Thursday, 30 September 2010

Fifteen books that will always stick with you

There are always things like this doing the rounds on Facebook, and when this one hit I happened to have fifteen minutes to spare and a timer on my desk:
"The rules: Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. They don't have to be in order of importance."
So why pick those books? Looking at the list the next day, some of them surprised even me. Most I read as a child or teenager, the first time I clicked with a special author, but others are more recent:

  • Fire and Hemlock – Diana Wynne Jones. A remarkable, wonderful book, where reality is pulled out from beneath your feet so gently that you hardly notice at first.
  • Star Trek 10 – James Blish. Featuring "Galileo Seven" and "The Empath", two of my favourite of Blish's adaptations. "The Empath" gave me nightmares for years.
  • The Eyes of the Overworld – Jack Vance. One of my very favourite books.
  • The Final Programme – Michael Moorcock. I could have picked half a dozen Moorcock books, but this one made me realise how free a writer could be.
  • The Duelling Machine – Ben Bova. Like The Final Programme, this features two characters that ultimately merge into one. I read this as a teenager and it was one of my favourites for a long time, perhaps because it was one of the best books I've read about gaming.
  • Planets for Sale - A.E. van Vogt and E. Mayne Hull. I just loved reading this with a packet of Hobnobs. I loved it so much I worked my way through all van Vogt's other books: I've come to believe I should have been looking for something by E. Mayne Hull instead.
  • A Blackbird in Silver – Freda Warrington. Strange one this – it's not one of my favourite ever books, but there was something about the way you saw the things floating in the sky, and wondered if you would get to go up there in the story, and then you did, that made a huge impact on me.
  • Telzey Amberdon – James H. Schmitz. A book I stopped reading because it was so close to what I wanted to write, but I couldn't stay away. Also: the source of my younger daughter's name.
  • Way Station – Clifford D. Simak. I'm not sure I even remember it properly – I'm probably mixing it up with some of Simak's other rural stories – but I've always thought this would make a great film – a great Tom Hanks film.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas. I read it in French, and learnt to read French properly through it. At the beginning I was reading it at a rate of ten pages an hour, by the end I was up to thirty.
  • To Your Scattered Bodies Go – Philip Jose Farmer. The epitome of high concept.
  • The Man Who Japed – Philip K. Dick. More high concept. More dashing of reality. More dual personalities. The first time I realised how special Philip K. Dick was.
  • Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe. One of the greatest reading experiences of my life.
  • McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales – ed. Michael Chabon. I don't think I'd even finished reading the introduction before I started planning Theaker's Quarterly Fiction. I still haven't actually finished it, but it had a colossal impact on my life.
  • Doctor Who Annual 1979. I would end up reading a couple of hundred Doctor Who books, but this was (I think) the first.
The Doctor Who Annual 1979 was the first of these I read (Christmas Day, 1978), and the most recent is either Telzey Amberdon or Fire and Hemlock, from 2007 or 2008.

I imagine that if I'd taken another 15 minutes I'd have ended up with a slightly different list (possibly a less honest one!). I'm disappointed to have forgotten about Flaubert's Bouvard et Pecuchet, which I think about a lot. But this is a good snapshot...


    1. 1. "Grimble" by Clement Freud
      2. "1984" by George Orwell
      3. "The Papers of AJ Wentworth BA" by H.F. Ellis
      4. "The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Gamebook" by Sandy Petersen
      5. "Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas R. Hofstadter
      6. "If This is a Man / The Reprieve" by Primo Levi
      7. "Time out of Joint" by Philip K. Dick
      8. "The Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury
      9. "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy" by Laurence Sterne
      10. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" by Robert M. Pirsig
      11. "Gravity's Rainbow" by Thomas Pynchon
      12. "Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories" by Raymond Carver
      13."A Wizard of Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin
      14. "Watchmen" by Alan Moore / Dave Gibbons
      15. "Collected Poems" by Phillip Larkin

    2. Great choices! I could have gone for quite a few of those. Call of Cthulhu RPG - my first exposure to Lovecraft. Tristram Shandy - and its French cousin Jacques le Fataliste. I haven't read Godel, Escher, Bach in full, but The Mind's I was a really important book for me. Introduced me to Stanislaw Lem and batted bees, and best of all two cash-strapped philosophy students who shared a copy of it eighteen years ago are now very happily married...

    3. I had detailed comments on all of my choices, but Google lost them somehow. Anyway, I remember "Godel, Escher, Bach" coming into the school library as a new book when we were school librarians (what was the librarian thinking really, ordering that for Oakbank students?), and it was my first introduction to Zen Buddhism, Escher, along with a lot of other interesting subjects, but it took me until I was 27 to actually read it to the end. I can remember finishing it in a kitchen in Haringey - I had to make some notes to convince myself I'd understood it properly. Actually with a lot of these books I can remember exactly where I was when I finished them.

      I think I've spent more time in my life poring over the Call of Cthulhu book than pretty much any other single volume. I think I got more enjoyment out of it than Lovecraft's stories themselves.

      I have hardly read any of your choices - perhaps I should see this as a "to read" list.

    4. I don't know how many of them you'd enjoy... Definitely a books that stuck with me list rather than books I'd force on my friends!