I come from a family that Believes In Books. Every since I left home, my mother has been replacing me with her steadily expanding book collection. What used to be “Claire’s Bedroom” is gradually becoming “run-off Library Room”. To be fair, my bedroom in my mother’s house has always played host to her books: visiting friends commented on the fact I had a bookshelf feauting Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, French literature and Michael Moore’s latest polemic amongst others. They weren’t mine, guys!
I used to read a lot of books, a really wide range (crime, historical, comedy, bestellers) Then I seemed to run out of time – such is life. At the moment I don’t even have a library membership. I really should get my life back in order, shouldn’t I?
Anyway, books are important to me. I believe in collections of books. I believe in reading as many books as you possibly can. I find books a soothing yet invigorating presence, which is why my “dream house” contains whole rooms filled with books. So, starting here are some of the fiction books I’d include on the shelves…
- “The Lion The Witch And The Wardrobe” CS Lewis
One of the books in my collection that has to be called ‘life-changing’…because I was named after one of the characters! I wasn’t impressed to watch the 1988 televised version and see that Lucy was slightly buck-toothed and lispy (“Oh, Athlan!”). And endearingly cute. The endearingly cute part was probably the biggest cause of my indignation…to this day. On the other hand, Lucy in the books and on the screen was adventurous, loyal, courageous and charismatic – which is what I’m sure my parents had in mind when choosing the name. While I highly doubt that I measure up to Lucy’s virtues…to this day I have a mild big cat obsession. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was the first book in the Chronicles that I read; remaining my favourite. I can’t even remember the details of any of the other books in the series (aside from the Magician’s Nephew). The other Chronicles in the series just didn’t measure up, though the boxed set we owned was quite handsome.
- “Cloud Atlas” David Mitchell
I first came across this book when I saw it was on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book was the idea of a “cloud atlas”: I developed the idea in one of my secondary school diaries, who I named “Stormcloud Atlas”. I saw that I was navigating my life by the “stormclouds” (difficult situations, or teenage angst – call them what you will). My “stormclouds” defined my life and character: although I resented the difficulty and struggles I faced, at the same time I was seeing that challenges shaped who I was and made my life what it is. I’ve got out of the habit of adding themes to my diaries…but I keep on naming them, frequently after famous pieces of literature (2012 is “Private Memoirs & Confessions of a Justified Chemist.” for your information).
If you divide Cloud Atlas into its 6 stories, then none of them stand alone. The stories themselves read like genre cliches (historical, thriller, sci-fi), which I suspect is deliberate. Put them all together and it becomes something else: the theme of humanity’s will to power link the stories tightly.
- “Hitchhikers’ Guide To The Galaxy” Douglas Adams
Got to face facts, I can’t go around calling myself a scientist and not own a copy
of what is probably the bible of geekery. No matter how many science textbooks I own, it’s all just pretense without Douglas Adams’ finest up there too. I can’t call myself British and not
go around hailing Douglas Adams as the funniest thing to happen to science fiction, it’s a matter of national pride, folks!
My favourite Douglas Adams book however, is a lesser-known mini tome entitled The Meaning of Liff. In it he takes the names of cities, towns & villages (Crail features, by the way) and invents new and hilarious definitions for these words. Words such as “Clabby” (a conversation struck up by a cleaning lady to avoid further work – designed to totally confuse the participant and thus prolong the interaction) and “Motspur” (the fourth wheel of a supermarket trolley which looks identical to the other three but renders the trolley completely uncontrollable).
Fun fact: if you ask me to think of a number…you’ve guessed it, I’ll automatically say 42. On the topic of travel essentials I’ll always remind people not to forget their towel. I can never get the hang of Thursdays, either. The Hitchhiker’s world has slowly become absorbed into my own: now that’s popular culture in action.
I first came across this tome at An Impressionable Age – first through one of the many murder mystery stories where the killer is influenced by it (some TV show or other when I was aged about 15). Immediately, something deep within my imagination was fired. The idea that Hell is composed to descending circles; that eternal punishment is distributed according to the nature of your sins on Earth; that you can find yourself in dark places once “the correct way has been lost”; that to get to Heaven you must first pass through the lowest circle of Hell; that you would pass through the lowest circle of Hell for love. It’s all heady stuff, and something I drew on a lot when doing creative thinking of my own: several short stories and poems prove that point.
I’m an atheist, so the theological and religious nature of Dante’s text is rather wasted on me. Purgatory and Paradise for me are rather long-winded sequels, they certainly aren’t as passionately conceived. The way I interpret the Inferno is primarily through its secular themes and humanist messages. Like Dante, I agree that it is better to do the wrong thing with conviction than sit on the fence and do nothing. If I lose my way, I know to push onwards and hold out for the stars.
- “The Last Witchfinder” James Morrow
It is very rare indeed that a book will shake me up. I once read a vampire-zombie-apocalypse-in-Manhattan book and couldn’t sleep that night for fear of the undead hordes coming to get me. Yeah yeah, that type of “shaken” happens now and then, but all that shows is that the author’s can tap into people’s fears: but it doesn’t take much talent to do something like that. What I’m talking about is the kind of a book that you finish…then put it down very carefully on the table beside you…stare into space silently for a few minutes afterwards…then whisper hoarsely “…Whoah.” The kind of book that has just upset your whole perception of what it is that fiction can do.
The Last Witchfinder actually did that to me. It was incredibly clever, fantastical, biting and relentless: it invoked the most improbable scenarios and infused them with a Gulliver’s Travels-esque observational sharpness. The novel is narrated by Newton’s Principa Mathematica. It was narrated by a Goddamn book. It features Philadelphia AND Benjamin Franklin. There’s a really rude and astoundingly hilarious section just where you least expect it. The book is all about science being used to defeat superstition (while set in the era of witch-hunting, most people would recognise the theme as being all too contemporary). I didn’t think it was possible to combine so many awesome things into one book…which just goes to show why I’ll never be a world-famous author.
- “Night Watch” Terry Pratchett
Only a minority of books have a “re-readability” quality about them, I believe. In the majority of cases you follow the trajectory of the plot; revel in the imaginary world created within the pages; admire the author’s prowess – yet once you put down the completed book it seems spent & uninviting. You’ve sucked the juices out of the book as you read it: there isn’t much there left for you to return to.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are different. And that makes them truly masterpieces of fiction in my eyes. There’s a richness of detail that rewards a re-run: the characters seem a lot more alive than most fictional creations, you want to revisit them. Terry Pratchetts are what I take on holiday, what I’ll reach for if I want to leaf through something familiar and comforting.
Night Watch has to be my favourite Discworld book. Sam Vimes has to be one of my favourite Discworld heroes too – it’s hard not to root for his stubborn cynicsm and dark humour. Despite this book inhabiting quite familiar narrative territory (time travel) it is a lot more atmospheric, dark and engrossing than a lot of his books. Vimes and the readers know that there’s are a bloody revolution due to break imminently, the tension is cranked up in the background. It took my several re-reads of the book to realise that the main portion of the story is set over barely 48 hours. The action happens in the dark, brutal Ankh-Morpork of the past: there are shadowy secret police, the Night Watch go on patrol after sunset, conspiratories plot the revolution in whispered convesrations at elegant soirees. The sense of place is impeccable, I just love immersing myself in it.