A church near us is having a rummage sale. A flyer was put in our letter box asking for any donations, so I decided to go through my collection of books and see if there were any I didn’t need any longer.
That sounds almost sacrilegious: of course I need books! But lately I have managed to fill six bookcases, and some of them I know I’ll never read again, so it’s better that other people get the chance to read them than they just take up room on my bookshelves. There is some sanity in these things to cling to.
So I spent a day going through my books and seeing which ones I could bear to part with, and which I knew I would never desert. It was a great day, not painful at all, but certainly full of memories as I pulled volume after volume off the shelves, flicked through them, and recalled what I did and didn’t like about them.
The decision became not which ones do I donate, but which do I keep? So I made that my benchmark.
I won’t tell you which ones I donated – rather, the interesting question became why I wanted to keep certain books. What is it about them that makes me want to hang onto them?
So in no particular order, just as they came off the shelves, here are a few I decided to keep, and the reasons why:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.
This one was easy. It’s actually the first four instalments of his trilogy (and if you don’t understand that reference, it’s probably because you haven’t read them). But I always figured the first one was the best. After all, Earth is destroyed in the first few chapters, and towards the end our hero discovers the answer to life, the universe and everything. That’s an enormous task for one average-length book. Funny, very witty, and also deeply wise, this book has always been a favourite of mine. Adams managed to turn conventional science-fiction on its head and created something quite unique. His quirky insights to the human condition, in particular the absurdity of our never-ending quest for meaning in a meaningless universe, are inspirational far beyond his original intentions.
Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
This is a very misunderstood book. Let’s face it, it isn’t exactly easy to read, and Melville breaks off the narrative a lot to digress on aspects of whaling that frankly have nothing to do with the plot. In some ways it’s the great American novel, in others it’s a handbook on whaling. Whole chapters are devoted to stream-of-consciousness musings by the characters, of whom there are a multitude. Melville makes errors too, patently declaring that a whale is a fish – even arguing the point at length. But the narrative, when it’s there, is tremendous. The last hundred or so pages bowl along madly. I’ve read this book a couple of times at least, and it’s one of those amazing stories in which you find different things with each read. Just don’t expect it to flow from A to B like a conventional novel – the deliberate, almost continuous, narrative collapse disallows that.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass , Lewis Carroll.
Two separate books, often confused as one, and often confused as to content as well. Hollywood consistently seems to mix the books up, placing characters from one into the other and playing with the order of events. The dream adventures of a seven-year old girl have bewitched people for over a hundred years. What is so fascinating about these books? They are far from being the total nonsense they are often taken for. Experts have determined that mathematical concepts are contained in Wonderland’s chapters, and of course Looking-Glass is based on a chess game. I myself have used these books as inspiration for my horror/fantasy series The Jabberwocky Book. They remain as timeless as they are haunting. There is something about Alice’s adventures that touch deeply hidden parts of the human psyche. Or something. Maybe it’s just magic.
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte.
Come on, I have to mention this one, even though I am a guy. But it’s a girl’s book, I hear you declare. It’s a romance, isn’t it? Boy meets girl sort of stuff. Yes, it is. And then there’s the rest. Betrayal, violence, the supernatural, storms aplenty and not a single bit of bodice-ripping. It’s a powerful tale of two families torn apart by the incursion of the Other, which is a Gothic concept Mary Shelley demonstrated so well in Frankenstein. Something from outside intrudes into the natural order of things and tears it apart. The tragic tale of Cathy and Heathcliff has repercussions for us all. This was Emily Bronte’s only book – she was much less productive than either of her sisters. But in my opinion this is the book that outshines the others. Emily was one strange puppy if this is what was going on in her head.
Where Eagles Dare, Alistair MacLean.
All right then, here’s a boy’s book. In World War II a brave bunch of British (and one American) commandos infiltrate the headquarters of the Nazi Alpenkorps in the heart of Germany to rescue a captured American General. Or do they? Is there something else going on? If I was ever to write a book about how to write a thriller, this is the example I would base it on. Absolutely gripping from the first page to the last, with many twists and turns that will have your head snapping. And the movie was good too. Nazis are great to use as an enemy – no reader will take offence. I’ve read this one a number of times, and even though not knowing the real nature of the commandos’ mission is the key to the surprise element of the book, it’s still great to read even when you do know it. It’s just that good.
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
This book has its faults. It’s a bit…well, gooey. The nice people are really nice and the bad people are really bad and there’s an underlying Christian overtone that rankles (if an overtone can be said to underlie something – not a good description, I guess). But I love the story anyway for its unusual and even daring experimentation. And any author who has the courage to literally begin a book with the words ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ deserves respect. The tale of Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin rescuing Meg’s father from the clutches of an oversized pulsating brain from another planet could have been really, really trite. But L’Engle does it really well, despite the gooiness. I have to say the subsequent books in the series were nowhere near as good, which is a great pity since this one is a gem – a sticky one, but a gem.
The Oxford English Dictionary
It comes in many forms, and is also available in CD form or online. all of which is good. I’m not trying to promote the Oxford over any other language’s dictionaries, of course, it’s just that English is the only language I know. This book certainly has all the words, even if it is a bit light on plot. I confess to reading dictionaries for fun. That is, dipping into them and finding out new words. I use it a lot when writing too, of course. It’s a pity that a lot of people don’t use this book more often than they do. As a teacher, I encourage my students to use it, but many don’t even seem to consider doing so. Which is a shame.
Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, Mervyn Peake.
I’m putting three books together on this one, which is a cheat, but I did it with little Alice above, and these books do need to be considered as a whole, even though the third one was left unfinished when Mervyn Peake died. To me, Peake was an incredible influence. I was captivated by Titus Groan when I first read it as a teenager. Writing with an artist’s eye, Peake’s descriptions of setting and people were second to none. And the convoluted, Gothic plot about the mad castle of Gormenghast and its madder inhabitants resonates with me profoundly. Only…I don’t know why. As an unfinished work, it of course lacks cohesion. There are unfinished sub-plots, extraneous characters and many unanswered questions. But there is no denying the trilogy’s power.
The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson,
Another weird work that I have found very influential. And another flawed one, like the Gormenghast series and A Wrinkle in Time. But aren’t all books flawed in some way? Nothing is perfect. This is a spectacular vision of a dark – literally – and immensely remote future of an Earth after the Sun has died. Hodgson was a horror writer of some note during his lifetime, but his works haven’t resonated well with modern audiences. This is a shame, because the imaginative journey in this one is staggering. Very long, over 200,000 words, with basically just two characters, one of whom isn’t in the first half of the book. And chilling. Very, very scary. It’s a pity Hodgson was killed in the First World War – he could have done so much more with a mind like his.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
I wouldn’t want to be accused of only adding English-speaking authors here. This was another much-loved book from my youth. The tale of a double-murder from the point of view of the murderer himself is a great picture of a man who isn’t innately bad, but who is forced to extremes for the purposes of survival. And of course, the redemption at the end, just so everyone goes home in a good mood. I had to read it in translation, of course, but it was a good translation, and there’s nothing wrong with reading a good translation.
There are so many other books I could have added, but these were just some I sorted through for the jumble sale. None of these are going there. They will remain on my shelves for as long as I’m around, and maybe after.
You will, of course, have your own list, and that’s good too. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone’s own list of books they will never get rid of.
Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com