Often one of the first questions that people ask you, when you confess to being a bookworm, is ‘What is your favourite book?’
It’s a simple question, harmless enough you’d think. But oh does it open a can of worms. Why? I hear you ask. Well, because how on earth am I meant to choose just one? There are so many. In my Master’s year, my library record showed that I’d read at least a hundred books – and that was just one year of my life. How am I meant to summarise twenty-something years of unashamed book nerdery into a pithy sentence or two? (I heard it’s impolite to corner someone for hours on end and talk books to them at a party).
Luckily for me, however, I now have this book blog where I can talk books for hours on end without any worry of interruption. Yippee. In the interests of time (and of not scaring off any readers I have), I’m going to limit myself to 8 books, a la Desert Island Discs.
These books are my cosy favourites, the ones I could read a hundred times without getting bored. They’re the ones I won’t get bored of if I do get stuck on a desert island. Perhaps they’re not always the most literary – but they’re ones I return to time and time again. I plan to bore you all in future with the lists of books which have challenged me or I think are of particular literary merit. For now, these are the books I could never, ever throw out.
So, in no particular order, my first four choices are:
Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
There aren’t many books which make me actually laugh out loud. I’ve made the mistake of reading this in public before, and had to stop because I was getting funny looks. If you haven’t read it, you must. Immediately. Take my copy.
Lucky Jim follows the hapless university lecturer, Jim Dixon, as he just tries to get by, despite the ridiculous situations he finds himself in. He’s not a particularly likeable character – he’s full of disdain for his fellow man, somewhat callous and certainly not cut out for rigorous academic life – but that’s what makes the book so readable. It is a farcical world, where a nominally ‘reasonable’ man, repeatedly finds himself in unreasonable situations, which he unfortunately makes an awful lot worse for himself. Aside from the comedy (and there is one section, to do with a bus journey, which is honestly the funniest bit of literature I have ever read), it’s also a knowing commentary on the post-war world. It’s acerbic. It’s biting. It’s grotesque. It’s satirical. It’s a hell of a good read.
Favourite Quote: (This is tricky, there are so many of them…but because this is the best description of a hangover I’ve ever read)
Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
I know, it’s the obvious choice from Austen’s repertoire, but I told you this was a list of the books I revisited time and time again. I mean, what’s not to love? There’s romance, scandal, comedy (a common theme amongst my favourite books it seems), balls, manners, snobs… All of Austen’s best authorial qualities wrapped up in a novel.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that it has one of the most famous opening lines of any novel, and it is probably responsible for inspiring 90% of the chic lit you can find in any bookstore. (No bad thing, if you ask me, chic lit is my ultimate guilty pleasure). Most girls (especially me) dream of their Mr Darcy, and in many ways he’s not your typical hero. He’s socially awkward, and gruff – with none of the easy charm of Mr Bingley, for example. Yes, he’s rich, but my goodness those relatives of his are something else… And as for his first proposal (sorry, spoiler alert), well! So, why do we find him so irresistible? He’s a good man, and we trust that he’ll treat Elizabeth as an equal.
And aside from the romantic story, Austen’s characters are what brings the novel to life. From the flighty Kitty, to sensible Charlotte Lucas; witty and stable Mr Bennet, to the hyperbolic Mrs Bennet and Lady Catherine; kind, gentle Jane, to the bitchy Bingley sisters, Austen captures them all.
Favourite Quote: Again tricky but…
“Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how.”
P.G Wodehouse, The Code of the Woosters
You might be sensing a predisposition to enjoying comic novels. You would be right. It was hard to narrow down with of the Jeeves and Wooster collection to select for my choice here. But then I remembered – Roderick Spode and the Black Shorts are introduced to us in this book.
For the uninitiated – the Jeeves and Wooster series follow a charming, but imbecilic young fop called Bertie, and his man servant – the real brains behind the organisation – Jeeves. Bertie spends his time trying to be a man about town, eschewing all worries and generally living the carefree life of an upper class chap of the era. Unfortunately for him, he is plagued by a catalogue of intimidating aunts, their upper class friends, his even more idiotic chums and a fleet of girls who seem to find his foppishness completely irresistible. Luckily for him, Jeeves is around to extradite him from the soup that he has inevitably got himself into.
Roderick Spode, who I mentioned earlier, is Wodehouse’s satire of Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists. I wrote about this in great depth in my dissertation, and I still find it interesting – so there has to be something in it. Wodehouse is unrepentant in his portrayal of him as an ego-maniacal, fiery tempered, thug, who came so late to politics that all of the shirt colours had been taken – leaving only the black shorts (or ‘footer bags’ as Bertie refers to him.
Wodehouse tells his stories with great gusto. The Jeeves series are full of energy, comic timing, and a relish for the written word. There’s a very Wodehousian type of language, which can never be done justice to in isolation, but within the context of the novel makes it a joy to behold. The BBC Radio adaptations are equally fantastic, with Richard Briers the perfect Bertie. If you’ve never listened to them, I’d heartily recommend it.
“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
There are so many things I love about Fitzgerald’s writing, that I almost don’t know where to start with this. It is perhaps, pertinent, that I first came across The Great Gatsby at the same time that I came across Pride and Prejudice – during my Alevels. I was lucky to have a particularly inspirational teacher at the time (Mr Peters – who I can never thank enough), and these two books are where my journey with literature, and enjoyment of language really began.
For it is the language within The Great Gatsby, which really marks this out amongst Fitzgerald’s other works for me. It’s decadent, opulent, beautiful. I remember revising this book, and highlighting almost every other line because the whole book was quotable and worth committing to memory. The themes too, a literature student’s ideal: the American dream, conspicuous consumption, illicit love affairs, lust, gluttony, carelessness, the reliability of the narrator, class, societal expectations, the role of women – the list goes on and on. But it’s the story, not the analysis, that keeps bringing me back to The Great Gatsby. The tragedy of lost love, the realisation that your dreams have come to nothing, the heady pursuit of that which you most desire – I don’t think I need to go into plot specifics here, I imagine everyone knows the story. But it’s truly wonderful to rediscover it time and time again.
Favourite Quote: I know I’ve cheated and already used one, but here’s another.
“I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library.”
So, there you go – part one of my desert island discs style bookathon…. Now before I start on part two, I’m going to have to go and re-read all of them!