two best sports books of the last five years
How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer
As fresh and as accomplished a first book as you could hope to find. Julie Orringer’s sad, clear-eyed stories are hard to forget.
And here’s a piece I wrote for ‘The Times’, attempting to elucidate:
It can happen anywhere: a dinner table, a pub, a bus queue, a classroom, a bookshop. You have struck up a conversation with someone you don’t know, and you’re getting on OK, and then suddenly, without warning, you hear the five words that mean the relationship has no future beyond the time it takes to say them: “I think you’ll like it.” This phrase is presumptuous enough when used to refer to, say, a crisp flavour; if, however, you happen to be talking about books or films or music, then it is completely unforgivable, a social solecism on a par with bottom-pinching. You think I’ll like it, do you? Well, it has taken me over fifty years to get anywhere near an understanding of what I think I might like, and even then I get it wrong half the time, so what chance have you got? Every now and again I meet someone who is able to make shrewd and thoughtful recommendations within the first five years of our acquaintance, but for the most part, the people I listen to I’ve known for a couple of decades, a good chunk of which has been spent talking about the things we love and hate.
We are asked to believe, usually by critics, that the most important factor in our response to a book should be its objective quality - a good book is a good book - but we know that’s not true. Mood and taste are important, self-evidently, but mood and taste are formed by educational background, profession, health, amount of leisure time, marital status, state of marriage, gender (men don’t read much fiction, depressingly), age, age of children, relationships with children, and parents, and siblings, and, possibly, an unfortunate experience with Thomas Pynchon’s ‘V’ as an overambitious and pretentious teenager. All of these and thousands of others are governing factors, and many of them are wildly inconstant.
As it happens, I have been asked to choose forty-odd books for a writer’s table at Waterstone’s, and I think you’ll like them. I think you’ll like a few of them, anyway, although of course I have no idea which one or two, and I certainly have no idea who you are, or what state your marriage is in. Like many readers, I fancy myself as a pretty good recommender of books (up until the recent economic calamities, I had been entertaining the idea of turning pro, but this might not be the right time), and so being given the chance to drop my enthusiasms and discoveries onto a grateful public is a thrilling privilege. But where to start? How are we supposed to decide which books are still important to us?
In one important regard, it seems to me, books that have shaped and guided our tastes at crucial stages of our lives are like friends from the past: you wouldn’t necessarily want to go on holiday with them now. If I were to re-read John Fowles’ ‘The Magus’, would I do so in eighteen hours straight, with an open mouth (and lots of attendant dribble, presumably), just as I did more than thirty years ago? The novel hasn’t stayed with me, but the experience of devouring it has; it’s one of the reasons why I am a constantly hopeful reader, even now, prepared to believe that the paperback I’ve just picked up will absorb and inspire and change me. “If I were sixteen, I might have thoroughly enjoyed this book,” one Amazon customer reviewer says, crushingly; “it all seems awfully silly now,” says another, who has revisited the novel since her youth. I suspect that I shouldn’t look at it again, not least because I can recall the gigantic narrative trick that took our collective breath away in the 1970s. I won’t be fooled again, unfortunately.
I am glad that I read Hardy’s fiction when I was a student; I had plenty of appetite for misery then. There is already enough anxiety attached to parenthood, without having to worry about our children hanging themselves because of our inability to provide for them, as Jude Fawley’s children do. The first Dickens novel I ever read was ‘Bleak House’, and for some time, even after reading most of the others, I was pretty sure that it was his masterpiece. I re-read it a couple of years ago, and I was shocked to discover that Esther Summerson, who narrates a big chunk of the book, is an insufferable drip. Why hadn’t I noticed? Am I a more observant critic now, or was I simply kinder and more indulgent when I was younger? If we are lucky, we read the right books at the right times, and both the books and the times should be left alone. Have you read Moby-Dick yet? No? Well, don’t go back to ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, then. It was great once, and maybe you’re asking too much of it if you want it to be great all over again. This is not to diminish the books that we read at earlier stages in our lives, not to make the claim that, as we get older, our critical faculties get sharper – the sad truth is that we lose as much as we gain. Just about every single book on my table I have read in the last five years, and most of them have been road-tested on friends and family. You may not like them, but at least I know what I think of them now, and I can stand by them, defend them, argue for them. I’m not sure I could do that for ‘Sons And Lovers’, or ‘On The Road’.
I don’t think you ought to read everything on this list, and nor do I think you should have read them already; I hope you haven’t, in fact. The most frequent complaint I hear from readers is that they are stuck, in a rut, bored by the literary routes they usually take. If, as a result of these recommendations, someone sets off on a reading journey that they wouldn’t normally have taken, and that journey ends in the sort of blissful, all-consuming absorption we all used to feel further towards the beginning of our reading lives, then I’ll be happy. Meanwhile, if anyone knows of a book that will enthral a fiftysomething as much as ‘The Magus’ enthralled his nineteen-year-old self, please let me know.