Some Favorite Books
(Only five, because this was written as a contribution to Het Kwintet - The Quintet - part of the blog of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. Het Kwintet asks authors to comment on five books that they especially admire.)
"Shakespeare's Complete Works" is the stereotypical bore's answer to questions about desert island books, but I'm going to risk that accusation and make my first choice King Lear. It was the first Shakespeare I studied in detail at school. While I was doing so, my parents took me to see it at Stratford; I remember feeling, that evening, as if a bomb had gone off inside my head. This grim, howling meditation on the comforts of delusion and the pain of knowledge has line after line and image after image that mere ordinary scribblers like me would sell their souls for. The bastard Edmund is one of Shakespeare's great creeps; what he says in Act I (ii), on overhearing his father speaking dismissively of him to Kent, actually makes us feel for him, even admire his rage, and might just be the most powerful short speech in all drama.
When I was sixteen, and we were 'doing' King Lear in school, I also discovered Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. I like to irritate Hobbit fans by saying that Peake is to Tolkein as Jane Austen is to Nora Roberts; a little unfair, but it reflects the fact that after reading Peake I was doomed to find all subsequent "fantasy" very thin gruel. By the third book Peake had Parkinson's disease, and was simply not writing at the same level. Even the second, which has long passages bordering on genius, is very uneven. But his anti-hero Steerpike, as described in the first book and the best two thirds of the second, is a creation that haunts the mind indefinitely.
In my former life as an academic philosopher, I always had a strong prejudice in favor of thinkers who were also fine writers - Hume, Mill, Russell. So for my third choice I'm going to pick Descartes' Discourse on Method. I love reading it in French, even though my French isn't good enough, because the translations (in English anyway) tend to make Descartes sound wooden and earnest. The original is exactly the opposite: gorgeous Enlightenment prose by one of the driest wits in the Western philosophical canon. He reminds me of what T.S. Eliot said about the poet Andrew Marvell: "a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace."
I read a lot of non-fiction, and feel very lucky to live in an age when I can turn to Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, or Timothy Ferris to create little oases of understanding in the vast baking desert of my ignorance. I'm forced to make a too-predictable choice here, because Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is so easily the best non-fiction book I have read in any field in the last decade or so. The book has been criticized for its 'determinism,' which seems to me an odd criticism. But anyway, it could be all wrong and I'm still floored: how does any one person know so much, or know how to knit it into a coherent whole so gracefully? The bit about how the poisonous wild almond became a cultivated crop is one of many little masterpieces of clear exposition in this big box of wonders.
What about modern fiction? Difficult: as I get older, I become pickier and pickier about novels. (If it's less than brilliant, don't waste my time!) But I have no hesitation in suggesting Birds Without Wings, Louis de Berniere's big, humane, harrowing story of a small Anatolian town's collision with history. They should have thrown every known literary prize at this book and then invented some more just for the occasion; that such a towering achievement was to a great degree ignored shows how prejudiced prize committees are against writers who dare to be conservative in form for the sake of brilliantly original content. I saw a list of all the Booker Prize winners recently; with three or four exceptions, they are very minor work by comparison.*
* January 2020: On reflection, this is too harsh - at least six or seven. Possession, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, The Remains of the Day, Oscar ans Lucinda, Midnight's Children of course, True History of the Kelley Gang. I have just finished Milkman, by Anna Burns, which won the Booker in 2018; I take my hat off and add her to the list: the brilliantly peculiar narrative voice reminded me constantly of Carey's achievement in True History.