On the 15th October 1972, I started to keep a list of all the books I read, in a hard-cover blue lab book of the sort my dad used, and which I coveted, loving stationery then as I still do now. I also, at that time, listed every LP I listened to, but I realised in due course, and under the influence of my friend Stephanie, that that was deranged. I do wish, however, that I had done the same thing with films….
Reading was a family trait; my father’s father was a huge reader, who set off for his work every day with several books. Indeed, when I was about six, visiting him in his wee bothy inside the vast whisky bond at Glenochil where he was a foreman, I thought that was what he did for a living. My mother and father both read plenty, eclectically – I remember a faint pride when my mother said how much she enjoyed ‘The Bone People’, which I had lent her and was unable to finish myself. My brother makes a studied habit out of mentioning how much more than me he has read, pressing on the point that I studied and taught English, which is fair enough in a brotherly combative kind of way. So there were always plenty of books, and there still are.
So I still keep this list; sometimes it’s depressing to look at it, because, really, there aren’t enough books on it. At other times, it helps me to remember what I was doing at certain moments of my life. I read Cormac McCarthy’s ‘Cities of the Plain’ on a beach in Greece, and my companion in the sun, Iain Scott, commented on my visceral reaction to its brilliant and terrible ending, squirming and groaning on my sun-lounger, before, no doubt, being pacified by much ice cream.
A couple of people have recently asked me to do that thing on Facebook where you photograph and tell about books that are special to you. I haven’t done that, because it requires a degree of commitment which I lack in my retirement – to post something once a day. So I didn’t do it rather than feeling guilty. I’ve looked at my notebook though, still solid in its binding, and I’ve selected ten books to recommend and tell you about.
I should say, of course, that these are not the ten books I consider the greatest ever written. That would be a difficult task and mostly a waste of time. I don’t need to be recommending ‘Great Expectations’ or ‘A Passage to India’ or ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘Blood Meridian’ to anyone, I shouldn’t think, but if by any chance you haven’t read these, then read them before you read anything below! What follows is a list of books, with short comments or anecdotes, which I’m guessing might be books you haven’t read, or, if I’m lucky, books you haven’t even heard of. I am grateful to those friends, past and present, who recommended them to me. Please feel free to ignore the whole lot, but here goes… they are in no particular order.
Bill Beverley: ‘Dodgers’ – A really classy thriller, where the beat and suspense of the plot is beautifully balanced against the thrum of the prose style. Eventually, very moving.
George Saunders: ‘Tenth of December’ – Saunders is a big name now, of course, having won more or less everything for ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ which I did sort of start, but left for a more quiet time when I could…. have a real run at it or else have bought a bigger brain. These stories are completely unlike anything I have ever read in their total weird creativity. Very funny in places.
Thomas Savage: ‘The Power of the Dog’ – Savage, like the much better known John Williams (‘Stoner’) is a ‘rediscovered’ novelist. A terrifying, grim, great novel – I finished it on a bus, exclaiming ‘Oh no!’ very loudly, then saying ‘sorry, it’s just the book.’
George Mackay Brown: ‘Magnus’ – maybe a bit of a cheat, because GMB, bless him, is of ‘the canon’ at least in Scotland. This novel, about Saint Magnus of Orkney, doesn’t seem to be well known at all, relative to Brown’s short stories and poetry, all of which are lovely. This is a really powerful book, which in its quite short length, covers all sorts of themes in a variety of clever ways. It was a great book to teach, though, sadly, the first year I taught it, for CSYS English, GMB died. NB – I also killed Bernard Malamud (see below), Tennessee Williams (probably the drink) and Hugh MacDiarmid (also probably the drink) by this means, and almost killed Pinter.
Joshua Ferris: ‘Then We Came to the End’ – A very unusual novel, because it’s set in a workplace, a Chicago advertising agency, which is in danger of closing down throughout the book. Again, it’s primarily a comic novel, I think, but I found it moving because of the reality of its characters.
Donna Tartt: ‘The Little Friend’ – Well, again, she’s a kent name. This is, of course, the middle of her three novels, between ‘The Secret History’ and ‘The Goldfinch’ and I think I’m the only person I know who sees it as her greatest achievement. When I finished this long novel, I felt like I had lost a friend (a bit like I felt when we finished watching ‘The West Wing’). I warn you that a lot of people, including my sainted readerly bro, find it perplexing, but that, Watson, is I think the point. I saw Donna Tartt read from it, in Edinburgh, having consumed it myself just after publication. She was a brilliantly clever, extremely elegant, rather grim woman. I queued to get my copy signed, and worked up the nerve to say that while I really liked ‘The Secret History’ I had loved this, and was given a huge smile, because, hey, the critics weren’t liking it much.
Tom Drury: ‘The End of Vandalism’ – thanks to Tom Smith for this one. Short and light as a feather, really funny and really insightful, down home, pin sharp writing, with nothing wasted. You could easily read it in an afternoon, and it would be a very good way of spending an afternoon. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and the best by a distance, though it’s all worth reading.
Bernard Malamud: ‘The Assistant’ – as I mention above, Malamud died in the first year of my teaching his work. Sorry, Bernard. The young people liked ‘The Fixer’ and ‘The Natural’ better, but for me, well, I well up slightly just thinking about Morris Bober, the old grocer, whose name I haven’t forgotten though it’s over 40 years since I read this. Really just a love story, but my goodness, at what cost.
Flannery O’Connor: ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ – how true, Flannery! I bought Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Everything that Rises Must Converge’ as a school prize because I liked its weird name. I ended up writing my honours dissertation on her work six years later and next year Mr F and I intend to visit her home in Milledgeville, Georgia. This is her first book of short stories, and the title story is, I think, the greatest 20th C American short story, or is, at least, in competition for that title (along with Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, Updike’s ‘Friends from Philadelphia’ and two or three by Raymond Carver). All of these stories are funny, profound, and informed by FO’C’s grim, religious world view. She is the writer I would most like to have met, though she would have hated me…..
Lauren Slater: ‘Opening Skinner’s Box’ – I really owe Ms Slater because I based years of ‘teaching psychology’ on this book: one period a week, for decades, with lots of Sixth Year pupils who had nothing better to do crammed into the Lecture Theatre and I think there’s a bunch of them who will remember our acting out of the Milgram experiment (no children were harmed). This book is the only non-fiction title here and it’s about the ten more important psychology experiments of the 20th Century, but it’s also about Lauren Slater, deeply personally and it’s the kind of book I would like to write, and I don’t suppose you can say more than that. Compulsive, clever and – I don’t like to close with this word again but – moving.
There you go! If you read any of these, and hate them, please don’t tell me.