My Desert Island Dozen

Every now and then I read a book which makes me feel simple, profound gratitude to the author. For having the gift of being articulate in the first place, but then, spending the time to pull together a work which could give me so much pleasure. As I’m just finishing such a book, I thought I would list the titles that have pushed the ‘profound gratitude’ button in the past, all of which would be great companions in the unlikely event that I should be washed up on a desert island with a crate of books! Here goes…

The Player of Games – Iain M Banks

While not all of Iain Bank’s books are as engaging as his best writing, they share a remarkable breadth and scope. Despite the aliens and artificial intelligences, they are profoundly human tales – of strength and weakness, power and intuitive wisdom. And when he does manage to crack the code, like in The Player of Games, the results are stunning.

Jude The Obscure – Thomas Hardy

My Thomas Hardy phase was an eye-opener, as I discovered not only a fascinating insight into still-recent rural life, but also that I could be interested in ‘the classics’ – indeed, what earned them this term. There is not much to be happy about in this book (though it is almost jolly compared to Tess of the D’Urbervilles), but a moving read nonetheless.

The Baroque Cycle – Neal Stephenson

Simply, wow. This many-thousand-page tale about the origins of currency and the dawn of science, written across three hefty volumes and with its multiple, intertwined plots, left me with the mother of all bittersweet feelings when I finally turned its last page. I very much doubt that Neil Stephenson is for everyone – he writes with a level of detail that could put many people off. I’m not one of them, clearly… more a welcome passenger on a continent-spanning journey with a master narrator. Start with the single-volume, wartime tale Cryptonomicon perhaps, and if that floats your boat, a world of wonder awaits.

The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories – Christopher Booker

Mr Booker might have some dodgy views about climate change but from my standpoint he’s nailed this one – a book, researched and written over thirty years, about the underlying archetypes and plotlines within both traditional and modern tales. His conclusions offer a profound insight into the nature of consciousness, following as comprehensive a treatment of the novel you are ever likely to get.  It may not be the only explanation and is open to dispute but it is as good an answer as I have ever read to the question – why do we tell stories?

Biko – Donald Woods

Coming from quite a sheltered, home counties upbringing, this book deeply affected me, wrenching my eyes open to the realities faced by those who have grown up in parts of the world where politics, prejudice and power plays become more important than the basic rights of individuals. I can’t remember if I saw the film ‘Cry Freedom’ before the book or the other way round, but together they forced me to think about just how lucky I was.

The Belgariad – David Eddings

I probably should have been in lectures when I devoured a near-constant diet of fantasy and science fiction novels. Each volume of The Belgariad (and The Malloreon after it) was eagerly awaited, as several months would pass between volumes. And meanwhile, Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant filled any time I had left – it’s a wonder I got a degree at all. I re-read the entire set a couple of years ago and they had lost none of their easy-going sparkle.

The Shockwave Rider – John Brunner

Don’t listen to what anyone else tells you. John Brunner invented the Internet, in all of its cyber-criminal, virus-ridden (Brunner called them phages) glory. And he did so in the mid-seventies. This short novel definitely falls into the category of ‘very important books which must be read’. A bit dated now, but still up there.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicles

I hated history at school. Actually that ‘s not true – I really enjoyed the first two years of study, when we were told stories of battles and kings. Then the teacher changed and we were fed a diet of dessicated facts and figures. This book documents the early history of Britain, written by people who were there. I picked up a copy when I started to get into the Dark Ages, and it remains one of the best historical sources.

The Road Less Travelled – M. Scott Peck

“You must read this book!” is a reasonably common request, usually when someone has had a life-changing experience reading a self-help book which really seems to talk to them. I have two theories about such books – first, they are written by authors post-crisis, and second that they work when they fit with the personalities of those reading them. With Tuesdays with Morrie a close second, The Road Less Travelled is the one that worked for me, back in my early thirties when I thought I’d have my own mid-life crisis early. Nice to get it out of the way.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby

Also to be filed under “gratitude for life” is this book. How a man, paralysed with malady, could contemplate ‘writing’ a book using his only remaining physical ability – eye movement – beggars belief. A deep insight into what it means to be human, a quiet struggle against serenely uncaring adversity. Let them take everything away but my mind, I hope I respond with as much dignity.

Girl in a Swing – Richard Adams

If had to pick one modern novel, it would be this one… a tragic tale about an Englishman who finds himself completely out of his depth in a relationship with a troubled heroine. Just the right mix of literary and real, and up there with the best that Faulks and McEwan could conjure. I think it’s a masterpiece, not everyone would agree but that’s what makes books so, well, personal!

Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels

This is a profoundly powerful book, written about Jewish immigrants in Canada who are still coming to terms with their recent past. Beautifully written, deeply emotional yet at the same time gentle, quiet, measured and all the more moving because of it.

Beach Music – Pat Conroy

In a similar vein but a very different style, Pat Conroy’s book traces the story of a man coming to terms with losing his wife. The story exposes the lives of the people around him, each layer more traumatic than the last, right up to a no-punch-pulling finale. Heavy stuff but no less brilliant because of it.

 

My Desert Island Dozen

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