Today in the UK and Ireland it is World Book Day. Tree is in favour, having been something of a book worm for as long as he can remember. At the age of four he managed to fool a neighbour that he could read because he had memorised the contents of a book, complete with when to turn the page. Fortunately, within a few months this deception became unnecessary, and a lifetime of reading began.
Over the past couple of weeks, the BBC has been running a series “My Life in Books” where celebrities have been interviewed by Anne Robinson about how books have influenced them at different stages of life. Each celebrity has chosen five books to illustrate this; in addition, a further book has been chosen as a “guilty pleasure” or “beach read.” Some of the choices have been very interesting, particularly Jeanette Winterson’s choice of the Authorised (King James) Version of the Bible – a choice applauded by her co-guest Alistair Campbell (the one who famously replied on Tony Blair’s behalf that the previous Labour government didn’t “do God”).
Anyway, although not of celebrity status, Tree thought he’d like a go at choosing five plus one books. It isn’t as easy as it might seem to choose between the various candidates,and in Desert Island Discs fashion, I’m taking the Bible and Shakespeare as read. So here goes:
1. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, which I read at a fairly early age (can’t remember exactly). I enjoyed the humour, the camaraderie an the glimpses it gave into the Victorian culture – a kind of 19th century travelogue.
2. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. I was introduced to Thomas Hardy in the Lower Sixth and quickly devoured many of his novels. Perhaps it was the Wessex locations, or the details of a way of life that was past, or Hardy’s pessimism that appealed to the adolescent me. At any rate, this tale of a young man desperate to fulfil his academic potential, yet doomed to fail, resonated with me and made me glad for the opportunities available to many of us in the 1970s.
3. Winter by Len Deighton. Deighton hasn’t weathered so well as John Le Carre as a spy novelist in a post-Cold War world. But as well as the spy novels, Deighton wrote excellent military history of the Second World War. In Winter, he combined his skills as a novelist and as historian by providing a fictionalised account of several generations of a German family living through the first half of the twentieth century. It also serves as background to his trilogy of spy trilogies that began with Berlin Game, Mexico Set and Paris Match.
4. Glittering Images by Susan Howatch. This and the subsequent Starbridge novels helped me to appreciate the breadth of the Church of England and gave a different perspective from the solid evangelical circles in which I had been moving for a couple of decades. In this well-researched novel we are introduced to the core of a cast of clerical characters whom we follow through a series of personal crises. Susan Howatch is comfortable with using both spiritual and psychological language to describe the issues faced by the characters. The novel presents clergy as flawed human beings who are nevertheless trying to follow the call to service in the church.
5. The Cruellest Month by Louise Penny. I have always liked crime fiction, from Sherlock Holmes to my latest discovery – the novels of the Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. Nevertheless, Louise Penny was a good discovery and little out of the ordinary run of crime novelists. Although an Anglophone, Penny lives in and writes about Francophone Quebec. The Cruellest Month is set in Three Pines, a small country hamlet in Quebec and is the third in a series of novels featuring Armand Gamache, an Inspector in the Surete de Quebec. both the plot and the characterisations are well done. I picked this one simply because it was the first novel of the series that I read, not long before my son moved to Canada (Ontario) to marry a Canadian girl.
Finally, the guilty pleasures are the Jack Reacher novels of Lee Child, featuring a character who is a loner with a background in the US military police. He is a rootless wanderer who prefers his own company on the open road, but who has a knack of wandering into situations which his sense of justice won;t let him leave alone.
So, what does this list say about me? Perhaps a fascination with other times, places and cultures? A sense of being an outsider looking in? A desire to gain insights into the human condition from different viewpoints?
What books would you choose?