It’s that awkward dead space between Christmas and New Year. No bugger’s going to read this anyway so here’s some unashamed filler to keep thing ticking over, with a grateful nod to Pep at Two Dudes (whose own list is charming and erudite and definitely not filler, I should point out).
Anyway, here are ten books that still stick in my mind, presented in a rough order of personal chronology. It’s noticeable that a lot of these books stay with me due to the circumstances in which I read them, rather than just for the stories themselves. Context is everything, in case there was any remaining doubt.
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
I got a box set of the Narnia books for what must have been my eighth birthday. Clearly at that age you don’t give a shit about the New Testament parallels or thunderingly retrograde gender and racial politics. It’s just a good story, if slightly undermined by the fact that I had no idea what Turkish Delight was, asked my mum to get some so I could try it, and roundly hated the stuff. It did then rather seem like Edmund had pissed it all away for not very much at all.
The first non-fiction I can remember reading for my own enjoyment, and almost by mistake. As with every right-thinking child, I loved Roald Dahl’s kids books and pestered my parents to get these thinking they were more of the same (encouraged by the Quentin Blake covers, I recall). I was not expecting the biographical details of child abuse and wartime combat in Africa, but y’know, wartime combat in Africa. Which boy isn’t going to go for that?
I’d seen the movie. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nicked it off one of my uncle’s bookshelves at my grandparents’ house and it was my first encounter with the differences between book and film versions of the same story. I can still picture Bond crawling through the maze, if only because I spent so much time trying to work out why I couldn’t remember seeing Connery doing the same. I was eleven, I think.
Sane, wise, compassionate, and above all funny. My own personal gateway drug.
I spent my second year as an undergraduate on an exchange to Australia and backpacked up the east coast during the summer holidays. Something of a cliché, I know, but at least I wasn’t indulging in any hideously middle-class pretentions about connecting with the poor or any such gubbins. Unlike the protagonist of The Beach which, along with Excession, I picked up from book exchanges at various hostels along the way. The former was just a perfect concurrence of subject matter and situation: the slightly skuzzy, cheap feel of backpacking and the rampant paranoia of sharing a room with half a dozen people you’ve never met, any two or three of whom at any given time may or may not be fucking.
Excession was my first Iain (M.) Banks and got devoured in a day and a half in a café in Airlie Beach. Glorious sunshine outside, wonderful beaches, and The Great Barrier Reef just a boat ride away, and here I was inside with a book. In fairness, I was waiting for a friend to catch up following a touch of, er, confusion around Nimbin but still, funny way to choose to spend your time.
It’s not the metatextual stuff so much as the fact that the core story, The Navidson Record, is scary as fuck. Everything else builds on this, messing around with the pacing, forcing you to consider and take in stuff that you otherwise might miss. Terrifying.
I read this just before I came to Japan the first time. What with leaving my (then) girlfriend to cart myself halfway around the world (again), the resolution of Lyra and Will’s story resonated particularly loudly. In hindsight I was pretty immature and should have dealt with a number of things much better, but none of that reduces the emotional punch I still remember.
THAT. IS. NOT. MY. COW!!!
The literal definition of ‘memorable’, this one, being, along with Where the Wild Things Are, one of the only books I can recite from memory. The joys of parenthood. I’m already buying the Dahl and Lewis books in preparation for (re)reading those with my kids.
And so the world turns.