Thursday, 2 July 2009

My top ten memorable books

(Warning: lengthy post).

Completely fortuitously, I've ended up with a round ten in my list of most memorable books (the involved and obscure criteria for my selection can be found here). They're listed alphabetically, as ranking them doesn't seem very interesting or easy. I've tried not to be self-conscious in my choices and the result, I'm afraid, is a bit po-faced. Let's put it this way, I get teased for reading brick-like biographies of Lord Salisbury and the like on the beach and it shows (it's murder on the wrists too).

To my mild surprise the list feels pretty definitive. To my greater surprise I've identified a couple of themes that seem to preoccupy me more than I would have guessed (I won't go into them here but if you've got the stamina to get to the end and still have some residual interest, have a guess).

Right, here goes:

Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

Its inclusion is testament to my honesty as T will mock me mercilessly about this one, using the usual hobbit-related insults. (Isn't it funny that women are almost all immune to the charms of Tolkien? They just laugh at it).

Since reading Lord of the Rings as a child, it's never really left my imagination. It's so difficult to move on from because of its sheer scale, the completeness of its alternative world. Also the greatness and perhaps unexpected relevance of its themes: sacrifice, hope, mortality, the self-defeating lure of power. And, of course, some great sword fights, battles and magical creatures.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man - James Joyce

It's difficult to say why this resonates so much. It's certainly an artful and convincing re-creation of what it feels like to grow up. The book's tone is sympathetic to Stephen Dedalus but at the same time unafraid to be gently and affectionately mocking. This seems to me, more often than not, to mimic one's own view of the younger self.

So there's sympathy filtered through an ironic distance, which lends the book some humour and makes it feel genuine. But I think, for me, what makes it truly memorable is the powerful impression it made, and continues to make, on my appreciation of what I'm going to have to call my own sense-experience.

I can't think of a more straightforward way to describe this I'm afraid. But sometimes images and sensations from the book seep into my own memories; or my own senses are inflected by moods and descriptions to be found in the book. For instance, its description of the everyday epiphany - the glimpse of the seemingly eternal or otherworldly that you are sometimes blessed with in the most mundane of situations - somehow resonates with my own personal experience of this phenomenon. I'm just not sure why this sort of evocation should end up being so affecting and of such ongoing resonance.

The Great Melody - Conor Cruise O'Brien

A substantial biography of Edmund Burke by one of the most stimulating writers and thinkers of the twentieth century. Burke is the thinker and polemicist who fully expressed, for the first time, why the idea of Britain and its tradition of cautious, respectful and empiricist conservatism has political, moral and historical force. He was a protagonist in the founding experience of modern politics - the dividing of left and right - and the most profound arguments against the 'refining projectors' of revolutionary France were minted by him and have remained in circulation ever since.

What O'Brien brings to this project - in addition to his lively style - is what must be a unique perspective. Born into Irish Republicanism, dying sympathetic to Unionism and variously political philosopher, writer, civil servant, politician, journalist and academic, he was well-qualified to bring out those aspects of Burke that are often under-appreciated - in particular, his deep concern for justice and for the oppressed.

The Kindness of Women - JG Ballard

I read this nearly twenty years ago and its imagery still sometimes flashes back into my mind. It's just a great work of art. It contains some of the same themes as Ballard's fiction, but where I often feel his novels are formulaic (mankind will always go off the rails, and technology will provide new, interesting and shocking ways for him to do so), this piece of novelised autobiography, perhaps because it's based on real lives, has a feeling of total authenticity married to an understated but almost hallucinatory naturalism.

It has that classical quality of great art in that it holds you in suspension between being repelled and being attracted. It's an artful combination of extreme violence and extreme tenderness. As such it's the most beautiful evocation of how radical it can be to be alive.

The Years of Lyndon Johnson - Robert A Caro

A biography in three large volumes (so far) of someone who, when I began reading it about eight years ago, hadn't really interested me very much. However, I've found it the most gripping, involving and complete work of biography I've ever read - and I've read a few (here are some more thoughts on a few of them).

In fact, 'complete' is a totally inadequate description: it's overbrimming. You get the life, and in fascinating detail. You also get: the most convincing psychological study of the subject; an insight into just about whatever there is to know about the age-old art of politics; and, finally, an expansive picture - but one largely made up of telling close-ups - covering American politics since the 1920s and sufficient for the reader to come to a pretty sound understanding of the contemporary Republic.

A staggering work and one so superior to any other biography I've come across as to be probably unmatched forever.

What is a Welshman? - RS Thomas

A slim volume of poetry that I bought in St Davids when on a rugby tour (I was a fairly mixed-up kid). RS Thomas ended up as one of my favourite poets. But, these particular poems still preoccupy me more than others for two reasons.

Firstly, we moved from Wales when I was a child but I remained half-immersed in things Welsh. I was surrounded by Welsh family (grandparents moved up with us eventually), we went back regularly (every other weekend initially) and I was in thrall to the stories of the old days with their rather unlikely characters. This had the consequence of making me feel a bit deracinated. 'What is a Welshman?' gave me clues to, well, the answer to the question.

However, that wouldn't have been enough for me to continue to reflect on these poems. They also happen to comprise the most insightful evocation of the mentality and predicament - cultural and economic - of the underdog that I've come across. The verse - angry, scornful, tender, wistful in turns - also happens to be of pellucid beauty.

Here's my second division (look these are my rules, OK?). These books just don't influence me quite as much as the first six, or they do so much more intermittently.

Lights Out for the Territory - Iain Sinclair

Opened my eyes to a different way of seeing the world - that of psychogeography - but not one you'd adopt on a permanent basis. Appeals to the fantasist in me, its mentality has fuelled many an implausible reverie.

Straw Dogs - John Gray

Only read this a year or two ago. Finding its argument credible but not yet sure whether I believe in it. It seems a bit too confident in its view that we're fated to be contingently animalistic. Ask me again in a few years' time.

The Russian Revolution - Richard Pipes

The best description of the mindset and consequences of the types that have proven so destructive in the modern world: the superfluous men, the aspirant criminals and the spoilt intellectuals who are drawn to revolution and terror.

Thus Spake Zarathustra - Friedrich Nietzsche

Cheered me up and mentally toughened me up when I was rather depressed in my twenties. Continues to do so.


worm said...

I've read 5 of your list - the only one of them that I didn't like is the Sinclair one, I have an interest in psychogeography waded through 'lights out' and also 'London Orbital' - both of which have an initial premise that interests me, but which I find to my disappointment then becomes utterly smothered in Sinclair's gauche and insecure verbosity.

Thanks for sharing your list! Gives me impetus to think about what I would put in my own list, although not sure I have time to write about it in such an accomplished way as you!

Brit said...

I read Lord of the Rings when I was about 13 and it dominated my life for a couple of years. I don't think I've been so thrilled by a book since, but I don't know if it's really had any lasting effect or influence. I have absolutely no interest in the fantasy genre, and indeed, didn't have any interest in other fantasy books even as a 13 year old. I loved The Hobbit as a younger child, but LOTR is interesting in that it created a genre, but is so superior to anything else in the genre that it almost doesn't count as genre fiction.

Brit said...

...And Portrait of the Artist is unshiftable just for the sermon about eternal hell.

Gaw said...

Worm: Yes, it really broke into my sunbathing yesterday. How many of the five you've read make it into your own top ten?

Brit: Wasn't LotR voted book of the century in some big poll a few years ago? It's certainly an amazing one-off but in terms of 'literature' I have no clue as to how it should be judged. I think you're right about its awkward position versus the genre it spawned. AN Wilson says some nice things about it in his latest eccentric but engaging history, Our Times (BTW this and the other two are very good reads).

Having reminded myself of how good PoA is, I'm just going to have to read it again.

BTW, what a pleasure it is to be able to think about and discuss books! There's not enough of it about really.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Am I the only male of my age to not have been bothered by Lord of the Rings. Apparantly. Didn't the point of it, sorry! I appreciated Portrait of the Artist but thought that Ulysses surpassed it immeasurably; I also rate RS Thomas highly as a poet, though he was a miserable git... and thanks for sharing your Welsh experiences with us; the others, I confess, I haven't read. Yes, great to discuss books, thanks for this opportunity! I 'spose I should do my own top ten now.

Gaw said...

Gadj: Like I say, my wife just can't take LotR seriously and I can understand her reasons to be honest. But love it nevertheless. Couldn't get on with Ulysses - too experimental for me.

There's a great portrait cover photo of RST on one of the books I've got of his. Thin-lipped, scowl-browed, beady-eyed, sunken-cheeked - it's all there. He does achieve some wonderful lyricism at times though, which seems all the more miraculous when you consider his visage.

Kevin Musgrove said...

No Gadjo, you're not on your own.

I took Max Egremont's biography of Balfour on my last holiday, together with Machiavelli's Discourses. I have to admit that I really struggle to read Joyce but I love the sound when it's read out loud.

worm said...

I was also fairly unmoved by LOTR - as I am by most 'event' books - in a similar way to my opinion of Sinclair, I find the words of many of the really big titles weighed down by the baggage of their own mythos. Ulysses falls into this bracket! (as does most Nobel prize winning stuff or anything really heavy out of America - in my eyes, it all just seems a little self-aware)

However POA (as I shall think of it from now on) maintained a certain free-ranging lightness of touch - which is what I always look for in a novel. I tend to rate books on my own version of the 'whole package' - which for me entails profound ideas married to a confoundingly lucid delivery Ive talked myself into going away and thinking about a personal top ten!

excellent that you post something that really provokes extra-curricular thinking!

Gadjo Dilo said...

Sorry if I sounded a bit sniffy earlier - I did enjoy The Hobbit when I was young, so I'm not entirely immune to the Tolkein's charms.

Blimey, Our Kev reads biographies of Balfour and Machiavelli's Discourses whilst on holiday - do you think he's planning world domination (or at least of his part of Lancashire)??

Gaw said...

Kevin: I propose you read Ulysses out loud next time you're at the beach. I'm sure you'll soon have an appreciative audience.

Worm and Gadjo: The admirers of JRRT seem to be outnumbered by the sceptics here, which is probably as it should be. Thanks for your thoughts though!