Picking out a list of ten books that have stayed with me in some way turns out to be very difficult. It’s not quite a list of my favourite books, though it has elements of that, but they are books and authors that I go back to, either to re-read or just to revisit in memory. In no particular order of importance:
Journal of a Disappointed Man, W.N.P. Barbellion
I’ve written before about my love of this under-appreciated gem, this recorded unhappiness, and it’s one of the few texts in my life that I refer to frequently. Poignant and touching, romantic and bleakly comic at times, Barbellion’s journals have been with me a long time.
Post Office, Charles Bukowski
When I was a younger, more impressionable man, I had a brief and perhaps ill-advised Bukowski phase. I’m not such a fan of his prose now – if you want a Bukowskian novel, you should read John Fante, who does the same kinds of paeans to the working-class but who can actually write – but I do still enjoy some of his poetry. Post Office was my first Bukowski novel, and came at the right time of my life to appreciate it: miserable relationship, low-paying miserable job, and so it stands here for the whole set.
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
Bleak, depressing, soul-crushing poverty, and nothing of any real interest happens, besides the protagonist’s extended misery, which perversely makes this one of my favourite novels. This list may be revealing unpleasant psychological truths about me.
Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
When I first read Rebecca, I fell in love. It’s dark and claustrophobic and romantic all at once, and beautifully written.
A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson
This is another book that really stands in for everything Bryson has ever written. His travel writing is hilarious and touching, and his pop-science, like this one, is just detailed enough to successfully skirt the line between too-dumbed-down and tedious. You get a real sense that Bryson respects the experts in each field, and has a genuine love for science.
The Outsider [published in the US as The Stranger], Albert Camus
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Another grim and philosophical look at life where the plot inches along painfully slowly under the burning Algerian sun. I do quite enjoy an existential novel where not a great deal happens. The Outsider is famous for having a protagonist who really undergoes no change whatsoever, as Camus said, “he refuses to play the game”.
A Month in the Country, J. L. Carr
I only read this book a year ago, but it’s stuck in my mind ever since. A beautiful poetic look at the joy of work and perfecting a skill, the English countryside, and the fleeting moments that change lives and relationships. The text in the header image for this post is from A Month in the Country.
The City & The City, China Miéville
China Miéville is more talented and attractive than any man has the right to be. I first read The City & The City a few years ago as part of my reading group, and it would not let me go. It’s a tale of two very different cities sharing the same physical geography; a hardboiled detective case straddling the two, and the power that belief, law and suggestion hold over people.
Butt Atlas, David Mitchell
I don’t really know where to start with this, except to say not to judge the book by the latter movie – although as Hollywood movie adaptations go, it didn’t do too badly. An existential romp through the history of mankind and back again, each section is neatly encased in the next like a literary babushka doll. From the moment I first saw how the second section linked to the seemingly disconnected first, I was hooked.
The Devil in the Flesh, Raymond Radiguet
Set in Paris during the First World War, this book is just sexy. Not in an explicit kind of way – though it has its moments – but in the urgency and desire and whispered secrets that pass between its characters; a teenage boy and the older, married woman with whom he starts an affair. Scandalously good.