I haven’t done a meme on this blog yet and this one is tempting. I picked it up at Charlotte’s Web and it seems uncomplicated enough. Fifteen books, without too much thinking, viz:
Instructions: Don’t take too long to think about it. List 15 books you’ve read that will always stick with you — the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. Copy the instructions into your own note, and be sure to tag the person who tagged you.
Hmm. Look, this is the kind of list a nineteen or twenty year might make. And I haven’t actually read most of these books for twenty years or so. But the substance of them is somehow embedded in my bones, entwined with intellectual DNA, (I’m getting melodramatic here) coursing through my veins. If I have any kind of a sense of self, it’s built out of the monuments piled up here. And Neil Young. And the Clash. But that’s another meme.
1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkein. I read this when I was eleven, having already devoured the Hobbit. Then I read it again. And again, every year until I was twenty. I read it again a few years ago when the films came out and discovered much still to love in it – the evocations of the natural world, the celebrations of friendship and the terrifying journey across the dead marshes – an evocation of the horrors of the violently dead that only a man who lived through the trenches of WW1 could summon up.
2. Dune – Frank Herbert. Forget the sequels, forget the cottage industry inherited by his son, the aptly named Brian (but don’t forget the underrated and quite demented film by David Lynch) – this is the space opera by which all other space operas should be judged. It’s also a minor classic of ecological fiction (though there isn’t a lot of competition).
3. Foundation – Isaac Asimov. I bought this when I was nine. I saved up my ice cream money ad got it for 25p (five shillings) from the local newsagents/bookshop. I read it dozens of times. I still have it. I don’t know if I’ll ever read it again – I don’t want it to be anything other than the perfectly huge universe that it opened up in my head.
4. The Once and Future King – T.H. White. The first book that really made me cry. At the age of twelve, the gander Lyo-Lok was probably my first crush on a fictional character. The character of Lancelot – a man driven by his sense of own loathsomeness (“He was as ugly as an ape”) echoed my own burgeoning puberty perfectly.
5. Moby Dick – Herman Melville. Best. Novel. Ever. All I needed to know about the search for God. Unfortunately, I didn’t cotton on to that at the time. But even so, the language, the language – never had English been made to do those things. And the size and scale and austere sumptuousness…
6. Collected Poems – W.B. Yeats. I’ve just bought Seamus Heaney’s selected poems, one of the celebratory 80th anniversary Penguin volumes. I’m carrying it around in my bag. One day, I will have the first verse from Sailing To Byzantium tattooed on my back.
7. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind – Shunryu Suzuki. Suzuki once commented that he read this book to find out what it was that his pupils had heard him say. It’s a composite work, drawn together from lectures, conversations and memory and signed off on by Suzuki rather than a methodical statement by a decisive authorial voice. But it’s a kind of touchstone for me – the idea of meeting each moment or event as something you have never encountered before yet being able to bring to bear all that you are to this point to accomplish it. To put all of yourself into digging a hole or composing a symphony. Or writing a blog post. I haven’t got a beginner’s mind but I wish I had.
8. The Plague – Albert Camus. A book that taught me that it was possible to lead a good life. I think I was twenty seven or twenty eight and under-developed.
9. The Man Who Was Thursday – G.K. Chesterton. The most mysterious detective story ever written.
10. Morte D’Arthur – Thomas Mallory, Knight. If you sign up for The Once and Future King, you really need to sign up for this at some point. There’s some debate as to what qualifies as the first English novel and many might quibble as to whether Morte D’Arthur really displays the depth of characterisation and psychological development that modernism demands of the novel form. I’d argue that, in Arthur’s slow, tragic collision with his destiny and the unraveling of the fatally flawed family he’s pieced together, it does.
11. The Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman. Still an apex of the possibilities of the story form when distilled onto half a dozen frames and a dozen lines of dialog a page. And if you haven’t read The Graveyard Book yet…
12. Discipline and Punish – Michel Foucault. This is one of the more recent books. I had it on my shelf for years and years until its moment came round at last three years ago. It re-taught me how to think and, oddly enough, how to view the interactions of the people around me in a more humane, less serious (or at any rate, more provisional and less fatally final) way.
13. On Grammatology – Jaques Derrida. The flipside. If Foucault provides a grand narrative of reading our engagement with institutions and societies, Derrida provides a methodology of reading closely, in tremendous detail and absolute attentiveness, the individual threads of the reading. And he shows how to pull at those threads and how to on keep pulling until some kind of truth (provisional, again) is revealed. And then to pull again.
14. The Cantos – Ezra Pound. I remember a dream of a boat arriving, a harbour in sunlight and a place I knew was home. I awoke and finished the last few cantos. I was nineteen, going on twenty. It’s a place I’m still looking for.
15. Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil. Or Dawn. Obvious, huh? But I learned to ask questions. I can’t underline how crucial that was – I was brought up to question nothing and accept everything I was told. Asking questions as a method for living. Wonderful! The air of the heights!!!! I don’t know if I could read Nietzsche now but I’ll always be grateful.