The other day, a friend challenged me on Facebook to name the top ten books that had most influenced me in life. It was one of those things where you give your list, and then challenge your other friends.
So far so good.
But how the hell do you choose, especially as the challenge specifies you do it off the top of the head, without thinking too hard, as fast as possible. How do you choose only ten books out of all the great novels and stories you have read over a lifetime?
My list was visceral, and based largely on what I read when I was younger. I thought about the books that had made me happiest, that I have gone back to over and over again in the course of my life. And it was interesting just to reflect on my criteria for choosing, as much as anything.
So here is my list (verbatim):
“1. Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
3. Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
4. Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor
5. Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
(gosh this is hard)
5. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (kept me sane in the run-up to my wedding)
7. Antrobus Complete by Laurence Durrell
8. Persuasion by Jane Austen
9. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
10. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (obvious)”
I ended up with about 15 that didn’t quite make the grade, and if I think too hard about it, I would definitely shift a few from one list to the other. I mean, how do you choose which Terry Pratchett? The above was my original choice, and I think I’ll stand by it.
And then I challenged other friends. And like Japanese knotweed, lists of novels and non-fiction books blossomed out all over. Everyone had a fascinating new combination of books they raved about. Many, like Sebastian Faulkes’ ‘Birdsong’ and Camus’s ‘The Plague’, were held in common. Lots of lists were biased towards ‘we did that one at school’ books. I marvelled at the wide range of stories that had influenced my friends.
And I felt like I had barely read anything worth reading since I left college.
I suppose this is understandable. When you see a list of books, you always look for the familiar ones. And if the ones you have read are in the minority, you feel like a fool for not having read the others. Especially the significant ones. On the other hand, who the hell has read the whole of Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, or ‘War and Peace’? (I have to say I was impressed by the number of people who had read Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’. Kudos!
There are woeful gaps in my reading, despite what friends who always see me with a book might think. This is especially true these days, when I am so addicted to the quick highs offered by every morning’s new crop of fanfics. I have not read many European novels, or the Russians. I don’t know Kazuo Ishiguro or Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch or GK Chesterton. Or Kerouac, despite having a degree in American Studies. I read one book from last year’s Man Booker shortlist (Ruth Ozeki, ‘A Tale for the Time Being’), and that was because it looked like the easiest. (It was fantastic.)
Writers must read.
It is one of the basic pillars of the Craft. And you have to read the good stuff as well as the commercial, otherwise you never improve. Making this list made me realise how little decent fiction I have read in recent months. Time to get back to it.
“I mean to read myself blue in the nose.”
When I began my Diploma in Creative writing, we were given a list of novels and volumes of short stories to plough through as precedents, much as art students must analyse the works of the Masters, sitting in galleries for hours on end, studying Goya or Rembrandt. I found an old bookmark from those days, a list of novels scrawled on it, each title with a line scored through it as I completed it. (A couple of loose ones at the end remained unread.)
I need to do the same again.
This morning I found myself in a bookshop, gazing longingly at table after table of lovely crisp new novels. (It’s the time of year that provokes me – September draws me into bookshops still, an echo of student days of joyful bookbuying with a free conscience!) But I was good. I left the books uncaressed. I have piles of unread novels at home, you see, amongst them ‘Birdsong’, along with Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’, Jonothan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’, and dozens of others, all highly recommended as quality fiction for the budding writer, and all gathering dust on the shelf. No point in buying new ones until I have ploughed through the old ones.
So I will cut a strip of paper and write a list of the books in my pile on it. And then I will begin. And each time I close the back cover a book and sigh with completion, I shall draw a careful line through the title and pick up the next.