Great as music is, I could probably never survive without something to read. Abibliophobia: the fear of being without a book.
My ideal weekend/holiday involves at least some element of sitting with a good view, a good book and a good drink. Life is too short to reread, but recently I wondered what my ideal library would look like.
Starting with the classics, War and Peace is every bit as good as its reputation; all humanity is in there, and it’s a page-turner as well as a literary masterpiece. The best Dickens I’ve read yet is Bleak House, a sprawling intertwined portrait of Victorian society. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles for rural Victorian bleakness, Emma for Georgian social satire, Les Miserables for a socially conscious look at poverty, and going way back in time to the birth of the novel in the 16th century, Don Quixote for a surprising mix of slapstick humour and psychological insight.
Coming into the modern era, I really like the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald about the American rich of the ’20s. World War 2 can be covered by JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and its even better sequel, The Kindness of Women that looks at the after effects on the survivors, The Lord of the Rings (really: it’s about an overwhelming evil in the east that needs to be defeated against all the odds, and looks at how ordinary people cope in harrowing circumstances; there was a lot more to it than I expected when I reread it a few years ago for the first time since I was a teenager; plus, it has wizards), last year’s Booker winner The Long Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan that tries to understand Japanese PoW camps, and the difficult to read The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell that makes a serious and disturbing attempt to put you into the mind of an unrepentant SS officer.
Staying on the serious fiction side I’d also hope to have Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude for their celebration of all that’s great and difficult in life, anything by the witty and wise Canadian writer Robertson Davies, like his Deptford Trilogy, plus James Robertson’s Scottish state-of-the-nation novel from a few years ago, And the Land Lay Still. And also Anthony Burgess’s state-of-the-20th-century novel, Earthly Powers. And maybe a state-of-India-in-the-20th-century book like A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and a state-of-Tudor-England set like Wolf Hall and sequel, which really are as good as the hype. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child has lingered in my mind for much longer than I expected.
All avid readers must have some science fiction for escapism and thinking big. Starting with the serious stuff: anything by the great Kim Stanley Robinson, like his Mars Trilogy that takes a jointly scientific and human look at how colonisation might actually happen, and anything by Richard Morgan, a man who imagines brutal capitalism-taken-to-extremes futures in books like Altered Carbon and Market Forces (his fantasy novels are less full on but just as gritty). Also Anne Leckie’s multi-award winning Ancilliary Justice, a mix of classic space opera with a very modern take on gender and identity, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden which takes an uncomfortably human look at restarting society, and Iain McDonald’s love letter to Istanbul and nanotech, The Dervish House. But also the fun big screen stuff: Banks’s Culture novels (Use of Weapons at the very least), Peter F Hamilton’s epic mind-candy space operas (starting with Pandora’s Star and Judas Unchained), and Steve Erickson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series (for people who thought Game of Thrones not epic or intense enough).
And lastly the stuff that straddles genre boundaries. Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, an unbelievably well-researched, vaguely true, funny and intense trilogy about the enlightenment and the rise of rationalism. They’re the kind of books that leave you feeling wiser about the world. Anything by Alan Moore but probably V for Vendetta, From Hell and Voice of the Fire, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman while we’re on graphic novels. More Kim Stanley Robinson: Shaman jumps into the life of an ice age tribe and is probably the best thing I read last year. I loved David Mitchell’s Bone Clocks earlier this year, seguing between global character studies and a bizarrely brilliant psychic subplot. And last but not least, lots by the brilliant and deeply wise Terry Pratchett, whose garish covers hid one of the greatest, most insightful and humane (and funny) modern novelists. Night Watch is probably the highlight.
Now back to my US life, listening to Great American Novels on the drive out to the client site every morning: so far I’ve managed Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road.
Next step? I’m about to start on some John Steinbeck.
Graham is a Technical Project Manager based in the BJSS New York Office.