Inspired this morning by skullsinthestars‘ own fascinating list, I have come up with my own list of 10 books which, as according to the stipulations on Facebook, have “stayed with you in some way”, and which “don’t have to be the “right” books or great works of literature, just ones that affected you in some way.”
Unlike skullsinthestars’ maverick decision to expand the list to 20, I’m going to stick to the original 10 (if you include one trilogy. If not, you’re going to have to live with it. I don’t often play by the rules. Sometimes I downright slightly ignore them. Consider it fair warning.)
Another thing I’m doing is listing them in chronological order of when I first read them. To have listed them in Top Ten Favourite order would have been as torturous as selecting a mere 10 anyway, and also somehow reductive to their personal significance. Listing them in order of reading them is objective, and also quite interesting I’ve found. You may find it less interesting. Consider this fair warning also.
1. What You Make It: A Book of Short Stories, Michael Marshall Smith (1999; read 1999)
I’ve already paid sickly homage to MMS as an early influence on my tastes in this blog, but if we’re talking chronological history of my reading habits, I consider this year zero. Having been thoroughly hooked on the pleasures of SF via his first three novels (Spares, One Of Us and Only Forward), MMS then showed me the delights of the short story. Each story is very different, although Smith’s tone is signature to all, whether it’s horror, comedy, SF, thriller, horror-comedy, dark-comedy-horror, or dark-SF-horror-comedy-dark-thriller-comedy-SF-horror. The collection also gave me faith in short-form fiction as a hub for ideas, genre asides and proof that the novel is not the be-all and end-all of fiction. To this day, I champion and also (try to) write short stories of my own. From this collection, Hell Hath Enlarged Herself and The Owner will have been burned into my memory until my dying days.
2. The Demon, Hubert Selby Jr. (1976; read 2000)
Throughout my teens and early 20s, I was a Henry Rollins fan. I got into a lot of great music through Rollins and he also influenced my taste in books for a time. I think for people of a certain age, it’s difficult to not be into Rollins and to not emulate Rollin’s tastes for the hard and alternative. After hearing a joint spoken-word performance he did with Hubert Selby Jr, I went and read Last Exit To Brooklyn. Well, it didn’t put me off, so I went and read The Willow Tree, Requiem For a Dream and The Demon in the space of a couple of weeks. This final book in particular has remained with me. The desperation and poverty of Selby’s other works was something I have been lucky enough to have not experienced, yet the humanity within them was moving and traumatising in equal measure. The Demon is a different beast: a character study of a successful figure who seemingly descends into psychosis and eventually self-destruction because he is simply and completely obsessive. It’s a plainly written but harrowingly relatable novel in some ways, and one that I can’t say I return to in a hurry that often, but which has always remained close by.
3. The Sea, The Sea, Iris Murdoch (1978; read 2001)
Working in a cinema back in the day I’d watch virtually every film that came through and Iris, biopic of Murdoch (dir. Richard Eyre, 2001) inspired me to read her works. The Sea, The Sea was the first, and for a long time it was the best book I’d ever read. In a similar capacity to Selby, Murdoch writes of lives I’ll never know; in this case an upper-middle-class professional playwrite, seeking solitude in a rural coastal village, chances upon a girl (now middle-aged) he once loved and never forgot. The descriptions of passion, jealousy and the trappings of nostalgia are presented so well it’s almost voyeuristic. No longer put-off by the elitist associations of the novel’s Booker Prize victory, The Sea, The Sea showed me that even pompous pricks can make for good reading.
4. The State of The Art, Iain M. Banks (1991; read 2007)
Recommended to me by the same culprit who suggested MMS, Banks was someone I was familiar with via The Wasp Factory only. Oh, hang on, I’d seen the adaptation of The Crow Road as a teenager also and enjoyed it for the nudity. I was told it was imperative to read this collection before embarking on any of the Culture novels. It was to say the least the best SF collection I’d read since MMS. What I like about the stories here is firstly, like any decent short fiction collection, the ideas leap out at you and offer you a playground for the imagination: sentient space gear, the effects of super-advanced tech being left for humans to ponder over, what it’s like to be a giant alien creature who doesn’t understand humans outside of context. And the humour. My god, some of these stories are funny. When I got round to reading the Culture novels proper, I was amazed and glad to see Banks maintain such a propensity for imagination in long-form.
5. The Wine-Dark Sea, Robert Aickman (1988; read 2008)
At the recommendation of a band I liked at the time (and still very much like) I read a few Aickman collections. Statistically speaking, The Wine Dark-Sea contains the most amount of Aickman tales that persistently haunt me in one collection. Having read relatively little ghost or supernatural fiction up until that point (M. R. James, Henry James and the other big shots) Aickman was a destabilising force. Your Tiny Hand is Frozen is one of the more arresting Aickman stories for me, and I don’t need to re-read it often to remember just why it got under my skin in the first place. The Inner Room is also deeply unhomely I find (even the title carries the same menace as if it were written by J. G. Ballard), and the final story, Into The Wood, epitomises Aickman’s ability to let a narrative wander off into the gloom of inexplicability and discomfort. I remain happily violated by Aickman.
6. Solaris, Stanislaw Lem (1961; read 2008)
Another a several SF books I’m listing here. Not out of deliberation but it would seem that I just naturally lean towards SF. It’s who I am, okay? Stop judging me. Anyway, Solaris is just brilliant. Made into, I would bravely claim, not one but two excellent films (yes, that’s right! I even enjoy the Tarkovsky version!) Solaris is a novel of incalculable significance. The antidote to the SF of Hope, Solaris is a perfect Soviet example of the SF of Hopelessness. Not that it’s outrightly defeatist, but it doesn’t play into the premature self-congratulation of technological achievement, or the be-all and end-all of evolution. Lem made me realise that we’re still stuck in the Dark Ages in many ways as a species, and he shows us how about as well as any writer ever could.
7. The Man in The High Castle, Philip K. Dick (1962; read 2009)
I’m a sucker for alternate history. I’ll watch/read/listen to anything that’s based around some intriguing what if.. scenario. The whole what if the Nazis won? thing is as old as Adam (well, if Adam was 69 years old anyway) but Dick offers a particularly intriguing hypothesis. His idea to create a reality where the Nazis won, but where there was also published a novel which hypothesised what if the Nazis lost is deeply satisfying on many levels. Dick’s key literary trick is always to threaten existence: not with obliteration but with a realisation that maybe we took a wrong turning some time back and it’s too late to get back on the right track; that what we’re living in is parallel to but definitely not the same as what ‘reality’ actually is. The Man in The High Castle is relatively low on the SF tech compared to other Dick novels, and is instead more overtly philosophical, giving the Eastern philosophy an infectious presence in a controlled world devoid of philosophy or spirituality, but rich in ideology and intellectual oppression. Good job reality is nothing like this!
8. Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal (1976; read 2010)
Another author I’ve talked about before, Hrabal’s short novel is somewhat of a literature reader’s perfect dream, I’d say. A book that is plainly open to multitudinous student readings and rereadings, it’s also a fragile, moving meditation on the value and rewards of reading.
9. The Regeneration Trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in The Door and The Ghost Road, Pat Barker (1991, 1993, 1995; read 2012)
I was 11 when Blackadder Goes Forth was shown on the BBC. I’ll always imagine the bleakest images of the First World War because of it: the constantly wet trenches, the claustrophobic quarters, the subdued sense of hopelessness. WWI was the end of everything and the start of everything. It destroyed the moral posturing and sense of invincibility of more than one empire, and it obliterated the lives of countless families. It also forced art to readdress its purpose for existence. My interest in WWI remained, and I went on and read several incredible books about it; the Regeneration Trilogy being the most affecting. Barker’s novels offer intimate insights into the effects of the war not only from a militaristic perspective but also the social and artistic upheavals also. Featuring Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen amongst other (fictional) protagonists, the novels feel alarmingly close to our time even though they are based 100 years ago. The ghost of WWI haunts everything after reading this trilogy, and remains everywhere.
10. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov (1962; read 2013)
A postmodern novel I’ve come to very late, Pale Fire in many ways feels like a period piece rather than a revolutionary text of challenging, destabilising form. But it’s still a work of genius and I’d say Nabokov’s best. The Cold War subtext is what mainly makes this book feel so prematurely ancient; but the narrative of the intellectually-unhinged Charles Kinbote is timelessly beautiful and sorrowful. I can’t imagine a book like this possibly being written today. I’d say John le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim is perhaps the last of this kind of Cold War homoerotic confessional (you know, that tired old genre!) and that’s only because it was published just after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the personal subtexts in Pale Fire remain prescient, even if the national borders and the state secrets have changed form. A ridiculously beautiful novel.