I have never written about books on this blog. Considering the amount of words I have written about so many other things, this fact has just struck me. It has been a glaring omission, and one I will attempt to rectify with this post. It will not be a series, so don’t worry.
Many blogs on the Internet are about books and literature. Some recommend good new reads, most promote the work of the blogger themselves. Others quote from classical literature, or delve into its origins and meanings. I won’t be doing any of that. Do I write because I used to read, or did I read because I wanted to write? The answer is probably neither of those options. I started writing at school like most of us do, as it is compulsory. But I didn’t read for that reason, I did it for enjoyment, education, and a desire to acquire knowledge. I was soon enjoying writing as well. I put more effort into my homework essays than was required, did background reading, and found myself looking for other works by the same writers in the local library.
My studies were also rewarded, with good marks at school, and a sense that some subjects were becoming easier to tackle, less daunting, and more familiar. I expanded these methods into History and French classes too, soon becoming an avid reader of non-fiction History books, and French authors in their native language. This took more work of course, and I quickly learned that nothing comes easily, and that any good writing requires preparation, research, and numerous proof-reads. I also decided that writing comes best from those that read the writing of others, so I began to read more. I read novels, works of fantasy, science fiction, Russian classics, most of Dickens, and volume after volume of historical fact and opinion. As I got older, I became interested in political and existentialist writing as well, making sure to still read novels, and the occasional best-seller, for balance.
I carried on reading at the same rate for many years. Eventually, shift-work, marriage, and all those things that interrupt the routine took over. I didn’t read so much. Then even less, finally hardly anything at all. Now, I mostly read blogs, articles, and short stories, rarely books. I still buy books, I just haven’t got round to reading them yet. I write a lot more of course, as I am doing now, when I could otherwise be reading a book. What were those books, and who were those writers that brought me to this point; provided inspiration for what I do now, and who I am today? Here are some; a selection, if you will. Just a snapshot of the hundreds of books read during my life, and not intended to be definitive, or even that comprehensive. I will not be analysing them, or going into great detail. Just a short overview, the title, the name of the author, and why I think it is worth reading. It is not an academic list, nor does it feature the usual cast of philosophical heavyweights. There are popular titles in there, and some very obvious ones too. It will be quite long, so put the kettle on first.
The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger was published in 1951, a few months before I was born. The main character, Holden Caulfield, relates a coming of age experience that is instantly recognisable to any teenager in western society. Despite the differences in background between myself and Holden, I identified with his frustration and rebellion immediately. I don’t know how old Salinger was when he wrote the book, but the style, and expression of thought, is just perfect.
Moby Dick was written by Herman Melville one hundred years earlier, and also explores the experience of a youth, this time surrounded by older and rougher men, in situations where his life could be in danger. I hold no brief for whaling, and know little of the sea, but when I read this book aged eight or nine, I was immersed in the descriptions of the characters, and the relentless pursuit of revenge.
Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. About the same time, I began to read Dickens, from a leather bound set untouched and stored, in my Grandmother’s bedroom. Few writers in English can describe a scene so well, or conjure up the image of a character, like Dickens. I could choose almost any of his books, but I picked Great Expectations, for the amazing Miss Havisham.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte. As I began to study at senior school, I was told that we would have to read this book as part of the syllabus. I was unhappy at first, as I didn’t consider it to be something I would appreciate. But I was wrong. It has so much. A sense of menace, despair, bleak settings, an ethereal heroine, and a callous hero, who is not all that he seems. From a synopsis, it might read as little more than a romantic pot-boiler, of class, love, betrayal, and revenge. But the quality of the descriptive writing elevates it, and sets it apart from so many others.
Rebecca, by Daphne Du Maurier. Although published in 1938, this thriller novel was almost as Gothic as Bronte’s book. The settings, characters, and slowly-dawning sense of betrayal, are all familiar themes. I remember reading this in the 1960s, perhaps a strange choice for a teenage boy, but I could picture Manderley, Mrs Danvers, and Maxim de Winter, as if they were all in front of my eyes. And the opening lines are some of the best ever written.
And Quiet Flows The Don/The Don Flows Home to The Sea, by Mikhail Sholokhov. In my late teens, I was becoming interested in politics, Left-Wing politics in particular. I discovered these books by the Russian writer, published in full in 1940, and was immediately drawn into the world described in them. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature a few years earlier, and deservedly so. The story deals with a vast array of characters from the Cossack heartland of Russia, and their experiences from the outbreak of the First World War, until the end of the Russian Civil War. He was writing from personal experience, having served in the Bolshevik army, and coming from the area he describes. Reading these books I learned a lot about Russian history, but also about following characters, wanting to know what happens to them, and being swept up in an unfamiliar world, made familiar by skilful writing.
The Mayor of Casterbridge, by Thomas Hardy. I came late to Hardy, having disliked D.H.Lawrence, and for some reason, considering him similar. I then saw the film ‘Far From The Madding Crowd’, and decided to explore Hardy’s writing. I was overwhelmed by the period feel, and once again by the painstakingly detailed descriptions that allowed me to visualise everything, from a tent at a fair, to the unseen features of the protagonist. This is one of the ‘Wessex’ novels by Hardy, and my favourite. It deals with regret, reconciliation, greed, shame, and as usual, betrayal. It is soap-opera on a grand scale, and at a higher level, with writing to relish.
Homage to Catalonia, by George Orwell. Orwell (Eric Blair) was a Socialist and writer in England. After serving as a policeman in Burma, he lived in Paris for some time. After he returned to the UK, he wrote about the condition of the working classes, in his book ‘The Road To Wigan Pier’. By the time this was published, in 1937, Orwell was in Spain, where he had travelled to join in the fight against the Nationalists, in the civil war there. ‘Homage to Catalonia’, written in 1938, is an account of his experiences in that war. In the confusing politics of Republican Spain, he declined to serve with the International Brigade, as he did not want to be under the control and command of the Communists. Instead, he fought with a trade union militia, run by Anarchists, and was badly wounded on the Aragon front. His book relates the confusion well, and tells the story of the fighting between different factions of the same side in Barcelona. He was left with a dislike of totalitarian systems that later surfaced in his better-known books, ‘Animal Farm’, and ‘1984’. Reading Orwell taught me a lot about expanding a dairy-style account of real events into a readable account, with the added interest that I was keen to learn more about this tragic conflict.
Dune, by Frank Herbert. I did not usually read science fiction. Although I had read some H.G. Wells at school, as well as a few John Christopher and John Wyndham novels, it was not a genre that appealed that much to me. (And still doesn’t) However, during the late 1970s, I read an article about Frank Herbert in the Sunday Times, and decided to try his novel ‘Dune’. I could never have imagined how caught up I would become, in the unusual worlds portrayed in this book, and the five sequels that followed. Imaginary planets, time-travel by folding space, a drug that was the major currency of the universe, and giant sandworms too. Add a mystical religious order, warring families and empires, and some intriguing and unique characters, and I was well and truly hooked. I couldn’t stop reading them. I stayed up half the night, I was late for work, and I couldn’t wait for the outcomes of the convoluted plots. This was story-telling at a massive level. I never aspired to get anywhere close to this, but it did give me ideas, and a lesson as to just how much work is involved for the author.
By Reason of Insanity, by Shane Stevens. In the late 1970s, I picked up this book at the airport, as I thought it would be an easy read on holiday. It was a thick paperback (500+ pages) and seemed to be ideal for this purpose. It was a lot more than that. It tells the story of an abused young man, who escapes from incarceration, and embarks on a series of killings. The format of the book, new to me at the time, appealed greatly. One chapter would feature the killer, Bishop. Devoid of conscience, he planned and carried out his murders. The next chapter would focus on those hunting this killer, looking for clues, and trying to get close to him, as he moved around the country. This book had a profound effect on me, and though I have never forgotten it, I have not read it again since, as I have done with many others. As a writer who can imagine himself on both sides of this situation so well, and construct what is in effect, two books in one, Stevens deserves high praise.
Christine, by Stephen King. King is a prolific and successful writer in the horror genre. His books are too numerous to list here, but many are excellent, and he has a huge following. The first of his novels I read was’Christine’, in 1983. It appealed to me, as it was about a car, and obsession. The plot is fantastic of course; how the love of an unpopular boy for the car he restores is returned by the vehicle, with grisly results. But I discovered that King was a very good writer. He made the unreal seem believable, and used his knowledge of his native New England to bring locations to life. He also made novels seem easy to read, until you forgot how difficult they had been to write.
The Alexander Trilogy, by Mary Renault. In three books, written over the space of twelve years, she tackles the difficult area of fictionalising the life of a real person. Not just any real person, none other than Alexander The Great. Reading these books as they were published, I became caught up in her ideas about what life was like for the growing Alexander, the people around him, and the world he inhabited. I also discovered a lot about the history of the time, although I made myself remain aware that much of the action was fictional. This type of writing is not admired by those historians who write weighty tomes, based on ancient records and writings. However, it makes the period, and the characters, more accessible to everyone; and this can only be a good thing, if like me, they go on to read more about it.
The Civil War: A Narrative, by Shelby Foote. I had been interested in the American Civil War from a very young age. I collected bubble gum cards, read comic-book versions of the war, and progressed to novels, such as ‘The Red Badge of Courage’, as well as one-volume histories of the conflict. Later, I began to read long accounts of individual campaigns, and different events, both military, and political. Even with such a thirst for information, some books were dry reading indeed. I had stopped buying them, and decided that I had read enough, when I was recommended this trilogy, and later received it as a gift, in the early 1990s. Running to almost 3,000 pages, it is not a lightweight read, to be sure. Foote’s writing is always accurate and authoritative, and suggests a gentleness in the author. It is a huge work, in both scope, and physical presence, and leaves out nothing that anyone interested in the subject would ever want to know. I learned what the term ‘definitive history’ means, after reading this.
High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. This popular 1995 novel deals with two things close to my heart; music, and London. The main character is almost certainly a thinly-disguised version of Hornby himself, and as he discusses music with his employees in the record shop, or tracks down old girlfriends to discover why they dumped him, the mixture of observation and comedy is irresistible. It is a literary lesson in writing about what you know, injecting pathos and humour in just the right amounts, and achieving a satisfactory conclusion.
So there you have an idea of the writing that inspired me, and continues to do so. I could have included so many more, but it is long enough. If anyone sticks with it, and finds something to enjoy. I thank you. If you are tempted to read any of these because of it, I will be very pleased.