Idle Scrawl's "Fifty Books That Are Books"
Earlier I relaunched a mental exercise first started by Hollywood scriptwriter and columnist Ben Hecht in the 1930s. You have to make a list of the 50 books you would have bound and put in a library if that was all you could have.
The key is to do it from memory. No internet, no Googling, no peer pressure: in an ideal world you sit down in an empty room with a typewriter and a bottle of something and hammer out the list. Here is mine (actually I have cheated and looked up some titles on the internet, and I wrote on a computer).
Hecht annotated each entry, I'll do it in groups of ten:
1. Life And Fate, Vasily Grossman.
2. Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
3. Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert
4. War And Peace, Leo Tolstoy
5. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
6. Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell
7. Ulysses, James Joyce
8. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
9. Germinal, Emile Zola
10. The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
These are the "big books", the ones where all life is there; there's nearly always a love affair blighted by a vast social conflict; the writer creates the entire world, using a giant canvas, yet captures the essence of being human (or Elven) and it stays real inside your head for the rest of your life.
If I sit and think about the striking images, scenes I have actually "seen" vividly off the printed page, these are the books they usually come from: Novikov launching the tank attack at Stalingrad; Pirate Prentice making a banana breakfast for his SOE buddies; the students linking arms at the Pantheon as history suddenly interrupts Frederic Moreau's pursuit of Mme Arnoux; stately, plump Buck Mulligan...
11. The Classical Style, Charles Rosen
12. Crime and Punishment, Feodor Dostoyevsky
13. The Civil War, Shelby Foote
14. Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter
15. Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe
16. Dispatches, Michael Herr
17. More Than Somewhat, Damon Runyon
18. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
19. Red Shelley, Paul Foot
20. John Maynard Keynes, Robert Skidelsky
A bunch of books that help you orientate yourself in the world and understand its dynamics. I particularly treasure my hardback edition of the Runyon because it contains cartoons showing with what ribaldry we are supposed to enjoy these stories - there is a drawing of two dodgy Great White Way characters even on the cover of the book. Rosen's treatise on Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven influenced my whole understanding of classical music. Skidelsky's book on Keynes is really a biography of the English Liberal middle classes and a history of the mid-20th century.
21. The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell
22. Lady Chatterley's Lover, DH Lawrence
23. The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
24. On The Road, Jack Kerouac (or if you can't stand it, Big Sur)
25. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
26. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
27. Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
28. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Peter Carey
29. Big Breasts And Wide Hips, Mo Yan
These are novels and a couple of memoirs that mainly focus on the subject of the self, the senses, mania. By authors in love with language.
31. Collected Poems, Dylan Thomas
32. Poems 1913-1956, Bertholdt Brecht
33. Milton's Poetical Works
34. Complete Poems and Selected Letters, John Keats
35. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare
36. The Thief's Journal, Jean Genet
37. Amerika, Franz Kafka
38. The Good War, Studs Terkel
39. Iron In The Soul, Jean-Paul Sartre
40. A Capote Reader (including Breakfast at Tiffany's) Truman Capote
A mixture of the obvious heavy poetry and drama you would want to be able to dip into, a completely personal choice here, plus some mid-20th century writers who really grab me. A little bit influenced by Thornleigh Salesian College, Bolton - as my former schoolmates will attest.
The last ten is very difficult because it comes down to hard choices, and they will just have to be self-explanatory:
41. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
42. The Black Jacobins, CLR James
43. Vineland, Thomas Pynchon
44. Dune, Frank Herbert
45. The Portable Hannah Arendt
46. Another Country, James Baldwin
47. The Odyssey, Homer
48. Surveys From Exile, Karl Marx
49. Nana, Emile Zola
50. Something by Victor Serge but I can't decide between his memoirs and one of his novels...
That's it - I won't revise it. There is an obvious bias towards male over female writers; an obvious bias to the mid-20th century, English and American "lit".
I am not claiming these are the 50 greatest books ever, and I am certainly open to argument; I know there's a desert of non-English books, nothing about science and it's all a bit redolent of a bloke who went to a Catholic grammar school sometime in the 1970s. To my surprise there are two Zolas, but I am not surprised that I have succumbed to two Pynchons since these are two of my favourite books of all time. I still don't know how Baldwin's Another Country got in there, but it won't go away.
I don't think I have broken Hecht's rule of nothing from the last 10 years but if I could it would be:
51. Snow, Orhan Pamuk
52. Underworld, Don DeLillo
Wierdly there's not a single overlap with Hecht's list - although there is also a high degree of overlap with the lists my commenters posted under the original call for lists. If you're only going to read one that you've never read before, try either (a chorizo) Life and Fate or (shorter and funnier) Vineland.
We're all products of our age really.
* Keep your lists coming and I might compile a best-of-Idle-Scrawl-commenters reading list. The blog will be sporadically active over the Xmas break - I will do something on the Euro and a review of the year/preview of what's to come. Newsnight is off the air until 4 January.